Monday, 15 June 2015

Head to Head, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Head to Head, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 6 June, brings together around 50 sculpted works in a huge variety of styles and media, dating from antiquity to the present day.

Head to Head explores the many ways in which sculptors have treated and re-imagined that most engaging and most primal subject, the human head. The exhibition creates an arresting dialogue between works which range in size from less than 3 cm. wide (a portrait gem by James Tassie, c.1780) to more than and 3 m. tall (Stephan Balkenhol’s Grosser Mann (Large Man), from 1988). It includes Scottish and European works and examples from a staggering range of traditions – Antique, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classical and Modern. The exhibition is spectacularly staged in the Portrait Gallery’s contemporary space on the ground floor, and is the first National Galleries show to feature sculptures drawn from all three collections for many years.

Head to Head illustrates how sculptors continue to work within the tradition of the portrait bust as well as seeking to break free from it, and starts by considering definitions of what a sculpted portrait is. Works here range from conventional to more abstract representations of the model, such as Scottish Pop Art artist Gerald Laing’s bronze head Galina 3 (1974). Part of a series of busts depicting the artist’s wife, this futuristic-looking head replaces facial features with a smooth, reflective metal-like surface.

Laing’s stylised portrait echoes John Duncan Fergusson’s Eástre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924). For his brass portrait of Eástre, the Saxon goddess of Easter, the Scottish Colourist chose a highly polished, golden surface; the work is placed among a selection of sculptures illustrating the various materials available to artists and the different ways they have been used.

Also part of this group is John Davies’ striking Figure on a Swing, made in 1981-1984. Cast in fibreglass, it shows a naked male figure whose ghost-like form was inspired in part by Davies’ memories of a circus he was taken every year to as a child. It will be directly suspended from a beam on the ceiling so as to catch the eye of visitors as they walk into the exhibition.

A third group of sculptures will encourage visitors to consider the function of portrait busts, whether they were created to convey a message or were made for a particular purpose other than being a directly identifiable portrait. This is for instance evident in Nancy Grossman’s Head (1968), which was carved in wood and trussed up in leather to conjure feelings of claustrophobia and vulnerability. Grossman, one of the leading feminist artists of the period, has stated that her head sculptures were a response to restrictions she felt during her childhood.

The oldest sculpture in the show was made around the late 1st century BC - early 1st century AD. Head of a Young Man, a marble bust found in the Greek city of Thebes, is from the Scottish National Gallery’s collection. The most recent work will be Untitled, another marble bust, but one created in 2013 by Edinburgh-based artist Jonathan Owen and recently acquired by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

For Untitled Owen carved directly into the head of a nineteenth-century portrait, turning it into a cage formed from an intricate three-dimensional star pattern, with a marble sphere trapped inside. Owen’s transformation of the original bust into a new object illustrates one of the ways artists continue to reference the tradition of the sculpted portrait, while also seeking to re-invent it. This theme will be further explored by Cesar’s Pouce (Thumb) (1965-1968), a bronze based on a cast of the French artist’s own thumb which conveys his individuality and identity, but without making reference to his head and face at all.

Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said: “’Head to Head’ represents a fresh and dramatic way of making us think about figurative sculpture and the endless, rich variations artists have brought to its forms – whether traditional or radical. It provides an introduction to the wealth of the Galleries’ sculptural collections and many of the fascinating issues around the creation and viewing them.”

The National Galleries of Scotland wish to express their gratitude to Walter and Norma Nimmo whose generous support has enabled them to mount this exhibition.

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