Rembrandt- Britain’s Discovery of the Master

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman in Bed, about 1645 – 1646
Oil on canvas, 81.1 x 67.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by William McEwan 1892
Photo: Antonia Reeve

7 July – 14 October

Scottish National Gallery

“Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists” is the celebratory focus of the Scottish National Gallery’s latest summer blockbuster. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master features 140 works: oil paintings, drawings and etchings by Rembrandt Van Rijin, works from his workshop and those by British artists he inspired from the 18th Century to the present day. Seeing Rembrandt’s impact on the art of William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, Thomas Duncan, Augustus John, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Jacob Epstein, Leon Kossoff, William Strang, Henryk Gotlib, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach, John Bellany, Ken Currie and Glen Brown is one of the fascinations of the show. It is also an exhibition about historical acquisition and how an artist’s legacy is enabled. Works on loan from the National Gallery, British Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Tate, London, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C bring together familiar images, new discoveries and reflections on why Rembrandt is so revered.

Outside the Netherlands, the UK holds the largest collection of Rembrandt works, a trend that began during the reign of Charles I and reached fever pitch in the 18th Century, when prints, drawings and paintings were highly sought after by private collectors. Cataloguing the artist’s work also began at this time, an indicator of Rembrandt as currency and a practical response to market driven climate of forgers and respectful copyists. The desirability of Rembrandt’s work among collectors in the British Isles has resulted in much wider awareness of his work and most importantly, the opportunity to experience it live, having found its way into public collections. Coming eyeball to eyeball with a Rembrandt seems to level all arguments about what good or bad art is. At base he shows us what art is, what it is for and why it matters.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Two Studies of Old Men’s Heads, c.1639
Pen and brown ink, 8.1 x 9.4 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

The appetite for Rembrandt’s work has grown exponentially over the last 400 years, however his authenticity doesn’t lie with a stamp of approval from royalty, the aristocracy, learned experts or the validation of monumental prices at auction. The claim that his “imagery” is now “ubiquitous” and he is now a “global brand” is only true in terms of all the things his art embodies that cannot be bought, sold or even put into words. However you frame Rembrandt’s work, his emotional intelligence trumps every other narrative you attempt to overlay.  Therefore, I find it doubly fascinating that he has such a following in Britain. The most essential part of this equation isn’t the Master on the manor house wall or fashion, but the level of self-awareness communicated in his work, the thing that makes us what we are. In many ways the light in Rembrandt’s art hits a nerve of the great unsaid in British culture. Above all, his work is about intimacy and connection- something human beings will always crave and what makes him an eternally contemporary artist. Long before theories of Humanism, Existentialism or the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, there is Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) Self-portrait aged 51, about 1657 Oil on canvas, 53 x 43 cm Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, Bridgewater Collection Loan Photo: Antonia Reeve.

His Self Portrait aged 51 (c.1657 oil on canvas, part of the Bridgewater Collection loan to the NGS, Edinburgh) exemplifies the artist’s timeless appeal. It isn’t the image of a Master, but that of a man, in whom we see our own anxieties, aging and mortality. Rembrandt doesn’t elevate himself above the progressive march of years. He renders himself with self-respecting care and humility, equally surrounded by shadow. To encounter such an honest soul in Art is profoundly moving and deeply comforting. I’ve returned to this work many times and experience it in waves, emotion which emanates from the lines of his brow and deep-set eyes. It’s confrontation with the ground of the painting, behind his eyes and to sorrow, which connects to your own- regardless of what century you happen to be standing in. His face emerges from the darkest earth brown umber, the fertile ground inside us,  the clay beneath our feet and the dust we will become. We all know what age will make us and there he is, facing that inevitability, sharing it with us with unflinching dignity. In psychological terms Rembrandt’s self-portraits are the personification of congruence because they aren’t just about the artist, they are about an essential exchange with the viewer. His humanity is his genius. He affirms what art is for every time we meet his gaze-and not just directly in self-portraiture, figurative or biblical works, but in his landscapes too.

