Issue 213
May/June 2020

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Jul 14, 2020

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Edinburgh without its Festival

Richard Demarco, recalling Rudolf Bing's fi rst Edinburgh Festival – founded in the belief that the arts could heal the wounds of war – wonders if a re-born Festival could help heal the wounds infl icted by coronavirus

MY PERSONAL experience of 'lockdown' in response to the Coronavirus pandemic has caused me to discover innumerable pieces of paper hidden until now in that part of the Demarco Archive existing in the narrow confines of my domestic space within the limitations of my Edinburgh home.

My attention today is drawn to the fine details constituting this small part of what I must regard as a large-scale art work. I am, therefore, dependent on what I could define as 'chance', certainly not by design, on discovering the core of this gesamtkunstwerk.

These pieces of paper take the form of diaries, basic correspondence, essays, newspaper cuttings, artists' statements and mundane administrative paraphernalia: all related to a large library of exhibition catalogues, theatre programmes, novels, histories, dictionaries, etc.

I am in a state, therefore, of bewilderment, conscious that this year is testing humanity on a global scale, and particularly the so-called 'world of art' now that it is equated with sport, all manner of leisure activities and the world of self-agrandisement.

I have awakened to a day of bright sunshine in Edinburgh, having to take seriously into account a vivid dream in which I was giving a lecture to a university audience on the value of the Demarco Archive as a unique academic resource.

Last night, before experiencing this dream world, I found by chance ideal bed time reading material in the form of the Edinburgh University publication of Professor George Steiner's lecture celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival.

It was entitled 'The Festival Overture'. In his opening paragraph, George Steiner writes: "Whatever its joys, a festival, because it sets aside normal time, because it assembles human beings in a unison of feeling, will compart a touch of morality – 'Come away, come away Death', sings Feste to Orsino in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in a line whose magical duplicity enacts, beyond paraphrase or logical justification, the secret sadness, the tristitia which gives to a true festival its joyous gravity."

I read this in relation to the insightful book written by Matei Scircea-Craciun, the Romanian art historian, on the art of Paul Neagu. He writes about the importance of Paul Neagu's sculptures expressed in the form of hyphens. He writes that "Paul Neagu's hyphen sculptures expressed in the form of hearts and skulls define the point where mythology meets the mobius strip in a streamlined asymmetrical work which is as mystical as it is aerodynamic."

Despite this fact, if not because of, its relation to earliest modernist sculpture, Donald Cuspit, the celebrated American art critic, calls Neagu's hyphen sculptures at once 'pre-historic and post-historic – or to put it another way, Neagu is an artist who sees the skull beneath the skin and has found a hyphen in and beyond it.'

On another piece of paper, there is a particularly significant quote in the form of a manifesto. I must consider it when I imagine the possibility of the Edinburgh Festival's future. This year, for the first time in over seventy years, there will be no Edinburgh Festival. The question I must now ask is "Can the Edinburgh Festival continue to exist with the present imbalance between the official programme and its fringe?"

I should imagine that Fergus Linehan, the present Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, should take into consideration the text of this manifesto. It states unequivocally that:

"Art is the name we have given to humanity's most primal response to the mystery of existence. It was in the face of this mystery that dance, music, poetry, painting and sculpture were born. Thus, in the dawn of the current era, art has been under threat. In the name where it belongs on the cultural landscape, two idols stand like golden calves demanding worship.

"They are pornography, the use of aesthetics to manipulate through desire and propaganda, the use of aesthetics to manipulate through fear. Even where true art is made, powerful economic and political forces are there to subjugate it to these idols. The work of art is apolitical, the artist, Oscar Wilde said, it is free to express everything."

I personally believe that enduringly profound art aspires to the condition of prayer as expressed in the Edinburgh Festival's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem and in the sublime vocal sound of German lieder sung by Kathleen Ferrier under the baton of Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the acting of Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in their Shakespearian roles as Hamlet and Ophelia.

I belong to a generation sadly dwindling fast which can remember the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947. Sir John Falconer, as the Edinburgh Festival's patron, wrote an introduction in the official programme that this historic event is about "the flourishing of the human spirit" and "it is in no way a commercial venture."

Can these words define the next Edinburgh Festival? Can future Edinburgh Festivals take seriously the significance of Paul Neagu's hyphen sculptures?

The Edinburgh Festival was born because Rudolph Bing, as its founding director, together with a few friends, firmly believed that the language of all the arts could effectively heal the wounds inflicted by the Second World War.

Can Fergus Linehan find friends to help him define the future of the Edinburgh Festival so that it can be seen to heal the pain and suffering caused by the Coronavirus pandemic? He undoubtedly faces a challenge to re-charge the Edinburgh Festival with the spirit of friendship in the inescapable truth that art is a word re-defining the nature and purpose of Britain's National Health Service.


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