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Around the galleries

European modernity explored in Scotland

— June 2015

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Modern One, Edinburgh. Photo: Greg Steadman

Patricia Andrew reports on three complementary exhibitions in Edinburgh

It’s all change at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, with three new exhibitions based on the permanent collection:

‘20th Century: Masterpieces of Scottish and European Art’, on now

‘Reflections: A Series of Changing Displays of Contemporary Art’, on now until 10 January 2016

‘Surreal Roots from William Blake to Andre Breton’, on now until 5 July 2015

Scotland’s National Gallery of Modern Art occupies two adjacent sites on Belford Road, west central Edinburgh, each set in attractive grounds that act as sculpture parks. Their names, Modern One and Modern Two, might imply that they are some distance apart, but in fact they sit right opposite each other, housed in historically interesting buildings of very different character. You need only step across the road to get from one to the other, as we do in this review. 

The recent major re-hang of the permanent collection in Modern One is entitled ‘20th Century: Masterpieces of Scottish and European Art’. It displays both familiar and less well-known works, with recent new additions to the collections. Offering an overview of artistic developments through the 20th century, it naturally concentrates on areas in which the Gallery’s collection is particularly strong, such as Surrealism. And, as in previous displays, Scottish art is placed in an international context, shown alongside work by modern European masters.

The century kicks off with some old favourites: William Orpen’s A Bloomsbury Family (showing William and Mabel Nicholson and their children, including Ben Nicholson), and work by William Nicholson himself and his colleague James Pryde. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s luminous The Mysterious Garden (1911) hangs on the same wall, both artists displaying their interest in designs and atmospheres mysterious and other-worldly. They set the scene – a transitional phase, with modernism appearing with strong colours used for expressive and decorative effect. In Scotland much of this was exemplified by the Colourists, and three recently-acquired works, made in Venice by F.C.B.Cadell, are especially interesting. 

There are rooms of Cubism and its influences, and inter-war constructivism and abstraction; Ben Nicholson is included here.

Figurative work is well represented. Many examples produced after the First World War are both very conservative – in being figurative – yet also new in their approach. The hard-edged, sinister work of Wyndham Lewis has a cruelty about it; the sculptural work of William McCance, with its metallic colours, seems to show the human body as a machine, but as a purely visual patterning. The equally disciplined, but kinder, realism of James Mackintosh Patrick and James Cowie, seems to look forward to the almost photographic realism of much present-day portraiture. But the section on post-war figure painting and sculpture in Scotland and England show very different approaches to the human body, the selection including a unique, awkward image of a nude by Joan Eardley.

Then there are the Surrealists, in which the Gallery’s collection is particularly strong, and Pop art, and much more.

A memorial display of the work of William Turnbull (1922–2012), a major figure in post-war sculpture and painting, shows a selection of his work from 1949 to 1963 (much of it acquired recently from the artist’s estate). Turnbull worked as both sculptor and painter, often on the theme of heads.

And in the main corridor downstairs, a changing temporary display looks at very specific themes: ‘Reflections: A Series of Changing Displays of Contemporary Art’, which showcases the work of a widerange of internationally renowned contemporary artists. The displays comprise works from the Gallery’s permanent collection, alongside an ‘ARTIST ROOMS’ display of works by Roy Lichtenstein, and temporary loans. It centres on a selection of over 50 drawings, prints and photographs of the human head, drawn from both the modern and historic collections of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Across the road at Modern Two, in the Keiller Library, is the display ‘Surreal Roots’, showing rare copies of books and images by William Blake, exploring the roots of the Surrealism. The great Surrealist André Breton acknowledged the movement's debt to earlier writers and artists, but – as the display makes very clear – Surrealism began primarily as a literary movement, not an artistic one. In Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), it is writers, not artists, who are quoted as sources (with a certain amount of Dada-ist absurdity as well as serious intent).  William Blake was admired by British Surrealists, but interestingly the French were far less aware of him for many years. The writing of the Marquis de Sade and Lewis Carroll are included as examples of work that challenged accepted social norms – though in very different ways!  Many of the works on show are drawn from the collection of Roland Penrose (1900–84), who was closely involved in the Surrealist movement, both as an artist and patron, and who knew many of the leading protagonists.


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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