The Mill (1645 -48, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, Washington D.C) was a revelation to me in that respect. I can see why it has been described as “the greatest painting in the world”.  Although the human figures in the foreground are small and largely in shadow, it is an image of absolute benevolence and empathy. This surprising painting of a mill in the landscape has the presence and authority of his portraits, rooted in how we see ourselves. It isn’t a scene of a landscape but a register of light and human consciousness. Certainly the cruciform sails of the mill read as a Christ-like guardian over Rembrandt’s homeland of Leiden, but what hit me between the eyes standing in front of this unexpected masterwork is the dawning of light- for the artist and viewer. J.M.W. Turner described how, in this particular painting, Rembrandt had “thrown that veil of matchless colour: that lucid interval of morning down and dewy light on which the eye dwells so completely enthralled.” The way that Northern Romantic artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich or the contemporary Scottish landscape artist Allan MacDonald make that connection between Nature, the Divine and human consciousness aligns with the function of light in Rembrandt’s Mill. The presence of light is the entire crux of the image; as a sensuous reality and a prism through which a myriad of metaphorical colours can be seen. It’s the way, the truth and the life of painting. It even reverberates in the unusual geometry and patinated curves of the dark frame surrounding it, rippling outwards, beyond the pictureplane. Whether you believe in a God is irrelevant- this is as close to what moves, motivates and saves us as you are ever likely to get.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt explodes expectations of historical genre by being himself. A Woman Bathing in a Stream -Calisto in the Wilderness (1654, oil on oak panel) is an absolute affirmation that art is life. There is no imitation of anything. We can see Rembrandt’s hand, not just stylistically but experientially, in the intimate shorthand of abstracted marks that form her hand. This isn’t a typical male gaze, or that of a Master, directed at a generic woman. Her shift conceals and reveals her body, but that isn’t the focus of the image either. There’s preservation of the self, seeking of the self, in this work that resides with the female subject. She’s looking down into the dark water at her reflection, which we cannot see, and about to step into it, to immerse herself. The wilderness of self-awareness and knowledge of what we are as human beings is open to her, perhaps not in the historical confines of her actual life, but here she stands as Rembrandt envisaged her, reimagined in the 21st Century. Her action in seeing is unaided and there is tenderness and honest regard in how Rembrandt models the figure. He doesn’t deny her sensuality or her capacity as a conscious being. The adjacent label suggests life imitating art in an image of the artist’s lover, exiled in real life by bearing him a child.  The mythological subtitle is something Rembrandt is well versed in, but he’s not playing a literary card here. In fact, he’s not playing at anything in this painting. What I love about this work and so many others by him, is the peerless, heightened privacy of the moment, fixed for all time. I’ve seen people gasp in admiration, incline their heads in contemplation, breathe out in relief and smile in recognition, each in their own way understanding what this image holds. Their body language and emotional responses tell me why Rembrandt’s art is a universal touchstone, rather than a “ubiquitous” “brand” described by PR speak.  For me the joy of this exhibition isn’t simply as a survey of the taste for Rembrandt, which is what art is often reduced to as part of an enduring British class system. It is the way that Rembrandt’s work speaks for itself across all borders, boundaries and time- and very particularly to the British psyche, adverse to intimacy. I can say this because I’m from one of its colonies.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Drawing after Rembrandt’s ‘A Woman Bathing in a Stream’, 1988
Felt-tip pen on paper, 38.9 x 29.4 cm
Collection: The National Gallery, London
© Frank Auerbach

As much as Rembrandt is a publicly acclaimed, popular artist, he has always been an artist’s artist too. It’s interesting that he appeals particularly to male artists- or at least that’s the message delivered by the final room in the exhibition. I think this has to do with the holy grail of creative immortality, the “Master” validation, consciously or unconsciously sought. Alignment with that vision of greatness can be driven by ego, or the homage can be to the inner nature of Rembrandt’s work. He communicates very powerfully what it is to be human and that self-awareness is synonymous with making, casting him the patron saint of artists. In the history of Art Rembrandt has wholly succeeded in transcending himself.

Frank Auerbach (b.1931)
Tree at Tretire, 1975
Chalk, charcoal and gouache on two sheets of paper, 77 x 72.5 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by Miss Dorothy Claire Weicker, 1984
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Photo: John McKenzie

Henryk Gotlib’s Rembrandt in Heaven (c1948-58, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery) made me smile in it’s reverent homage to the ruddy faced, aged man, flanked by angels and being presented to a melancholy Christ, with Mary standing supportively behind her troubled child. The earthy palette and gaze of the angel on the far left, which meets our own, tips its hat to the substance of Rembrandt’s art. The hand of the angel gestures simultaneously towards the Master and his Master, pointing toward heaven. The high esteem of the artist is clear, but so is his naked, everyman appearance. The interest in Rembrandt by artists during the post WWII period is a natural gravitational pull. Post collapse of civilization, it is a time when the world is trying to rebuild itself, when individuals are grappling with the rubble they are, or are standing in. Rembrandt’s essential humanity is a focus of light in that darkness. That innate sensitivity, manifests in Frank Auerbach’s abstract work, Tree at Tretire (1975, chalk, charcoal and gouache, NGS, Edinburgh) in direct response to Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643, Etching, drypoint and engraving, British Museum, London)

