It was late March and the first proper spring day in Edinburgh after a long winter and a surprise visitation from the ‘Beast from the East’. Named weather seems a recent thing. ‘It used to just be snow,’ my library colleague said as we watched it circle the windows. I thought about naming weather and naming people and remembered a poet friend saying to an interviewer that ‘naming a child is a perilous thing.’ As though one could hold a child safe in generality, as though in not naming them, they are not fully brought forth with all the risk that bringing forth entails. Jonny is my son he’s in my family. Oh, love.
On that first proper spring day I wanted to go to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I wanted to see the exhibition by Jenny Saville. And the weather held. I went to the Scottish National Gallery on Princes Street to catch the shuttle to Modern One, but the shuttle had broken down. I have tried to find Modern One on foot a couple of times, but it’s one of those mysterious places that only shuttle drivers can find. Disgruntled, I walked into the National Gallery to look at the old stuff again.
The Scottish National Gallery is a thing of beauty even without the art. Each room is painted a deep rich colour: red, blue, green, purple. I do a loop – starting with red, finishing with red, and going upstairs to visit purple and blue. A student sits in front of a painting, sketching and jotting notes. Things are as they usually are. Angels carry Saint Bride over Hebridean seas to visit the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem for the birth of Christ. A woman, lost in thought, walks in snow in rural Aberdeen under a gold light. A mother shows her little son something in a book – they are two arcs of intensity with a radiance coming from their skin. Titania argues with Oberon in a painting with 165 fairies in it (Lewis Carroll counted them). Their quarrel is over the possession of a human child who has been carried to the fairy realm. The child will have had a name, but has lost it to the changeling.
I walk back towards the entrance through the red gallery and there, between two Titians, is a painting by Jenny Saville. The work is called ‘Aleppo’. A woman in a blue dress holds two children of maybe two or three years old. They look dead or at least unconscious. She holds them up to the sky, and they obscure her face. The gesture is magnificent and terrible. It seems ancient and biblical – like the land itself. The wide blue dress almost rocky blue hills, the ashy children almost cloudbanks, almost snow, one brown-sandaled foot a small bird. If only. The new painting stirs the weather in the old stories. A hot wind catches the robe of a prophet. The dust in his throat is the dust in my throat. I can see the weight, the slump, the gravitational pull of the children and the effort in the hands that hold them up. The Titians on either side of the Saville are drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’. They are designed as a pair and there is a stream that flows from one to the other. ‘Diana and Actaeon’ captures a moment of mutual surprise when Actaeon sees Diana naked and bathing. In the moment of that surprise she turns him into a deer with dappled hide, long fine legs and branching antlers. Shocked, he startles and runs. Alerted, his own obedient hounds tear him apart.
That is some curation, to put the new in with the old like that, as though both lived in the same moment like the branch and the new buds growing along it. Kasandra is my daughter, she’s in my family. Oh, love.