Just back from a flying visit to Scotland. Yesterday I stood outside the Scottish National Gallery, where the clock said 6.00pm and I thought about the fact that I was meeting a friend for supper and still I would be in my bed at home by midnight. It gave me a funny feeling about the way that the world is shrinking.
This was not half such a funny feeling as the one I got when first seeing the above picture on the wall of the National Gallery earlier in the day. It hung there amongst the oils of glens, deer , still lives and aristocratic portraits, like a punk on Oscar night. I was mesmerised from the moment I saw it and puzzled to say the least.
I asked a man in Black Watch trews what the painting was all about and he directed me to a video of the artist, Ken Currie talking about his work. It is called The Three Oncologists. I listened carefully to him explaining that he had been commissioned to celebrate three men of science but that he didn’t want to just paint portraits; he wanted somehow to incorporate the feeling of anxiety and horror linked to the disease these men work so hard to overcome.
I found the painting haunting. I remember reading that film is a tricky medium, because sometimes it captures something that the director didn’t know was there. I guess the same thing could be said for this painting. The artist has caught three eminent scientists in his penetrative gaze like rabbits in a headlight. They are also caught in luminous paint like ghosts. There they are, pioneers of the ephemeral, bent- shouldered, remote; always grasping at a point that is at that moment vanishing. Surely there is irony there? Something is leeching through the brushstrokes that Ken Currie didn’t know was there perhaps? Something to do with the creepy nature of oncology, where men battle to put right something that is for ever going to be wrong on some level, until we realise that the body is a lot cleverer than our ability to manipulate it and that scientists, however gifted they are, are struggling to hold together a wealth of variables they cannot get a grip on, ignoring the fact that death itself is no big deal and often a lot easier than the desperate treatments applied to keep people alive at all costs.
The haunting quality for me comes from the hidden quality within the paint. The truth will out. Still reflecting on the impact the painting had had on me while in the air over Birmingham, I realised the answer, as it so often does in our post -industrial world, lies in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not the monster that is the problem but Frankenstein himself, for he knew not what he was unleashing on the world. Hubris is a characteristic implicit in modern science but who would have thought that it could be captured so eloquently in paint?