A New Era


2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.


Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous



Dorothea TANNING (1910-2012) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [A Little Night Music], 1943. Oil on canvas, 40.7 x 61cm. Collection: Tate (formerly collection of R. Penrose) Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997.

Having just completed a review of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition for the TLS, I want to focus more specifically here on the Feminine elements of the show. One of the most satisfying aspects of this exhibition is the way that it reconnects the viewer with the underlying passions, obsessions and political activism of Dada and Surrealist Art; expanding what Surrealism can be in the popular imagination and challenging what collecting Art has become in the 21st century. Drawn from four extraordinary private collections; those of Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Edward James (1907-1984), Gabrielle Keiller (1908-1995) and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, the range and quality of work, including key female Surrealists, is stunningly immersive.  Jointly organised by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the unique juxtaposition of paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings, photographs, original prints, rare artist books, objects, design and ephemera, presents a golden opportunity for reappraisal of the movement and its masters. There are over 190 works on show by artists including; Salvador Dali, Reneé Magritte,  Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Mark Rothko, Man Ray, Henry Moore, André Masson, YvesTanguy, Eduardo Paolozzi , Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Hannah Höch, Eileen Agar, Valentine Penrose (nee  Boué), Paul Delvaux, Francis Picabia, George Grosz, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer, Hans Arp, Balthus (Bathazar Klossowski de Rota), Roland Penrose and Georges Hugnet.

I could easily devote an entire blog post to individual collectors, the content of their collections or individual artists who provided some of the highlights of the exhibition; the exquisite work of Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Eileen Agar or Max Ernst’s paintings, collages and rarely seen collage novels. This exhibition presents the opportunity for greater public awareness of lesser known work,  part of a wider struggle for equality. Although recent scholarship continues to shed light on the work of female artists traditionally outside great male creator canon, I’m not convinced that this level of consciousness has really entered the cultural mainstream. The world of Art History is something of an academic bubble and people are too familiar in an age of celebrity with the artist as a marketable brand, rather than a creative force of intention or aspiration.  The objectification of Art in an age of mass consumption (and an Art Market driven by ad men and oligarchs investing in their own shares) makes it hard to imagine that the value of Art can be anything other than the highest price paid at auction-until alternative ways of seeing are made publicly visible.

For me the beauty of Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is the way that it does exactly that. We see by example that collecting Art isn’t necessarily driven by investment and status, but by love, collaboration and a desire for the common good. There is also a collective sense within the movement of qualities beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion, rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings. With Dada as it’s critically savage precursor, unlocking the imaginative, collective unconscious becomes a cultural imperative and a matter of survival. Although we equate Surrealism today with a penchant for bizarre, absurd juxtapositions of images and ideas, what is often forgotten is the outrage of its outrageousness; of striving to be anything but the respectable, compliant, banal mediocrity that enabled extreme militarism to thrive.  Hitler’s regime, like all extremist ideologies past and present, understood extremely well what liberal, democratic governments too often forget:  the value of culture, the capacity of the visual to focus intentionality and human aspiration for good or ill. It is not surprising that subversive, so called “degenerate art”, was identified as a serious ideological threat that had to be eradicated by the Nazis.  The Surrealists were visibly defiant advocates of free love, thought and expression, qualities which remain radical even today. Crucially that radicalism encompasses how we see and define ourselves.

La Représentation [Representation], 1937

René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La Représentation [Representation], 1937 Oil on canvas laid on plywood, 48.8 x 44.5 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990 © DACS & The Estate of René Magritte.

