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.




Collected by the Royal Scottish Academy

4 November – 7 January 2018, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.

Mary Bourne RSA (b 1946) Dava Targe, Kilmartin Slate, 1994., RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 2009.

“Only when we recognise that we are heirs can we truly be pioneers” Martyn Bennett, Musician and Composer (1971-2005)

The visual language of Neoclassical columns, white marble, gilt and pediments adorned with statues usually infers learned authority, or the political need to project it. Architectural revivals of Golden Ages past are always about the power of knowledge and how it is used, for good or ill.  When visitors enter many Western public art spaces a powerful statement is communicated by the built environment and the institutions that occupy them, as arbiters of collective aspiration, education and good taste. On the surface the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings also display these loaded facades.  The underground link between the two is not immediately visible to the visitor, nor is the history of artist led advocacy that binds them and created a National Collection for Scotland. The 1910 accord which brought the RSA collection under the umbrella of the NGS is echoed in Ages of Wonder, an extensive exhibition occupying all seven upper galleries, sculpture court and four lower galleries in the prominent RSA building. Effectively reclaiming the whole space for Scottish Art past and present makes a powerful statement of its own.

Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844) by Thomas Duncan RSA (1807-1845)

History and tradition are richly in evidence, reflecting centuries of masculine leadership and disciplinary hierarchies, but thankfully there is significantly more on display than the pomp of the Edinburgh Arts establishment. The guts of this show are the practice of Art and the necessity of making the work of Scottish Artists visible. On entering Gallery 7 Portraiture and Presidents for example, paintings of RSA presidents and their projected status are certainly part of the display, but equally so is the human Art of portraiture. It is an immense pleasure to discover works such as James Cowie’s quietly understated portrait of Miss Barbara Graham Cowie (Oil on plywood, 1938, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1946) or the intriguing man behind the presidency in Thomas Duncan’s RSA Self Portrait (Oil on canvas, 1844, Presented to the RSA by fifty Scottish artists, 1845, transferred and presented by the RSA to the NGS, 1910.) Emerging out of a pitch dark umber ground, channelling the introspective spirit of Rembrandt, we see the face of a man who we feel is not entirely without privilege, but also not without care. His prematurely receding hairline, high forehead and deep-set eyes are at one with the space he occupies. With his hand resting pensively below his chin, it’s an intellectual, charismatic vision of the self, dwarfed by the mysterious, ever-expanding depth of the canvas. His mouth contains the vaguest hint of a smile, concentrated in circular tension at either side of a mouth which is simultaneously straight and curvaceous. We feel there’s wit in that feint glimmer of a smile and that he might speak at any moment, having first greeted the viewer and met our gaze (and his mirrored self) with equal regard. The entire portrait suggests, independent of his white cuffs, signature ring and the century inhabited, that there is infinitely more to this man that what is illuminated by the posed three-quarter focus lighting. Being in the presence of this ageless 19th Century gentleman rendered in oils by his own hand, we see that we are not simply in the company of an office bearer, but an artist, demonstrating through his own crafted image that there is infinitely more to see. Like all great portraits Duncan’s conceals and reveals in unexpected ways.

There are many more gems in this show that bring Art practice centre stage and assert the value of making as an imperative. Curated by current Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) President Arthur Watson, RSA Collections Curator Sandy Wood and Honorary Academician Tom Normand, Ages of Wonder is a collaborative project of unprecedented scale. Arranged thematically by subject and discipline, the exhibition is also defined by live events, touring elements, a collecting symposium, an exhibition catalogue and book of essays. Created in partnership with the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA), National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Dundee, it’s an exhibition brimming with possibilities in terms of how we might perceive and celebrate Scottish Art differently. At the heart of the show is the question of how our national collections are valued, conserved, expanded, utilised and shared, locally, nationally and internationally. The question of how we value artists as a society and the nature of what we choose to build also underpin that potential.

Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) Design for the Royal High School , (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831)

