Art review: The Michie Family, The Scottish gallery, Edinburgh

Have your say

NATURE or nurture, what makes an artist? When you have artists who are children of artists, the conundrum is even more insoluble.

The Michie Family


The Scottish gallery, Edinburgh

There is nurture in an artistic household to point you towards an artistic career, but if you are then a success, is your talent genetic or learned? For if genes do have anything to do with it, that is where it will show. Four members of the Michie family brought together in an exhibition at the Scottish Gallery are a good example of this mystery. James Michie was an architect who was also a painter. He married the painter Anne Redpath and two of their sons, Alistair and David, also became artists. (Just to add a further dimension, Lindy Michie, Alistair’s daughter, is an artist currently exhibiting in Victoria, Canada.) After living and working in France, where the children spent their early years, James Michie brought his family back to Scotland. He eventually moved south, leaving his family in the Borders. As they grew up, Anne Redpath resumed her career as a painter, which she had put on hold for her children, and became one of the best loved of her generation of Scottish artists. David has, of course, been a familiar figure in Scottish art for many years. Alastair made his career in the south, but he did show in Scotland occasionally. In consequence, it is James Michie’s work that is the least familiar here. A big drawing of construction work in Bristol shows his architect’s eye, but Landscape Northern France and Still Life with Chinese Figures both show an affinity with his wife’s work. Windmills in Northern France is vivid with colour reminiscent of Cadell, but the same palette is seen in Anne Redpath’s painting, Spring Trees, undated, but perhaps from the years in France. She is also represented by several other early works like this. French landscape (Byrrh) is a masterpiece of understated delicacy, for instance. There is also a fine portrait of her husband as a young man and a charming pastel of David as a baby. There are pictures in her more familiar, later style, too, such as the beautiful Yellow Painted Chest, or a spectacular gouache of Flowers in a Basket.

Alistair followed his father to train as an architect. David followed his mother to become a painter. Thus far nurture perhaps, but the genetic side of the equation perhaps also shows in their subsequent careers. Alastair was a gifted draughtsman. His training interrupted by the war, he became a successful fashion artist and there are several stylish examples of his work in this genre in the show. Then he too became a painter and a sculptor. He claimed his mother’s influence had nothing to do with his art and indeed, as though defying any residual influence of nurture, his later career as a painter of striking abstract pictures followed an encounter with Abstract Expressionism at the Venice Biennale in 1963 and a meeting with Mark Rothko. The abstract pictures he painted subsequently, particularly later pictures like Cool, a big field of blue with jagged shapes beneath in black and white, are both individual and very assured.

Born in France in 1928, David Michie was the youngest of the family. He is his mother’s heir in the delicacy of his sensibility and, too, in his loyalty to the perceived world as the source of his imagery.

Nevertheless, nature and nurture, even together, can only take you so far. As an artist he is entirely his own man. Two beautiful paintings from the 1950s of the waterfront at Granton and at Leith already show his delicate sense of colour. This sensibility also tells in his observation and in his very individual approach to space. Convolvulus Hawkmoth is a good example. The freely painted background manages to suggest at once a place for the imagination to wander and the actual, physical environment of moth and flower. His distinctive and lively approach to painting is seen in the boldness of a big composition Like Skunk Cabbage Flowers – Arduaine as well as in smaller pictures. His talent still flourishes as brightly as ever in recent works like the lovely Seed Pods and Cosmos from two years ago or several lively small scenes of dancers painted in the last 12 months.

The recent Jubilee bunting fest was mostly artistically perfectly nul, but there was one high point, the projections onto the facade of Buckingham Palace during the Jubilee concert. The highpoint of that, in turn, and so of the whole jamboree, was undoubtedly the projections done for Madness’s two songs, Our House and It Must Be Love. Brilliant though they were, there were no credits, but to put the record straight these were done by Trunk Animation and the big kitsch hearts for It Must Be Love were the work of two young Scottish artists, Jock Mooney and Alasdair Brotherston. Both are graduates of Edinburgh College of Art.

And just to round off my theme of the conundrum of nature and nurture, Jock Mooney’s father is the Scottish painter John Mooney.

• Until 30 June