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
The Three Trees, 1643
Etching, drypoint and engraving, 21.3 x 27.9 cm
Collection: British Museum, London

Rembrandt’s arboreal trinity has a figurative presence, tempered by the delicacy of drypoint. He is as close to the etching plate as he is to the soul of the subject, a quality to be found in contemporary master printmaker Ian Westacott’s etchings of trees, which are essentially figurative.  This is also the energy Auerbach taps into with the velvety boldness of charcoal in his Tree at Tretire. It has nothing to do with being influenced by Rembrandt the Master and is much more about human connection beneath the subject. The force of Auerbach’s conviction, applied to his chosen media on paper, creates a visceral sense of disintegration, coupled with restoration. Auerbach translates the figurative power of Rembrandt’s The Three Trees into an abstract vision, rooted in the human need of his own time. Rembrandt is primarily known as a painter, however his work as a printmaker equally sees him at the height of his powers. One of my favourite works in the show is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, the exquisite etching Self-portrait in a Heavy Fur Cap; Bust, 1631 (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.) The hand-held size, direct gaze and vulnerability of finely etched marks create an image of the artist grounded in intimacy and his lifelong commitment to understand.

Rembrandt Van Rijn- Self Portrait in a heavy fur cap: Bust, 1631. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018

Ken Currie Rembrandt’s Carcass (1991, etching, NGS, Edinburgh) after the painting Slaughtered Ox, portrays the artist as a flayed bag of flesh, richly illuminated in black and white. Laced with Currie’s characteristic brand of irony, it is a memorial, a homage, and as with so many of his works, a hymn to human consciousness and mortality. As Currie has stated, “being haunted by paintings” is the mark of Great Art.

For me, the image that best sums up the exhibition is An Old Woman Reading, 1655 (Oil on canvas, Buccleuch Collection), believed to be an image of the artist’s mother. It is the presence of light, emanating from the open book, concentrated on her face and chest in warm russet and golden hues that equally fills the heart and mind of the viewer. Her face is bent in concentration beneath the black hood, her mouth slightly open, completely absorbed in self-determination, seeking enlightenment. Perhaps it’s the bible she’s contemplating, but standing here in front of this painting the chapter and verse does not seem to matter. What is communicated is compassion, love and empathy; Rembrandt’s shining, inextinguishable legacy and the ultimate value of art.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Special thanks to Harris Brine, The National Galleries of Scotland Press Office, The Bridgewater Collection and Graham Nisbet at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow for their assistance with images.

NOW

JENNYSAVILLE, SARA BARKER,CHRISTINE BORLAND, ROBIN RHODE, MARKUS SCHINWALD and CATHERINE STREET. 

JENNY SAVILLE
Rosetta II, 2005 – 2006
Oil on watercolour paper, mounted on board, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

March until 16 September 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh.

It’s hard to believe that the latest instalment of NOW, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s contemporary art programme, is the first major showing of Jenny Saville’s work in Scotland and only her third exhibition in a UK museum. It seems that for many of our finest artists, international acclaim is a pre-requisite for national acknowledgement. The Scottish National Gallery’s newly acquired Study for Branded (1992, Oil on paper, 100.3 x 74.4 cm) is amazingly the only example of Saville’s work currently in a UK public collection, made possible by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund.  Whilst the curatorial aim of the three year NOW exhibition programme is very much about placing contemporary Scottish Art in an international context, it also illuminates the national context of how we regard art and artists in the 21st century.

The purchase of multiple works from Saville’s Glasgow School of Art graduating show by collector Charles Saatchi, her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists III exhibition (1994) and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), effectively launched Saville’s career in terms currency on the international art market. However, that’s not what gives her work its immense power, universality, or ultimate value. As five rooms of her work spanning 26 years powerfully testify, she achieves that integrity entirely on her own terms. The scale of this artist’s emotional intelligence, discipline and command of painting is truly extraordinary, crossing multiple boundaries in how we perceive the female body, art and humanity.