The “two temples of Art” on The Mound were both designed by William Henry Playfair RSA (1789-1857) at a time when the city was reimagining itself. Between ancient “Civilization” and the progressively Modern, it’s an architectural vision of the “Athens of the North” with Edinburgh at the centre of European Enlightenment. Playfair’s contemporary, Thomas Hamilton RSA (1754-1858) also reflects this idea in his Greek Revival design for The Royal High School, Edinburgh, (Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, about 1825-30, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1831). Hamilton’s delicate watercolour imagines a seat of learning, defined by Neoclassical sureties and a warm Mediterranean palette of forward thinking optimism. This vision of the city has its roots in the glories and mythologies of an ancient past. Taking Gallery 6 of Ages of Wonder as an example; Architecture: Hamilton, Playfair and the Making of Edinburgh certainly makes an aspirational statement about how we reimagine our collective selves within a built environment. Although firmly anchored to where the viewer stands, among the drawings, paintings, models, photographs and other archival material on display there is also a less site specific, universal and transcendent creative drive at work. In the same gallery, William H Kinnloch’s 1978 design for a house at 46 Dick Place is a fine example of a very beautifully drafted, fluidly executed watercolour, unlikely to be part of an architect’s working process today. There’s essential tension between practical, ideological and institutional elements of the show which are ripe for debate. My hope is that rather than alignment with the colonnade, the creative core of the show will be a catalyst for future collaborative events and new ways of seeing Scottish Art. There is a golden opportunity, particularly within the live elements of the exhibition, to redefine the relevance of cultural institutions, their function and the value of Art practice in the 21st Century.

Beth L Fisher RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006).

Ironically the traditional techniques, training and sensitivity found in The Life School: Drawing, Anatomy and the Figure in Gallery 1, are principles that popular culture and art colleges throughout the country have largely abandoned. In this wonderous, “connected” age of technology, you would be hard pressed to find a more moving, empathic expression of grief than the rendering of human figures in Beth L Fisher’s RSA Burial II (Conte and charcoal on paper, 2006. RSA Diploma Collection Deposit. 2006). On the opposite wall Samuel John Peploe’s RSA Female Nude with Pitcher (Oil on canvas, 1895, RSA Life School Award Deposit 1895) is an equally illuminating realisation of the Feminine. Standing in the Life School Gallery seeing works like these, the Laing Bequest of Old Master drawings, the spirit of enquiry in Andrea Vesalius’s etched plates and a live Life Class taking place, it is easy to see why what is not being taught is in such increasing high demand. The RSA has always been a teaching institution and this live element is a very promising initiative. Selected students will be working directly from the model, under the guidance of tutors John Byrne, George Donald, Jennifer McRae and Robert Rivers, weekly for the duration of the show. Contemporary innovation, in terms of making and seeing, is dependent on deeper understanding of artistic discipline. Imaginative freedom, individually and collectively, is impossible without it.

Elements like the live Life School and Professor Dame Sue Black’s DBE, FRSE, HRSA lecture on Art and Anatomy give valuable insight into the practice of Art and Science that many visitors (unless they are practitioners themselves) will be unfamiliar with. The focus on Original Print and the Art of Etching in the Finlay Room also features live events with artists Frances Walker, Stuart Duffin, Paul Furneaux, Delia Baille, Marion Smith and Jessica Harrison creating work on “ES Lumsden’s historic star wheel printing press (the first piece of machinery to enter the Academy’s collections)”. Leading into The Art of Etching section, the supreme skill and artistry of John Martin’s (HRSA) apocalyptic mezzotints, with the hand of the artist present from conception to completion is another unexpected highlight. The printmaking and Life School elements of the exhibition will tour in 2018/19, extending the reach of the show beyond the capital. Hopefully this will also stimulate revival of the radical practice, established between 1840 -1932 when academicians, or “visitors”, taught in an RSA operated Life School. Although the idea of “an independent post graduate facility for elite art students” requires examination of the qualifiers, recognising and utilising the knowledge, skills and expertise of professional artists as a national asset is long overdue. Established in 1829, the RSA remains the longest established artist-run society in the country. In terms of political leadership, Art Education, training and investment in creative process it is a vital resource and a foundation of advocacy.

Image of RSA Ages of Wonder Exhibition ,Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice, Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Viewers may be diverted or overwhelmed by elements such as the 19th Century Academy: A Victorian Eye Salon hanging of works in Gallery 3. Stepping into this space with its sumptuous walls of deep claret and green velvet adjoining couches for cultivated conversation in the centre, there was also the very humorous touch at the press view of 21st Century dandy/ artist/ practitioner John Byrne being interviewed amidst the loaded hierarchy of Masters hung from floor to ceiling.  However, being temporarily dazzled by the sheer weight and density of tradition or artist as celebrity still doesn’t trump the grounded practice and connectivity of Art, driven by our innate curiosity as a species and our profound need to understand. In the Sculpture Court, The Keith Rand Gift: A Depth of Practice displays some of the contents of his studio gifted to the RSA, including drawings, inspirational organic objects, handmade tools, macquettes and full-scale works, giving insight into Rand’s thought process and crafting of objects. Part of this display is a leaf, an object from the natural world that is instantly relatable regardless of the viewer’s education or background. The visitor free associates between these man-made objects and those from the natural world, rather than receiving explanation via a label about a designated Art object. In this way we are brought into direct contact with creative process, the individual artist’s and our own.

Detail of Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer – “a new cabinet of curiosities”. Photograph courtesy of RSA Press Office.

