Art reviews: Barbara Balmer and John Byrne, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh

American Boy by John Byrne
American Boy by John Byrne
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The art of both Barbara Balmer and John Byrne is marked by fine draughtsmanship and occasional brushes with the surreal

Barbara Balmer ****

John Byrne – The Boy and the Jabberwock ****

Both Fine Art Society, Edinburgh

Barbara Balmer, who died on the last day of 2017, aged 88, was an artist who never quite achieved the reputation she undoubtedly deserved. The exhibition of her work currently at the Fine Art Society, though far too small to be described as a retrospective, does do something to put that right. It was not planned as a memorial show, but that is now what it seems to be and because it includes paintings from across her career, we do get a sense of her as an artist.

Born in Birmingham, she came to Scotland to go to Edinburgh College of Art and then stayed. William Gillies was head of painting at the college and her contemporaries included Frances Walker, John Houston and Elizabeth Blackadder. In her early work she evidently shared the interest of some of her contemporaries in social realism, but she soon moved away from the dark palette and heavy brushwork of that kind of painting to the delicate colour and to the light touch with clear drawing that were to become her signature. The soft pinks and greys of Giorgio Morandi’s still-lifes were an important inspiration.

The earliest work in this show, Rachel’s Kaleidoscope, is dated 1958. Painted in cool colours, it is slightly surreal in mood. This leaning towards surrealism stayed with her, though later it is more understated. Rachel was one of the artist’s daughters and the picture shows her aged about ten in a domestic interior. The kaleidoscope of the title is a vision floating in the centre of the space. The girl herself is lying on her back like one of Balthus’s girls in a provocative pose quite inappropriate to her evident youth. There is a handsome china Highlander behind her and a painting on the wall seems to be of a couple embracing. Again like Balthus, the artist seems to be reflecting on puberty and the troubling dawn of sexuality in a growing child.

Rachel appears again in a beautiful portrait painted when she was a teenager. It is drawn as much as it is painted and shows off Balmer’s draughtsmanship. Pale Nude from 1980, a naked girl lying in an abandoned pose among crisp white bedclothes, shows a similar character, exquisite drawing with barely a hint of shadow among creamy white linen, soft grey walls and the girl’s skin tone warmer but no darker than her surroundings.

Bed linen becomes a subject in itself in three remarkable paintings, Triptych Bedscapes Imprint I, II, and III. (Although they are called Triptych the three pictures are separate.) Beautifully painted in white and grey against pale blue, as the title suggests the bedclothes have become imaginary landscapes, but the paintings are also masterpieces of cubist composition as the folds evolve into intersecting planes defined by sharp lines of drawing.

Spain and Italy both became major sources of inspiration to Balmer and Something seen in Spain evidently inspired Jazz Parlour, Andalucia. It is apparently a straightforward painting of a piano, with ten tall candles arranged on it and a mirror behind, but things have quietly become surreal. The candles are all drooping strangely and a tiny figure hanging from a candle chime looks like a hanged man.

There are also several Italian pictures. Theatre of Dreams from 1978, for instance, is a quintessentially Italian subject. A house in the foreground has washing hanging on the balcony. A castellated tower in the distance is screened by rows of cypresses, but spiral clouds drifting through the trees suggest that the whole vision, so delicately painted, is an insubstantial dream. Celebration for San Agostino (San Gimignano) is similar. The subject is a medieval church and convent, but the shutters of one window in the convent dormitory are open and there is an X on the wall above. You wonder if she stayed there and if that was her bedroom.

John Byrne is showing upstairs in the same gallery. His exhibition is described as a mini-retrospective and, as with Barbara Balmer, the dozen works on view do indeed cover most of his career. When he was setting out, Byrne assumed the alter ego of a naive artist called Patrick. Patrick did rather well for a while too, and there are several works here from those early days with his distinctive signature. The American Boy, dressed entirely in bits and pieces of the stars and stripes and playing a banjo, is a typical early work in the Patrick style. Patrick took a back seat for many years, but did also resurface occasionally. Le Chat is a Patrick picture from 2006, a charming painting of a French street scene with a dog and a cat suspicious and mutually aware, but separated by the corner of a house.

Byrne’s other career as a playwright and scriptwriter took off with his play Writer’s Cramp in 1977. Patrick was no longer needed and Byrne signs a wonderful drawing of the play’s protagonist, FS McDade, with his own name. In the play, amongst his other adventures, McDade is an army officer during the war. He is seen here in that role surrounded by the bureaucratic paraphernalia of a wartime office. All the papers and other things are intricately rendered in a small miracle of still-life. This drawing was done two years before the play was performed and so perhaps it shows Byrne the artist helping Byrne the playwright imagine his character.

This is certainly the case in a storyboard for Byrne’s later runaway success, The Slab Boys. Apparently the second in a series which set out all the scenes and action, it is a remarkable page of 25 minutely detailed drawings each with a description of the action beneath. Few scriptwriters could match this visualisation and Byrne’s remarkable talents enhance each other.

Amongst other works here is a striking portrait of Billy Connolly, but the most remarkable painting is the distinctly surrealist Self-Portrait with Sea Shells from 1992. Blowing smoke rings, the artist is enveloped in a cloud of his own smoke, but this also merges with the smoke billowing from factory chimneys beyond, Byrne’s home in the industrial west before Thatcher, perhaps. It is a big picture and the frame is painted to harmonise with the image in the manner of Seurat and Van Gogh, but the effect here is as though the haze of smoke was spreading beyond the painting, dissolving the boundary between real and imagined. In the manner of many Renaissance portraits, there is shelf between us and the artist and two big, exotic shells are resting on it. Their pink interiors and suggestive shapes, also echoed in the smoke rings, suggest the artist’s reverie is an erotic one, but a large and sinister spotted toad squatting between the shells brings it all back to earth. As always, Byrne’s technical skill is remarkable. He manages to describe the haze, yet also give us the sense that it is all precisely observed. The picture is a surrealist masterpiece.

Both shows until 29 March