Sunday, October 15, 2017

British Realism from the 1920s and '30s

The National Galleries of Scotland are currently hosting an exhibit called True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Yellow Glove by James Cowie (Scottish, 1886 - 1956)
For a long time, realism from the early 20th century was overshadowed by the fashion for abstract and pop art, but recently it has undergone a revival, driven by an enthusiastic public and a group of dynamic curators.

A City Garden, 1940, by James McIntosh Patrick
© The artist's estate / Bridgeman Images.
The curators observe that artists of the period were working in a particular mode of realism:
"...precise, hard-edged and graphic, and with minimal narrative detail, as opposed to loose and painterly. The Germans call it Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity], and the Americans call it Magic Realism. British art of this sort doesn’t have a name, which is maybe one reason why it doesn’t win much attention. Art history tends to award points, as it were, to artists who introduce change. So the first artists to go abstract, or use film, or go minimalist, are viewed as important."
Many of the artists lived through the warring madness of the early 20th century. They used their realist training to offer moving statements about their times and about the universal truths of the human condition.

Why War? by Charles Spencelayh, 1938, oil on canvas, 94 x 115 cm.
Spencelayh's painting "Why War" shows an older man in his sitting room, with its souvenirs of previous conflicts, including a gas mask and helmet from World War I, the "war to end all wars." The headline on the newspaper says "Premier Flying to Hitler." His books, tea, and violin bring scant comfort to the ominous prospects of the coming conflagration.

The curators say that an exhibit like this would have been hard to put together before the days of the internet because the works were sold through galleries, and the trail of custody was not well known. But thanks to the website ArtUK, which documents all the paintings in public collections in Great Britain, it has become possible to know where they ended up.
The show will be on view through October 29, 2017
Online essay: Short statement from the curators
Catalog: True To Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s
Previously on GurneyJourney: Magic Realism
Thanks, Sue Arnold, for telling me about it.

1 comment:

sfox said...

Why oh why don't these museums, which are always short of funds, create online versions of their catalogs that they can sell all over the world. Put it together once, sell it forever with no further effort. I'd buy one in a heartbeat for an exhibition like this. They're just leaving money on the table. Sigh.