In the history of Western Art and the Scottish figurative tradition Saville’s work radically transforms perception of the female nude with its unflinching honesty. Presenting completely “un-idealised”, “uncompromising” images of the human body, Saville confronts us with the timeless and sometimes overwhelming truth of human vulnerability. It’s a truth which ideal Beauty has cloaked for centuries, then effectively obliterated in popular culture of the 21st Century. At base we are all flesh, magnified in Saville’s adept handling of oils, pastel and charcoal, with all the discomfort and fragility which attends mortality.

Propped (1992, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. To be shown with mirror opposite) looks the male dominated figurative tradition in Art, society and within the Glasgow School of Art right in the eye. Perched atop a stool, a naked female figure with huge, foreshortened thighs and knees closest to the viewer, gazes down, sizing us up with a sneer, her raw hands clawed in tension. The model’s white shoed feet are crossed over, anchoring her frame to the thrust and elevation of the artist’s vision. What should feel precarious isn’t, she commands the composition and across it, written backwards, read in the mirror opposite as part of the painting, are the words of French Feminist writer Luce Irigaray;

“If we continue to speak in this sameness- speak as men have spoken for centuries, we fail each other Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads- disappear, make us disappear…”

JENNY SAVILLE
Trace, 1993 – 1994
Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Wedged between the painting and mirrored confrontation, the immense physicality of this disappearance becomes present in the room as idea and experience, written on one’s own body in everyday life. It is only in looking by default at ourselves that the words become visible. Behind this mirror, at the entrance to this first room, is Trace (1993 – 1994, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian), a sobering acknowledgement from neck to buttocks, viewed from behind. Although the palms are flat they feel psychologically twisted, facing the viewer like those of a prisoner in a lineup. The exposure of pale skin, nuanced with greys, ochre, blue, umber and crimson, is painfully incised with the marks of underwear, imprinted on the skin. The cool, serene flesh-toned palette fills the canvas and the mind like a question. We’re faced with where we stand in this branding, then we step behind the painting to the Propped mirror and see. The way the exhibition is hung, cleverly places the viewer in direct relation to the work in this room. The space between Propped and the self-reflexive surface of the mirror is relatively neat, so you can’t stand back to distance yourself from either. Initially the human figure, expression and attitude, led by Saville’s paint handling draws you in, then you turn a perceptive corner and come face to face with the mirror, your own body and yourself. It’s a powerful mechanism of interrogation that perceptively creeps up on you before you know it, like all great art should.

Witness (2009, Oil on canvas, 270 × 219.4 × 6.4 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA) places a magnified young face, with the mouth exploded in a vertical position, so that the viewer becomes witness. Saville commented: “It was tough going to push beyond the surface horror into the paint.” Unlike a crime scene/ forensic photograph of documentation, the statement here is a document of the human mark in deep cadmium, alizarin and burnt umber, the stark, peachy pale skin magnifying vulnerability. Saville goes beyond gore into the nature of flesh made human. Even in this context, she fills the viewer with wonder in every mark, as bodies disappear and emerge in relative abstraction. Muse (2012 – 2014, Charcoal on canvas. Unframed: 212 x 170.4 x 3.2cm, Private collection) is a particularly beautiful example, where the deconstruction of form and idea reconstructs the self with force, passion and determination. You gain a sense of Saville’s artistic discipline, intense curiosity and driven process in this show and it’s awe inspiring! Crucially, unlike at lot of other YBAs, her approach to her subject transcends the marketable artist/ celebrity persona- her work is simply about bigger stuff in action and vision. She is resoundingly her own muse in a way that truly inspires.

When painting on the monumental scale of Fulcrum (1998 – 1999, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 487.7 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian) there is no option other than to use your whole self to make the marks, like the honed work of a dancer. The physicality lies not just in the three ample female figures, wound together but in the act of painting. The superb handling of this expansive palette of flesh, sliced vertically with fragments of crimson, as if the surface of the canvas were itself flesh and blood, is startlingly real. It is also deeply meditative, with each model held in their own unique world of expression. The fulcrum in this work, the movement used to move or raise something, is the artist’s whole self and contemplation of what it is to be human. How else do we enact change but creatively, imaginatively- as individuals and as a species?

