Picasso & Modern British Art

It could, I suppose, be argued that I should be writing about these exhibitions when they open, rather than a few days before they close. To which I reply: whatevs. I’ve got television shows to review, and surely no-one’s going to suggest that painting is a higher art form than TV? But bearing in mind that there is, once again, a lot of new stuff starting this week on the box, I don’t think you’ll be remotely disappointed if you find the time to see this exhibition.

When reviewing it, I remarked that one of the unexpected strengths of the National Galleries of Scotland‘s other big summer show, ‘Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape In Europe 1880-1910’, was that there actually wasn’t too much by either Van Gogh or Kandinsky in it, which gave some excellent but lesser-known artists room to make an impact. ‘Picasso & Modern British Art’, on the other hand, has bucketloads of Picassos. As it happens, though, this is once again an extremely wise curatorial decision.

The theme of the exhibition is, broadly, the effect that Picasso had on 20th century Britain’s artistic community, but what it demonstrates is that while Picasso was clearly capable of coming up with two or three new directions for modern art before breakfast, his British acolytes were reduced to playing catch-up. Indeed, the greatest curatorial challenge must have been to come up with euphemisms for “copied” in the (typically excellent) object labels: Picasso “influenced” some artists, and was a “key reference point” for others, who “appropriated” his style, paid it “homage”, or – my favourite – “adopted a style that owed much” to him. “Much” meaning, in the case of Duncan Grant at least, “approximately 100%”. Of the home team, it’s only Wyndham Lewis, with his Futurist leanings, and Francis Bacon who emerge with a lot of credit, in my (completely uneducated and uninformed) opinion.

But with over 40 dazzling works by Picasso himself, including many of the first paintings and drawings to have been purchased by both public and private collectors in Britain, and a wealth of archive material putting his work in a peculiarly British context –  ‘Guernica’, for instance, was exhibited in a car showroom in Manchester in 1939 – the exhibition is in many ways nothing less than a potted history of the art of the first 50 years of the last century, as outlined by its most consistently brilliant practitioner. Which makes it essential viewing, and nearly as good as TV. It’s open until Sunday, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910

Touted as the National Galleries of Scotland‘s big summer blockbuster exhibition, this actually isn’t too much of a blockbuster at all, and it’s all the better for it. Yes, there are a couple of works by Van Gogh – superior ones, as well – but even those of us who like Vincent have almost certainly seen enough of his work to last several lifetimes.

The real revelations here come with the lesser-known artists, particularly in the first four rooms, in which the air of pensive gloom builds up to an almost overwhelming degree. There’s something about an unpeopled landscape, whether rural or (particularly) urban, which speaks to our relationship with our own mortality: that’s how the world looks without me. It’s no surprise that, even now, any filmmaker who wants to create an unsettling mood just has to find a city prepared to empty its streets for long enough to be filmed.

Thus there are chilling landscapes from, for example, Franz von Stuck and Léon Spilliaert (whose painting of the Royal Galleries in Ostend is a highlight), and a Whistler painting of a Venice entirely devoid of people, something which, I suppose, might have been easier to achieve then than it would be now.

As it turns out, though, not only does Scandinavia produce great TV drama, crime fiction, and even pop, it’s the go-to place if you want hundred-year-old brooding melancholy, with startling and eerie works by Prince Eugen (‘The Forest’), Albert Edelfelt, Vilhelm Hammarschøi, and Akseli Gallen-Kallela some of the high points. Even an ostensibly bucolic Laurits Andersen Ring painting (‘The Painter Lundbye’s Bench’) turns out to be a profound meditation on loss.

After that, it’s almost a relief to move into the final rooms: the colours brighten, people turn up. Perhaps the outstanding painting in the whole exhibition is here, Gauguin’s ‘Vision after the Sermon’, which will be familiar to the home audience, although it’s a particular treat to see it in the context of what was happening elsewhere in Europe at that time. One or two of the paintings here try a little too hard (that silly one with the horses and the waves, for example) but there’s a satisfactory one-two punch from Kandinsky to round things off. The exhibition closes on Sunday and shouldn’t be missed.

Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape; Edvard Munch: Graphic Works from The Gundersen Collection

The National Galleries of Scotland’s big summer exhibitions, ‘Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910’, and ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’, will be opening shortly; it would be a shame, though, if they were allowed to overshadow these two excellent shows.

Giovanni Lusieri (1755-1821) was, apparently, regarded as one of the foremost artists on the planet during his lifetime; this, however, nearly 200 years after his death, is the first exhibition dedicated to his work, and I’m quite prepared to admit that I hadn’t heard of him until I saw the publicity for ‘Expanding Horizons’. Accordingly, for me this exhibition is an eye-opener as an introduction to the art of Lusieri who, unusually for his time, worked almost exclusively in the medium of watercolour. It’s an eye-opener in the literal sense as well, though, because to get the very best out of some of his remarkable large-scale panoramas I had to stand back and take in the grand sweep of Lusieri’s vision, then move in close and notice the breathtaking attention to detail. Then back out again.

But, although these works would be enough on their own to make this a satisfying exhibition, there’s more to Lusieri than that: there are, for example, some pictures of Vesuvius erupting which look as if the fire and smoke are being forced up from Hell itself. As revelatory, in its way, as NGS’s 2010 artist-you-should-have-heard-of exhibition featuring the work of Christian Købke, ‘Expanding Horizons’ is an absolute joy (National Gallery of Scotland, until 28 October 2012).

And a couple of miles down the road, in the National Gallery of Modern Art’s across-the-road annexe, there are some quiet miracles being worked by Edvard Munch in a selection of works from a private Norwegian collection. As there is, of course, a much larger and well-publicised exhibition of Munch’s work on at the Tate Modern in London just now, I was half-expecting this to be a bit of a coat-tails job, frankly. It isn’t though; it’s really good. Really, really good. On top of illness and the death of his mother and sister during his childhood, Munch lived out a hard-drinking, brawling, womanising artist’s life in adulthood, occasionally tormented by suicidal thoughts, and with mental health problems never far away. This all got poured into the moving, often unsettlingly sinister, images of loss and loneliness on which his reputation is based.

Yes, there’s a version of ‘The Scream’, Munch’s most famous work, and although it’s such a widely-available image that its impact can be dulled by familiarity, there’s undoubtedly an intensity in the real thing, close up, which makes you see it anew. (One of the “real things” anyway; there are plenty of ‘Screams’ out there. Sensitive and angst-ridden with an artist’s brooding soul Munch might have been, but he knew a winner when he saw one.) There’s a marvellous piece of context-setting as well, as the exhibition shows how Munch inspired a generation of Scottish artists – and provoked vituperative correspondence in The Scotsman – when he featured in a solo show in the early 30s. If anything, this is even better than the Lusieri show, which makes it pretty damn close to unmissable (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern 2), until 23 September 2012).