from old masters to “oyster reading”

ByJames I. Robertson

Jul 29, 2022

Like the trunk of a tree, the lip of an oyster shell grows over time, acquiring rings that follow the life of the bivalve. I discovered this fact during my “oyster reading,” a personalized performance-slash-divination session designed by artist duo Cooking Sections. You can book your own appointment at their exhibition In the Eddy of the Stream, shown at Climate (formerly Inverleith) House – as part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival.

The striped rings of the shell, along with the texture of its outer layer and the flavor of the oyster itself, are among the details used to guess the character and fate of the recipient of each reading. “The edge of the shell can be serrated and sharp,” my fortune teller told me. “But it is also the most fragile and vulnerable part. Something to keep in mind when you find yourself in situations that seem to call for an aggressive stance.

I’m not a big fan of divination, but I love oysters (mine was deliciously creamy). And the reading is a fun respite from the exhibition’s more research-driven works, which focus on the relationship between food and the environment. One project, for example, is investigating whether traces of marine nutrients carried by Atlantic salmon can be identified in samples of Cairngorms trees. The results, according to the long wall text, are currently inconclusive – not much to see here.

Still, for those with more traditional artistic appetites, the 18th annual festival has plenty of prizes. A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French art from Millet to Matisse draws on the impressive collections of the National Galleries Scotland to tell the story of Scottish collecting in this area. Crowd-pleasing works such as Monet’s luminous Haystacks: Snow Effect (1891) are displayed alongside lesser works by Eugène Louis Boudin, whose harbor scenes were apparently popular among collectors owning ships. A Van Gogh portrait of a peasant woman is also on display – and highly publicized – alongside an x-ray image of the recently discovered lost self-portrait on the back of the canvas.

Captions and archival documents tell us who bought the works, when and for how much – and recount incidents such as the Millet fake scandal, which saw the popular Barbizon painter’s grandson and an accomplice translated into justice for selling countless forgeries of his work. These probably included a study which the National Galleries acquired in 1925 for £2,000, then a sizeable sum. The first-market focus for such works is a new niche angle on otherwise familiar material.

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