Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Glasgow Boys

I went to the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow the other day to look at their collection of paintings by the Glasgow Boys, a loose conglomeration of artists from or based in Glasgow in the back end of the 19th century and early 20th century. It’s an interesting collection, for sure, well worth a look.

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.

Their work may have been experimental: certainly they worked en plein air, which few had done at this stage, and certainly not in Scotland, with all its attendant difficulties – if the rain doesn’t get you the midges will. But experimenting doesn’t necessarily mean innovation, and I’m not sure how innovative you could say the Glasgow Boys were. Rather, they seemed to pick up techniques and ideas and approaches from the new art that was developing throughout Europe. In the works of the Glasgow Boys we can see everything from the Pre-Raphaelites – such as David Gauld’s Saint Agnes - Lepage, the impressionists and so on. Every contemporary art movement can be seen here. We see the influence of Whistler, of Corot. William Kennedy’s Stirling Station (right) is heavily reminiscent of the work of William Powell Frith. Edward Atkinson Hornel’s Dance of Spring is Brueghel by way of Stanley Spencer. There is also, unsurprisingly for the back end of the 19th century, a strong interest in Japonisme: some of these are fascinating, and the brushwork and, in particular colouring, suggest not only Impressionism, but Vincent van Gogh’s experiments with Japanese style. All of this, then, suggests not so much a forward-looking movement but a group absorbing and responding to the changing tastes of the times. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it limits the influence the group must have on art history.

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.

In particular, early works by the group were heavily symbolist in nature. I’ve already mentioned Gauld’s Saint Agnes. One of the most famous painting of the “Boys” is Henry and Hornel’s The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (right). It’s a wonderful painting, visually striking, intellectually stimulating. But realist it is not. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with artists stretching themselves and trying new things, but it is difficult at times to get any sense of artistic coherence in the wide variety of styles we see exhibited here.

I’m perhaps too harsh, though. There are wonderful paintings here. George Henry’s A Galloway Landscape (left), for example, is a remarkable piece. It’s use of perspective is fascinating. It completely flattens the landscape in a very stylised way. Partly, thislooks back to the Japonisme that was so popular in the 1870s (and Henry and Hornel actually visited Japan in 1873) but, more interestingly, in its determination to explore perspective it seems to look forward to surrealism. The difficulty with perspective is that it dictates conformity: every viewer sees every image from the same vantage point, while real life is not like that. The surrealists overcame this limitation with their ability to show multiple perspectives of the same image – think of Picasso’s heads – so that the viewer can see the image from every vantage point all at once. It becomes a highly personalised way of projecting art. This work by Henry, with it’s flattened perspective, offers an early glimpse of that approach.

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.

One further painting in the collection is a revelation. It is James Guthrie’s Funeral in the Highlands, a stark and austere work depicting a funeral ceremony for a dead child. The mourners are presented in striking clarity. Most of them are painted with natural colouring, so realistic it could be a photograph. One man, however, is slightly different. He is to the right of the group, wringing his hat in his hands, staring at the ground. This man is painted slightly differently, in less natural colouring, almost a chiarascuro effect. But, remarkably, rather than make him seem less real than the other, more naturalistically painted mourners, he becomes more real. To an almost painful degree, in fact. His internalisation causes the grief to explode from him. You know this is a man who will never talk about this day again, but who will never overcome it. There is a cliche among writers about a painting or a character in a painting which is so real it feels like it is about to come to life and this is the person or scene you should write about. Well, cliche or not, here we have a striking example of the phenomenon. I had the uncanny sense, standing before this painting, that the man was going to raise his head and look at me. It's an astonishing piece of art.

There is one final painting I want to mention, nothing at all to do with the Glasgow Boys but one which features upstairs in one of the other galleries. This is Matisse’s Woman With Oriental Dress.

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.

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