Richard Murphy’s Wunderkammer “a new cabinet of curiosities” featuring rare books, sculpture, objects, photographs and digital Turning the Pages software is a brilliant manifestation of this principle of creative connectivity and sense of ownership. The RSA library may seem like a scholarly and remote repository but here a contemporary commission transforms what we think such a collection can be. Beautifully sleek, designed to be viewed from every angle and lit for illumination of each unique piece, the alluring three-dimensional framing invites you to come closer and be curious. Exploring the contents and the imaginative connectivity of objects across time presents a less linear view of collections /collecting and for the viewer there is freedom in that fluidity. Drawing inspiration from architect Sir John Soane’s (HRSA) donation to the RSA library in 1829 and his extraordinary London home (now a museum and itself a cabinet of wonders, well worth visiting) the juxtaposition of objects is a constant source of surprise as you move around the 21st Century cabinet. Jewel-like enamels by Phoebe Anna Traquair, an elemental watercolour on parchment From the Red Cabinet (2001) by Kate Whiteford, Hew Martin Lorimer’s small bronze Our Lady of the Isles (about 1954-1972) and a printed book bound in the publisher’s original paper (1826) of William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job are just some of the treasures within and thankfully out of storage.

Sir James Guthrie PRSA Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1892) RSA Diploma Collection Deposit 1893,

Other contemporary commissions also lead into historical works on display in surprising ways. Adjacent to Kenny Hunter’s four part bust of Sir James Guthrie PRSA is the artist’s glorious celebration of light in Midsummer (Oil on canvas, 1890) in bold, dappled impasto and a living palette of vivid green and purple. Seated beneath a low canopy of trees, three women are drinking tea, each inhabiting their own world despite the appearance of society. The combination of light and shadow brings unexpected emphasis on the inner world of each sitter, beyond the aesthetic comfort of an Impressionistic style. Hunter picks up Guthrie’s inner palette in the split sections of the portrait bust, suggesting various aspects of personality beyond the public persona.

Frances Walker RSA RSW DLitt. (b1930) Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980)

Strangely, Gallery 4 The 21st Century: A Contemporary Academy left me feeling rather cold and dispassionate in comparison to the works of living artists relegated to the 20th Century A Nationwide Gallery (Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, The Highlands and Northern Isles) in Gallery 5. Frances Walker’s Foreshore at Footdee (Oil on board, 1980) is a fine example, a supremely balanced composition of subtle greys, accented with orange, pink and green. It’s a potent statement, 37 years ahead of its time with large boulders, lumps of concrete and smoothed pebbles, punctuated by manmade detritus. The eye is drawn to human interventions and signs of industrialisation, a plastic bottle and white traces of rope or wire. The scale of transformation along the eroding shoreline dwarfs the only visible human figure silhouette in the distance, whilst the high horizon line is populated with industrial buildings. Walker’s work is informed by the tracery of human marks upon the Northern landscape. The sea is rendered as a rhythmic pattern of white lines on mid grey, drawing the viewer into the detail of a place lived and observed. The organic erosion of wind and waves is tempered with industrial paint colours in a complex dynamic of realism. This is the very altered land and seascape of the Highlands, Islands and North East of Scotland, striking in its immediacy and contemporary relevance.

Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999)

Also featured in the same room is a work by Joyce W Cairns RSA RSW Hon RBA MA(RCA), Polish Journey (Oil on board, about 1998-99, RSA Diploma Collection Deposit, 1999), linked to one of the most important bodies of work ever created by any Scottish or UK Artist, War Tourist. Over a decade in the making, this extraordinary body of work was exhibited at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from 10th February to 8th April 2006 and has yet to be shown elsewhere. It is a response to war that began with the artist retracing her Father’s experiences in WWII through Europe and North Africa, leading her to Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland and to the contemporary experience of televised warfare seen during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), where ethnic and religious conflicts again resulted in genocide. Her meditations on major international conflicts and experience of wartime on the home front often incorporate everyday objects of remembrance. There is no other artist in the country who paints large scale figurative compositions with such skill, power and compassion. Inspired by German artists such as Dix and Beckmann whilst still a student, equalling their precision and emotional gravitas, her work is richly expressive and dreamlike in its evocation of human memory.