René Magritte’s La Représentation /Representation (1937, Oil on canvas laid on plywood SNGMA, Edinburgh, formerly collections of R.Penrose and G.Keiller, purchased 1990) reminds us of the ambiguous truth of seeing and attributing meaning. The Feminine is narrowly edited; “Woman” defined by her sex with the visual focus on the child rearing hips, abdomen and vulva which become an object framed in isolation. Minus the head (intellect), torso (heart) and active limbs, the female body is coolly divorced from its own consciousness; the frame hugging the sensuous contours of the amputated abdomen. However there is always more to a Magritte painting than meets the eye. Here he seemingly reflects the focus of a male gaze, but also suggests the artificiality of the man-made object in its two dimensional representation. The self-conscious framing device is alluring, but equally cerebral in terms of what it suggests about the feminine “other”. The confinement of the frame draws attention to the lie of the canvas and the seduction of idealised Beauty. In juxtaposing these ideas in a single image Magritte playfully questions what we assume we’re looking at- one of his greatest strengths as an artist. It would be easy to appropriate this image as the calling card of one of the Surrealist Boys- but it is more than that. Gender is an aspect of the painting’s multi-layered meanings, not the sum total of them. What it says to me as a woman and as an art historian in 2016 is not to be complicit in the lie- that “representation” is precisely that- with all its attendant dynamics of power. In the context of his oeuvre, Magritte is fundamentally (and very consciously) about how we see and create meaning. To dismiss him as a painter of dreams is to miss the point of his work entirely. There is a sense in which La Représentation enshrines a faceless, voiceless, Classical Feminine ideal in a gilt frame, but it also focuses our attention on the crafting of the image and the idea of received meaning, actively grappling with those perceived truths. Part of the SNGMA permanent collection, it’s a work I’ve returned to many times because it is such a contentious, brilliantly confrontational image that the viewer is forced to negotiate, rather than simply look at, admire or desire.

Being looked at by men is the traditional role assigned to women throughout the Western figurative tradition and the female muse is also a well-established trope in Art. However this passive companion to male engendered Creativity is challenged by the latitude of exploration Surrealism allows- made visible in the scope of this exhibition. Unlocking the unconscious through free association, automatic writing, assemblage and collage techniques creates a heightened sense of alternate reality. The free form craft of placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute asserts the political right to freedom of expression. The beauty of Surrealism is that in its purest form, it brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively. It is possible to perceive the world within and without in new ways. There are many sublime examples of this kind of confrontation in the show, presenting alternatives to received ideas, passive Femininity and the supremacy of the Great (male) Artist. In Picasso’s drawing La fin d’un monster / Death of a Monster (1937, Pencil on paper, Formerly collection of Roland Penrose, SNGMA, Edinburgh)  the Minotaur is confronted by his monstrous reflection, revealed to him by Athene, the Goddess of wisdom, holding a mirror to his face in one hand and a phallic spear in the other. It’s an image of male ego, a wildly virile masculine persona confronted by his fallibility and by an alternative state of being. Athene appears as a balancing force of grace, intellect, action and conscious awareness within the composition. In Jungian terms she is a projection of Feminine anima within the male psyche that in Picasso’s case is screaming to be assimilated, rather than being exploded into Cubist fragments as a potential threat. Argentine artist Leonor Fini’s (1907-1996) foreground vision of Feminine self-possession; The Alcove (1939, Oil on canvas, West dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) is another magnificent example of foreground creative Femininity (in this case within and in front of the canvas. ) On painting Fini remarked: “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms something I like.” This intuitive, instinctual approach to making Art, acknowledging the artist as a conduit, is balanced by her undeniable mastery of the medium. As in so many Surrealist works, contradictory ideas dynamically co-exist and new ways of seeing emerge. In The Alcove Fini skilfully sets the historical stage of expectation and then subverts it completely, creating tension and the need for imaginative resolution in the mind of the viewer. In Dadaist Art that tension is a knife edge, much more overtly critical of the powers that be-the inclusion of work by George Grosz in the exhibition gives the viewer a potent taste of this quality.

Aus der Sammlung Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection From an ethnographical museum], 1929

Hannah HOCH (1889-1978) Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection: From an ethnographical museum], 1929. Mixed media, collage and gouache on paper. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995 © DACS 2016.

