Montbéliard, My Love is like a red, red rose

In the late summer of 2015 the mayor of Montbéliard, a small but historic  city nestled against the Swiss border in north-eastern France, had this idea.   Montbéliard prides itself on a Christmas market and Christmas scene that draws hundreds of thousands of people from across the region, including Switzerland and Germany.    Scotland was the invited guest this year – after countries from Brazil to Ireland – so why not stage an exhibition to go with it?

For a city of just 26,000 souls, Montbéliard is pretty well equipped on the visual art front –  with not just one but two sizeable museums.  Just five months after Mayor Marie-Noélle Biguinet put the word out, one of them – in the imposing chateau that was the ancestral home of the German Dukes of Wuttemburg – is hosting the first survey show of Scottish art in a French public museum.  Remarkably, it took in loans both from French institutions, including the Musee d’Orsay, and significant Scottish collections, despite a deadline that most major galleries would have laughed out of court.

The first lesson that a Scottish visitor takes away from the show, and Montbéliard’s city curator Aurelie Voltz, is this:  ask a European artperson to name an influential Scottish figure in the history of art, and they won’t answer Ramsay, Raeburn, Peploe or Melville, though they might mention Mackintosh.  While traditional critics of the Turner Prize would choke on their oil paints, the names that come up are Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce,  Susan Phillipsz et al; it’s just a measure of the ‘Glasgow miracle’ of the last ten or 15 years.

My love is like a red red Rose, Three Centuries of Scottish Art, at the Musée du Chateau in Montbéliard, runs until the 28th February 2016.   While it takes its name, needless to say, from the Robert Burns poem, and features significant loans including an early Burns volume from the Scottish collector William Zachs, it begins and ends with Douglas Gordon.

Montbéliard, Douglas Gordon

Montbéliard curator Aurelie Voltz with Douglas Gordon’s Letter (Number 20)

Gordon’s work is represented in the show by wall text pieces.   The first, Letter unsent (Number 7), runs around an arch leading into it, with the words ‘I still believe in Miracles’.   (An Edinburgher can’t help reading it as a riposte to Nathan Coley’s neon piece at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, There will be no Miracles Here.)

Voltz has used her post in Montbéliard, barely an hour’s drive from Basel, to pull-off some unexpected shows, though she voices the same complaint heard in many a regional collection in Britain, that if an exhibition is off the critics’ beaten track,  it  doesn’t get the attention.  She has shown the headline contemporary Turkish artist Sarkis; next up is Jean Messagier (Mayor Biguinet for her part has encouraged more populist work,  including from contemporaries of the Impressionists.)

Voltz said: ‘These three centuries show that Scottish art is very rich, and it’s always between traditions and avant-garde. For me it’s quite interesting that there is a kind of line connecting all these centuries and these works,  that it’s always looking at the past, looking at these Celtic times, always looking in the past to see into the future. Even today it’s the same, and also this permanent look at poetry, poetry is still very important in the art today. I wanted to show this strong line between the beginning, and today. “

French, and British or Scottish viewers will take away quite different things from the exhibition.  There’s an 18th Century Burns portrait, (anonymous, after Nasmyth),  and Mary Queen of Scots, by Medina The Younger; they’re not the classic images, perhaps more intriguing to the French audience.  Ramsay and Raeburn are also represented.   The loans from Mr Zachs include early copies of Burns, and James McPherson’s Ossian.

Two stunning chairs by Mackintosh, and a series of fine Hill and Adamson photographs come from the Musee d’Orsay.

  • Mackintosh, Montbéliard, Musée d'Orsay
    Mackintosh chairs from the Musee d'Orsay

The Ian Hamilton Finlay selection comes from a regional Brittany museum, a signal of that artist’s reputation in Europe. The newest pieces are from a recent Glasgow School of Art graduate,  Katie Schwab.

Katie Schwab, Glasgow School of Art, Montpélier

Katie Schwab’s pop art embroideries

These pop art pièces are said to reference thé embroideries of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and the Bauhaus influence of  Gunta Stölzl.   That’s Europe for you.

For the Romans, Ms Voltz notes, Scotland was “on the edge of the habitable world”; more flatteringly Voltaire said “we look to Scotland for our civilisation”.

The exhibition pulled  together about 100 loans.   While the National Galleries of Scotland did indeed respond that the timing was too short, Voltz and her British co-curator Caroline Hancock gathered loans that included the creme of the crop from the Fleming Collection; it took several pleas for permission to bring these top-end works, including the very best of FCB Cadell and others, out of the country.   Other more unusual sources – which gives the exhibition its slightly swerving take on the greats – include the University of Dundee’s collection, as well as the University of Edinburgh, along with that of the Most Honourable the Marquess of Ailsa, in Ayrshire.   On the contemporary end there are the blue-chip Modern Institute and Ingleby Galleries.

Voltz was particularly taken with the work of the symbolist John Duncan, represented by a Dundee piece; she wished she could do a show on the artist.   Other discoveries, and curiosities, range from art films to striking photogravure portraits by    James Craig Annan, also  from the holdings in the Musée D’Orsay,  There are wallpapers and startling modernist glass from Christopher Dresser, the Scottish designer who worked across the decorative arts, for Tiffany and others,  and died in Mulhouse in 1904.

My images of the exhibition are limited but you can have a further (slow) stroll through them on the exhibition page of  the city’s website here .

The Scottish culture minister, Fiona Hyslop, sent a message of support for opening of this first ever historical survey of Scottish art to have been staged in France.

“Now more than ever, we value our friendship…the story of the ‘Auld Alliance’ is forged through ancient treaties, royal marriages and close cultural ties. And as this exhibition reveals, it has always been a most creative dialogue between the two nations with, for example, Scottish philosophers informing the French enlightenment, and French painters inspiring the Scottish Colourists. I would like to thank the Mayor of Montbeliard and the innovative curators of the exhibition for presenting a narrative of Scottish art to a French audience for the first time.”