In Polish Journey we see a semi-autobiographical female protagonist wearing an image of the artist’s father around her neck. Her sallow skin appears stained by the knowledge leaching out of yellow cloth printed with the Star of David, used to mark and condemn Jewish victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. This bundle of industrially printed cloth is a chilling indicator of scale and over it is a wreath of poppies “In Remembrance”. The psychological stain on the soul in seeing sites of starvation, misery and mass murder is coupled with the solemnity of her expression and a tellingly composite uniform. The stitching of HMS Ark Royal, a modern invincible class navy flagship, grey military coat with black and red trim, German belt bearing a swastika and striped skirt aligned with the material draped like a proscenium arch above the scene, brings together the human fabric of all wars. The oppressors, the oppressed and liberating forces can transform into each other during wartime with astonishing speed and righteous self-justification. There is often a sense of the Feminine protagonist or witness in Cairns’ paintings, taking on this mantle of human shame, atrocity and bravery, enabling successive generations to see and acknowledge what we are and what we are capable of. In Cairns’ work human creation and destruction are equally present. The arrangement of other objects in the composition are an interrogation of commercial and domestic complicity hidden in plain sight. Cairn’s flips the idea of the benign, traditionally feminine still life genre completely on its head by combining it with the traditionally masculine dominance and authority of History Painting. The presence of a Zyklon B Tesch & Stabenov canister, a company who produced pest control chemicals and were implicated as suppliers to Nazi Death camps at the Nuremberg trials, is a powerful reminder of how ordinary people actively participate in persecution and genocide. Around the central figure three dolls are suspended as if hung, one in striped camp uniform is labelled with a number, another with a suitcase resembling a child arriving off a train with her name “Klara Sarah Goldstein” chalked onto her luggage. Broken dolls are part of the trajectory that projects into the viewer’s foreground. We can’t comfortably relegate this image to history or as a distant memorial, because in human terms it is ever present, absorbed into the steely blue and cadmium red palette of conflicted Nature that we are as human beings. Cairn’s deconstructs this with the passionate impetus of Expressionism and the pure compositional order of Abstraction. She is yet another artist, based predominantly in the North of Scotland for much of her career, long overdue for a major national retrospective. In contrast to the exposure afforded her male contemporaries its an oversight that needs to be rectified and perhaps the collaborative nature of this exhibition will enable that to happen. The positioning of some artists in the show, or their absence from the national collection altogether, is worthy cause for further debate. From the display of a single painting to wider acknowledgement, placing the work of our greatest living artists on a global stage is entirely possible. In Cairns’ case, I can think of no better time for an international collaboration exploring her connections with the confrontational Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity of Weimar Germany and the contemporary relevance of her practice in a “Post Truth” world.

What I took away from this exhibition was excitement in seeing human “curiosity and practice” in action, a positive statement of value in relation to Scottish Art made visible and the possibility of future investment and collaboration. Although there is more work to be done before our National Collections adequately reflect important work by Scottish Artists throughout the country, this exhibition is a significant step forwards in terms of Scottish Visual Culture entering public consciousness. The decision to make the exhibition free, therefore accessible and able to be visited multiple times is exactly as it should be, both for residents and visitors. Perhaps Ages of Wonder will also pave the way for a more balanced permanent display of Scottish Art in the capital and wider circulation of works from the National Collection around the country. People cannot discover, champion, love or be inspired by what is hidden.




Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933


23 June – 15 October 2017

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Self-Portrait with Easel 1926
(Selbstbildnis mit Staffelei) 1926
800 x 550 mm
Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum, Düren
© DACS 2017. Leopold-Hoesch-Museum & Papiermuseum Düren. Photo: Peter Hinschläger.

“Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.” August Sander

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919 – 1933 is an overwhelming experience and a profoundly relevant exhibition in a “post truth” world. It combines two extraordinary shows Artist Rooms: August Sander and Otto Dix: The Evil Eye, each giving context, insight and new perspectives to the other. With over 300 works on display there is a lot to take in, including Dix’s devastating War etchings. Visitors are directed first to the Sander exhibition which is completely absorbing, so allow yourself ample time to spend with Dix’s compelling work in part two. (You may well need a break inbetween!)  Entwined with a historical timeline in handwritten script, August Sander’s black and white photography brings humanity and compassion into focus, in perfect counterpoint with the psychological extremities of Dix’s paintings, drawings and prints. Curated by Dr Susanne Mayer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director and Lauren Barnes, Assistant Curator, Tate Liverpool in collaboration with Artist Rooms (a collection jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate) and the German Historical Institute, the exhibition is an inspiring collaboration, moving beyond words and essential viewing.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne 1931, printed 1992
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 149 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

The Weimar period in Germany between the first and second World Wars has always fascinated me, because the outpouring of Art it produced illuminates the best and the very worst that human beings are universally capable of. Art has a pivotal role to play in acknowledging, understanding and potentially altering human perception. It can confront us with uncomfortable truths and with the timeless necessity for ongoing ethical, social and cultural reappraisal. Weimar Germany produced astonishing, disturbing and visionary work in film, literature and visual art, dancing on the edge of an abyss, or peering courageously into it as Germany descended into Nazi radicalisation. Sander and Dix were witnesses to the monumental collapse of civilization around them. Their work is testament to “magnificent beauty” and “terrible truth” of the human condition, encompassing our propensity for creation and destruction as a species. To have lived through such a time is something of an abstract to 21st Century eyes, which is why this work needs to be seen, doubly so in the times we’re now living in. This history lived visually displays how chillingly easy it is to deceive ourselves, individually and collectively.  In terms of freedom of expression and tolerance, Art is a matter of life and death, something totalitarian regimes have always understood and that we forget at our peril.

