With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that 1939 was not a good year to launch an art movement. But the members of the New Era Group, photographed by the Evening News in Edinburgh in June of that year, are full of optimism.
Pictured holding a painting – an ambitious modern take on the Crucifixion by one of the members, Tom Pow – they stand proudly outside their first (and, as it turned out, only) exhibition.
The five artists of the New Era Group also produced a manifesto, illustrating the depth and seriousness of their engagement with modern ideas: ‘We realize that expression today does not rely entirely upon conscious thought, but demands a more imaginative liberty,’ they wrote, with a kind of patient earnestness. ‘The artist creates a work from his total experience, conscious and subconscious, his ideas and sensations harmonized finally into a formal rhythmic unity.’
The group’s name was adopted by curator Alice Strang for her exhibition exploring Scottish modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, which opened at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in December 2017. Her book lays out the arguments in greater detail: that Scots were aware of developments in European art earlier than first thought and engaged with them more deeply, that they interpreted the ideas and styles in original and significant ways. Works by fifty-one artists, brought together for the first time, argued persuasively that, while Scots did not lead the movement, they were more than simply imitators of Continental pioneers.
The project is part of a series of exhibitions at National Galleries of Scotland which have reappraised aspects of recent art history. Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 brought together a remarkable body of work by women artists, most of them little known, while True to Life celebrated the British realist painters of the 1920s and 1930s, artists overlooked by history simply because they did not follow a modernist trajectory.
The moment Strang chooses to begin her story of Scottish modernism is 1907, when J D Fergusson moved from Edinburgh to settle in Paris. There, he was particularly influenced by the Fauves – the group of artists around Matisse and Derain – and exhibited with them in the Salon d’Automne. In 1910, Fergusson painted an important series of bold and sensual nudes, of which the most daring was ‘Etude de Rhythm’, vibrant in colour, semi-abstract in style, full of movement and overtly sexual.
Scots-born painter Duncan Grant, who would later become a member of the Bloomsbury Circle and have a child with Vanessa Bell, was in Paris the year before Fergusson. In 1914, he painted ‘The White Jug’, one of the first entirely abstract works by a British artist – or it would have been, had he not returned to it four years later and added a jug and a lemon. This single painting is emblematic of the tensions at work on artists in this period: the pull of experimentation vying with the lure of the familiar; the comfort of working within a tradition which the Academy and the art market would accept.
Once the territory of pioneers, mavericks and outliers, modernism was becoming mainstream
S J Peploe spent time in Paris, too, and painted a series of still lifes inspired by Picasso, Braque and Van Gogh. He hoped to show them at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1913, where he had exhibited before, but was met with a flat refusal from the director, McOmish Dott. As T J Honeyman would later write in his book on the Scottish Colourists: ‘the general view was that Peploe had run off the rails and that it was better to wait until he had run on again’. And he did, painting in a more traditional style for the rest of his life.
Another artist who dipped a toe in the waters of modernism was Stanley Cursiter, who made a series of striking paintings of Edinburgh in the style of the Futurists in 1913, after which he returned to a more formal, clas-sical style. However, Alice Strang argues that even these comparatively brief engagements with modern ideas were important, producing works of ‘lasting consequence’.
While World War I sounded the death-knell for Futurism – after the fields of Flanders, the machine age looked rather less positive – war also pushed some artists into greater engagement with modern styles. One such was Eric Robertson, who drew heavily on his experience serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit to paint ‘Shellburst’, in which he uses elements of Futurism and Vorticism to capture the power, horror and beauty of an explosion.
William McCance was another. Along with William Johnstone and Edward Baird, he drew close to Hugh MacDiarmid in the inter-war period, becoming part of MacDiarmid’s vision for a uniquely Scottish modernism in the Arts. MacDiarmid described McCance and his wife Agnes Miller Parker, a Scot who trained at Glasgow School of Art, as ‘unquestionably the most promising phenomena of contemporary Scotland with regard to art’.
