Tuesday 25 August 2015

KEN CURRIE: Portrait of THOMAS MUIR at the Auld Kirk, Kirkintilloch, Oct 10th-31st

"I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause. It shall ultimately prevail," so said THOMAS MUIR at his show trial for sedition in 1793.  

His chief sin was talking & writing about parliamentary reform so that people in general had a vote, not just the landed gentry. Muir was 28 and already famous as a campaigner for democracy in both politics and the church. The jury was rigged so Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Botany Bay, Australia. He escaped & after an epic journey across the Pacific, America & the Atlantic, reached France, weak & half blind, horrifically wounded across his face by the loss of his left cheekbone. He died there in 1799, the conclusion of many trials, physical & moral, for Scotland's first political martyr. He was only 33. 
How to capture all this in a single portrait? This was KEN CURRIE's challenge when he was commissioned by the Lillie Gallery & East Dunbartonshire Culture & Leisure Trust to make Muir's portrait to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth.
"I read a lot. Did a lot of research. His is a complex, long involved story. He endured harsh & brutal treatment. I didn't want to re-tell it all like I did years ago for the People's Palace Murals. 
Currie working on the Calton Weavers murals in 1987. 
I wanted to capture his many trials; show him suffering in the cause of parliamentary reform. Eventually I hit on a solution." 
Currie's solution is stark, minimal, moving.  Very effective. The portrait is sober, sombre, spell-binding. Surrounded by Currie's characteristic dense, intense black, the bandaged young Muir looks out at us, one side of his injured face entirely shrouded by a black cloth tied around by a black band across his forehead. 
"When I learned that his face was so badly damaged that he had to keep it hidden, the whole composition fell into place. Just as soldiers in World War 1 had leather masks made for the benefit of their family & the public, Seeing a man minus his leg was OK but horrific facial injuries led to stigmatisation." 
Currie has used the black linen 'mask' to get us to focus on Muir's look - direct, fearless, committed, determined, expressive of his firm beliefs & resolve. While Muir's face is in focus, his body has a ghostly spectral air, as tho' receding, dying away. 
"I painted several versions but this was the first. And I came back to it as the best," says Currie. "The body is very lightly painted, only a few glazes. But it works." A young guy in Currie's studio posed for the body - young agile, like Muir, all his life before him - before tragedy struck. 

I guess we will never know exactly what Muir looked like after his brutal experiences -old engravings sometimes romantically hint at his youth, others at his classical stoicism.  
Currie says, "Contemporary descriptions of him after he arrived in France toward the end of his life suggest that he was gaunt, pale and clearly considerably weakened and debilitated by his injuries. Despite this he continued to work for reform."
"Ken's portrait is persuasive of martyrdom," commented my husband, "There is that element of resignation to his look." 
Currie's work has always been gripping. He produces pictures that can be uncomfortable but that reach for something deep. His Edinburgh Festival exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery 2 years ago was by far the best show in town. He is after all a seriously important painter. 

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