The effect of seeing this exhibition may be jolting, shocking and highly confrontational to some viewers, especially in relation to the savagery of Dix’s work, but grinding poverty, dispossession and the depravity of war exist all over the world today and that should shock everyone.   Sander’s epic photographic project People of the 20th Century, which began in 1910 and was still unfinished when he died in 1964, endures as a creative act of responsibility, reconnaissance and remembrance. The exhibition presents 144 photographs from the series, mixing the various categories and portfolios: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander sought to create “a social atlas of Germany”. His categorisations responded to the descent into fascism with the addition of The Persecuted and Political Prisoners portfolios, the latter made by his son Erich Sander in prison before his death in 1944. Significantly August Sander doesn’t preach or denounce, but allows the character and dignity of each sitter to speak for itself. These aren’t portraits taken for aesthetic reasons or commission, but with the objectivity demanded by the political, social, cultural conditions and constraints of the time. Sander’s lens, like his mind  and heart, were egalitarian by nature. He was leftist, antifascist, aligned with the Cologne Progressives and worker’s movement, politics that made him a target for the National Socialist party. In 1936 stocks of his first book Face of our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit), published in 1929, were confiscated by the Nazis and the photographic plates destroyed. His work was considered “un German “by the Third Reich in its essential connectivity. What speaks to the viewer across time are the faces of individuals and the humanity at the heart of Sander’s life- long project. Photographing German society according to hierarchical occupations and class was entirely in keeping with his worldview. To contemporary eyes, categorising human beings may seem extremely clinical and ironic given the systematic application of that methodology to the Holocaust. We may also perceive categories such as The Last People; idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying or The City; Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients as dispassionate and potentially inflammatory, however Sander’s intent was inclusion, highlighting marginalisation in German society.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Disabled ex-serviceman c.1928, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 190 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In Disabled Ex-Serviceman (1928, gelatin silver print on paper) for example, we see the human cost of industrialised warfare in his image of an amputee at the bottom of the stairs, literally and metaphorically, unable to rise. After the disastrous First World War, the pointed gaze of the soldier confronts us with the pariah status of an entire nation and our own complicity or resistance in the world. There is no glory or heroism, just damaged, desperate lives in a climate of inflation, unemployment and poverty.  Sander’s portraits affirm the relationship between photographer and sitter as one human being beholding another, appealing directly to the emotional intelligence of the viewer. Whether fixing his gaze upon a Mousetrap Salesman, Proletarian Intellectuals, Blacksmiths, Bricklayers, Mothers, Artists, Circus Performers, Industrialists, Philosophers or SS Officers, Sander’s grasp of humanity allows him to craft an image of everyone without judgement, a quality that should never be mistaken for neutrality. The eyes of his sitters meet ours in moments of recognition that are immensely powerful, poignant and prophetic. We see in Sander’s photographs so many people who would have been reclassified by the Third Reich as less than human. We will never know how many of these people were tortured, starved and murdered as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Political activists, so called “degenerate” artists, disabled people, homosexuals or anyone of non-Aryan descent were all marked for extermination by the regime. Thankfully in Sander’s work we can still see some of their faces, long after the generation who survived WWII have passed.

One of my favourite Sander images is Girl in A Fairground Caravan (1926-32, silver gelatin print on paper). Framed by a small window with just her head and shoulders visible, her hand extends to the outside lock on the door, within a stain-like pattern on the side of the caravan. On the cusp of adulthood her face is solemnly fixed on the viewer, poised, wary, with eyes far older than her years. Far from a youthful, carefree existence, we feel her confinement and the edge of trust in the camera as witness. It is an intensely psychological portrait of a threshold stage of life and its attendant fears, together with a burgeoning climate of isolation and persecution. With the hindsight of history, the caravan resembles a railway carriage. Whenever I look at this photograph I wonder what became of this young woman, how her story unfolded in the gathering storm and whether she survived, existed or eventually prospered. Sander’s images are timelessly potent in that respect. Even though many of his sitters are nameless, they are real, relatable and hauntingly empathic, as fragile as we all are in the midst of events we cannot control. The girl looks as though in the next moment she could turn the key in the lock and step outside, but here she remains, held in a single breath of hesitation, suspended forever in the photograph between childhood and adulthood, life and death.

