Modern parallel of past masters

27th June 2003 at 01:00
The National Galleries are reaching out to wider audiences by showing how the works might be updated, writes Di Hope

The National Galleries of Scotland may house the greater part of their collection in Edinburgh but, as part of a commitment to making exhibitions and collections accessible throughout Scotland, they have devised an imaginative outreach programme to encourage community involvement.

The recently completed A Wealth of Vision project initiated workshops with youth groups in Alness, Dunfermline, Glasgow and Galashiels, where they made art based on works in the national galleries yet reflecting and exploring their own lives.

Now the Parallel Lives project is further developing this idea of relocating the narratives from historical paintings to the present, while at the same time addressing the issue of social inclusion.

In this venture, the National Galleries' outreach team is working with Craigmillar Community Arts, North Edinburgh Arts and two other arts organisations, Out of the Blue in south Edinburgh and WHALE in Wester Hailes. All are in areas which tend to be under-represented in the National Galleries' viewing public.

To help overcome this, Parallel Lives has sought to find ways of making the collections more relevant. The first step was for groups from each area to visit the galleries, guided by an artist. "For the majority, this was their first time inside the National Galleries and they really enjoyed it," says outreach officer Helen Watson. "Each group looked at several works before selecting one to base their reconstruction on."

Most of the paintings considered were historical Scottish works, rich in context, narrative and meaning. The Craigmillar group, who were all young mothers, led by photographer Owen Logan, chose David Wilkie's Distraining for Rent, a powerful and eloquent painting describing the social dislocation caused by the agricultural revolution and given a cool reception by the Scottish establishment in 1815.

The artist Craig MacLean, whose work tackles political issues, led the south Edinburgh group. They chose Thomas Warrender's Still Life, a trompe-l'oeil painting from 1708 showing a board of objects personal to the artist and relevant to his life and times, including a political pamphlet.

Robin Baillie, the National Galleries' senior outreach officer, says: "They chose it because they could relate to it and wanted to make a similar still life from objects important to them.

"They emptied their pockets and added other things, studied them and discussed the realism and trompe-l'oeil effects of the painting and how they could reproduce that."

At Wester Hailes, artist Lindsay Perth has been leading a remake of Golfers by Charles Lees. This work is almost complete.

At North Edinburgh Arts, the project is still at the recording stage. With artist Janie Nicoll, who is an expert in digital image manipulation, the group is working from James Drummond's The Porteous Mob of 1855, a powerful, political painting showing Edinburgh citizens taking the law into their own hands and hanging John Porteous, captain of the City Guard, in 1736.

Clare Wood, aged 16, explains why the group chose it. "The painting is full of action; so much is going on in every part."

They spent time delving into its meaning and discussing the original context before deciding how to proceed. Clare and Kirsty Greer felt that they could justify a similar riot for their anti-war beliefs; John Loughton, aged 15, suggested portraying football violence, perhaps with burnt-out cars.

John is keen on the project. "It's really interesting, and great using the digital cameras and computers," he says.

Ms Nicoll is enthusiastic about the project too. "It's pretty valuable, getting kids out acting on their own ideas. It takes them out of themselves and lets them see themselves as part of a wider picture," she says.

All the groups are using cameras and digital imaging software to produce a large, colour image of their community re-enacting their chosen painting but with the social situations and settings updated. These will be exhibited in the National Galleries beside the original paintings that inspired them from September 12 and in the four community arts centres.

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