Calum Colvin: Picturing Scottish Identity

© Calum Colvin ‘Natural Magick’ [detail] 2007

I think the striving to define oneself against this globalised backdrop

is universal … in the end, artists each have to speak with

their own language.


Identity, be it individual or collective, is a subtle and shifting concept. It does not come wholly from inside the individual or among the group, but neither is it simply imported from outside. Rather, it is formed at the interface between the two. Clearly, the individual or group influence who they feel themselves to be, but so does the context of how they interact with the world and the world with them.

The Scottish photo-artist Calum Colvin explores this interface in much of his work. His images – which arise as a hybrid construction of photography, painting, sculpture and installation – juxtapose two distinct visual spaces to create a third space that throws the interface of identity into sharp relief. The first space is painted. Usually, it is a portrait, but even when it is an animal or a reference to art history, it represents the identity he is exploring through the work. This painting is created on the surface of an installation. The installation is a kind of theatrical set, dramatically lit. It is filled with objects that each have their specific significance. They are frequently drawn from popular culture and help to describe the context in which the identity of the individual is shaped by the images we see and the stories we hear and, more abstractly, by the processes of celebrity and historification, which often shift and evolve independently of fact.

Scottish history is complicated. It is traditionally recounted as a gritty lament. The most famous names are associated with defeat rather than victory but, in the telling of these tales, there remains an unbowed determination. The message is one of resilience. Yet the history of Scotland is also one of enormous triumphs. The Scottish Enlightenment – a period in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of great intellectual and scientific advancement – led Europe into the modern age. Scots made considerable contributions in economics, engineering, literature, mathematics, medicine and technology, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout much of the western world. Even so, the image that is most commonly portrayed in popular culture – through tourism, cinema, storybooks and postcards – is of a quaint, somewhat backward country of rugged landscapes, men in tartan kilts, shaggy highland cows and blaring bagpipes.

There is an image by Calum Colvin – a self-portrait [above] – in which he is reaching forward with his right hand. In his left, he holds a structure that suggests part of the stretcher for an artist’s canvas and a kind of Escher-like puzzle in perspective. It forms the diagonal cross of the Scottish flag. What is it he is reaching for and, over the years, what has he found? It was with these thoughts in mind that I began my interview.

Alasdair Foster

© Calum Colvin ‘Two Ways of Life’ 1991


Alasdair: When and why did you begin to make photographs?

Calum: I started making photographs in 1980. I was studying sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, Scotland. I had been messing around with an old Polaroid camera making portraits of friends and was curious to learn more. The photography tutor sent me out with a 35mm SLR to take some shots – mostly street photographs around Dundee. Between the processing and printing of my first roll of film, I pretty much decided that my future lay with this medium.

Your method of creating images through painting and installation is very unusual. How did that technique evolve?

At first, it was a way to bring together the two subjects I was studying in order to satisfy the requirements of a traditional Scottish Art School! But I also wanted to challenge the hierarchies of art, which tend to place painting above photography, by bringing together the separated ‘histories’ of those two media.

In 1983, I moved to London to study photography at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Initially, I had planned to work in a documentary style, but found myself increasingly drawn back toward my ‘constructed’ work. Ironically, I found that studying photography at RCA strengthened my resolve to cross the boundaries between photography, sculpture and painting.

Your work has involved both art-historical references and contemporary kitsch; portraiture and self-portraiture, but central to all its phases has been an exploration of and reflection upon Scottish identity. What first stimulated your interest in Scottish identity?

My move to London coincided with a growing interest in the nature of Scottish culture and my own interest in Scottish identity. About then, the Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s seminal novel ‘Lanark’ had just been published. This novel affected me strongly. Its combination of autobiography, science fiction, surrealism, and the playful interaction of author and character led me to consider the possibility of a visual equivalent, created using photography. I began to focus consciously upon notions of a cultural hybrid that could be expressed visually. Increasingly, I was combining disparate themes to create a kind of ‘kaleidoscopic’ vision.

There were clearly two distinct notions of the hybrid here: a photograph that was also an environment and a painting, and thematic content that brought together diverse (and sometimes conflicting) ideas.

[Left] © Calum Colvin ‘Venus Anadyomene (after Titian)’ 1998; [Right] Studio views of the installation showing the elements of the composition when viewed from a different angle to the specific perspective of the camera recording the final image.

Can you talk me through the process of constructing and shooting an installation?

