Realism in the 20s and 30s has always seemed to be a rather ideologically and politically loaded style. Aesthetically there’s still a slight odour of fascism about it, and the politics of heroic/romantic realism vs modernism in Germany and the USSR respectively were at times literally a matter of life and death for artists. Fortunately for British artists at the time, any perceived stylistic lapses were likely to result in no more than a bad review, rather than a spell in the gulag or a brief appearance before a squad of critics armed with rifles.
One of the striking aspects of this exhibition is how widely the term realism can be applied to painting. At one end of the scale, some of the portraiture is almost photographically realistic. For example, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s ‘By the Hills’ shows a pensive, strikingly beautiful woman; both the subject and its means of representation seem completely unfiltered, for want of a better word. There’s a purity about the work that seems almost searching – when this was painted, cheap cameras were becoming accessible to the masses, and artists like Man Ray and Stieglitz had already begun to stretch the aesthetic potential of the newer medium. For a painter committed to realism, where to next?
Further away from pure realism, one of the finest paintings shown is ‘The Deluge’ by Winifred Knights. Painted in a Vorticist style, foreground figures scrabble for high ground while the Ark serenely slips away in the background. Blocks of subdued colour, simplicity of composition, the relentless flow of water, the stylised desperation of those who’ll drown… it’s a beautiful painting, and perhaps the best example on show of the potential of this particularly British realist school. It doesn’t attempt photorealism, but epitomises an elegant and distinctive aesthetic.
Lancelot Glasson’s ‘The Young Rower’ is striking; a young, bare breasted woman with blonde hair is on one knee, pulling on her sock, her attention focussed elsewhere. To a modern viewer the overriding impression is one of asexual athleticism reminiscent of the photography of Leni Reifenstahl, but the painting was, apparently, seen as somewhat risqué when first exhibited. Nudity was all very well when formalised in academy art, but in the context of day to day activity there was clearly some reluctance to acknowledge that under our clothes we’re all nudes.
Space doesn’t allow me to describe more of the paintings in any detail. The quality is of course variable, but it’s extremely well structured and comprehensive, covering the development of British Realism from an early reverence towards the art of Renaissance Italy to a distinctive style – frequently belittled by modernists – that comfortably straddled both fine and commercial art. If you have the opportunity to see this, take it. It’s an informative and in places beautiful exhibition. Once again the curators of the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh have come up with the goods.
True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s is on at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 29 October 2017