Nation's bold artistic heritage hides timidly in dark gallery gloom
After a period of inertia in some high places, there's been rethink and radical action aplenty, all of which leaves the classic excuses for inactivity – "ae been" and "o'er hard" – looking gey thin.
To be fair to the National Galleries of Scotland, neither reason is offered for displaying their striking Scottish material in a cramped, dingy basement while the main, bright, entrance level is stocked with nice but unmemorable Dutch, German and Italian works.
Apparently, it's not that there's nae will to get our art and our history out of the cellar, it's just there's nae cash.
Sadly, this excuse for inaction will grow arms and legs as the credit crunch tightens – just the time we need better information about the historic state of Scotland. Why is the current debate about the shabby state of Princes Street not informed by the sight of its fabulous vista two centuries ago when the RSA was being constructed? Might the renovation of the Grassmarket not benefit from a glimpse of its early representation in the painting of the Porteus Riot?
Folk from East and West Kilbride might welcome easy access to their namesake, John Duncan's Bride – a seminal portrait of the figure known as the midwife of Christ. Currently, it's barely visible in a gloomy corridor beside Phoebe Traquair's murals – hung on a grey felt wallcovering more scuffed and covered in felt balls than an old school noticeboard. Stand back to take in the dimensions of the artist's intent and you walk into another large painting – equally unviewable on the facing corridor wall. The Skating Minister, made famous by Holyrood's first Christmas card, is thrown away on a tight corner and though there's space to view Hornel's picture of white-capped girls playing on a flower-decked forest floor, the escapist mood is destroyed by the line of fluorescent lights pile-driving through the image in reflection.
Local subject matter and homegrown talent delight – but they also offer perspectives of our own reality we really need to see. John Knox's robust, early 19th-century landscapes of Lochs Lomond and Katrine help scotch the notion Scots found the Highlands scary until Queen Victoria Balmoralised them. Yet the eye has taken in so many classical figures under odd Italian cliffs or plaintively flat Dutch fields that our own early landscapes look unfamiliar.
After the angels, blue Mediterranean skies, bible scenes, wars, crusades, battles and foreign portraits upstairs, Scots are slightly thrown by the sight of their own heritage. It's shocking to register shock at the sight of our own culture in our own National Gallery – but just as British cop movies look strangely inauthentic because the genre has been so thoroughly colonised by the Americans, so the white, parched landscapes of Renaissance masters look more familiar than our soil, sea and people portrayed by our own artists.
I'm not a Christian, art expert or card-carrying nationalist, yet I did wipe away tears at the sight of William Dyce's bold relocation of Christ in the Wilderness to the treeless Highlands of Scotland, circa 1860.
Scots are not parochial. Christ of St John of the Cross in Glasgow is regularly voted the nation's favourite picture. Perhaps that's because it's in the nation's favourite gallery – where Scottish and international art is exhibited together, not in the apologetic upstairs, downstairs style that characterises our national collection. Compared to the "come all ye" warmth expressed by Kelvingrove, the National Gallery on the Mound is sniffy, exclusive, foreign and until you get downstairs, rather boring.
This, I know, oversteps my limited knowledge of art and aesthetics. But what aesthetic judgment governs the selection currently "on top?" As far as I can see – size.
The epic scale of non-Scottish works makes it easy for one painting to fill an entire wall of the Upper Gallery. Very few Scottish works on display downstairs would fill those gaps in the same way. But if we would sneer at the notion of choosing art to complement the colour of the carpet, why are we content to select displays in Scotland's National Gallery on the basis of size?
I asked some gallery guides why Scottish material was in the basement – they smiled, sighed and said lots of visitors ask that question. Michael Clarke, director of the National Gallery of Scotland, has this answer: "This state of affairs is increasingly unsatisfactory and plans are afoot for a complete redisplay ... with greater integration of Scottish and European paintings on all three floors of the Gallery."
Good news. However, any redevelopment of (the basement) area will apparently need "significant funding" unlikely to be secured before the Portrait Gallery refurbishment is finished in 2011. I'm sorry. I don't want to wait that long.
Of course there are Scottish paintings in other Edinburgh galleries, but primacy of name and location has been given to the National Gallery of Scotland. Scots and visitors alike walk through the door and expect to see national treasures of Scotland, not Holland. How much would it cost to shift floors and store or lend to a small "local" Scottish gallery any of the big "foreign" pieces that cannot be accommodated in the basement? How about a trip to IKEA for some new lights? Not ideal, but ideal's not the world any of us currently inhabit.
Tough times demand ingenuity and tough decisions. It's what top professionals are paid to do. Make choices that fit this century – not the last.