Also created during the inter-war /Weimar period, Hannah Höch’s collage Aus einem ethnographischen Museum / From the Collection: From an Ethnographical Museum (1929, collage, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a fascinating visualisation of Feminine and Ethnological “otherness”.  Höch’s striking image combines an indigenous carved mask like the head of a deity with a female eye cut from a contemporary magazine. Colonised into Modern Art the human figure looks startled, looking over her shoulder with a quizzical, alarmed expression, also confronting the viewer in that moment with their own act of seeing and attributing meaning. There is a distinct feeling of violation conveyed by this disembodied eye set at a distressed angle, recalling the often painted Biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders; the self-consciousness anxiety of being seen as an object to be conquered and being subjected to a gaze which essentially frames you as subordinate. The body which is androgynous and child-like is combined with a bestial foot and tiny stool-like plinth beneath; a hybrid of ancient knowing, innocence, naivety and instinct. Höch positions the figure on an abstract, cage –like ground of geometric forms, juxtaposing Western ideas about Primitivism with collectively inherited values of a dominant “civilized” tribe. She calls into question Western attitudes towards “the other”, presenting the statuette object, “From the Collection: From the Ethnographical Museum” as a conscious human presence. It’s the emotional impact of Höch’s collage that hits you viscerally, the museum type categorisation turned on its head by Feminine resistance.

Resistance to the dominant gaze takes many unexpected forms in the exhibition. Salvador Dali ‘s The City of Drawers (Study for The Anthropomorphic Cabinet , 1936, Pen and Indian ink on paper , Private Collection, Formerly collection of Edward James) is a surprisingly insightful image of modernity. The female nude in the foreground extends her decaying arm and palm as if to ward off persistent assault. Her torso is a construction of drawers, drawer knobs and a key hole becoming erogenous, her face buried in the top drawer as if bowed in sorrowful resignation. Only a tattered rag can be seen coming out of the seemingly empty inner structure. The eye of the viewer is led by her hand into the mid ground of curvaceous discarded drawers, then into the distance where two seated women are similarly composed, one of them searching for herself in the open top drawer of her chest. Beyond we see gentile silhouettes moving through a cityscape, the reality of the foreground more vivid and arresting than the receding world of urban familiarity. This image of Dali’s Anthropomorphic Cabinet; a reclining Venus transformed by Freud’s theories, embodying an inner world of unconscious drives, is also an image of society. In the painted version a well to do woman in silhouette walks away into the background as if in denial of the open drawers of psychic revelation revealed by her other (or collective) self in the foreground. The element of display here is more complex than a reclining Venus arranged for seduction and the result more unsettling; a personification of civilization in decay.

La poupée, 19361965 by Hans BELLMER

Hans BELLMER (1902-1975) La poupée [The Doll], 1936/1965.Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 50 x 27 x 25cm. Collection: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection.

