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Rachel Maclean: The Lion and the Unicorn at the National Gallery

January 15, 2019

ArtsMixed Media | by Candid Magazine


The Scottish artist Rachel Maclean has been a firm favourite of Candid Magazine ever since we interviewed her back in 2016 about her upcoming exhibition at HOME gallery in Manchester. Since then, the 31 year old has had her show Under the Rainbow tour Australia – finishing at the National Gallery of Australia – and represented Scotland at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Now there is a chance to catch some of her older work in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London – which closes on 3 February 2019.

Consisting of film and photography, the show tackles themes of national identity – which seem to becoming more omnipresent with referendum after referendum. Everything is laid out, scrutinised and mimicked in Maclean’s instantly recognisable blend of sugary pop meets Tim Burton nightmare aesthetic. 

A still from Rachael Maclean’s film The Lion and the Unicorn © Rachel Maclean

The show is open alongside a special presentation in the National Gallery of Edwin Landseer’s famous highlands painting, The Monarch of the Glen. The image, which portrays a stag on a misty, grassy outcrop, is perhaps the best known painting of Scottish descent – and has come to define Scottish identity (particularly to tourists) despite not actually showing a single person in the scene. 

Like it or lump it, Scots have come to be defined by the romantic work – an idea that Maclean tries to break down through her work. It asks important questions about the idea of national identity – such as what’s the difference between how we see it, and others see it, and is it all its cracked up to be. 

Maclean’s darkly comical works are full of the absurd, and her elaborate masks, self-made costumes, clown-like make up and ridiculous monologues are all hyper-intense – like an acid trip. But they’re also incredibly clever, witty and sharply satirical. 

Rachel Maclean, ‘The Queen’, 2013. Commissioned and published by Edinburgh Printmakers © Rachel Maclean

In this work, which was commissioned in 2014 ahead of the Scottish independence vote, Maclean has the heraldic attendants of the royal coat of arms, the English lion and the Scottish unicorn, squabble over the future of the United Kingdom. It’s surrounded by a series of 2013 prints that are equally as wacky as acerbic. 

Daniel Herrmann, Curator of Special Projects at the National Gallery, and curator of ‘Rachel Maclean: The Lion and the Unicorn’, said of the show: ‘When the National Gallery opened, two days a week were dedicated to practising artists. Ever since, the Gallery has been at the heart of a thriving community of visitors, critics, and artists – a gallery full of discussion, debate, and delight. We are thrilled to continue this tradition with a new Contemporary Programme. Rachel Maclean is one of Scotland’s most astute artists today, combining an unflinching sense of satire with sincere talent and skill. We are excited to present Rachel Maclean’s works to our contemporary audiences and to show our historic collection and exhibitions in dialogue with artists of today.’

After Maclean tenure has come to an end, next to have the spotlight shine on them will be the artist Sean Scully, with his forthcoming exhibition Sea Star opening on the 13 April 2019 at the national Gallery.

Words by Toby Mellors

Rachel Maclean’s The Lion and the Unicorn is on at the National Gallery until 3 February 2019