THE 400 works at the RSW show illustrate the enduring appeal and importance of painting
RSW 134th Annual Exhibition
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh Star rating: * * * *
William Crosbie: Centenary Exhibition
Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh Star rating: * * * *
It is a common delusion of the fashionable to suppose that they are the crest of history’s wave when in fact they are usually no more than a barely discernible ripple on its surface and no less transient. With that in mind, future generations will look back in bafflement at the way our great art institutions have slavishly followed fashion’s decree that painting and drawing are passé and film and installation are now the only things that count.
Since millennia before history, men and women have reached out to try to describe and so to understand what their eyes tell them about the world around them. What hubris to suppose that after 50,000 years or so that skill is now redundant. Fortunately there are those who still work to develop and pass on these skills and, like the tortoise in The Hare and the Tortoise, these slowcoaches will in the end win out, I am sure. The public knows that and continues to back them, even though they are officially ignored.
I am prompted to these reflections by the annual exhibition of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW). What could seem more anachronistic than a major exhibition devoted to the obscure skill of painting in watercolour? Almost 400 works in the RSW answer that question and as many more were rejected – the RSW is still an open submission exhibition.
Clearly a lot of artists out there don’t think the technique an anachronism. Watercolour is, however, more than those little square pans of colour in a black tin box that you knew as a child. The definition is now any water-based medium and acrylic, which is enormously versatile, is the most significant addition to traditional techniques. Certainly there is nothing monotonous about the show, which occupies the whole of the main galleries of the RSA building. (This year the three exhibition societies that generally hold their annual show in Edinburgh have decided, rather than all showing at once, each in sequence to take the whole suite of galleries, but for a short time. The RSW has the second slot. The Visual Arts Scotland show follows in February.)
Watercolour is in fact a modern medium. Artists have always used water-based media, but it was only with Turner’s generation that the whole rainbow became available to them in watercolour as we know it. For Turner this new, brilliant palette provided the perfect medium because of its ability to render light and that too was a modern preoccupation. (It is still January and appropriately the Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours is on view in the National Gallery of Scotland to partner the RSW.) Watercolour also lends itself to minutely delicate description, a quality particularly suited to botanical illustration, seen in the RSW, for example, in a vivid painting of a red cabbage by Jane Murray, but it can do far more than that too. A beautiful example of the possibilities offered by its unique qualities of transparency, liquidity and brilliance of colour is provided by David Sinclair’s Sweet and a little Sour, a still life of plums, pears, peaches and lemons laid out on a white damask cloth. Patterned curtains frame a section of green landscape beyond. The handling throughout is free and unfussy, the effect perfect. If this lovely picture is a homage to Manet’s late watercolour still lifes, Alison Dunlop’s Inner Sound: Headland I is similarly a homage to Rothko or Ellsworth Kelly, but she boldly turns from their abstraction to evoke a broad landscape of sea and sky with a single broad, curving sweep of deep transparent blue above a narrow horizon of paler blue.
Ian McKenzie Smith has for a long time worked with watercolour in this area between abstraction and landscape. His Gleneagles Pine is a diptych of blue above what might be the shadow of a tree. In Finnmark, Gregor Smith also uses washes of transparent watercolour to suggest moving rain showers veiling the sun and darkening the sea below.
Morning, Noon and Night by Douglas Davies is a triptych also with a landscape theme. A jagged horizon runs across all three panels. The sun rises on the left, is high in the sky in the centre and on the right is replaced by the moon. Across the three panels, through a screen of scumbled white in the sky and foreground the colour shifts from warm to cool. In Emigrant Ship, Ian Ritchie also scumbles white, but over collaged photographs to suggest the dimming of memory, while also incidentally paying homage to Will Maclean. Ink and wash are an ancient water based medium and are used to good effect by the RSW’s President John Inglis in Portal, a freely drawn image of a ramshackle doorway with primtive, classical features.
Not everything is landscape based however. Kate Whiteford, an invited artist, has contributed Aprés Sèvres, a set of eight small paintings of shapes derived from Sèvres porcelain and created by reserving white paper in a rusty red ground and exploiting the way watercolour bleeds into unsized paper. A self-portrait by the late John Bellany, included as a memorial tribute, deploys big areas of wash on wet paper to rather similar effect, but then he describes the details of his face much more precisely. This dramatic contrast suggests a vision of a fiery ghost. Paintings by Alan Davie, Derek Clarke and Richard Hunter commemorate three distinguished members who died recently.
Like Bellany, Adrian Wiszniewski achieves real brilliance in Wild Boys, a large and characteristic painting of two deceptively innocent-looking young anarchists reclining against a landscape. Soirée by Joe Hargan is an enigmatic scene with two striking, surreal figures apparently enjoying a soirée around a table set with strange objects and with behind them an audience of bemused, Pre-Raphaelite sheep.
To prove that watercolour is also still thriving in the younger generation, two of the largest works in the show, both prize winners, are by students invited from the recent graduating classes of Scotland’s five art schools. Acheson’s Haven by Ruth Thomas is a big, bold, abstract landscape, unframed and unmounted like a hanging scroll. Mermaid by Samantha Wilson is a larger than life figure in shadowy monochrome and also unmounted. There is much else to intrigue and delight in this excellent show. Without wishing to be ungracious to visitors, it is nevertheless striking, too, that two invited groups of artists from sister societies, one from Italy and one from China, tend to look less adventurous than the rich display of native talent assembled here.
William Crosbie, although not a member of the RSW, did paint very fine watercolours. This is his centenary and there are a number of them on view in the Scottish Gallery’s centenary show. Crosbie is Scotland’s forgotten modernist. A student at Glasgow School of Art in the 1930s, he then studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. There and later in Glasgow he was also associated with JD Fergusson and Margaret Morris for whom he designed a ballet. He painted murals for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938, for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and for several more permanent sites. One of his last, and still in situ, is in the cafe of Edinburgh City Art Centre.
He had quite a public profile and if he now seems forgotten, it is perhaps because this is the first show devoted to him for a good many years and as his art is markedly diverse, individual works seen on their own give little sense of a unifying style. This substantial show is therefore all the more welcome and reveals an ambitious and accomplished artist. Loyal to his early experience, throughout his life he painted in a cubist manner that recalls the work of Léger and there are several striking examples here, but he also painted still-lifes, landscapes and voluptuous nudes in an assured, more naturalistic style.
• RSW and William Crosbie both until 31 January.