Artist Rooms: Diane Arbus, Kirkcaldy Galleries (4 stars)

Artist Rooms: Diane Arbus, Kirkcaldy Galleries

Artist Rooms series brings work by seminal 20th century street photographer to Fife

The beauty of the continuing Artist Rooms series, as jointly curated by the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, isn’t just in the wealth of era-defining contemporary art it displays, but the out of the way locations it brings it to. This is the case with the recently renovated Kirkcaldy Galleries complex, a grand old building dating from 1925 in Fife’s former linoleum capital that is now an excellent, compact civic space featuring a library, café and further exhibits on local history.

This off-the-beaten-track context feels even more resonant in this case; the work of New Yorker and seminal figure in the evolution of 20th century photography Diane Arbus is transporting when viewed here, just off the decidedly unmean streets of Kirkcaldy. Off the beaten track, of course, is exactly where she went to find her subjects, and this display of 20 photographs, hung in close proximity under low light in a single room, features many of her most definitive (and, it must be said, less challenging) pieces.

It includes the menacingly protective black man in Washington Square Park in 1965, his arm slung around his pregnant wife’s shoulders; the fearsome high-contrast of a heavily tattooed man at a carnival, eyes burning bright and such all-covering body art a distinct novelty in those days; a stern-eyed youth preparing to march in support of the Vietnam War; the dazzling image of another young man, sallow-faced even through a layer of make-up, sassily brandishing a cigarette as he waits for his hair rollers to set.

These are monochrome images redolent of mid-20th century Americana, and of a particular ill-at-ease uncanniness that stood at odds with the nation’s self-image at the time and still does so today. While Arbus’ aesthetic may seem somewhat forced to a contemporary eye – as epochal as the pictures are, identical twins and those with dwarfism or gigantism aren’t the outsider figures they once might have been – it’s the frail, damaged humanity of all concerned which rings true.

It's the black humour exhibited by the weary-faced old couple in monarchic fancy dress, for example, or the lone Christmas tree, just a little too tall for its suburban living room. These are images which elicit understanding and engagement, wherever they might be viewed.


Compelling collection of works by the photographer who was repeatedly drawn to the fringes of society.