SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950
2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
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.
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.
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), 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.