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Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art opens "A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950"
William Crozier (1893-1930), Edinburgh (from Salisbury Crags), c.1927. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.5cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland Purchased 1942. Image: Antonia Reeve © National Galleries of Scotland.

EDINBURGH.- A major new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this winter reveals the remarkable yet relatively unknown response of Scottish artists to the development of modern art in the first half of the 20th Century.

A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines the most progressive work made by Scottish artists as they absorbed and responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.

The exhibition charts Scottish modernism from its beginnings in the first decade of the century, when JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced at first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), to the turn of the Fifties, when emerging Scottish artists like Alan Davie (1920-2014), William Gear (19151997), Stephen Gilbert (1910-2007) and Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) were at the forefront of European contemporary art.

More than 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by over 50 artists are on display from 2 December until 10 June next year, drawn from private and public collections from throughout the UK.

Work by some of Scottish art’s biggest names, such as Davie, FCB Cadell (1883-1937) and William Gillies (1898-1973) shed new light on their achievements and are being featured alongside rarely displayed works by more unfamiliar artists including Cecile Walton (1891-1956), Edwin G Lucas (1911-90) and Benjamin Creme (1922-2016).

The Parisian adventure of Fergusson and Peploe (both of whom were working in the city by 1910) had a profound impact on their painting, reflected in works like Fergusson’s Étude de Rhythm (1910) and Peploe’s Tulips and Fruit (1912). The former is a daring, provocative image of figures in motion, viewed from several perspectives at once, which almost certainly depicts the act of sexual intercourse. The bold new technique adopted by Peploe, characterised by a use of vivid colour, proved so shocking when he returned to Edinburgh in 1912 that his dealer refused to show his new paintings.

The explosion of modern art proved to be irresistible however, and other Scottish artists were beginning to experiment with new ideas being generated in Europe. Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976) created a remarkable series of paintings influenced by the work of the Italian Futurists, who aimed to capture the dynamism of the mechanised, industrial world. Cursiter applied this to works including The Sensation of Crossing the Street – West End, Edinburgh (1913), in which he conveyed the bustle of the capital’s city centre with fragmented buildings, trams and people.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), who served in the First World War, drew upon his horrific experiences to create remarkable paintings such as Shellburst (1919), which conveys the power of explosions he witnessed, the scale of their destruction and the vulnerability of the soldiers caught within their range. In this extraordinarily advanced painting, Robertson combined the rhythmic whirls of the Futurists with the simplified forms favoured by Vorticists, a British group that explored similar themes, creating a powerful image both frightening and controlled.

Although they maintained close links with Scotland, a number of leading Scottish modernists lived in London during the 1920s, among them Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980), her husband William McCance (1894-1970) and William Johnstone (1897-1981). The simplified, partly mechanised forms that appear in works such as Miller Parker’s The Horse Fair (1928) and McCance’s Heavy Structures in a Landscape Setting (1922) demonstrate how deeply engaged these artists were with developments in Europe. In Scotland, artists including Beatrice Huntington (1889-1988) and William Crozier (1893-1930) were applying the lessons of Cubism to portraiture and the Scottish landscape, as seen in A Muleteer from Andalucia, (c.1923) by Huntington and Edinburgh (from Salisbury Crags), (c.1927) by Crozier.

In the 1930s, a little-known progressive art world developed in Edinburgh, under the influence of figures such as Herbert Read (1893-1968), Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University from 1932 until 1934; Hubert Wellington, the Principal of Edinburgh College of Art; and Stanley Cursiter, who was appointed Director of the National Galleries of Scotland in 1930. Read’s ideas about the inspiration to be found beyond France in northern Europe shared common ground with Wellington’s international outlook and Cursiter’s lobbying for a gallery dedicated to modern art, whilst a rejuvenated Society of Scottish Artists mounted a series of exhibitions promoting the work of ground-breaking artists such as Edvard Munch (in 1931) and Paul Klee (in 1934).

The Thirties also saw the completion by Johnstone of his masterpiece A Point in Time (1937), a monumental painting with dark, cavernous spaces and abstract swirls of coloured light that arose out of his, “horror of the disease of war, of anticipation of the future tragedy”. The decade also saw the emergence of a rich seam of Scottish Surrealism, evident in the work of the self-taught Lucas, whose career, forgotten for over 50 years, was resurrected in 2013 when The Shape of the Night (1939) was one of a group of paintings acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. A New Era is named after the group formed in Edinburgh in 1939 to exhibit the surreal and abstract art of its members, including Gear and Tom Pow (1950-96), both of whom feature in the current exhibition. An important example of Scottish modernism, Tom Gentleman’s (1882-1966) Bullfight in Madrid with Picador Kem of 1921, also are on display, having been generously presented to the Galleries by the artist’s family.

During the Second World War, Glasgow became the centre of Scotland’s progressive art circles, seeing the arrival of European artists, including Polish painter Jankel Adler (1895-1949), and the establishment of art clubs and other initiatives. Some Scottish artists however moved to England and greatly prospered, such as Robert Colquhoun (1914-62) and Robert MacBryde (1913-66) in London and Margaret Mellis (1914-2009) in St Ives. Mellis became a key figure in the emerging St Ives School, as seen in her Relief Construction in Wood, inspired by her friendships with Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Naum Gabo (1890-1977). She was later joined in Cornwall by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), who emerged as a pioneer of British Abstraction, as seen in Upper Glacier, 1950.

Barns-Graham was part of a new generation of Scottish artists who came to the fore after the war, which included Davie, Paolozzi, Gear and Gilbert. Paolozzi exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952 while the latter two were the only British members of the cutting-edge CoBrA movement. Gear’s radical abstract painting Autumn Landscape was purchased by the Arts Council from the Festival of Britain Sixty Paintings for ’51 exhibition, causing a furore. By the time the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art opened in Edinburgh in 1960, Scottish artists were at the forefront of European contemporary art.

Simon Groom, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, said: “A New Era reveals, for the first time, the role of Scottish artists in the development of progressive art during the first half of the twentieth century. It shows the extent to which Scottish artists were inspired by, and prepared to engage with, the European avant-garde, and its impact upon their work. Bringing together over 100 works by over 50 artists, the show offers a fascinating view of art at a time of tumultuous change”.

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