Book review: Facing the Nation - The Portraiture of Alexander Moffat, by Bill Hare

George Mackay Brown, by Alexander Moffat
George Mackay Brown, by Alexander Moffat
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The major exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh at the moment is entitled A New Era, and it tells the story of how the art landscape in Scotland was changed utterly in the years between 1900 and 1950 by the seismic impact of cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism and everything that followed. In that short space of time, the defiant naturalism of the Glasgow Boys gave way to the pure, joyous abstraction of Allan Davie, but in the early 1960s, at the same time that Davie was producing some of his most exuberant, out-there canvases, a young artist by the name of Alexander Moffat was moving in a very different direction. The story of Scottish art, as Bill Hare’s thought-provoking new book shows, is as complex and multi-faceted as we choose to make it.

Moffat was still a student at Edinburgh College of Art when, in 1962, after seeing an Oskar Kokoschka exhibition in London, he decided that he was going to concentrate on portraiture. He was well-aware that this was not a fashionable thing to do – as he wrote in a note on Picture of Ourselves, an exhibition he curated for the Scottish Arts Council two decades later, “Until recently, there was a tendency by the majority of artists and critics to regard portraiture with suspicion, if not with downright contempt.”

Sorley MacLean by Alexander Moffat

Sorley MacLean by Alexander Moffat

Compared with what the abstract expressionists were up to during the same period, Moffat’s work must certainly have seemed fairly traditional, yet – as Hare explains with admirable precision – Moffat made various subtly modern innovations. For example, in common with Picasso and Matisse, he tends to give his sitters blank, mask-like faces, and this, Hare explains, “encourages the viewer to project their own instinctive reactions and critical judgements onto the portrait image.” He also adopted the habit, very early in his career, of simplifying the backgrounds of his paintings, often reducing them to a few simple blocks of colour, with the effect that the viewer’s attention is focused more completely on the subject.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is an essay by Hare entitled “Personal, Particular, Public,” in which he tells the story of Moffat’s career, and – as already mentioned – makes an impressively clear-sighted assessment of the ways in which he adapted and updated the genre. The passage on his most famous work, Poet’s Pub, is particularly good, both putting it in context and teasing out some of the significant but less-than-obvious references that lie tucked away in the corners of the bar.

The second part, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Portraitist,” is a transcript of a conversation between Hare and Moffat, and this latter section contains much that will appeal to those interested in the theory of making portraits, in particular Moffat’s thoughts on “how to penetrate beyond the superficial and achieve profundity” (or what Kokoschka called “X-raying the soul of his sitters.”) For the general reader, meanwhile, there are some choice anecdotes about Moffat’s experiences of painting some of his more famous subjects. When he began his portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, for instance, the pair were mid-conversation when “suddenly Valda [his second wife, Valda Trevlyn] came in and scolded [MacDiarmid] for not having his false teeth in. He said there was no need for that as the artist would simply see to it with the stroke of a brush.” Meanwhile, when Moffat asked Muriel Spark if she felt he should include any additional imagery in his painting of her, she apparently replied “No, no, I only want me.”

At one point during their conversation, Hare notes that the fact Moffat developed his distinctive style relatively early in his career gives his work a certain unity, but Moffat replies: “Sometimes... I’ve wished that this wasn’t the case, that there could have been a few minor eruptions.” However, as Facing the Nation demonstrates, artists don’t necessarily need to be volcanic to make an impact.

Self-portrait, by Alexander Moffat

Self-portrait, by Alexander Moffat

*Facing the Nation: The Portraiture of Alexander Moffat, by Bill Hare, Luath, 191pp, £25