JENNY SAVILLE
One out of two (symposium), 2016
Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
Photo: Mike Bruce

One of my favourite images in the exhibition is One out of two (symposium) (2016, Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2cm), a wonderfully ambiguous act of erasure and visibility. As a fluid, layered drawing the alizarin crimson graffiti-like marks, merge with the tracery of a forensic outline and the deconstructed works of old masters. The feminine in this work lies in the grace and repose of head and shoulders, the still core of facial expression, sculpted in chiaroscuro and the sensuous movement, hands clasped around backs that surrounds and absorbs the subject and viewer. Although Saville is often mentioned in the same breath as Bacon and Freud- the stated connection simply being fleshiness, there is a powerful philosophical dialogue that resides in her work, in this painting drawn from Plato’s Symposium, consistent with an ancient tradition of essential thought and debate. Although Saville treats paint as “liquid flesh” the undeniable “viscosity”, the internal tension or friction of the material, isn’t merely physical, but intellectual, psychological and emotional. To be a conscious human being, you can’t not experience internal viscosity being mind and flesh, even more so when the politics of gender or aesthetics of Beauty are applied to the body. Saville’s approach to the female body, unlike so many male artists and critics, isn’t just about masses of flesh. Saville is more holistic and therefore even more confrontational in the context of our 21st century globalised worship of appearance. To write about her work in terms of one dimensional physicality is to miss the point entirely, because to do so, as the artist suggests in “Propped” is to make ourselves disappear.

JENNY SAVILLE
Olympia, 2013 – 2014
Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Taking Art History by the throat and shaking it is Saville’s Olympia (2013 – 2014, Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm). The artist is too visually literate for this painting not to bear a link with Manet’s much celebrated reclining nude of the same title; a prostitute attended by a black servant bearing flowers- presumably from a client, with an arched backed black cat at her feet. When it was first shown in 1865 the confrontational stare of the female protagonist, provocatively commanding the composition, was considered shocking. The nude, though arranged for a male gaze, becomes self-possessed in this work and that sense becomes highly evolved in Saville’s coupling of black and white flesh, with fragments of cityscape in the background. The female figure in this work is absorbed in her own thoughts, whilst her lover’s embrace (which could be male or female, depending on audience projection) forms part of a whole series of question marks. Despite the sensuous energy of form and mark, these aren’t bodies served up for salacious gratification. Saville’s middle-aged Olympia is mindfully present and beautiful, in the same manner as the artist’s symposium paintings, here with a downturned mouth suggestive of thought rather than naked pleasure, passion or possession. Multiple realities are actively embraced by the artist and possession on all levels resisted, turning the entire history of Western Art effectively on its head and prompting a broad smile on my face as I exited this final room. What I love so much about Saville’s work is the intense care, exploration, intellect, discipline and ambition required to create it, what it gives to the viewer and to the world. Saville is more of a trailblazer than she has yet been acknowledged for and I hope that this show will begin to address that publicly. NOW could not be more vital or timely in that respect.

Whilst Saville’s work is the centrepiece of the NOW exhibition 2018, works by Markus Schinwald, Christine Borland and adjacent work from the National Galleries of Scotland collection, including photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), also provided great stimulus for thought.

MARKUS SCHINWALD
Orient, 2011
HD video,9 min, loop
Camera: Sebastian Pfaffenbichler;
Production: Close up, Vienna;
Produced by Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Wien; Yvon Lambert, Paris; and Gió Marconi, Milan
© the artist.

Austrian artist Markus Schinwald’s fascinating two screen video work Orient (2011, Looped, two channel HD video 09:00 min. each, colour, sound) reminded me of Pina Bausch’s choreography with its everyday immediacy, potently considered gestures and emotional punch. It is the first time that this work, originally created for the Austrian Pavillion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been shown in Scotland. Set in the monumental ruins of an industrial space, the doubled intersection of images, movement and bodily gestures, together with two different voiceovers create a free associative experience for the viewer/ participant. The relationships between a group of well-dressed men and women, moving in unison, individually or paired in observance of each other are, completely compelling as performance, accented with slapstick humour and irony. There are also moments of pure poetry written with the body; tap dancing feet in a sea of colourful, discarded circuitry wires, a man awkwardly scaling a door of opaque glass with a young woman walking straight through it a subversive moment later or a man with his leg caught between two giant structures of concrete trying to wrestle himself free. How we orient ourselves in time, space and in relation to each other is part of the eternal loop and I loved the way that each time I watched Schinwald’s split screens, new combinations of sound and image stimulated different streams of association.  The way the artist splits and reassembles the collective psychology of being human provoked my curiosity and I was thoroughly taken by the mindful calculation and seeming randomness of this work.

