Transfiguring the Old Masters – Rory Macdonald at Edinburgh’s Heriot Gallery

Rory Macdonald, 'The Water of Venus', oil on board
Rory Macdonald, 'The Water of Venus', oil on board

Rory Macdonald, Transfigurations

Mon - Fri 10:00 - 17:00, Sat 10:00 - 16:00, or by appointment

From: 12 May 2022

To: 4 Jun 2022

Heriot Gallery
20a Dundas St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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The Heriot Gallery showed a small selection of artwork by Rory Macdonald in October 2021 and now presents this solo exhibition to celebrate his fine art portraiture imbued with light-hearted wit.   

The title, Transfigurations is the background theme – in religious terms it means the point where human nature meets God, and more generally, a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. The paintings are well displayed around the gallery with the title and introductory essay stencilled on the wall, akin to National Gallery of Scotland’s Festival exhibitions. Rory’s parents are both renowned artists in Scotland – his father Alan Macdonald combines the Old Masters style with Pop Art to create theatrical portraits while his mother Carolynda focuses on illustrating daydreams with Chagall-like expression. Rory was therefore taught to paint from an early age, and after graduating from art college worked as their studio assistant while studying Art History at the University of St Andrews. 

He has developed his own unique genre which reflects Renaissance and Baroque traditions, taking historical, fictional or legendary figures to compose contemporary, often comical narratives with a rich imagination.  

Rory Macdonald, 'Eau de Vie', oil on board
Rory Macdonald, ‘Eau de Vie’, oil on board

Previously, Macdonald introduced us to Madame de Chardonnay in a crinoline gown holding an oversized wine glass, and in Old Soak, a smart, bearded gentleman, incongruously, in a tumbler of wine. In similar mode, here we have Eau de Vie, the title no doubt taken from the Gaelic for whisky, Uisge beath, meaning the Water of Life. A glamorous lady in a blue dress with a string of pearls is sitting in decorative goblet, and rather like Mona Lisa, she has a serious, perceptive gaze, staring at the viewer while the quality of light glinting on the glass and the folds of shimmering satin are both brilliantly illustrated. 

Rory Macdonald, 'The Water of Venus', oil on board
Rory Macdonald, ‘The Water of Venus’, oil on board

The Roman goddess of love is immortalised in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus: with flaming red hair, she stands on a scallop shell like a pure white pearl, being given a flower-patterned cloak. Here, in The Water of Venus, a nude ‘goddess’ is partially wrapped in a silk cloak beside the bud of a giant tulip with its crimson and white petals. The textures of flesh, fabric and flowers are beautifully painted with such detail and delicacy. 

Rory Macdonald, 'Lady Falconer', oil on board
Rory Macdonald, ‘Lady Falconer’, oil on board

From art history research, the subject of female falconers holding birds of prey has been captured by 19th century artists Robert Burns and Ferdinand Wagner the younger, and has now inspired Rory Macdonald too. Dressed in a gorgeous, gold velvet dress, Lady Falconer has a large butterfly perched on her right hand, its pale blue wings complementing her lace sleeves. 

Several paintings share the colourful, dreamlike vision of Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Salvador Dali et al. Surrealism is defined as a literary, philosophical and artistic movement that explores the poetic and the irrational to revolutionise human experience.  

‘To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been’. – Rene Magritte

Rory Macdonald, 'In the Balance', oil on board
Rory Macdonald, ‘In the Balance’, oil on board

Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam shows God reaching towards Adam, their arms outstretched, fingers almost touching. This iconic image comes to mind when studying In the Balance in which two Biblical (?) men are seen grasping each other in terror – all bulging muscles and stretched sinews – as a gigantic, alien hand hovers menacingly overhead.

Rory Macdonald, 'George and the Dragon', oil on board
Rory Macdonald, ‘George and the Dragon’, oil on board

And finally in this brief overview, a stunning modern masterpiece is George and the Dragon. As a clever artistic response to Dali’s obsession with lobsters, here, our not-so-saintly, smug-looking hero has struck the poor defenceless, red-clawed shellfish between the eyes with his sword.  

Begin by learning to draw and paint like the old masters. After that, you can do as you like; everyone will respect you.’  – Salvador Dali.

Rory Macdonald has done exactly this – studying and perfecting the traditional technique of the great artists and Old Masters, over the centuries, to invent his own individual genre as a young Master. This is classic craftsmanship – the linear perspective, subtle use of dramatic light, rich palette and narrative storytelling. How to sum up his fresh new style of surrealism for the 21st century? Exciting, exemplary, exquisite.

(NB As part of the New Acquisitions at the SNGMA, you can view Dali’s famous Lobster Telephone. ‘I do not understand why, when I ask for grilled lobster in a restaurant, I’m never served a cooked telephone!’ – Salvador Dalí.

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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