The Modern Portrait showcases new Ken Currie painting and permanent acquisitions

May 2021 saw the reopening of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and we marked the occasion by sharing the news that a stunning large-scale portrait of preeminent forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black, painted by the artist Ken Currie, was arriving into Scotland’s national art collection on a long-term loan from the artist himself.

Titled Unknown Man (2019), Currie’s portrait has gone on public display for the very first time in the Gallery’s The Modern Portrait exhibition.

Currie’s extraordinary portrait is joined in The Modern Portrait by several new acquisitions, all of which we detail below, but we commence with Unknown Man

Ken Currie Unknown Man, 2019. Oil on canvas. © Ken Currie. Courtesy Flowers Gallery

Professor Dame Sue Black has dedicated her life to forensic anthropology, including her many years at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, assisting police with specialist forensic work, or travelling many war-torn and disaster-hit countries, including Iraq, Kosovo, and Thailand — helping to, in her words, "reunite the identity constructed during a life with what remains of the corporeal form in death”. She now works as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University and is the current President of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Currie’s poignant painting depicts Professor Black in surgical robes, standing behind the covered remains of a clothed cadaver, transfixing viewers with a stare that reflects both strength and fragility in equal measures. It is a stare that moved Professor Black to tears when she viewed the painting for the first time, last week. 

The idea for the portrait grew when Currie and Professor Black met during a BBC Radio 4 discussion programme on the relationship between art and anatomy. The artist later accepted an invite to visit Professor Black’s at work in Dundee, where she showed him a dissection room. Currie was so moved by the work he encountered there that he asked Professor Black to sit for a portrait. During the creation process, Currie also took a life mask of Professor Black.

Currie views Unknown Man as being connected to his popular Portrait Gallery commission Three Oncologists; the former representing a progression from his 2002 painting. With both works now on display in The Modern Portrait, visitors now have a very special opportunity to experience both in the same space. 

David Eustace Portrait of Crime Writers 2019 2019 © David Eustace, reproduced courtesy of the photographer

The Modern Portrait contains many dozens of much-admired portraits of famous Scottish figures, such as Billy ConnollyAnnie Lennox and Doddie Weir, but it also features some other new acquisitions.

These include David Eustace’s photograph Portrait of Crime Writers, a Galleries 2019 commission which features nine luminaries of Scotland’s Tartan Noir scene — Doug Johnstone, Chris Brookmyre, Marisa Haetzman, Denise Mina, Mandy Scott, M R Mackenzie, Douglas Skelton, Neil Broadfoot and Claire Askew. Eustace captured the crime writers at Stirling Castle during the Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival, which has taken place annually since 2012.

Clae Eastgate 'Air and Light’ A portrait of Carol Ann Duffy 2016 © Clae Eastgate

Visitors are also able to enjoy Air and Lightestablished portrait painter Clae Eastgate’s 2017 portrait of Scottish poet Dame Carol Ann Duffy. The painting was shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery BP Award and toured the UK in 2017, the year in which Duffy became the UK’s first female Poet Laureate and shows Duffy in dark robes resting on a chair. It was acquired in 2019 and goes on display for the first time.

The percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie has forged an award-winning career, collaborating with musicians and orchestras around the world, a remarkable achievement considering she has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12 years old. Chris Close’s portrait of Glennie, taken when she appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017, is on display in The Modern Portrait, and we are delighted to welcome it into Scotland’s national collection.

4 May 2021