There’s unexpected beauty and grace in Sander’s image of two Blacksmiths (1926, silver gelatin print on paper), part of the Skilled Tradesman / The Worker- His life and work portfolio. The older man, hammer in hand is so positively strong, proud and confident in his skill, gained through years of experience. We feel that he is at a stage of life where he is comfortable in his own skin, whilst his younger apprentice, with a heavily defined and doubtful, creased brow, hasn’t matured into his profession or himself yet. Side by side with the anvil between them they are level, part of an endless cycle. Humanity is Sander’s baseline in every shot.

August Sander, 1876-1964
Turkish Mousetrap Salesman 1924-30, printed 1990
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
260 x 191 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

In the photograph Turkish Mousetrap Salesman (1924-30, gelatin silver print on paper) from the portfolio The City/ Travelling People, Gypsies and Transients, we see strength, resilience, weariness, fear and sadness in the face of a man, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s. His intense eyes convey vulnerability and stature, transcending his position in society. Economic hardship and uncertainty are etched across his face. Sander’s choice of a large format camera, glass negatives and long exposure times, capture with care every detail of the person. We feel the rough texture of the salesman’s worn jacket, delicate wisps of aged hair and patches of loss, his scars, beautifully defined mouth and soulful eyes. Rejecting the latest photographic equipment, Sander favoured the daguerreotype, declaring that it; “cannot be surpassed in the delicacy of delineation, it is objectivity in the best sense of the word and has a contemporary relevance.”  The choice of analogue in our own time and what it signifies in terms of Craft and human values, equally so.

August Sander, 1876-1964
The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha 1925-6, printed 1991
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
205 x 241 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

Sander’s double portrait of The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6, silver gelatin print on paper) presents an interesting dynamic of equality. Martha, a fashionable socialite, faces the camera in a frontal pose, whilst her husband with his unmistakable profile is positioned behind her, blonde hair slicked back in an “American style”. We are left in no doubt that the primary subject is Martha and she’s confident in the role. The image is from Sander’s portfolio The Woman and the Man’, classified in the group ‘The Woman’, part of his ‘People of the 20th Century’ project. In spite of the classification of “wife” Martha is in no way subordinate and in her direct gaze we see a person in her own right with a strong, intellectual presence. It is a fascinating partnership which reveals itself further in Dix’s paintings and drawings of his wife, clearly in a different league to many of his other depictions of women. Referred to affectionately as Mutzli, we see her dignified profile in Woman in Gold (Mutzli) (1923, watercolour, gold paint and pencil on paper), her face partially concealed by a sophisticated, decadent hat. In Dix’s beautiful drawing Portrait of Mutzli Koch (1921, pencil on paper) we see only her face and neck, draped in the suggestion of a luxurious fur, hair pulled back into a bun with arched eyebrows framing her gaze. Dix draws the curve of her cheekbones, nose and cat -like almond eyes with the strength and delicacy of a caress, every mark declares his love for her, a quality more frequently absent from his Art.  The tenderness and sensuality in this drawing is equally met by Mutzli’s direct gaze at Dix. The artist’s picture books for Hana, his wife’s child from her first marriage, are fantastic and delightful, with scenes from Fairytales, the Bible and hybrid creatures rendered in watercolour and pencil. Although they are not without a Dixian edge, fused with the dark spirit of the brothers Grimm! Dix’s Bremmen Town Musicians, part of his Cornucopia for Hana (1925) are rather demonic looking in contrast with scenes such as Knight Hans at Hoher Randen and His Family on Horseback with its bright, buoyant palette. This aspect of the artist’s work, combined with domestic family life is a recent discovery, bringing a surprising dimension to an artist famed for his acute lack of empathy.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) 1924
Etching on paper
196 x 291 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

Serving as a machine gunner in WWI, Dix was exposed to unspeakable violence and killing on an unprecedented scale. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of trench warfare, the loss of life or the social disintegration which followed the annihilation of an entire generation, but in his series of 50 etchings War/ Der Krieg (1924) Dix gives insight to his experiences on the front line, attempting to purge himself

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.

