Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Scottish Colourists Series: JD Fergusson

The Scottish Colourists Series: JD Fergusson
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
7 December 2013 – 15 June 2014


Though perhaps not as well known as Ireland for producing swathes of young artists and rebels intent on leaving the country in search of adventure and success, Scotland has a similar tradition of inspiring departure. The Scottish Colourists, a group of painters who left their Scottish homes and families in the early twentieth century, to find inspiration mainly in France, are some of the most notable of this sprawling group. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is hosting a series of retrospectives of the Colourists, and the work of J. D. Fergusson (1874 – 1961) is exhibited there until the summer, following retrospectives of Cadell, Hunter and Peploe.

One of the most adventurous of his group of émigrés, J. D. Fergusson was born in Leith, not far from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and probably more famous for being the setting of Trainspotting than for its artistic community, past or present. Since Fergusson’s retrospective opens in December, one of the bleakest months, merely the experience of walking to the exhibition in such weather helps explain the artist’s attraction to colour and flamboyance that these paintings are testament to. There is nothing like a childhood and adolescence of seemingly impenetrable greyness to inspire escape, and a persistent, life-long desire for something more colourful. Combined with the steely determination that enduring years of such weather gives rise to, the sustained dedication of the Scottish Colourists, and Fergusson especially, makes sense. 

“To go to Paris was the natural thing for the Scot… It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the modern Scot that the Scottish Celt when in France was among his own people, the French Celts. French culture was founded by the Celts and… if Scotland or Celtic Scotland could make a ‘new alliance’ with France, not a political union like the ‘Auld Alliance’ but cultural, it would perhaps put Scotland back on to the track of her culture, and see the Scots do something Scottish instead of imitating the English or rather second-rate British.”[i]

Moving to Paris in 1907, Fergusson absorbed that French culture and innovative styles of painting there, which revolved around a love of light and its colourful effects. Perhaps more so than the other Scottish painters in Paris, he assimilated into life and art there, and came to be known as the more bohemian of the émigrés, as well as the most vivacious, considered as, “the leader of the English-speaking artistic community.”[ii] Rather than simply becoming French, however, Fergusson’s move to Paris was ultimately a way of being Scottish, and understanding his Scottish identity. Perhaps one cannot appreciate the subtleties and possibilities of a grey and blue palette, without immersing into the giddy colours of the ‘other Celts’. Certainly for Fergusson, living in France not only realized dreams of colour and light, but led to a fuller understanding of Scotland, and its subtler palette.

The exhibition of over 100 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, viewed all together express a real vitality and sense of victory, that this exploration and adventure were successful and productive. Though some of the images of coffee-houses and nocturnal celebrations may now seem overly familiar, given the popularity of those subjects with their French contemporaries, to see them in the context of Edinburgh, and Fergusson’s early paintings of Scotland, is to glimpse the wider narrative and depth of the scenes shown. It is also to see that the attraction of Paris, and of travel, for Fergusson, was not simply about colour, or exploring techniques used by French artists; it was about people. His canvases painted in Paris are full of lively figures – dressmakers, dancers, artists, and drunks – milling around coffee houses and bars – reclining on park benches, or kneeled on exotic carpets – amid flowers and a city enchanting and alive. These paintings express love and enchantment through colour and light, not simply with it. These glamorous women and beautiful dancers, these relaxed, sunlit bodies, required some traveling to find.

Compared to the rugged hills of Scotland and the gloomy Forth, where any people seem to vanish in the presence of such a domineering nature, or the shipyards of Glasgow, where ships sink slowly, (Damaged Destroyer, 1918), Paris gave Fergusson crowds of new faces, fashions and bodies, which are celebrated in so many of his works. In Les Eus (1910 – 13), an impressive, well-constructed and vivacious painting, Fergusson depicts nude couples dancing in a frame of green foliage, probably inspired by Les Ballet Russes and other dance in Paris at the time, and of course by his wife, Margaret Morris (1891 – 1980), a dancer and choreographer originally from London, whose original techniques and ideas about ballet, and the dancers who attended her summer schools, became inspirational to Fergusson. Paintings such as Etude de Rhythm, Seated Nude, and Bathers, The Parasol, continue to show his fascination with the female form, as well as the influence of Matisse and Picasso, and his Parisian contemporaries.

The presence of dance and fashion in his paintings is perhaps what gives Fergusson’s work an adventurous, daring quality that the other Scottish Colourists do not exhibit so obviously, and it is these scenes – these dances captured in paint and light – that linger. Fergusson was a Scot and a Colourist, but he was also in love with dance, and a dancer, and it was this aspect of his life in Paris that remains most intriguing and original. The exhibition reveals these aspects, subtly pointing out moments of success and innovation in Fergusson’s painting, and downplaying criticisms of repetition or blandness, or even, too much colour. In showing careful portraits alongside carnal dances, and reminding us of his landscapes and shipyards, as well as his well-known Parisian café scenes, the exhibition hints at a more complex painter, and a more interesting body of work, than is often assumed. 

[i] Fergusson, Modern Scottish Painting, pp. 67—69
[ii] Angela Smith ‘Tigers in Paris: Katherine Mansfield, Emily Carr, John Duncan Fergusson and Fauvism’ in Beale & Smith, Outsiders in Paris p. 38

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