SCOTTISH art has been ignored entirely in the Scottish National Gallery’s major summer show. Our critic explains why this is an unforgivable snub - and why it leaves him unable to offer the show the usual star rating
Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist landscape in Europe, 1880-1910
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
THE feeling that emotion is reflected in the beauty of landscape is the motor of western landscape painting. Although Ruskin attacked the “pathetic fallacy”, the attribution of actual feeling to inanimate nature, he, more than anyone, defined the way in which landscape can focus feeling and reflect it back to us.
His model was Turner. Later in the 19th century, for a moment at least, Monet and his associates seemed to offer an alternative: landscape that, mirroring the pure image in our retina, purged painting of any hint of the pathetic fallacy. The Impressionists also painted the everyday world and so lowered the emotional key to contemplate the simple beauty of light on water, or the dappled shadows of leaves in sunlight.
It was not long before older instincts reasserted themselves, however, and throughout Europe in the last decades of the 19th century there was a spectacular reassertion of the poetic power of nature reflected in painting. Symbolism is the name it was given. It had many manifestations, but the aim of Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 seems to be to find some unity in that variety.
It is a slightly misleading title. Van Gogh is certainly represented by several marvellous paintings, but it starts earlier with two of Whistler’s beautiful Nocturnes, shadowy pictures of the Thames at dusk, painted quickly to preserve the pure subjectivity of a fragile mood. It is but a step to the lovely stillness of Charles Angrand’s The Seine at Dawn, or indeed to Paul Signac’s Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing. Both these painters use the pointillist technique, but it only enhances the magical stillness of their pictures.
Signac’s picture, painted on the shores of the Mediterranean, suggests a continuity not just with Whistler, but with Puvis de Chavannes, whose classical figures set in the landscape of Provence did much to promote Provence as a new Arcadia, attracting artists south like Signac himself, but also Van Gogh.
But the far north is also an important part of the story here. Eugène Jansson’s magnificent view of the lights of Stockholm at night, reflected in the water of the Riddarfiarden, follows Whistler’s model, but also differs from it in the sense of drama underlying the stillness. The way this drama is conveyed by swirling reflections in the water reveals the influence of Van Gogh whose example was clearly also important for Munch who is well represented here, too.
Mountains, frozen lakes and the midnight sun are all part of the northern painters’ vocabulary. Akseli Gallen Kallela’s silvery Lake Keitele is, for instance, one of the key pictures in the exhibition. Jens Ferdinand Willumsen’s huge Sun Shining on the Southern Mountains tips towards melodrama, but its flat, vertical construction underlines a common tendency away from direct naturalism towards a kind of painting that is more decorative and hieratic in its organisation.
The key to this shift is Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon. (Renamed, it’s no longer the Vision after the Sermon.) Van Gogh and Gauguin, working briefly side-by-side, were at the centre of the radical innovations this picture represents. Their relationship and their common concern with the expression of emotional engagement is eloquently conveyed by hanging Van Gogh’s Sower alongside Gauguin’s great picture. It is a wonderful conjunction. From this new, sometimes almost abstract painting the argument evolves to the final room here where, developing this vocabulary of pure shape and colour, Mondrian and Kandinsky open the way to modern art.
In his History of Modern Painting, in 1907, the German critic Richard Muther wrote: “It was … a style of painting which took its origin altogether from decorative harmony, and the rhythm of forms and masses of colour. Some there were who rendered audacious and sonorous fantasies of colour, whilst others interpreted the poetic dreams of a wild world of legend which they had conjured up. But it was all the expression of a powerfully excited mood of feeling through the medium of hues, a mood such as the lyric poet reveals by the rhythmical dance of words or the musician by tones.”
Muther sums it up, except that he was not writing about Symbolism in general. What he is describing here, and so close in time too, is the impact that the work of Scottish painters, especially Arthur Melville, George Henry and EA Hornel, had shown in Munich in 1890 and in subsequent years too. They had brought Symbolism to the city where Kandinsky moved from Russia to study in 1895. The same was true in Vienna. CR Mackintosh and the Macdonald sisters exhibited there as well as in Munich and brilliant Symbolist paintings like Mackintosh’s Harvest Moon, for instance, were profoundly influential.
So where are the Scots in this show? There are a few rather dim English paintings, but the Scots are rigorously excluded. Beyond a single reference in the catalogue to Henry, and Hornel’s Druids, I could find nothing at all. This is not just a quibble, not just the old cracked record of the Scottish cringe. To miss the Scots out here is to fail in the central aim of this exhibition to give a whole picture of Symbolist landscape.
Melville’s rarely seen Audrey and her Goats (a subject from As you Like It) should be a key painting here. With its flat pattern of colour, hide-and-seek landscape and witty subject, it challenged not Impressionism, but the glum peasant paintings that were the universal cliché of contemporary Realist painters.
Guthrie’s Hind’s Daughter was inspired by Meville’s picture and takes up its point, quite literally. Suspicious that we are patronising her, the little girl in the picture challenges us directly with the gleaming knife in her hand. Henry’s Galloway Landscape should be another key picture here. So should Charles Mackie’s By the Bonnie Banks o’ Fordie. Numerous other Scottish artists are relevant and you don’t need to look far for them, either. In the National Gallery’s own collection, John Duncan’s St Bride, for instance, DY Cameron’s Hill of the Winds, even Waller Paton’s recently acquired Entrance to the Quiraing, Skye, could all take their place honourably here. If this were the National Gallery of Nowhere in Particular, the omission of the Scots would be a serious criticism, but for the National Galleries of Scotland it is inexcusable.
Is this simply ignorance, or is it something else? 2014 looms. Nationalism should be an important part of this story, but it has been altogether ignored. In Scandinavia, especially in Norway and Finland – both countries, like Scotland, controlled by larger neighbours – this whole movement in painting was bound up with nationalism and the search for independence. This was achieved by Norway in 1905. Finland had to wait till 1917. Nevertheless, with a pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, Finland successfully asserted its cultural independence in the eyes of the world.
Along with Sibelius’s Finlandia, Akseli Gallen Kallela’s paintings of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, were its most potent expression. Scotland knew all about questions of cultural identity and one possible model for Kallela’s paintings was John Duncan’s series of Celtic heroes in Patrick Geddes’s Ramsay Lodge. Illustrated in Studio, these pictures were widely known. Scotland was not a backwater. It was part of the story this exhibition sets out to tell.
The NGS exist to show the world to Scotland, but reciprocally to show Scotland to the world. Properly conducted, that exchange affects both parties. Scotland is enriched by the presence of great art from elsewhere, but the Scottish story, properly told, should in turn also enrich the wider European story. If our National Gallery cannot tell our story for us, who will? I am supposed to give this exhibition a star rating. I can’t. The pictures would get five stars. The exhibition, seen as a Scottish project as it must be, would get none at all.
• Until 14 October.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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