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, English art critic Herbert Read, appointed Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the university at the beginning of the 1930s, was working on his own attempt to birth a Scottish Modernist movement inspired by developments in Scandinavian art. No such movement emerged; perhaps Scottish artists lacked the desire to be herded in a particular direction. Their engagement with modernism remained diverse, a factor which, Strang ultimately concludes, was a strength not a weakness.
However, in order to engage with modernism, they had to encounter the work, which was easier said than done. In the 1930s, even specialist journals rarely published pictures in colour. It is significant just how much European art was exhibited in Edinburgh in the 1930s, although no gallery, public or commercial, was prepared to touch it. The Society of Scottish Artists, in particular, played a key role, showing work by Munch (creating some consternation in the review columns of the Scotsman), Klee, Braque, Soutine, Dali and Picasso.
In a letter to his future wife in 1932, Herbert Read described a ‘happy triumvi-rate’ ready to stir things up in the Edinburgh art world: himself, Hubert Wellington, the new principal of Edinburgh College of Art, and Stanley Cursiter, the recently appointed director of the National Galleries of Scot-land. While Wellington was busy turning ECA into one of the most progressive art schools of its day, Cursiter was lobbying relentlessly for his own project: the foundation of a Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.
It’s hard to overstate just how radical an idea this was in the 1930s. There were few publicly funded museums anywhere in the world dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The first incarnation of MoMA in New York opened in 1929 and was seen as a pioneer. The National Galleries of Scotland had a policy to collect only works by artists dead for ten years or more. But Cursiter was determined. He had a site (opposite the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street), and had architect Alan Reiach design a Bauhaus-inspired building. Biscuit manufacturer and philanthropist Sir Alexander Grant agreed to put up the money. Had the Second World War not intervened, he might have achieved his aim. As it was, Edinburgh had to wait another twenty years for a gallery on a much more modest scale, in Inverleith House.
The outbreak of war ended Edinburgh’s brief moment as Scotland’s first city of the avant-garde. The focus was shifting west. A major exhibition of modern German art at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in 1939 was followed by a show of European Jewish art at the Jewish Institute in the Gorbals in 1942-3. In the early 1940s, artists such as Josef Hermann and Jankel Adler had important roles in the city’s art community. Meanwhile, Glasgow School of Art graduates Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde set off for London, where they were shown as part of international exhibitions in the 1940s there and in Paris and New York.
While A New Era brings together key modernist-inspired works, many of them striking and revelatory, one must consult the small print to understand the extent to
which the artists involved pursued a long-term engagement with modernism. Some, like William Crozier and Colin MacNaughton, died young, before their careers could flower. Circumstances seemed to prevent Eric Robertson and Cecile Walton, who were briefly married, fulfilling the promise their early work suggests. McCance and Miller Parker moved into print-making and illustration.
Edwin G Lucas, who experimented with surrealism at the end of 1930s, stopped painting for a time and fell beneath the radar of art history (he is now being rediscovered and will be the subject of an exhibition at the City Art Centre as part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival). Tom Pow served in the RAF during World War II, then found work as an art teacher; although he continued to paint, he rarely exhibited, and many of his works are now lost.
The late 1940s brought the emergence of a new generation of artists who would immerse themselves in modernism and engage with it over long careers. Eduardo Paolozzi, William Crosbie, William Turnbull and Wilhemina Barns-Graham embraced modernism in very different ways, but their ambition and achievements put modern Scottish art firmly on the map. In their lifetimes, the context would shift significantly. Once the territory of pioneers, mavericks and outliers, modernism was becoming mainstream.
During the Festival of Britain in 1951, sixty artists were commissioned to produce large-scale paintings for an exhibition, Sixty Paintings for ’51, at the Suffolk Galleries in London. Of the work shown, William Gear’s semi-abstract ‘Autumn Landscape’ was the most famous, causing public controversy when it was purchased by the Arts Council for £500. But he was not the only Scot represented. Also included were Colquhoun and MacBryde, Merlyn Evans, William Gillies, Duncan Grant and John Maxwell. As milestones go, it makes the point eloquently enough. Modern Scottish art was ready for the world stage. In the following decades, it would take its place on it.