Issue 210
September/October 2019

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Sep 16, 2019

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"British Modernism – What British Modernism?"

Richard Demarco reacts forcefully to news of an exhibition of 'Four Giants of British Modernism'

Terry Frost, 'Red Collage,' from the show at the Beaux Art Gallery, London

'MODERNISM' is a misleading word, particularly in relation to art history. It has caused my lifetime's work, dedicated to the use of all the arts, to be misinterpreted as the defence of modernism when, in fact, I do know that art on its most profound level is timeless and utterly free of the restrictions imposed upon it by art historians.

It cannot be defined by rational process of thought. It comes as a gift beyond human understanding. It ascends to the condition of prayer as we contemplate the infinite mystery of the cosmos as created beings. As such, we are above the level of the animal kingdom and wholly dependent on the kingdom of plants and the elemental forces of air, fire and water.

I have always believed that the art of Leonardo da Vinci, and indeed all the artists of the Italian Renaissance, made their art in the mysterious timespace of the nowness of now. My thoughts were provided with proof by an art work of genius made by Joseph Beuys as his major contribution to the exhibition 'Strategy: Get Arts' for the official exhibition programme of the official 1970 Edinburgh International Festival.

This masterpiece remains in my mind as a nodal point in the seventy-two-year history of the Edinburgh Festival. It was entitled 'Celtic Kinloch Rannoch: the Celtic Symphony'. It was related by the 19th century music of Felix Mendelssohn, inspired by his experience of Fingal's Cave.

Beuys, together with Henning Christiansen, the Danish musician and composer, performed this four-hour symphonic work twice a day over a period of five days. I finally realised, after experiencing it over that period of time, that it was essentially a homage in the form of a requiem to all the artists to whom Beuys was indebted, living and dead.

My eyes were focused upon three pieces of paper pinned to one wall during the performance in one of the large life rooms of Edinburgh College of Art.

On the first small piece of paper were the words handwritten in pencil 'Where are the souls of?

Below it on the second piece of paper were the names of over thirty artists among which were those of Fra Angelico, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Henry Moore, Kazimir Malevich, and surprisingly William Nicholson.

The third piece of paper contained the words 'and Leonardo da Vinci.'

It was obvious to me that Joseph Beuys was in fruitful collaboration with the timeless family of artists and they were all inhabiting the same timeless space which inspired him to identify with their defence of truth and beauty.

In this way, there was no doubt in my mind that what Joseph Beuys was contributing to the Edinburgh Festival in collaboration with Henning Christiansen possessed a timeless quality.

Now this year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and it revives my memories stretching back almost half a century of how Joseph Beuys made a collaborative work of art honouring Leonardo da Vinci. Joseph Beuys has been described as the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century. There was no doubt that, like da Vinci, Joseph Beuys straddled the worlds of art and science with a particular focus on medical science.

I was born in 1930, the year which marks the birth of two world famous museums of modern art: one in Poland in the city of Lodz and one in the United States in the name of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Over thirty years later in the early sixties, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art came into being.

Now, I must ask the question – why should there be a separation between the art works made by Joseph Beuys in my lifetime from those made by artists who lived their lives long before the age of 'modernism'?

I was privileged in the sixties and seventies to introduce the art of Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and William Scott to Scotland. All four artists are presently exhibited at The Beaux Art Gallery in London under the exhibition title 'Four Giants of British Modernism'.

Considering my thoughts on Joseph Beuys and Leonard da Vinci, I would hesitate to use the word 'Modernism' and simply describe them as 'Four Giants of British Art'. As such, it is undoubtedly an exhibition that I recommend as unmissable.

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An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House