Genesis of Identity
Robert Sivell and the Aberdeen Murals
by Enxhi Mandija
photo courtesy of Gabriel Kolanen
In your average student union, the most exquisite piece of art you see is probably an elaborate poster for Tuesday’s disco-funk night at the club in town. Intimate yet majestic like a secular chapel, Aberdeen’s student union bar on Gallowgate had its walls covered by eight impressive mural panels, art-deco booths and colourful windows. Robert Sivell’s (RSA; 1888-1958) series of ‘The Journey of Life’, also known simply as the Aberdeen Murals, constitute a remarkable example of large scale mural painting in 20th century Scotland. Painted between 1938 and 1953, with the help of two of his students, the murals offer a highly personal and elegant response to issues of personal and national identity. Sivell himself describes the works as his own ‘interpretation of the adventure of life and learning as presented to the imagination of the student’.
Formed at the Glasgow School of Art, Sivell moves to Aberdeen in the 1930s and takes up the post of Head of Painting at Gray’s School of Art. His work shares close similarities to that of his more prominent friend and colleague James Cowie (RSA; 1886-1956), known for his evocative, poetic images that see the influence of Italian Primitives, Symbolism and early Surrealism. Sivell’s work, heavily reliant on draughtsmanship and the established language of the Academy, showcases the particular situation of Scottish painting in the early 20th century, when economic decline reduces the possibilities for patronage and the ties between art schools and artists become increasingly stronger. Art isn’t enough to pay the bills; teaching – and teaching art – is a convenient subsidy that allows the artist to work and remain close to the artistic community, always gravitating nearby art schools.
Mostly known as a portrait painter, the Murals are probably one of Sivell’s only mature works with such a high level of philosophical and symbolic engagement. Painted and conceived specifically for the student union, the Murals come at a crucial time of political, cultural and economic uncertainty, offering a hopeful, reassuring answer. Fairly legible to the classically trained elite of students, they build an allegorical journey of life, framing university as the cradle of a solid, independent identity.
Reminiscent of pre-renaissance art, particularly Italian, for their balanced, carefully structured compositions, the non-illusionistic space that allows symbolic reading and the emphasis on narration rather than expression, they also show a close tie to French Symbolism, particularly in the works of Puvis de Chavannes – who produced several mural paintings. Yet awareness of the potential of modern art and the unique expressive language of painting are evident in the handling of the human body, the main character of the works. The hundreds of preparatory drawings show a skilled draughtsman and careful study from life models, in pure academic traditions, but they are yet expressive in the high contrasts between deep shadows and strong highlights. In the finished works, the tonal contrast conveys a painfully modern sense of tension and dynamism.
The reading I have hypothesised begins from the large mural on the left of the door and proceeds clockwise. In this first scene, students and academics – identified by the austere black gowns, paper scrolls and books – quietly interact in a sun-lit open-air space, solidly constructed through few geometric architectural elements. Echoing both of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ and a melancholic De Chirico piazza, the scene synthesizes these influences in a subtle tension that promises a further development – it is the conception of an idea, one of the thousands of hopeful ideas that bounce from the minds of students and academics meeting on a university campus. Moving on to the adjacent wall, a series of three smaller panels is interposed with three colourful windows, all depicting a stylised group of figures in the classical pose of the Three Graces in a technique that reminds of stained glass. The idea that was born on the lawn in the first panel is now developed inside the educated mind, dramatized as a room interior, peopled by solitary figures clad in dark gowns.
From this concrete beginning, the idea is then transfigured into a wholly symbolic level of narration. A solitary female figure in a flowing white dress, carrying connotations of innocence, virginity and purity, walking through dark woods, represents this moment of transition. What was probably a preparatory copy, titled ‘Spring in the Woods’ (Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, Edinburgh) and resemblance to a finished work by Sivell, ‘Spring’ (1940s, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums), suggest a symbolic reading of the panel as a representation of spring, intended as a moment of transition, transformation and conception. The evident stylistic contrast between this panel and the more refined, balanced compositions of the rest of the works, might indicate a stronger presence from Alberto Morrocco, one of the students assisting Sivell with the Murals.
The journey through the woods leads to the impressive ‘Creation Panel’. A modern re-enactment of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, the narration unfolds from left to right through tight groups of dynamic figures covered in symbolic meaning. The movement is diagonal and ascending, from the nude on the left – titled ‘Dawn’ in preparatory studies – to the group of male nudes in pyramidal composition at the top right, known as ‘Noon’. The anti-illusionistic treatment of space and the symbolic overtones of Botticellian inspiration are combined with 20th century expressive sensibility and painterly self-awareness: the twisting bodies, mostly in the nude, resonate of a poetic potential that is thoroughly modern.
As we physically move our gaze over the stage and on to the opposite wall, the narration moves forwards in time, and it is now the mature part of the day and the year – autumn, time for harvest. While Creation was dominated by the human figure, architectural elements – walls of houses, a worktable – now seep into the composition: after the initial mythical beatitude, it is now time for human work, and the fruits of human labour are at the forefront: the house, the table, the harvest. The panel is titled ‘The Grape Harvest’ – a fruit with wide symbolic meanings, yet not native to Scotland.
The ‘Pastoral Panel’ following is a scene of deserved rest after work. Mostly paired up in couples, the human figures are leisurely arranged in a dark-green background with no intended illusion of retracting space. A boy on the far right of the previous panel, drawing on the wall, might be a hint as to the reading of this scene, in addition to the title: a representation of arts, music, poetry. The arrangement of the figures into couples and the presence of children might suggest also a more mature stage in life dedicated to family.
In the adjacent ‘Medical Panel’, the allegorical vision abruptly ends as we plunge into dark reality: echoes of explosion pervade the air in this representation of the blitz, as dramatic and dynamic as the previous panels were elegant and peaceful. The harmonious cubes and cylinders that dominated the first panel are now broken into the inhomogeneous solids of the debris of the explosion in the foreground. There is no distinction between interior and exterior, as walls of houses are removed and we peek into their privacy – both a nod to early Italian fresco tradition, such as Giotto (see for instance frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, particularly the scene of ‘Mary’s Nativity’), and a dramatized vision of a bombed, destroyed city. A soldier lays dead in the foreground on the left corner, while a baby is born in tenuous light in the room to the right; even in the violent darkness and vivid fires of warfare, a spark of hope remains – and life goes on.
The murals participate in the same conversation over the creation of (Scottish) identity chaired by writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Nan Shepherd and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, all native and working in the North-East. While the language they speak is the polite English of high education, and not Scots, they seek to appeal to a sense of shared identity and community: the common ground is the university, sharing knowledge. The Murals are in the closed space of the student union, they seek to create bonds and shared identity. ‘The function, as it seems to me, / O’ Poetry is to bring to be / At lang, lang last that unity…’ writes MacDiarmid – and Sivell agrees.