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Still Lite with Melon and Grapes, S.J. Peploe
The colour field
The Scottish Colourists are internationally recognised as a leading and vibrant movement in modern painting. As a new retrospective show opens in Edinburgh, Beatrice Colin takes a look at the painters and those they have influenced.
he idea of a loose school of art called the Scottish Colourists sounds like a contradiction in terms. Sublime landscape. sombre subject matter. changing light. okay. but colour'.’ Only on a good day in summer. Yet Peploe, Fergusson. Hunter and (‘adell. working at the beginning of the century. all independently adopted bright unmixed colour and painted in a fluid. progressive style. Although the results were diverse. they had all looked to France. to the work of the Post Impressionists and incorporated these new ideas into their painting.
This was, in part. an attempt to forge a new identity in the international scene. ‘To go to Paris was the natural thing for a Scot.’ wrote Fergusson. ‘lf Scotland or Celtic Scotland would make a “new alliance”. with France, not political like the “Auld Alliance”. but cultural. it would perhaps put Scotland back on to the main track of her culture and let the Scots do something Scottish instead of imitation English. or rather second-rate British.‘
And by the end of the World War I, the four had
joined forces. exhibited together in London. Paris. Glasgow and lidinburgh. and become immensely successful in Scotland.
Since then. successive generations of Scottish artists have experimented with the emotional impact of bright colour. and a lineage has been traced from the ("olourists to contemporary artists. A new exhibition at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre. The (’o/ourist Legacy spans one hundred years and is an examination of the influence of the big four.
The show begins with a brief overview of the scene at the turn of the century. There are works by the (ilasgow Boys including pieces by llornel and Henry. who were using quite a high- key palette probably influenced by their trips to the Far East. Others. such as Walton and Melville. were also using bright colours inspired by travels abroad and this proves that the Colourists were not the first to incorporate a foreign vibrancy into their work.
Then there are twelve works by the Colourists, placed in a historical perspective. ‘We looked at what else is happening around this period,’ says curator David Patterson. ‘and the Colourists did
seem to have a fairly strong inﬂuence in the twenties and thitties.’
Yet history has a tendency to package the facts into manageable assumptions, and the term ‘Scottish Colourists’ wasn’t actually applied to these artists until 1948. ‘There are other artists who were also working in different ways,’ continues Patterson. ‘There was the Edinburgh Group, who were working very much in a Romantic vein. People like William Johnson were looking at Cubism but not adopting a colourful palette and using a very limited one. Then we move on to the Edinburgh School and William McTaggart, Redpath and Maxwell and we look at artists whose ideas were contrary to the Colourists with work by people like Cowie. ln Glasgow, artists were stressing line over colour.’
The exhibition continues with works by Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Alan Davie and a couple by Joan Eardley. ‘These look at the development of a post-war scene where there seems to be an international dimension,’ Patterson points out. ‘lt really asks the question: is it relevant even then to detect the Colourist link? Their influences were as much to do with what was happening in Europe and America as with what was happening in Scotland.’
There was a definite inheritance, however. The painter Robin Philipson’s work spans 35 years, during which time he taught at Edinburgh College of Art. His is the link from the Edinburgh School of Gillies and MacTaggart to artists like Houston and Blackadder. ‘He used heavy pigment,’ says Patterson, ‘he used bright colour. he used gestural technique. in very much the same method that the Colourists were known t'or.’
The final section of the show is devoted to contemporary work. Paintings by Caroline McNairn, Fiona Carlisle, Adrian Wiszniewski and Derek Roberts all employ big bright colours. But were they inﬂuenced by the Scottish Colourists? And how important was the movement on an international scale? ‘I think in terms of the overall history of Scottish painting as recorded in the various books that have been written. the indication seems to be that the Colourist aesthetic is peculiar to Scottish painting and can be traced through the [Edinburgh School to the contemporary scene,’ says Patterson.
‘Really what we wanted to do was look at the whole reasoning behind that claim. We wanted to see if it was true or not, whether it was specific to Edinburgh and whether it wasn’t relevant to what was happening in other parts of the country at the same time. And is it still valid to say that this use of colour is a national characteristic?’
Internationally, the Colourists were right at the forefront of the modern movement. They mixed with Picasso, Derain and Vlaminck. and Picasso and Derain both contributed illustrations to Fergusson's journal, Rhythm. However. this exhibition may prove that the legacy was a myth. but one of its greatest attractions will be the four artists’ sumptuous and vivid painting. ‘There is a great fondness for the Colourists’ work,’ Patterson points out. ‘You can see the artistic technique. you can recognise the subject and still experience something of the passion and excitement which was put into these paintings.’ C]
The Colourist Legacy, City Edinburgh, Sat 16 Jul - 2/ Sept.
A rt Centre,
16 The List 29 July—ll August I994