Art review: New Arrivals, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

The National Galleries of Scotland have made some very notable additions to their collection in recent years, writes Duncan Macmillan, including “the perfect icon of Surrealist daftness”

Lobster Telephone, by Salvador Dalí and Edward James PIC: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund, with assistance from Art Fund.

New Arrivals, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh ****

The purchase fund of the National Galleries of Scotland would probably not cover the buyer’s premium at the auction of a modestly important work of art. Nevertheless, the whole ground floor of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) has been given over to New Arrivals, works acquired for the modern collection by one means or another over the last ten years or so. The Gallery does have some funds it can call on. There has also been help from the Art Fund, but most acquisitions are now gifts, bequests or offers in lieu, though even here it is not always clear. A massive gift of work by Elisabeth Frink is described as “provided to the National Galleries” following the wishes of the artist’s son. “Presented” is the usual word, but no gloss is offered.

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The range of work is very broad if you are kind, muddled if not. But what should the balance be between national and international, or between historical and contemporary? After all, even “Modern” no longer means what it did when the gallery was first proposed by Stanley Cursiter in the 1930s. The Gallery must juggle these competing demands, not always successfully.

Bachelorette, by France-Lise McGurn (born 1983) PIC: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2020. Funded with a donation from Denise Coates CBE. Image courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery. Photo: Ben Westoby

Dated 1912, Picasso’s Bottle and Glass on a Table is, for instance, a historically significant acquisition. It was in 1912 that Picasso began to make collage. Here it is a piece of newspaper stuck onto a charcoal drawing. It’s not a major work but it does represent a seminal moment the history of modernism and so is a good marker in the gallery’s rather hazy chronological brief. Frances Macdonald MacNair’s Bows is from much the same date. Bows were seen as definitively feminine and here a female figure is adorned with dozens of them. She is apparently sleeping and quite naked, but is framed by a wide skirt and veil that make an almond-shaped mandorla, an age-old symbol of a woman’s sex: slumbering within all the gender-defining, sex-defying buttons and bows of Edwardian costume, there is a woman ready to wake. Just a few years later women did indeed rebel and throw off their heavy and restrictive clothing.

Other historical acquisitions include two important Surrealist works, Leonora Carrington’s Portrait of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning’s Tableau Vivant. The former picture is an extraordinary painting of Ernst in an Arctic landscape in a fur robe with a tail and striped socks. The latter shows a naked girl embraced by a large hairy dog. Both women were involved with Ernst. Tanning later married him and appropriately there is also a work by him, The Legend of the Centuries, a tiny wooden chair on an enormous one built of stone megaliths. There is also quite a nice, late Chagall. These are all useful addition to the SNGMA’s wonderful Surrealist collection and the key acquisition here is of course Dalî’s Lobster Telephone, the perfect icon of Surrealist daftness. Dorothea Tanning’s Primitive Seating, an armchair in animal print with a tail, is in the same mood.

Indeed, many of the new acquisitions are by women. Gwen John’s Portrait of a Girl in Grey, for instance, is a fine purchase made possible by a bequest from Henry and Sula Walton. Solemn and beautifully austere in shades of grey, it makes a neat counterpoint to Frances Macdonald MacNair’s Bows. Rather oddly Gwen John’s painting is under a heading Immigration and Emigration where its companions include Oskar Kokoschka’s Portrait of Posy Croft, and several works by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. Both artists were refugees. Jankel Adler, too, came with the Polish army. Archival documents on display include letters relating to the sad failure of his attempt to be naturalised. It is a too familiar, but still shocking story. Adler’s impact in Glasgow is reflected in a Picasso pastiche by Benjamin Creme, also the son of immigrants.

If you have to have a Damien Hirst, the bronze Wretched War is better than some, but works by Jenny Saville, Steven Campbell, Glen Onwin and Peter Doig are welcome acquisitions. A wrong is righted, too, in the acquisition of significant works by three veteran Scottish women artists, none of them properly represented before. They are Frances Walker’s beautiful Summer Day in the Dunes, a big painting of Tiree, Barbara Rae’s Light at Jacobshavn, a really fine example of her Arctic paintings, and Victoria Crowe’s Large Tree Group, an icon of her Shepherd’s Life series which really caught the popular imagination. These three are hung together with For a Lady Remembered by the late James Morrison under the heading Scotland and the Landscape. If these acquisitions right a historic wrong, I hope it is not done grudgingly. A mere four and half lines of introduction do suggest that the curators didn’t know what to say. Other works related to Crowe’s Large Shepherd’s Life were acquired at the same time. Frances Walker also gifted a very fine group of prints along with the purchase of her painting. Only two of these are on show, hung in the corridor.

Wretched War, by Damien Hirst PIC: National Galleries of Scotland, accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Frank Dunphy and allocated to National Galleries Scotland, 2019. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2021

These three women artists are central to any account of contemporary Scottish art. Surely if the gallery was sincere in making good their neglect, a proper display could have been made of their work? But no, instead the next room is wholly devoted to prints by Ciara Phillips. They are nice enough, but simply not comparable and, tellingly, the labels are terse about the three women, but the curators have plenty to say about Philips. There is a text panel from floor to ceiling and a plan on the same scale. In contrast, for Walker’s work the curators are so short of things to say that the three labels each repeat the word “desolate”, which is anyway quite inappropriate to describe the pictures on display.

And then there is Elisabeth Frink. The biggest gallery is devoted to her. She wasn’t the greatest sculptor of her generation and as far as I know had nothing do with Scotland. Her spiky bronze birds are very much of the 1950s, but her massive male heads, some in sunglasses, just look like Pixar baddies. It is hard to fathom why our National Gallery, so cramped for space, has taken on this burden. Perhaps it was thought this acquisition might complement the Gallery’s Paolozzi collection. If so, it doesn’t flatter him.

The work I spent longest in front of was Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament. Presented on four screens, it a setting of Burns’s poem in which a slave remembers “Sweet Senegal”, the home from which he or she had been brutally torn. The song is sung with beautiful melancholy by reggae singer Ghetto Priest accompanied by strings of the Scottish Ensemble. Ghetto Priest is a spectacularly flamboyant presence, variously adorned with the colours of Senegal. Even his microphone is decorated with beads. He is a powerful figure of fierce energy. In contrast, the decorous string players suggest the restraint of polite drawing rooms. The mood of deep and melancholy reflection invites contemplation of all the complexities of this dark legacy. A long way from ranting at stone statues, it is by far the most telling comment on it all that I have seen.

Until spring 2022

For a Lady Remembered, by James Morrison PIC: National Galleries of Scotland, presented by the family of the artist, 2021. ©James Morrison

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Secreting Myths (golden yellow) by Alberta Whittle PIC: National Galleries of Scotland, © Alberta Whittle. All Rights Reserved. DACS, London