Recording the essence of reality rather than imposing self-absorbed narratives is a skill many contemporary artists lack, but two veterans of Scottish art still create work that speaks the truth
THE SCOTTISH GALLERY, EDINBURGH ****
OPEN EYE GALLERY, EDINBURGH ****
WHEN Perpetua Pope was a little girl, she didn't like her name. It was too long, she says. All the other girls had short names like Anne or Mary. Her parents chose Perpetua because they thought it was pretty, however. Indeed it is, but perhaps they had some other insight too, for surely it was a very apt choice for someone who 95 years later seems as young as ever she was, and who has filled the Scottish Gallery with an exhibition of more than 30 fresh and lovely landscapes and still lifes, all painted in the last three years. Indeed her only concession to her age seems to be that she has given up driving a car and so she regrets that she cannot easily travel as far afield in search of her subject matter as she once did. Nevertheless, there are landscapes of Barra and Sutherland here as well as of places closer to her home in Edinburgh.
Although she was born in Warwickshire, Perpetua Pope's parents came from Aberdeen and sent her back there to school. From there she went to Edinburgh College of Art, but she had only completed two years of her course when the war began. She enlisted in the WAAF on the day war was declared. She couldn't just sit around and paint while other people were fighting a war, she says. Like others in her year who joined up or were enlisted, notably Robin Philipson and Jack Firth, she returned to college to complete her course when hostilities ended. After college she taught at Moray House but, she says, she had always been a painter who taught, rather than a teacher who painted, and so, in 1972, she gave up teaching to paint full time. She hasn't looked back.
She has very fond memories of her time at college. The atmosphere in the painting school when she was a student reflected the dedication to their art of the people who taught there. Among them she remembers William Gillies, John Maxwell and Penelope Beaton with particular fondness, although as Penelope Beaton was very tall and John Maxwell was very small, she remembers with amusement what an odd couple they made if you saw them together. Her own commitment to her art and, even more, the transparent integrity that it displays, demonstrate how much she is the heir to that remarkable generation of dedicated painters.
She loves abstract painting and would have liked to paint abstract pictures, she says, but she just couldn't do it. She could not take the easy route and follow fashion as so many did, including her contemporary at college, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham. Her own art is clearly too deeply rooted in her experience and her engagement with her subject matter is too strong. She talks about painting as a kind of recollection, as a way of reliving and making permanent the joy of a beautiful landscape, or simply of a bunch of flowers.
Among the most remarkable pictures here are several of Barra. One of the linked island of Vatersay is particularly striking. There are rocks in the distance, fixing the line of the horizon, and clouds against blue sky above, but in the rest of the picture, subordinating the individual waves to the overall driving flow of wind and water, the wind seems to blow the blue sea white. A picture called Seascape is simply a sheet of moving water without even the rocks to anchor it. It is an effect she achieves by painting thinly and quickly in broad strokes and is as much about how it felt to be there as how it looked. She says she loves to catch the experience in this way; not just the appearance of a scene, but something of the physical sensation of being part of it. In this she is heir to the elder McTaggart who knew, as she does, not only how in a seascape it is the wind that animates the scene, but also how to paint it.
Painting and gardening have kept her young, she says, but the gardens she paints are more nature's than her own. There are lovely paintings here of wildflowers among the rocks on the beach at Seacliff and in the rich green machair of Barra. There are also sheets of snowdrops and aconites painted at Cambo in Fife. In one of these latter pictures the view stretches into the wood beyond the carpet of white flowers to where the sunlight is striking through the bare trees to create a dappled pattern of light and shade among their trunks. She says it was difficult, but she has captured the effect beautifully. There you see her integrity. She takes no shortcuts, deploys no sleight of hand which can so easily deceive the eye, but works until what is on her canvas does not simply imitate, but matches with an equivalent both the coherence and the complexity of the scene before her. Bank with Scabious is another striking painting. It is also one for which she professes a particular fondness. She was brought up in the country, so the long grass studded with flowers reminds her of the pleasures of her childhood, she says. It is a clue to how she preserves something of that innocent delight in all her painting.
Philip Reeves showing at the Open Eye is another model of artistic integrity. I have written about him several times this year, but he has contributed so much to art in Scotland, I feel no need to apologise (although please note this is the last day of the show). If he worked south of the Border, his 80th birthday would have been marked by a major retrospective at the Tate. Here, however, national recognition amounts to no more than a handful of prints in the national collection, all purchased 30 or more years ago.
The current show includes not only some remarkable recent work - Ribbon, for instance, or Inveruglas, both masterly abstract works - but also pictures from much earlier in his career too, like Blea Moor from 1969. He had by then already adopted collage as his favourite medium, but the picture is clearly a landscape and so shows the way that for him abstraction evolved naturally out of landscape. Collage also lent it another dimension. In Land and Tide the image is divided into two equal rectangles, one above the other. The upper one is a piece of board with tiling grout, or raked plaster dragged across it. The lower one has been marked with a roller or brush in black and grey. They read as land and tide as the title suggests, but their physical character also gives tangibility to the image so that its separate identity is quite clear: it is a metaphor; it echoes, but it does not represent. One thing becomes another, humble materials are transfigured; what has been rejected as beyond use becomes poetry.
This kind of metamorphosis is at the heart of all great art but, just like the Victorians, too many of our younger contemporaries are hung up on narrative instead, on art that depends on a sequence of verbal ideas, not on a directly visual metaphor. Rather than knights and damsels in distress, however, or melancholy fishermen's wives looking forlornly out to sea, their subject matter is always themselves, and the narrative is usually provided by the label. In contrast, the purely visual quality of the art of Philip Reeves and Perpetua Pope is a reminder of how there is a rightness in painting that is not only like the rightness of the just note in music, but partakes too of a kind of truth. Above all, however, what both these artists show us is the wealth that comes from experience. It is there in every mark they make.
• Perpetua Pope until 1 June. Philip Reeves ends today.