I begin by building a large-scale studio ‘stage-set’ made up of everyday objects, furniture and bric-a-brac carefully positioned and theatrically lit. I select a specific view point and set up my large-format monorail camera (a 10×8 De Vere). I then paint onto the various parts of the set, to superimpose an image on top of the objects, an image that is only complete when viewed from the fixed-point perspective of the camera. The scene is then photographed, producing an image that integrates object and subject in a complex mise en scene.

© Calum Colvin ‘The Three Graces’ 1997

For example, ‘The Three Graces’?

That work was made for an exhibition in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art called ‘Sacred and Profane’. The National Galleries of Scotland had just acquired Canova’s sculpture ‘The Three Graces’ in partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. [In Greek classical mythology, the Three Graces are daughters of the god Zeus and represent respectively mirth, elegance and youthful beauty.] In my version, the Three Graces are painted over a hospital bed – suggesting a scenario of mortality and ageing, contradicting the youthful vitality of the original figures. I was also making a reference to a controversy about the cost of the Canova work to the taxpayer. This issue came up frequently in the newspapers at the time, as it was suggested the money spent buying the sculpture would have been better invested in hospitals.

© Calum Colvin ‘The Common Runt’ 1999

In that image, you refer to art history, but in many of your works – for example ‘The Common Runt’ (1999) – the references are more mundane, though nonetheless charged.

Much of my work is based on accidental encounters with everyday objects and the narrative possibilities inherent in them. I first conceived this image when I came across a series of mini-books in a down-market department store. The books were from a series entitled ‘They Died Too Soon’ and featured short biographies of young celebrities whose lives had ended abruptly. While the stories of these stars were full of glamour and tragedy, I couldn’t help thinking about the more everyday aspects of death as a universal fate. So, taking as my subject the pigeon – the Common Runt – I created an image that is both surreal and ordinary, reflecting the extraordinary and mundane aspects of all existence.

A central figure in much of your work is Robert Burns. What it is that makes him so interesting to you as an artist?

Robert Burns [1759–96] is Scotland’s national poet, and arguably her most famous son. There are innumerable books of his poetry and he is commemorated in statuary, postage stamps, decorated plates and medallions. There are endless reproductions of his portrait printed on tea towels, mugs and whisky bottles. He is at the heart of the very notion of Scottish identity. Given the nature of my work – the use of domestic objects to convey ideas and explore given truths – it would be difficult for me not to interested in Burns!

© Calum Colvin ‘Portrait of Robert Burns (after Skirving)’ 2001

How do you express these ideas in the way you construct your images of Robert Burns?

Over the years I have made about six portraits of Burns, dealing with aspects of his poetry or politics or exploring the material culture that surrounds him.

For example, in the portrait of Robert Burns based on Archibald Skirving’s iconic and idealised drawing from 1796, I was considering two aspects of Scottish culture: the invented and the native. I was thinking of Burns as an aspect of the ‘native’. In a detail in the left corner of the image he is presented as if he were a Pict, although I montaged the facial tattoos from a painting of a Maori chief. [Pict, derived from the Latin for ‘painted or tattooed people’, is the name given by the Romans to the tribal peoples who lived in Scotland during the Late Iron Age.] In the foreground, there is a shattered Elvis [Presley] mirror, alluding to the reductive aspects of fame.

On the shelf, there are three books (representative of the supposed foundations of education in reading, writing and arithmetic) a reference to the fact that Burns was educated at home. The main structure suggests a hearth but, of course, it is a bookshelf. The three books are laid out as they would be in a reading room, pointing to the Scottish Enlightenment ideal of elevation through education.

The image was first shown in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and published in a book project with Canongate publishing. Given Robert Burns’ widespread fame, how was your interpretation received by the public?

I was astonished by how popular the work became and how quickly it happened. The limited-edition art prints sold out immediately, while reproductions of the image became a common feature in books, newspaper articles, web features and so on. I came to realise the remarkable popularity of Robert Burns, not just within the United Kingdom but far beyond.

In what ways do you think your work and the ideas you explore have relevance beyond the specifically Scottish context?

The question of the place of Scotland within the broader context of the United Kingdom was already part of a wider discussion of ‘globalised’ culture and the place of individual cultures within our increasingly internationalised environment.

I remember, back in the 1980s, looking for props at a market in Los Angeles. I was making work in a gallery, something I have done occasionally over the years. I found that, for the most part, the type of ornaments and home decorations on display were exactly the same there as in London or Edinburgh. I began to realise that, similarly, notions of Scotland are marketed all over the world through the kind of images of Highlanders in kilts, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert Burns and ruined castles that appeared on whisky bottles and cake tins. This is an imaginary landscape, far removed from the reality of a modern Scotland, but I saw the possibility of creating a hybrid visual world situated somewhere between these two points of view.