Like Goyas cycle of over 80 etchings and aquatints The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which he consciously studied, Dix’s War etchings are among the most powerful, visceral and damning images ever created in response to human atrocities. The process of etching was intensely physical for Dix, like scratching his wounds, a cathartic bloodletting, burning away the surface metal with acid to banish his nightmares. It is hard to describe the way that these monochrome images of a modest scale conjure the smell of death and rotting flesh, the terror of men driven mad by fear, hollowed out by exhaustion and the relentless shelling, reducing the earth to a pitted, desolate landscape of body parts. Dix leads us into his memories of the Western Front, battlefields where the horizon is ruptured, disappearing into broken lines like lost hope. Human bodies are caught on barbed wire, impaled, mutilated by machine gun fire or dismembered by bombs. Surprisingly one of the most disturbing images is the most still, completely uninhabited by the human figure. Shell Holes near Dontrien Illuminated by Flares (1924, etching on paper, 195 x 260 mm, Otto Dix Foundation, Vaduz), conveys a moment of profound, out of body stillness, when the world slows in the face of severe shock and trauma. This is a print that you can actually hear, held in the breath of the artist/witness and the viewer beholding it. It is an image etched in my mind forever.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Dying Soldier (Sterbender Soldat) 1924
Etching on paper
198 x 148 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

In Soldier and Nun (1924, etching on paper, 200 x 145mm Otto Dix Foundation, Veduz) the artist depicts the desecration of rape, placing the viewer behind the soldier in the composition. This voyeuristic positioning on the threshold mirrors the scene before us, amplifying the horror of bearing witness. There is also, in the context of Dix’s oeuvre, a very uncomfortable edge of complicity in how the image is composed. The print was withheld from the original cycle, deemed too shocking to be shown, but like all of Dix’s war etchings it is a document of modern warfare that needs to be seen and acknowledged. Dix’s Sex Murder (Lustmord) (1922, Etching on paper, 275 x 346mm, private collection, courtesy of Richard Magy Ltd, London) displays a bloody crime scene, clotted in black with two dogs copulating in a corner like a cartoon. There is no empathy in Psychopathy and none here either in the rendering of the female figure as a mutilated, discarded doll. The misogynist violence in early pulp fiction, the plotlines of contemporary thrillers, TV cop shows and interactive games like Grand Theft Auto aren’t so far removed from Dix’s Sex Murder as a recurrent obsession in 20th and 21st century popular culture.  Dix often depicted himself as a predatory, lurid and monstrous figure in his work. He projects severity and power in his self-portraits, a veneer of fashionable respectability that is prone to disintegration in the fluid immediacy of his watercolours and hard-edged drawings. Dix displays his own morality and logic in chaotic and highly disturbing scenes which would be confessional if they weren’t so entirely without remorse.

Otto Dix, 1891-1969
Corpse Entangled in Barbed Wire (Leiche im Drahtverhau) 1924
Etching on paper
300 x 243 mm
Otto Dix Stiftung
© DACS 2017. Image: Otto Dix Stiftung

There is undeniable madness, depravity, societal decay and death in Dix’s Neue Sachlichkeit /New Objectivity, elements shared with fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Satirical and abhorrent depictions of the human figure were weapons Dix and Grosz used to attack middle class complacency, the military, church and state. The unflinching reality of their work is grounded in human behavior and experience, their rejection of Romantic idealism and expressionism. In the aftermath of WWI and the “Golden Age” of the roaring 20’s, Dix declared that;

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.

Whilst I don’t doubt the artist’s intention of resistance, there is also an aspect of his personality, arguably unleashed by his war time experiences, which revels in the adrenalin fueled excitement of killing and sexual violence. It is a source of masculine power for Dix, coupled with personal revulsion and disgust. The artist’s commitment to depicting “life undiluted”, to “experience all the darkest recesses of life in order to represent them” is a double-edged credo. He admitted that “the war was a horrible thing, but also something powerful. I was not about to miss it. You have to have seen people in this untethered state to know something about humans”. Dix’s response to what he saw around him, later manifested in immersion and participation in the underworld of Weimar Germany’s streets, nightclubs and brothels, a search for truth devoid of nobility or redemption. His works on paper explore a nocturnal world distorted by fear, loathing and collective psychosis.

Otto Dix, 1891–1969
Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin 1927
(Liegende auf Leopardenfell) 1927
Oil paint on panel
680 x 980 mm
© DACS 2017. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Gift of Samuel A. Berger; 55.031.

