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'Modern One': Must-See of Edinburgh Art

“Modern One” is a lazy name. As if designed for the conversation ‘Which gallery are you going to?’ and no other circumstance, the name falls short. Don’t be fooled though, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a great cultural institution and a must-visit for art lovers and philistines (STEM students) alike.

Before you enter, you’ll have already seen sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Tracey Emin, Henry Moore, and Antony Gormley in Charles Jencks’ stunning landscape garden. Gormley’s contribution is particularly eye-catching, six cast iron men half-submerged in the pavement leading down the Water of Leith to the sea. Each faces a different direction and evokes a different mood. Great public art uses its environmental context and that’s what Gormley does, prompting reflection on the urban environment his work occupies but never imposes upon.

Modern One itself becomes an artwork thanks to Martin Creed’s Work No. 975 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT emblazoned in neon blue text across the entrance. My friends dismissed this as disposable Instagrammable art, and initially, I was inclined to agree. However, by the evening the dystopian undertones of the text bled into the typically grey sky and stonework quite convincingly.

Once inside there’s a map on the wall for you to photograph and keep on your phone (saving on paper in an innovative, if gimmicky way). You’re unlikely to need it though as the best thing about this gallery is its manageable size; you can get around almost everything in an afternoon. Plus, if you do miss anything (or want to check out the works I mention) every artwork is listed on the Scottish National Galleries website with photographs and context.


The highlight of Modern One has to be its remarkable collection of Surrealist art. The gallery is accessible at multiple levels and assumes very little prior knowledge. Thus, iconic works like Dalí’s Lobster Telephone and Magritte’s Le Miroir magique and Le Drapeau noir are presented with enough context to make them intelligible. Even my friend who last year rejected every single work in Tate Modern as “pretentious nonsense” got something out of the experience.

Art forms besides painting were given equal precedence in the gallery, from a fascinatingly uncomfortable room on non-rigid sculpture, and dozens of screen-prints, to Marie Harnett’s stunning photorealistic miniature drawings, and some clever installation art. My favourite being Douglas Gordon’s List of Names (Random) on the staircase. Initially, this appears to be a donor list but the (unfortunately well-hidden) wall card informs you it is in fact a gradually expanding list of everyone the artist can remember meeting, in the order they came to mind.

Surrounded by a fetus, and a stream of sperm, Edvard Munch’s sexualised lithograph of the Madonna really stood out to me, as shockingly erotic today as it was in 1895. It was a pity the curators hid it away in a corner upstairs. The gallery’s declining coherence as you move to the second floor would be my only complaint about Modern One (besides the name). It deprived some of my favourite works, like Carol Rhodes’ uncomfortably empty Service Station, of their full impact. Works downstairs were given room to breathe, an immense room was given over to projections of Daido Moriyama’s photographs – a move that was both impressive and unsatisfying for the viewer wanting to see them ordered as he did in his photobooks not rearranged by curators. I later read that this third-party rearranging was the artist’s intention but, in person, it felt unexplained and arbitrary.

Nonetheless I heartily recommend Modern One to anyone passing through the area (just off Queensferry Road). Entry is free and it is accessible by (also free) bus, so what have you got to lose!


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