They reacted against the stilted Victorian iconography of the time, the couthy kailyard images and sentimentalised, over-emotional depictions of “everyday” life that were nothing of the sort. And, for sure, that is something well worth reacting against. One only has to look at a painting like James Hamilton’s hideously stylised and romanticised Massacre of Glencoe (right), in an upstairs gallery at the Kelvingrove, to see the excesses of Victorian art which needed to be swept away.
To do this, the Glasgow Boys harnessed impressionist and post-impressionist approaches to create more naturalistic images and presentations and move away from the more stultifying imagery and approaches of the time in the same way that the French Impressionists had done in Paris a decade or more before. Where Monet and co rebelled against the Salon, the Glasgow Boys rebelled against the prevailing Edinburgh style. The Royal Academy, which presented an exhibition of the Glasgow Boys in 2010-11, suggests: “These artists sought to liberate their art from the staid, dark toned narrative paintings being produced in Glasgow and Edinburgh in order to explore the effects of realist subject matter and the particular effects of light captured through working out of doors, directly in front of the motif.” It goes on to say: “The resultant works were, from c. 1880 to 1900, among the most experimental and ambitious to be produced in the UK.” Well, yes and no.
Their favoured approach was to paint in a natural, impressionistic style, using broad brush strokes and observing real life, showing people in ordinary situations going about their ordinary lives. They worked in the open air. They painted what they saw, not some pastoral idyll. In this, they openly expressed their indebtedness to Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French realist painter whose techniques and subject matter the work of the Glasgow Boys undoubtedly closely mirrors. And here we begin to see the first of the difficulties I have with them.
My second difficulty with them is that they don’t quite cohere as a group. To be fair to them, they would probably agree: they eschewed more formal labels such as the “Glasgow School” and preferred the less academic “Boys”, suggesting they had no particular manifesto in mind other than that of painting in a naturalistic way. But they don’t cohere. Because they are picking up influences from all over this is reflected in the extraordinarily wide variety of styles and approaches. While they did suggest that they wanted to paint, in the fashion of Lepage, using broad brush strokes and glorying in the patterns of the paint rather than trying to conceal all of the painter’s brushwork, and while they professed to eschew the more twee imagery of Victorian art, many of their paintings are produced in remarkably fine brush strokes and many adopt imagery which would have been readily understandable by Victorian society. The works exhibited here are just as likely to contradict their professed style as to display it.
This is something that fascinates me. Cormac McCarthy explores the same technique of playing with perspective through his use of tense and person. Out of nowhere, his texts will shift from third person into first, and from past tense into present. This offers, in literary form, the same multiple, highly personalised approach to perspective we see in surrealism. Take this scene from Suttree which I’ve quoted on this blog before. In it, Suttree is in the cemetery where he has just seen his son buried:
They went on among the tilted stones and rough grass, the wind coming from the woods cold in the sunlight. A stone angel in her weathered marble robes, the downcast eyes. The old people’s voices drift across the lonely space, murmurous above these places of the dead. The lichens on the crumbling stones like a strange green light. The voices fade. Beyond the gentle clash of weeds. He sees them stoop to read some quaint inscription and he pauses by an old vault that a tree has half dismantled with its growing. Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.This is brilliant writing. It moves from the personal, in the past tense, through to the universal, in the present tense, accompanied by a narratorial shift so that the identity of the maker of the last point is ambiguous. This happens throughout the novel, with frequent shifts into the first person so that Suttree becomes the narrator and the narrator becomes Suttree. Perspectives are shifting constantly. There is a beautiful and seamless melding of stories at work.
It’s a beautiful painting, quite breathtaking. There is something about her which is captivating, something radiant, effervescent. You sometimes know, even after seeing someone only once, that they have a beautiful soul. This woman has a beautiful soul.