Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Glasgow Boys & Treasures From Budapest

The Royal Academy have had some good shows: Treasures from Budapest was a stunning exhibition, big, bold, far-reaching, impressive but I enjoyed the current smaller exhibition, The Glasgow Boys, more.

The Glasgow Boys – a loose group of talented young painters in the late 1800's not all of whom were Scottish - wanted to change the usual sombre style prevalent of the time in Scottish painting. The sort that was either heroic or sublime. They chose more realistic subject matter such as farm workers or animals.

Their style was not the highly finished and honed painting. It was more impressionistic and they copied Whistler's style (one of their heroes). The paintings showed the subject in-focus whilst allowing the distance to be out of focus. They did not necessarily paint au plein aire as the Impressionists did but they did sketch outdoors and the feel of the finished paintings is very naturalistic and not at all laboured.

I love their work, it's as simple as that. It is so accessible and easy on the eye. In fact there were times I must have looked a love-struck idiot, so bowled over was I by some of the paintings. The light in the paintings is appealing without the viewer realising. And these artists were so accomplished that no matter how impressionistic the subjects are, yet, with only the merest (it seemed) of detail a whole look or personality can come through.

George Henry's work is particularly appealing as is Lavery's, The Tennis Party (very Manet), and Guthries's goose girl in Pastures New, a painting that manages to give a sense of movement with the trick of severing the leading goose. Not something traditionalists would ever have done. And in some paintings the subject nearly fills the frame which was not a traditional way of painting a subject either.

The group's early paintings are of rural landscapes and those that people them. Fields and farm animals had not been the stuff of popular paintings. But, as the artists progressed, their subject matter changed and they moved into suburbian landscapes and eventually many settled on portraits. Even artists must live and the middle classes wanted paintings they could identify with and admire.

Those artists that travelled to Japan embraced that culture although not the stark and spare style of Japanese painting. Some became more flamboyant and took to rich colours such as can be seen in Henry's painting of cattle, A Galloway Landscape, and the one he did with Hornel called The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (on the poster for the show). You could be forgiven for thinking it was North American.

However, on the whole, animals remained a popular subject with them. The Burrell in Glasgow is a great gallery and that is where I first saw Crawhall's work. I was taken with it then, and this exhibition has reminded me what a good artist he was. He was one of the early 'Glasgow Boys', and painted marvellous water birds and working animals. These are fully worked up paintings but, like many brilliant cartoonists, he can also embody a whole subject in a quick sketch of a line or two. What a talented lot they were.


No comments: