Art reviews: The Modern Portrait | Philip Reeves: Fragments of Form | Frances Thwaites

If the advent of photography changed the course of the history of art, portraiture was one place where it might have been expected to have a devastating impact, but it has nevertheless endured to this day. Shaped and reshaped by Modernism certainly, it is nevertheless still there. The Modern Portrait, a new display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, shows too that though it is sometimes pretty dire, at its best it can still hold its own.

Tilda Swinton by John Byrne

The Modern Portrait, Scottish National Portrait Gallery ****

Philip Reeves: Fragments of Form, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

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Frances Thwaites, Art and Craft Collective, Edinburgh ***

Curiously, too, although large-scale portraiture has remained a viable and indeed creative art form, photography killed miniature painting stone dead in just a few years. That is perhaps indicative of why large-scale portraits have such an enduring appeal. Scale gives them the human presence. They are also always in some way a record of an actual social situation; the hours, perhaps days that artist and sitter have spent together. (Correspondingly posthumous portraits rarely, if ever work.)

The self-portrait – of which there are several striking examples here – offers a variation on the same theme. You share a time of introspection with the artist, or alternatively you are offered an insight into their projected self-image. William Gillies and Robert Colquhoun paint themselves with disarming directness; FCB Cadell is debonair in a coat with the collar turned up. Alison Watt, on the other hand, puts her hand to her head in a gesture that indicates alarm or despair, but her face is impassive. In his frequent self-portraits John Byrne’s self-image is mostly as a kind of chameleon. Here, though, in an early painting, he shows himself in a flowered jacket with brush and palette focusing hard on the business of the painting in front of him.

If John Byrne seems at ease with whatever self-doubt his image may conceal, in his extraordinary self-portrait standing unflatteringly naked in front of his easel, Ken Currie sees himself as the determined, but defenceless chronicler of a dark and dangerous world. (In his profile self-image, there is a felicitous echo of Kathe Kollwitz’s remarkable self-portrait currently on view on the Hunterian in Glasgow.)

Robert Henderson Blyth, who saw some devastating scenes while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, paints himself in a twice-desolate landscape, one of winter and of ruined buildings. Wearing his tin hat and smoking, he seems calm in spite of the devastation, but there is a dead soldier beside him and it looks as though he has been taking cover from some bombardment now passed.

John Bellany paints himself in a similar moment – not after enemy fire perhaps, but an equivalent. He is in his hospital bed shortly after undergoing a liver transplant. It is a powerful image, but he was not always successful as portraitist. He is represented here by portraits of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Tom Fleming, but neither of them is convincing. Indeed, modern portraiture is by no means always successful. There are several really pedestrian efforts here, but there are also some really strong pictures of interesting people.

In his portrait of Francis George Scott, for instance, William Johnstone tackles, early on, the tricky interface between the abstract tendencies of modernism and the need of some kind of likeness. Edward Baird paints Fionn MacColla (the pen name of Thomas Douglas Macdonald) in what looks like a Scottish fascist uniform. It’s a disturbing reflection of the Left-Right fluidity of Scottish politics in the Thirties, also seen in MacDiarmid’s work and all three, MacDiarmid, Baird and Macdonald were together in Montrose. In contrast to this ambiguity, Sandy Moffat’s later portrait of MacDiarmid here – companion to his better-known Poet’s Pub, also on view – shows the poet in a landscape with respectably left-wing figures like Lenin and the Scottish Socialist John McLean in the background.

Victoria Crowe’s portrait of Thea Musgrave is also an eloquent demonstration of how a painted portrait can add context and depth to a likeness. Stephen Conroy’s portrait of the historian Sir Steven Runciman, on the other hand, is a striking example of a straightforward likeness. He has caught his sitter exactly, but at that point you do wonder whether painting has any advantage over photography now that the latter can command both colour and scale, not available to photographers till relatively recently.

Appropriately this display mixes photographs with painting and indeed sculpture and drawing. John Byrne’s brilliantly animated drawing of Tilda Swinton, for instance, is a highlight, while Alex Main’s nearly abstract bust of Norman McCaig shows that, handled with skill, how little it takes to invoke a sitter. James Craig Annan’s photograph of Jessie M King in an enormous hat is memorable, while David Williams’ two photos of AL Kennedy show how it is photography’s gift to be able to turn the casual and informal into something both memorable and revealing. In all this however, Ken Currie’s portrait of the three Dundee oncologists stands out. It shows how in painting, portraiture can still command the heights while owing nothing to the photographic image.

There is no portrait of Philip Reeves here, nor indeed in the portrait collection. There should be – and nor as far as I can see is there any work by him in the wider collection either, certainly nothing significant. Celebrated in Fragments of Form in the RSA lower galleries, Reeves, who died last year, was a modest man. He never pushed himself, yet he was a major figure in Scottish art from the Fifties when he first came to Scotland to teach printmaking at Glasgow School of Art. As one of the prime movers in setting up the Edinburgh Print Workshop and the Glasgow Print Studio, he had a key role in the revival of printmaking in Scotland.

As an inventive and poetic master of collage in an abstract idiom that was all his own, his work was always an oasis of poetry and reflective calm in the cacophony of the annual society shows like the RSA, the SSA and the RGI. He was also a master print maker, as work in Fragments of Form richly demonstrates. The show follows the bequest of the contents of his studio to the RSA and the range of work included demonstrates the richness and constant inventiveness of his art. He could see the beauty in a piece of corrugated cardboard, or a significant shape in a fragment of metal and make them sing.

Perhaps his prints are especially remarkable though. The delicacy of his judgement of balance, shape and colour and indeed texture is constantly rewarding. He used multiple plates in ways that articulated something about the very nature of print-making. This is a rich show. Some of the work is for sale as the Academy rationalises what it has inherited and raises the cash needed to look after it and to endow a scholarship in the artist’s name. Given the resource of his studio – he was productive but sold very little – and before dispersing the collection, even in part, it is a shame that the RSA did not invest a bit more time to give him the proper, memorial retrospective he so richly deserves.

Coincidentally, four works by Frances Thwaites, an even more neglected Scottish abstract artist are on view at the Art and Craft Collective. It is very slight, but a timely reminder of an unjustly forgotten artist.