Is a picture worth a thousand words?

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Banks of the River Doon was painted by Patrick C Auld 43 years after the poet’s death, when his status as Scotland’s shining bard was already celebrated in full force.  His life is commemorated by the monument still found in Alloway today and the painting reminds us of Burns’ well kent poem Tam o’ Shanter, with the brig given centre stage. For someone with no background in art history, it is tempting to think that this is just another pretty landscape painting whose deeper meanings no doubt soar straight over my head. But I’d like to think that this isn’t necessarily the case! Do you ever find yourself intrigued by what a painting is hiding or what else there is to see on second glance?  Here’s what I came up with doing exactly that…

Oil painting of the Brig o Doon and Burns Monument

This painting is of an idyllic, almost pastoral scene; a visual representation of the same warm fuzzy feeling in which Burns wraps his audience with the Cotter’s Saturday Night.  Picturesque? Yes. Realistic? No.

The perspective of the picture is distorted, and rather than cast aspersions on the skill of the painter, I rather think that he is hinting at the Brig’s otherworldly connections, its shadowed underside hiding dark secrets.  Not always quite so serene, there is the suggestion of Tam’s frenzied ride over the Brig pursued by the howling witches.  From this slightly more sinister perspective, we as viewers are part of the dark foreground of the picture, looking in.  Are we the witches, waiting on the sidelines to be let loose on the chocolate-box landscape?

Flights of fancy aside, the impressive monument dominating the horizon and right in the viewers’ eye line was designed by Thomas Hamilton and opened 1823 to much acclaim.  There is an interesting juxtaposition between the offset monument and surrounding landscape.  It almost shines as a beacon apart, reminiscent of Burns mythology that renders him as the ‘heav’n taught’ genius in an otherwise dark and dismal rural 18th century Scotland.  Here we see the wild and rugged in contrast with the civilised achievements of man so disparagingly compared in Burns’ poem ‘Tae a Moose’:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion

Has broken nature’s social union

The Corinthian columns burst through the Scottish countryside as a conquering edifice, symbolising the achievements of man but running in counter to Burns’ perception of man’s dominance over the natural world as a sadly destructive force.  And yet, not all has been conquered, not all is lost to the order of Enlightenment.  The wild darkness is on the edges, just waiting to get in.

So how would you read this painting?

This one of the objects acquired by the museum with the help of the National Fund for Acquisitions, which celebrated its 60th birthday in December 2013.


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