The Scottish Gallery

Joan Eardley: 'Foreign Familiar' Curated by David Cass

I'm thrilled to be able to include Joan Eardley's 1948 Florence watercolour in Foreign / Familiar.

The works that form this exhibition are observations of the foreign ‘everyday’ through often overlooked architecture and city elements, and indeed scenarios that might not spring immediately to mind upon consideration of these locations. This is taken to a further extent in Eardley’s ‘Building, Palazzo Type’, for it was not only in Glasgow that the artist sought out derelict or dilapidated built-environment subjects. In this watercolour the noble proportions of a Florentine riverbank palazzo stand — quite unfamiliarly to the ancient structure — on unstable foundations, at a precarious angle, the rubble of restoration work all around, and with another isolated (spared) building standing exposed behind.

Joan Eardley:  Building, Palazzo Type  (1948) Gouache 49 x 42 cm

Joan Eardley: Building, Palazzo Type (1948) Gouache 49 x 42 cm

Eardley here is documenting the extreme restoration works necessitated by the devastation Florence endured at the end of the Second World War. The Germans had blown-up buildings along the river and each of the bridges that crossed it, except for Ponte Vecchio, which Officer Gerhard Wolf had ordered to be spared for personal reasons. Eardley’s watercolour depicts Piazza di Santa Maria Sopearno — along Lungarno Torrigiani and just behind Ponte Vecchio — and focusses on the still-standing Palazzo Tempi. This work therefore celebrates this steadfast ochre palazzo, one of many that line the riverbank, built some-time in the early fifteenth century and then restored three hundred years later to take the form that Eardley describes. Perhaps spared because of its close proximity to Ponte Vecchio, this beaming structure — owned by successive Florentine noble-families — has stood resolute throughout a turbulent history of siege, political struggle, war and repeated flooding*. Eardley’s painting presents this bastion as etched into that same history and memory, as familiar to the city’s inhabitants today as it would have been four hundred years ago.

*During the lifetime of Palazzo Tempi, Florence has endured seventeen small floods, sixteen large floods, and seven exceptional ones: most recently that of 1966, as seen in [Cass’s] Florence in flood project.

Exhibition News

The paintings that make this exhibition are windows through which an alternative look at Venice is offered. These exclusively front-facing works present an exaggerated two-dimensional aspect and feature no glimpse of sky, nor do they describe grand façades. Many are paintings upon paintings — their previous brushwork, marks and details evident under the surface — echoing the actual textures of the city’s layered hide. The majority of the pieces aim to reflect what is most fittingly labelled ‘everyday’ Venice.

Historian Fernand Braudel describes a city’s history as ‘often present in a detail’. These oil paintings (many of which are painted upon aged papers, pasted onto board) examine a complex city through a lens that focusses on the smallest elements and components. For it is by way of the minutiae — the fragments of Venice’s skin — that the city’s story might be told and the layers of life revealed (as illustrations of doorplates, shop-signs, and buzzers demonstrate). Bricked-up doors, signs upon signs, nameplates over nameplates, an erosion spreading from the water up, and salt-assaulted bricks: “Venetian houses as we see them today are the product of countless transformations, reflecting the cultural, social and historical mutations of The Serenissima” [Giulia Foscari: Elements of Venice]. What period in the history of Venice are we witnessing now, as Venetians rapidly leave their home city?

Many of these works look down, becoming isolated examinations of the zone in which canal meets building (home). Venice is a reptile struggling to shed: while its upper skin has no chance of renewal, thanks to increasingly inelegant pastings designed principally to direct tourists, its lower parts rely on restless rising water to help loosen an uncomfortable outer crust.

Venice has been (and is being) ill-treated on all fronts. Italy (and Venice, specifically) is regarded the world over as a place of tremendous cultural importance. We have witnessed just how quickly and catastrophically Italian towns — and the myriad architectural pearls they are made of — can ‘disappear’, as in the case of the 2016 earthquake destruction in the centre of the country. Venice is today being destroyed not only by its age and the weight of all it has lived through, upon its plunged wooden-pile foundations, but also by the inundation of visitors, water taxis and giant cruise liners that visit each and every day. On top of that, Venice is also a direct and vulnerable victim of rising sea levels: it is fact that global sea rise is impacting the Adriatic. In February 2017 (mere days after the completion of this exhibition) UNESCO will decide whether or not to place Venice on its list of endangered heritage sites. Then, there’s no turning back.

I am aware that as a visitor, I have little right to comment or speak on behalf of the city’s inhabitants. But as an environmentally conscious artist, I consider it my responsibility to mention the various stages of research that go into each body of work. In a recent Pulitzer Centre podcast, many Venetians who remain claim to feel that their city no longer belongs to them. One describes Venice as a “dying city amongst the waves of the Adriatic”. Venetians are concerned that they will soon end up being seen as an embarrassment in the eyes of the world, if government does not right its wrongs and atone for ignoring (often in the most despicable of ways) these issues, if residents do not stop leaving their homes, if the city succumbs absolutely to its celebrity status.

Street names and directional signs (often vandalised so as to mislead tourists) are sprayed gracelessly to buildings in oversized stencilled font; harsh stabilising chemicals are injected into mortar; anchors are stapled through stone to grab hold of subsiding walls; agitated water eats away at the city’s ground floors. Venice’s skin therefore — the surface that we see — is in a constant state of transformation, and almost all of today’s modifications are negative and irreversible. Contemporary artists can either ignore the reality of the Venice of today and nostalgically recreate a past that no longer exists, or meet it. And though the paintings assembled here inadvertently celebrate a certain brand of crumbling aesthetic charm (the style to which I am most drawn), at their core lies a more serious message. The paintings that form ‘Pełàda’ are observations: they celebrate the joy of the everyday through the most mundane of functional and often overlooked elements.  At the same time, many of the pieces — in particular, those that illustrate the waterline — aim to establish themselves within the consciousness of the viewer, jolting the brain and asking for reconsideration as something more than a decorative outer coat of pastel-shaded skin.