Art review: JD Fergusson, Edinburgh

The JD Fergusson exhibition is the first major retrospective of his work for 40 years. Picture: TSPL
The JD Fergusson exhibition is the first major retrospective of his work for 40 years. Picture: TSPL
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JD Fergusson’s adventurous life is there for all to see on his vibrant canvases, writes Moira Jeffrey.


Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

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Of the four artists known as the Scottish Colourists, JD Fergusson (1874- 1961) was the closest to the real thing. That is, he led an adventurous life as a modernist artist, working at the heart of the avant-garde. He was to spend the most productive years of his career in Paris and London as an active participant rather than an observer. He exhibited in the radical Salon D’Automne, for example, where shocking art movements like Fauvism and Cubism were first exposed to public scrutiny.

The Scottish bit was something that he was not only personally proud of, but actively, culturally engaged with. After his move to Glasgow in 1939, when he was in his sixties, he pursued Celtic themes. He and his wife, the dancer and teacher Margaret Morris, whom he met in Paris in 1913, did much to support a renewed vigour in the arts in Scotland in the post-war period. His extraordinary longevity and commitment to the ideals of artistic independence meant that artists of subsequent generations found themselves the beneficiaries of his kindness or encouragement.

But colour, oh colour. As this thorough and well presented survey at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art ably demonstrates it is the siren call in his art: the cause of its initial attractiveness but the reason for its often precarious balance between success and failure.

It’s there right from the beginning in this show, in a small work entitled Grey Day, Paris-Plage. Far from being dreich this little painting is a pretty confection of roses and blues. Born in Leith to Gaelic speaking parents from Highland Perthshire, we can safely assume that Fergusson knew what a grey day really looked like. He met an early partner, the American artist and fashion illustrator Anne Estelle Rice, on that beach, and it is as though he can’t see for the rustle of silk.

Colour in Fergusson is not colour in nature, nor is it the truly shocking anti-naturalistic colour of the Fauvist and Expressionist art that he encountered on the continent and as editor of the art magazine Rhythm. It’s often a kind of short cut or short hand and its repetitiveness and lack of complexity sometimes sells the paintings themselves short. Fergusson’s paintings can be just too sweet and palatable against the acid flavours of his times.

Curator Alice Strang has kept her nerve among the floral abundance and pneumatic nudes of Fergusson’s mature career. Like her two preceeding Colourist shows, on Peploe and Cadell, she is careful not to make overwhelming claims for Fergusson’s art, but points clearly to where his work is innovative. As she points out, the frontal nudes of the period around 1910-11 were startling by British standards. These days they mostly startle for their anatomical emphasis, which is often on comically proportioned busts and bottoms. Strang also has a great eye for the kind of biographical anecdote that illuminates rather than detracts from the work.

In 1913, his head full of French theory about vital life forces, the artist met his life partner, the avant-garde dancer Margaret Morris. They spent time in Cap d’Antibes. The sun sea and sand (and the sex) of southern France is a kind of Never Neverland that the couple returned to literally and intellectually throughout their lives.

But art works like Bathers: Noon reveal a complacency to all the “plein air” posing, a lack of doubt that is not quite eliminated by the evident sincerity of their belief in unfettered expression and sunbathing. I’ve often thought of Fergusson and Morris as the kind of people you secretly want to be, would love to meet for a drink, but would never want to find yourself next to on the beach in the battle for the last sun lounger.

There are, though, real successes. The vast Bacchanalian dance Les Eus from 1913 (on loan from Glasgow’s Hunterian) with it’s naked men and women misbehaving in the manner of the times is linked to the experiments of both Cezanne and Stravinsky: it is tightly constructed and full of carnal joys.

A section dedicated to sculpture is a lovely revelation of experiment: fumbling stone carvings and idiosyncratic brasses and bronzes show a questing intelligence. The enigmatic small brass work, Gloxinia of 1919 is genuinely ahead of the game. Named after a flower, it is a polymorphous representation of female genitalia that wouldn’t look out of place in the oeuvre of Marcel Duchamp or in the Louise Bourgeois show currently across the road.

But seeing these over 100 works together one does long for a little more such humour and complexity, for works that reveal some doubt or struggle in the manufacture and a wider world view.

Even Fergusson’s wartime works present the Portsmouth Docks in 1918 with dazzling Mediterranean intensity. Keen to avoid active service, he was interviewed by a Colonel for a post as an army war artist. As Morris told it: “Fergus hesitated, saying the one thing which worried him was his dislike of the khaki colour of the uniforms”. How about the navy? “Fergus replied that blue was his favourite colour.”

I think we should take this anecdote as a kind of defiant jest against the times.

But blue and pink, sun and sex, Fergus and Meg: it’s hard to blame the artist for choosing light and freedom over everything else. It may have been an easy personal choice but it wasn’t an easy life in terms of critical and commercial success.

This is a very well put together show, which argues thoroughly for Fergusson’s historical importance. It provides a fine setting for the excellent collection of the Fergusson Gallery in Perth, which cares for work gifted by the JD Fergusson Foundation. It brings together some fine works from the University of Stirling and some new gems from private lenders. The good stuff really sings. But the irksome nature of some of Fergusson’s paintings speaks for itself. There is their repetitiveness, their monumentality, their unique way of being both saccharine and butch. By the end of it I admired Fergusson’s intensity but longed for a bit more khaki.

• Until 15 June