.Brflfiant abstractions


Andrew Gibbon Williams finds that he has mixed feelings about the work of the little known German expressionist Ernst Wilhelm Nay.

One of the most heartening consequences of Richard Calvocoressi‘s directorship of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is that the gallery has begun to recognise its strengths and proceeded to capitalise upon them; in short. it has ceased to be a higgledy-piggledy pot-pourri of modernism. The collection is particularly rich in 20th century German expressionism, so— when limited funds have permitted Calvocoressi has brought in shows curated on the continent to ‘flesh out the l argument”. Some of the artists exhibited have been ! obscure. to say the least: last year we were - introduced to WOLS, now here comes Ernst I Wilhelm Nay. 2 The artist. who died in 1968. was based in i Cologne for most ofhis later life and it was there '. that he developed an extreme form ofcolourful f abstraction which really had no counterpart in Britain. The archetypal Nay of the 505 and 605 consists of brilliant expressive daubs of usually - pure colour scattered apparently artlessly across a large canvas. [n the 505 these tended to be roughly circular in shape. while in the 60s the circle was usurped by simplified eye-shapes which intersect and interlock to form rather perturbing patterns. Superficially. these might be construed as a reaction to American abstract expressionism and. indeed. Nay was not an artist to turn his back on persuasive international movements. I But as this exhibition amply proves Nay‘s courageous abstraction was rooted predictably enough in the expressionist avant-garde of his pre-war German youth; the art of Munch. Kirchner and Kandinsky. There is nothing very inspired in the paintings and drawings he made of the Baltic Lofoten islands during the late 305. nor | . is there anything original to commend the i confused, decorative figuration he indulged in i during the 40s. In fact. compared to the purer ; statements Russian artists such as Goncharova were making before and after the revolution. they are timid, even retrogressivc. The thickly hatched brushwork of a picture such as Daughter ofHecate I, painted in 1945 its contrived dislocation and . stylisation of form. not to mention its paint-box hues sets it firmly in the tradition of the i fun-and-games abstracted figuration which has always had enthusiastic practitioners on the continent. but which artists in this country have in 5 general mercifully eschewed. However, from similarly shaped acorns.

Olive—Purple. 1966

impressively different oaks sometimes grow; and this is the case with Nay. The dynamism and

confidence of the cosmic circle paintings are a

convmcing and praiseworthy contribution to the abstract tradition which is particularly striking in

the watercolours. These possess all the urgency of

the investigative spirit and are more attractive

than the similar works produced by the Delaunays

which they superficially resemble 30 years earher.

The very fact that this show gives rise to so many

negative reflections is indicative ofits integrity. It is just the sort ofexhibition which can help broaden our perspective on modernism and we have the serious intent of the scholars at the Gallery ofModern Art to thank that it gets its only British airing. after (‘ologne and Basel. in Edinburgh.

Ernst Willie/m Nay: Paintings and I )rmvings 1928—] 968 is a! [/10 Scottish .N'ull'unal (Jul/cry of Modern Aria/1111.3] July.

The list l-l ~ 27.lune [00151