Dix’s grotesque, almost hallucinogenic depiction of prostitutes and their clients, including sailors and soldiers (including  himself), achieve a heightened state of animalistic abandon and debauchery. Even his society portraits, rendered with the finest technical precision, amplify the prevailing sense of Nietzschean annihilation, a philosopher Dix was drawn to at an early stage of his development. The artist’s extremism is centred on the body, in the coupling of sex and death, the dominance of instinctual drives and inevitable decay, which he projects onto the human figure as Germany personified. His iconic portrait of nightclub dancer Anita Berber (1925) in garish, pursed lip red is a parody of glamour. Reclining Woman on a leopard Skin (1927, Oil paint on panel, 680 x 980mm, Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Gift of Samuel A. Berger, 55.031) is a superb example of the dangerously mesmerising spirit of the age. The woman in the painting with her cat-like eyes and claw-like hands holds the mask of her pale, made up face temporarily in place, coiled like a caged animal about to strike. The red folds of fabric and leopard skin feel strangely alive, with the figure positioned in the draped, though spartan, recess of a boudoir/ lair.  The acidic green gossamer dress garishly clashes with opposing red, while the woman’s glazed eyes are remarkably cold and fixed, seeing right through to the flesh and blood that you are. In the background a Hyena-like creature lurks in the darkness, teeth bared, a manifestation of raw instinct and animus/anima depending on your point of view. The arrangement of the body is a series of highly articulate serpentine curves, painted with consummate skill. The calculation in this image is frighteningly compelling, concealed and revealed by the artist’s technique. We sense that we are only a second away from the mask of the subject or artist being torn away and that anticipatory tension permeates much of Dix’s work.

In Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932, tempera and oil paint on canvas) the subject is at once a rendering of Death and the Maiden, derived from the medieval Dance of Death and a visual statement of Dix’s contemporary Germany. The proudly smiling, golden haired nude, every inch a beamingly healthy Aryan maiden, could easily be a poster girl for the Nazi propaganda machine. However, Dix places her on a distinctive edge of shadow, framed in judgement within an allegorical tradition. We feel immediately that she would not be out of place in a tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins. Her expression is so righteous and sure of itself that it is faintly ridiculous, whist a skeletal crone hovers in the background. It’s a reminder that the girl in the foreground is just food for worms as we all are and that her idealised beauty is preposterously shallow. It’s an ugly, repulsive image in the association between ethics and aesthetics, but that is precisely the point. The artist’s rendering of the figure is sharp as a blade in his exposure of the subject as part of a cultural tradition of seeing.

Dix was acutely aware of his German artistic heritage like a Faustian pact. His use of tempera techniques, oils and the woodcut reflect the influence of German Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Crannach the Elder and Hans Holbein. The fastidious delicacy of his paint handling meets the savagely critical depiction of the rich, privileged and famous. Even at this level, flattery is exceedingly rare in a Dix painting and sentimentality categorically dead. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was ever widening and Dix captures the outrage and repugnance of those conditions, whilst denying political motives in his art. His searing body of work remains anti-war, in spite of the revelry he conveys in minute details of violence. The objective recognition and striking calm of a prostitute meeting the gaze of the artist in Dedicated Sadists (1922, Watercolour, graphite and ink on paper, 498 x 375mm), suggests that although Dix defended his art as a moral imperative, on a deeper, personal level he is confronting aspects of himself with the same brutal honesty. Dix’s humanity ultimately resides in his complexity as a man and an artist, holding up a mirror to the ugliness every human being is capable of. Dix doesn’t just paint, etch and draw death as the great human leveller, he strips it naked and makes no apologies.

There is a profound sense of darkness, light and the internal struggle between the two present at the beginning of his practice, when Dix was experimenting and finding his voice. Birth (Hour of Birth) (1919, Woodcut print on paper, 180 x 156mm, Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf) in starkly, chiselled monochrome is a fine example. The sun and moon are attendants, the nipples and belly button are stars in a body bisected by the absolute values of black and white. The child’s path into the world is, at least initially, an angular projection of light from its mother’s open thigh. There is a trajectory of fate in this black and white vision of the world that feels inescapable. Dix’s painting Longing (Self Portrait) (1918-19, Oil on Canvas, 535 x 520mm, Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) is a fractured face in deep blue/ black with red mouth agape, a man divided between a quartet of dualistic elements. Between sun and moon, the impulse of life in the pink embryonic form in the top right-hand corner and a red devilish goat in opposition. A green star and branch springing from the artist’s head implies creativity and intellect as the anguished man’s only means of survival and integration.

Dix had eight works in the infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition” held in Munich in 1937. He lost his teaching position and 260 of his works were confiscated by the Nazi’s between 1937 and 1938, some of them destroyed. Looking around this phenomenal exhibition, it is a miracle that the works we see today survived. Like Dix, August Sander created a prolific body of work and whilst their images may confront us with uncomfortable truths, their New Objectivity is pertinent to unfolding events on the contemporary world stage. We are witnessing the largest displacement of people ever seen since WWII, growing inequality, economic turmoil, modern slavery, increasing radicalisation of politics and the threat of environmental catastrophe. In viewing this exhibition, we cannot hide from the powers of creation and destruction wrought by human hands and are forced to examine our own resistance, complicity and responsibility for the history we are making today.

Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation Germany 1919 – 1933 exhibition trailer: