SOOTLANO’S ART IN THE BO§
A SESE OF PROPORTION
Below, Alice Bain talks to Gwen Hardie, returning from ‘exile’ in Berlin for a major exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, while overleafwe assess the growing international reputation of Scotland’s contemporary art.
Gwen Hardie describes herself as a mongrel breed. No ties. Her light Scottish north-east accent slips easily into German. She‘s lived in Berlin for, she surprises herself, two and a halfyears.
Berlin is full of foreigners and the painter Hardie likes that. In many ways it‘s no more German that she is. It‘s a no-man‘s-land where they speak English immaculately and where national identity is chameleon-like. Living there, says Gwen, you are aware of political activity, people moving from the severity of the Eastern Bloc. An isolated fragment oftension, the city is a direct and living reminder of war and global conﬂict. Ironically, it’s a place where Gwen can be alone with her ideas.
West Germany does not hold the same attractions. ‘It smells more German,’ she says. referring to the national pride, the conservatism. There is no similar demand to belong in Berlin, a city of constant movement and change.
But ‘it’s no beehive of art. The government tend to put most of their culture money behind theatre.‘ And as for Scottish art. Gwen pauses. ‘Well, there‘s one Irish guy who exhibited here recently.‘ The Italians, Americans and Germans seem to have captured the visual market. The visual arts, despite the cosmopolitan character of Berlin‘s population, Gwen describes as provincial. ‘Galleries are still showing the Neue Wilden,‘ she says. ‘I ﬁnd it tired and boring and hollow. but it still carries a lot of weight in Berlin.‘ Like Fassbinder‘s films
which she used to love, the new
expressionists have taken the turn of decadence and describes as ‘like taking a big bottle of red wine and getting pished’.
Berlin at first was a scholarship. After five years at Edinburgh College of Art ( 1979;84), Hardie had to leave. Scotland was her training ground, but it had become too familiar.
The neutrality of Edinburgh (chosen because her father and mother both went to Glasgow School ofArt), its emphasis on figure-drawing and the formal techniques ofpainting suited her. But she treats life as a series of chapters to be completed and closed. To go back, to return to Scotland for ever would mean interrupting that rhythm and she would perhaps ‘get lost forever.‘
London might attract. She shows her work there with the Paton Gallery and is aware that Scottish artists are getting recognition. For now, it is too chaotic. She is settled in Berlin.
Her studio is one large room on the corner of her ﬂat. Painting is part of daily life — she lists it before eating and having conversations with people, so it is not surprising her work remains at home. When the oil fumes get too much, both from paint and road, Gwen escapes to friends. It seems a private life. not lonely.
Since the scholarship ran out, selling paintings has given her survival money, which she turns into artists‘ fuel — paint and food. Limelights and possessions are not high on Hardie‘s list ofdesires. She describes some ambitious students who rocked the system at college,
wanting to learn from Beckmann, Picasso and the great masters. Hers was a more humble approach. She was happy studying the nude from life. ‘I spent four years concentrating without thinking how strong my identity as an artist was.‘
That lack of self-consciousness and her dedication to the figure have allowed her character to develop in its own way. Strong-willed it is, with an independence which she says herself has torn her work away from the inﬂuences of place — of Berlin, of Scotland, of anywhere.
It would have been more difficult in Germany, she says. Students arriving at art school are paired with a professor ‘Fifty year-old contract guys’ who stay with them throughout their years of study. ‘It’s like an apprenticeship system. Before you even know what you‘re interested in you‘re stuck with this other character.‘
Her tutor when she arrived at the Kunstakademie was Baselitz whose chaotic upside-down painted figures cause quizzical looks in major galleries around the world. The geometry ofSchlemmer, alive still in the legacy of Bauhaus, gave her the balance of tension she needed. ‘These two were my battleground. To ebb away from them took more than a year.‘
A year is a long time in the career of an artist as young as Gwen. In 1985 she was painting red torsos, ﬂaming and fecund, blown up in size. In 1986 she prepared for the major show in Vienna to which a number of Scottish artists were invited. She painted large heads and bodies ‘very much in my own handwriting.‘ At a
London show in October last year she had a last look at the possibilities of realistic painting, narrowing down the line ofvision -— huge hands and ﬁsts. By then she had begun using a sponge to apply the paint. Brushes were an irritation. Discarding even the sponge, her most recent work is painted literally by hand. Realism has been put aside altogether. Organic, her forms are often near abstract. The internal movements and pulse of the figure have
become more important than its exterior skin. She had relied on size before. Coming out of two years of drawing ‘which can be powerful even on a tiny scrap of paper'. the new paintings are more introverted and contained.
While some priorities, like size, all change, the figure remains. ‘When I was five or six I used to study the people close to me.‘ That fascination, which Hardie senses at times as cold and distant, forces her constantly to review the human image. ‘Like Baselitz.‘ she says. ‘You can feel his limitations and his bursting energy within that.‘ It is attitude she concentrates on changing, not theme.
Hardie has reduced her theme to line, ‘moments oflocal colour‘ and her own bursting energy. She can‘t imagine falling back into herself sufficiently in Scotland to be able to do that. In Berlin, with a room of her own and a self-made territory, she has gone through ‘drastic‘ enough changed in her life to go forward in her work.
Gwen Hardie will be exhibiting at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from Sat 14 March— Wed 25 April.
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Above and left with the artist, works by Gwen Hardie.
‘Now everyone is thanking their lucky stars.’ What‘s happening to Scottish Contemporary Art?
The List 6— 19 March 7