Robert Burns Museum,
Burns is now inseparable from two centuries worth of mythology that has grown up around him, and that we have very little idea what he actually looked like. Apart from a shadow portrait of his silhouette, the majority of “portraits” were created after his death.
Any attempt, then, to create a contemporary portrait of Burns must be about something other than a physical likeness. There is no shortage of evidence on which to draw for a psychological study, of course, but it is as contradictory as it is wide-ranging. The Burns of history is both romantic and promiscuous, as capable of biting satire as compassion for stranded fieldmice, as often drunk and misbehaving as accomplishing feats of poetic genius. He lived with a tension between his dual identities as man of the soil and man of letters, never fully revoking either.
Peter Howson’s vision of Burns was first exhibited in the Inspired exhibition in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library in 2009. An extended series of paintings and drawings, on display here in a special room in the new Alloway museum, flesh that out further, aiming “to delve into the true character of the flawed but beloved genius”.
What he is aiming to do, it seems, is offer a kind of portrait of the artistic process, “one Ayrshire artist seen through the eyes of another”. This is a telling phrase. Any attempt to explore another artist’s experience of making art is going to draw heavily on one’s own. Ever since Walter Scott, who described Burns as having something about the eyes and lips which “indicated poetic temperament” we have been making the man in our own image.
In his drawings and studies he shows Burns doing battle with his demons. God, man and the devil shows a haggard Burns, his face a mess of lines, with a blue-eyed God at his left shoulder and a red-eyed devil at his right. In Scotch Drink, he has devil horns and distracted eyes, the church in the distance offering some kind of sanctuary, if only he could reach it. He gazes in grief at a new moon, stares at the macabre visions of Tam O’Shanter’s witches.
There is a sense of a life lived among big, dark emotions, and from the struggle, the implication is, the poetry comes. In Inspired, Burns’ face is wild, preoccupied, his hair dishevelled, a poet in the grip of the muse. In Address to the Devil, he huddles in his coat, terrified, almost like the figure in Munch’s The Scream, against a backdrop of surreal clouds. In the ironically titled A Scottish Hero he thinly hugs his coat around him, head bowed, not just a reluctant hero but physically shrinking from the role.
The portrait called simply Robert Burns is one of the central works in the exhibition. It is also the most formal, with a dark indistinct background which focuses our attention on the face.The expression is uncertain, introspective, the eyes uneasy, like an Ayrshire farmer who found himself in an Edinburgh painter’s studio, questioning who he is, who he wants to be. This is a fiction, too, of course, but it’s nuanced and complex, a Burns we can believe in.