It would be impossible to talk about the feminine aspects of this show and not address the elephant in the room; i.e. the male surrealist preoccupation with the Feminine as object(s) of desire. The most disturbing manifestation of this tendency towards sexual objectification is undoubtedly the work of Hans Bellmer.  In La poupée / The Doll (Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 1936/1965 Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection) he utilises the seductive high shine patina of a lustrous, reflective metal sculpture, elevating the repulsive hybridised  twin form of a pubescent girl/ doll onto a plinth. Engineered to satisfy his own gaze, Bellmer confronts the viewer with the framing devices of high art, introducing in the context of the gallery space an image of dominance, power and sexual objectification.  The girl hinges in upon herself as a contorted, inverted object, dehumanised and mechanistic, beyond Nature but subject to the artist’s nature and will. More disturbing still is the placement of Bellmer’s sculpted dolls in different settings, recorded photographically by the artist like sociopathic trophies. La poupée / The Doll (1935, Gelatin and silver print, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin.) is an example of Surrealism in its darkest form; projected fantasies realised in an assemblage of objects, arranged for gratification of the artist but also by implication, the viewer in the act of looking. Even if we turn away in disgust, the feeling is still of complicity in that white columned Art space. What Bellmer brings the 2016 viewer face to face with is a culture of consumption and sexualisation that is aesthetically and socially accepted. His crafting of objects and images when coupled with his underlying subject matter calls Art itself into question. Although I find his work deeply abhorrent, it is also a good example of work which makes the viewer confront the darkest corners of the human psyche, manifested today in the Surreality of cyberspace or the dark web where any desire can be made real. The work of Hans Bellmer reminds us that freedom of expression, now so prevalent in the visual/ textual bombardment of our digital age, also comes with responsibility to something greater than the gratification of our own desires. Presented as objects of beauty Bellmer’s creations are incredibly sinister, but they are also windows into the human mind and what we are capable of as a species.  Most of us would prefer not to look, to label the work and its maker, filing both away and thereby placing the internal threat outside ourselves. Perhaps in this way Bellmer is a Surrealist artist par excellence in making the unthinkable visible.

Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 1963

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Marcel Duchamp’s Coin de chasteté/ Wedge of Chastity (1954/63, Bronze and dental plastic, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is also an object of implied violence with hard bronze cleft into pink, glistening dental plastic. There is the suggestion of possession in the Wedge of Chastity; of female sexuality effectively plugged by the more permanent and more highly valued material of ancient bronze, over and above the disposability of plastic. Feuille de vigne femelle / Female Fig Leaf (1950/61, Bronze, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a more dualistic object; on the one hand enshrining a cast of female genitalia in bronze but also suggesting modesty, even shame in the fig leaf, recalling the Garden of Eden and by implication the Fall from grace initiated (according to the Old Testament) by Eve. Apparently the only way to keep female desire in check is to dam it. The dichotomy of Duchamp’s fig leaf as a representation of the Feminine lies in its disempowerment, functioning rather like a drain cover, whilst being an object cast in a permanently exposed, tactile state .  Although I’m sure Duchamp would have viewed this object as an expression of eroticism, it feels like a medieval door nailed shut rather than blissfully opened in the spirit of free love.

Feuille de vigne femelle [Female Fig Leaf], 1950 1961

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Max Ernst’s painting Gala, Max and Paul 1923, oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) is a fascinating image; a depiction of the ménage a trois between Ernst, Gala (Elena Ivanovna Diakonova), and her first husband, the poet Paul Éluard, representing the Feminine in an unexpectedly powerful light. Charged between the cool blues and rich ochre of Ernst’s palette, the female protagonist retains her mystery. She is an immediately foreground presence and remarkably underexposed. Her face is turning away from the viewer, half in shadow, becoming the ground of the painting. Anchored to a plinth like a Modernist sculpture, she also creates a sense of anticipation, movement and tension in the sheet that she holds by a thread which spills into the viewer’s space. At face value it’s a gesture of coquettish puppetry, Ernst visualising the human experience of having the world pulled out from under you by desire. But it is also an earthily sensual and grounded image, tangibly real in its abstraction. Ernst and Eluard appear as doll-like figures in the background, leaning into each other in intimate contemplation of Gala.  Her svelte figure in a backless gown, appears like a mermaid, split and tapered down to the sensuous curve of her hand, which like her hollowed eye, draws the viewer deeper into the abyss of the background. She is resoundingly present, part of the depth of the painting and aware of her own power- there’s a sense of what is withheld as well as what is on display. The male figures appear school boyish and immature in relation to the world of the painting, which is her. The viewer is caught off balance by these dynamics and by the unexpected acknowledgement of Gala as an independent being. We are made aware of a mind, connected to her body – a presence which we never see in vacant portraits of Gala by her second husband Salvador Dali, who binds her erotically in his own pictorial technique.

Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik /A Little Night Music (1943, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London) is a beautiful example of revealing that which is hidden and bringing it into conscious awareness. It is a vision flawlessly executed by a truly masterful artist. On an otherworldly, red carpeted landing and stair case a decaying sunflower, petals strewn with creeping green stems aligns with the fourth in a series of numbered doors, left ajar and sunlit from within. Two doll-like girls, their hair suspended in mid-air as if submerged underwater stand adjacent to each other. One leans half undressed, slumbering in a doorway, a fallen petal in her hand. Acidic green walls contrast with the opposing warmth of her red jacket. The tattered clothing of the girl not facing us mirrors the forms of creeping stems, broken and beginning the process of decay. It is a subterranean image of burgeoning awareness, awakening in dreams. Tanning reflects the altered, transitional state of female adolescence, rendered in painterly hyper reality more perceptively real than life. Unlike Bellmer’s depictions, these pubescent girls inhabit their own interior world, un-beholden to the viewer and aligned with natural cycles of human growth. Tanning’s painting Voltage (1942, Oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) also depicts a transformative process of becoming in female form. In the absence of the head, a coiled plait of blonde hair attached to the nipple exposes an internal circuitry of self-possession. The pale torso is contrasted with an oceanic background of turquoise green in the birth of a new kind of Venus. She beholds herself, disembodied blue eyes held in repose by an elegant, manicured hand. Like a headless Classical goddess of antiquity, the serpentine curves of drapery and hair adorn and animate the female body in a process of deconstruction. She is her own muse.

Leonora Carrington’s beautifully ethereal, Bosch-like vision The House Opposite (1945, Tempera on board, West Dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) displays her delicate command of tempera. The house appears as a labyrinth of the mind rendered with the devotional detail and palette of an illuminated manuscript. Carrington’s conservative English upbringing informs Ladies Run There is a Man in the Rose Garden (1948, Tempera on wood, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin), a delightfully humorous but incredibly grounded image, which has comic kinship with the work of illustrator and designer Edward Gorey (1925-2000). Carrington’s juxtaposition of the walled garden inhabited by Edwardian ladies, invaded by a Green Man is an intricate, playful and extraordinary work, etched in ghostly negative, seemingly scratched out of a richly fecund, umber ground of timeless earth. The sky precipitates dawn and groups of associative figures animate narratives intertwined in non-linear time. A heron, cat and monkey with their attendant meanings sitting on the chest / stomach of an outstretched figure in bed and the positive silhouettes of birds and animals receding into the background create a natural sense of archetypal. This image is all the ancient knowing invested in prehistoric Rock Art colliding with the genteel restraint of illustrative storytelling. One of the escaping veiled ladies points with her umbrella to a fishing hook suspended like a noose, while making an exit out of the frame on the far right, a woman in a broad skirt wearing a tribal headdress disappears into negative space. There’s an imprint here, like the ancient Aboriginal technique of blowing paint over the hand to recreate the imaginative space left by the Dreaming of our ancestors. Carrington was and is a Surrealist master who was dismayed at being described as a “Female Artist”. Unfortunately things have not yet progressed sufficiently in the Art World to make the term completely irrelevant in terms of acquisition, display and public awareness.

I loved this show for its richness and expanded frame of reference, the archival material bringing context to the work and the imperative of collecting Art in an attempt to understand.  As dreamlike as many of these images might be, they are built on strong, resistant foundations that still have the power to make us question everything we think we know about the world and ourselves. One of the dynamics that makes this exhibition so strong is engagement with the Feminine on the part of private collectors, curators and within the creative process of individual artists, both male and female. Spend time in this exhibition, allow your perceptions to shift and bring that heightened awareness into your life.


René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced) ,1937.Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © Beeldrecht Amsterdam 2007. Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.

The Scottish National Galleries website has a series of introductory online videos on each of the four collectors/ collections in the  the Surreal Encounters ; Collecting the Marvellous exhibition: