Art review: Joan Eardley - A Sense of Place
In 1951 an abstract painting by William Gear won top prize in a major Festival of Britain competition and the letters pages of the broadsheets blazed with outrage. Abstract art before the war was cool and manageable, the butt of jokes in Punch, but nothing worse. Post-war it was wild, anarchic and threatening and – worse still – it came from the Continent (distant premonitions of Brexit perhaps?) Although it was Scots like Gear, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi who led a new, radical approach in the south, even there it was a challenge. Back home in Scotland, it was much more difficult. This was a recipe for a very timid kind of modernism and that mostly is what we got. Joan Eardley was not intimidated, however. Her art blazed with courage as brightly as the letters pages had blazed with indignation at Gear’s success. And Eardley went further. She did not simply follow fashion to become a provincial practitioner of a style borrowed from far away. Through exhibitions at the SSA and the RSA, the new, abstract and expressionist style of painting coming out of Paris was familiar in Scotland. (American painting came here later.) In 1958 an exhibition in the RSA of the Moltzau Collection was the biggest display of abstract art ever seen in Scotland. Eardley learnt from what she saw and incorporated its freedoms into a style that was powerful and entirely her own and the title of the new show at the Gallery of Modern Art, Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, identifies – as the exhibition brilliantly illuminates – a key aspect of her originality. However free and apparently abstract she became, her art remained firmly rooted in the specific characteristics of the people and places around her. It was not that she timidly clung to the shore, rather than risk the wild waters of abstract expressionism. She struck out across them, but on a course that was her own. Although she was only 42 when she died, the show also demonstrates how rapidly her art developed, absorbing and digesting new influences all the time, but keeping its own unique trajectory.