CHRISTINE BORLAND
Positive Pattern,2016
Milling foam, Perspex, MDF, paint, five parts
Number 2 in an edition of 3
© Christine Borland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Purchased with the Ian Paul Fund 2017. Commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle.

Christine Borland’s Positive Pattern (2016. Foam, Perspex, MDF, paint. No2 edition of 3), five abstract objects modelled on the spaces within Barabara Hepworth sculptures were created using 3D scanning and CNC router technology. The intriguing combination of Science and Art, originally commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle to honour organ donors and their families, is aligned with the viewer’s own body and internal organs according to plinth height. Because I have a reviewing policy of not reading any explanatory labelling/ text before looking at visual work, what struck me initially was the ambiguity of material. Housed in Perspex boxes it had the solidity of carved limestone, but the texture was too fine, implying a more delicate substance. The forms themselves were beautiful, hovering in an imaginative space between the organic and human-made, like macquettes in a stage of becoming. The presentation and grouping of objects felt clinical, collectively poised, flowing in energy yet isolated at various levels and confined in their cases.

The problem I often find in appreciating Borland’s work, is that reading an adjacent exploratory text is made necessary by the maker. The human element in Borland’s art is predominantly the linking of ideas, rather than empathy and it tends to leave me cold, even though I find the work interesting and aesthetically beautiful in its stylistic cleanliness. The beauty here really lies in the cavity of Hepworth’s head, her humane approach and thinking as a sculptor, appropriated by Borland. This isn’t a criticism, more an observation of the skilful way Borland handles commissions, successfully negotiating the worlds of contemporary art and medicine. The specificity of commissioned / public works of art is such that she doesn’t always transcend that directive when work is shown out with its original context. My feeling is that Borland’s real talent is alignment of ideas rather than making art. Although this creates a Positive Pattern overall, it lacks soul. Visually there’s a glimmer of feeling, which if you’re keen you pursue, but the primary conduit of meaning is often written context which goes with the territory, rather than extending or exploding it- in the artist’s practice and in terms of viewer perception. Whist Borland’s cleverness can be impressive, it isn’t enduring when placed in the same exhibition as an artist like Saville.

Also included in the exhibition are four painted metal sculptures and wall-based works by Sara Barker, influenced by writers Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Jeanette Winterson. Barker combines drawing, painting, sculpture and collage rather self-consciously to “investigate the act of making”. The compartmentalisation and dreamy palette of the artist’s triptych, 3 fabric figures on the Heath changes the sky (2017, automotive paint, folded aluminium, stainless steel rod, perspex, 180 x 240 x 28 cm) is a bit too obvious in making the viewer aware of facets of seeing, with a painterly nod to the Bloomsbury group. Again, interesting ideas are in play in this work; “figuration, edges and borders of our bodies, experience and landscapes creating portals that open up a space for reflective thought” but they are essentially derivative, I don’t get a sense of Barker’s stance towards these concepts or the nature of her investigation other than quotation. It’s illustrative understanding of ideas compared to the depth of understanding of the human condition absorbed, experienced and communicated by Saville. Robin Rhodes’ homage to Muybridge had a similar impact on me and Catherine Street’s work felt underdeveloped in its exploration and execution. Admittedly when you have such a strong backbone to a show it’s hard to equal it, conversely a great show will display equal artistic muscle despite exhibiting diverse bodies of work. Saville’s new work Aleppo for example, currently on display between two Titian’s at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, stands up all by itself in juxtaposition. Here is NOW you might say.

JENNY SAVILLE
Red Stare Head IV, 2006 – 2011
Oil on canvas, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

I would urge anyone with an interest in humanity to visit this exhibition. You’re unlikely to see all 17 Saville works, drawn from private and public collections across the globe, altogether elsewhere.  The paint handling and scale are incredible, in ways that don’t translate in reproduction and the artist’s insight is truly profound.  However, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh and live further South, Saville’s work can also be seen as part of the All Too Human show at Tate Britain until 27th August 2018, in the company of 20 figurative artists including Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Euan Uglow, Walter Sickert and David Bomberg. A great accompaniment to both shows is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art broadcast interview with Saville as part of the NOW exhibition (link below). Hearing the artist speak about her work is as much of a privilege as seeing it, a rare quality both sides of the equation for a branded YBA! Figurative art and the discipline of painting are far from being dead.

Jenny Saville in conversation. National Gallery of Scotland Streamed live on 23 Mar 2018 You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ

nationalgalleries.org
#ModernNOW

A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

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.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950