The notion of a distinctive national identity is by no means peculiar to Scotland and I think the striving to define oneself against this globalised backdrop is universal. That said, there are wider (or universal) ideas I am addressing such as mortality, pathos, humour and the nature of vision. But, in the end, artists each have to speak with their own language.

Another principal character is Charles Edward Stuart, known popularly as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. First, can you set the historical context?

The last land battle to take place in the United Kingdom was fought in 1745 on Culloden Moor in the Highlands of Scotland. At this battle, the Catholic Jacobite forces were decisively defeated by the forces of the British Government – the Protestant Hanoverians. The Jacobites were principally Gaelic speaking, Scottish Highlanders and their leader was Charles Edward Stuart [1720-88], often referred to as ‘The Pretender’. He was descended from an ancient line of Scottish Kings and, on this basis, claimed to be the true monarch of the United Kingdom.

What is it that makes him so interesting to you as an artist?

There are a number of aspects. The role of portraiture (and portrait artists) in the construction of the Jacobite legend. The way that tartan became associated with the Jacobite cause and the eventual reduction of a potent political force into pantomime. The struggle of the Jacobites (which was, in truth, a British religious and civil war) was the first time a sophisticated use of propaganda was deployed by both sides to justify their respective causes. All of these aspects were of interest to me.

[Right] © Calum Colvin ‘Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart (after William Mosman)’ 2015; [Left] Studio views of the installation showing the elements of the composition when viewed from a different angle to the specific perspective of the camera recording the final image.

How do you deal with these ideas in the way you construct your images of the prince?

For example, in the ‘Portrait of Charles Edward Stuart after William Mosman’ [2015] I pick up on the role of artists in the ‘construction’ of historical figures. The image is set in a makeshift artist’s studio with the ghostly figure of the artist reflected in the mirror on the left-hand side.

Over time, I have made a number of versions of a portrait of the Prince, each iteration reducing or removing features until he becomes a remote and diluted version of a recognisable historical figure. By this telling and re-telling, I hope to demonstrate how perceptions of historical ‘truth’ can alter over time.

© Calum Colvin ‘Portrait of James Macmillan’ 1996

You have also made portraits of contemporary Scots such as the composer, Sir James Macmillan.

That work was commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1996. It was my first portrait commission. I worked from photographs that I had taken at the composer’s home, noting the details of his working environment. I then created an impression of this room in my studio; a constructed theatrical set onto which I painted his portrait. Later, when I came to photograph the finished work, I invited James to my studio, placing him outside the set next to a piano, so that you see him through a window. You can also see me, the artist, reflected in a mirror on the left of the image – an art-historical reference to Jan van Eyck’s painting ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ [1434].

Your recent series, ‘Jacobites by Name’, is currently on display in the Scottish Parliament. [In 2017, when the interview took place.]

Yes, it was originally shown at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh in 2015. It ostensibly explores the Jacobite legacy in Scotland three hundred years after the first Rising of 1715. However, it is more concerned with the construction of historical identity and the role of myth and propaganda (and, indeed, the artist) in that process.

Since then, I have been considering the possibility of expanding this idea of truth, fiction and identity into a multi-faceted portrait of a more contemporary historical figure, the Scottish politician and adventurer Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham [1852–1936]. However, this is currently still at the research stage.

How do you feel your work has evolved over the years?

For me, the creation of artworks remains a compelling experience. But, as I get older, I am less concerned about what the process of creating an artwork says about the individual, and more about the wider human condition: mortality, memory and notions of continuity through collective identity.

Biographical Notes

Calum Colvin was born in Glasgow, in 1961. He studied sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee from 1979 to 1983, and photography at the Royal College of Art, London from 1983 to 1985. He has exhibited widely over the past thirty years including presentations at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; the Royal Scottish Academy; the Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; BM Contemporary Art Centre, Istanbul; and UNESCO, Paris. His work is held in many public and private collections including the National Galleries of Scotland; the Tate Gallery; the Victoria and Albert Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Art Institute of Chicago; and the Scottish Parliament.

He is a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and, in 2001, was awarded an OBE for his contribution to the visual arts. He is currently Professor of Contemporary Art Practice, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.

An image by Calum Colvin featured on the cover of this issue.