Abstract Art from Scotland

For the exhibition Beneath the Surface, curated by Maeve Toal.
Artists: Sarah Brennan, Michael Craik, Eric Cruikshank, Kenneth Dingwall, Callum Innes, Alan Johnston, James Lumsden, Karlyn Sutherland, Andrea Walsh.
Published by City Art Centre, Edinburgh, 2019.


In 1888 Patrick Geddes wrote: “Synthesis and Poetry, and much moral enthusiasm are rising fast in reaction to a generation of too much analysis, of too much prosaic literature, of widespread moral decay; there is in human as in natural history a strange alteration of generations.

In 1925 Hugh MacDairmid wrote: “in Scotland – in art as in letters – we are still in precisely the same position as was Holland prior to the emergence of the De Stijl Group in 1917 – a country of pretentious and vigorous conservatism, “constantly warming up the egg of the 80’s” as Theo van Doesburg has put it.”

In 1933 Herbert Read wrote from Edinburgh: “I’ve been feeling rather despondent lately, there is so little stirring here … the place lives in its past and does so most complacently. It has buried its sensibilities; it is atrophied. I don’t think I can do much more than tickle the surface of this inert mass.”

In 1935 George Proudfoot, Director of the Scottish Gallery wrote to William Johnstone regarding his abstract painting show there: “A lot of people, lay and professional, have seen your pictures, but they are beyond them … I fear that in this part of the world you can look to no future on your present line.”

The pathways to present abstraction began in that period of extraordinary change at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century when developments such as the x-ray, the electron, radioactivity, relativity, psychology, quantum theory, aviation, suffrage, and social rights helped redefine human understanding. One outcome was that all the arts sought new ways to come to terms with a changing reality. Artists were open to other ways of seeing, thinking and doing as the discoveries of Renaissance art ossified into the ‘brown soup’ painting of the 19th century academies. As an illustrative, narrative language was re-examined, interaction grew between the applied and fine arts. Music, where sound alone opened minds to thought and feeling, prompted each medium to consider its own unique qualities. International trade, anthropology, and archaeology brought diverse art of other and earlier societies worldwide, presenting alternative values in astonishingly vital visual languages.

Scotland was a society then at the forefront of industrial innovation, with considerable wealth for a few, alongside some of the lowest wages and grimmest housing conditions in Europe. Initial endeavours for reform were aided by the Scottish response to the birth of the Arts and Crafts movement and with it the Celtic Revival, where social, utilitarian, and decorative qualities were central concerns. In this period, artists were in close contact with their European counterparts, in step, and on occasion a step ahead. Artists from the 1880s onwards called for a gallery of modern art in Edinburgh, as in Paris and Rome, to extend the historic holdings of the Scottish National Gallery established in 1859. In 1906, artists and their supporters began the Scottish Modern Arts Association collection – now with the City Art Centre. Despite the strong backing of successive Boards of Trustees of the Scottish National Gallery it took until 1960 before London government funding was approved and a Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art established. The only abstract art permanently on display in the capital throughout the era of modernism was from the past in the National Museum of Antiquities, a collection begun during the Enlightenment.

In nations across Europe, at the close of the 19th century, artists joined in creating what are now seen as the first paths to modernist abstraction. In Scotland we have not always recognised our place in this, but a beginning could be found in William McTaggart’s ‘over-all’ surface field handling. There was also an early awareness of Whistler’s ‘Japonisme’, ‘subjectless’ painting, ‘symphonies’, and ‘nocturnes’. From travels in the Middle East Arthur Melville developed the selective sensibility of his 1889 abstract watercolour studies, 22 years before Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 abstract watercolour often used to mark the beginning of abstraction. In Germany ‘Scotch’ painting was lauded, and Richard Muther in his The History of Modern Painting (1894), saw it as separate from English painting, but warned that it approached “the border where painting ended and the Persian carpet begins”. The ‘decorative art’ made by E A Hornel, in the periods before and after he worked in Japan, can be identified with this warning. It was a thought still lingering in the German-speaking world of 1912 when Paul Klee wrote of Robert Delaunay’s abstract work that is was “as far removed from a carpet as one of Bach’s fugues”. In late 1880s France, Charles H Mackie and Eric Forbes-Robertson separately evolved from Realism to Synthetism through their friendships with Gauguin, Sérusier, and the Nabis. From the 1890s, in his ‘thinking machine’ drawings, Patrick Geddes, using abstract image and text, anticipated a form of conceptual abstraction. Symbolism informed the abstraction of early paintings by the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose Group of Four took Germany and Central Europe by storm in the 1900s, greatly influencing modernist reductive design. J D Fergusson claimed that in Paris he made a “tremendous lot of research in order to see the possibilities and uses” of “what has come to be known as abstract painting”. His Étude de Rhythm (1910), an abstracted cubist analysis of the figure, came at the threshold of ‘pure’ abstraction. With his Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914), Duncan Grant briefly crossed this threshold, in a work offering possibilities pursued decades later by others.

Following World War I, despite the gloomy quotations from the 1920s and 1930s, which began this essay, William McCance, Jock Macdonald, Hugh Crawford, William Gilles and William Johnstone, all innovated in an abstract format. The latter three opened doors in the 1930s for a generation of young artists – William Gear, Margaret Mellis, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Norman McLaren, William Crosbie, Alan Davie, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull – many of whom achieved international standing. In the 1940s/50s Abstract Expressionism grew from a melding of abstraction and Surrealism. Norman McLaren was amongst the Europeans in New York involved in this dialogue. His abstract films, hand-painted on celluloid, were shown daily in 1941 at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and viewed by painters, including Jackson Pollock before his drip period and by Piet Mondrian. McLaren’s Boogie-Doodle (1940), was a painted homage to pianist Albert Ammons. Another Ammons fan was Mondrian, who painted his Broadway Boogie-Woogie over 1942/43. In William Hayter’s New York print workshop a former Edinburgh art student, the poet Ruthven Todd, worked in 1947 alongside Rothko and de Kooning, making collaborative abstract prints with Miro, Ernst and Masson. At the same time, In Paris, William Gear painted and discussed abstraction with his friends Hartung and Soulages.

In each ‘alteration of generations’, Scottish artists helped evolve an abstract language, with a local accent or a universal voice. Yet until as late as the 1960s and 1970s, there was always greater support and positive critical reaction for artists making abstract work away from Scotland, than for those who stayed. Hugh MacDairmid’s “vigorous conservatism” perhaps explains the abrupt ending of so many early pathways. The small groups, who intellectually and emotionally supported the early stages of abstraction in other small European nations, seemed lacking in Scotland. This slow acceptance of the greatest change in visual language since the Renaissance, is all the stranger given our long heritage of abstract form and metaphysical thought.

The Scottish diaspora resulted in Jock Macdonald, a contemporary of Gillies, being regarded as a founding father of abstract art in Canada, as John Weeks, a student in Edinburgh when Gillies returned with his experience of Paris and Modernism, is in New Zealand. Patrick Henry Bruce, Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell, and Agnes Martin, all conscious of their Scottish roots, are further strands of abstract art from Scotland. In the Post-Modernist era and after, abstract art has taken many successful directions, and currently, when art in Scotland is perhaps more inclusive, innovative, and international (though that was the thought in the late 19th century too) it is good and perhaps salutary to recall these roots.