From van Gogh to Vettriano: A wander around an exhibition in Aberdeen Art Gallery

Aberdeen Art Gallery’s exhibition of work from its own and private collections.

Here we have an eclectic display of works by some world-class artists and several lesser names. It is difficult to pin down what links them other than what was available from the Gallery’s own collection and those it was able to borrow from private collectors.

Arguably one link is that the pictures are mainly reflections of the artists’ psychological states rather than any kind of narrative on their worlds. There are suggestions of realism. Clauesen is often described as such, but his gleaners and others in the show are…but I’ll come back to that.

So what to make of this miscellany of art movements and styles?

On the Gallery’s own website it describes the exhibition as including van Gogh, Pissarro, Monet, Matisse, Spencer, Nash, Freud and Kitaj which is interesting for what is omits in view of the show’s title.

Anyway I joined quite a crowd of people one afternoon to take a look for myself.

The exhibition begins with an unusual black chalk and pencil sketch on paper by van Gogh called Homme assis avec fillete. It’s an early work, striking with its formal static poses. No sense of affection only tension between the young girl and the seated old man. Without the label it might have been difficult to pin this one on van Gogh except for the man’s muckle black shoes most definitely from the palette of the Dutch post-Impressionist.

Clausen’s The Gleaners is the first of several similar subjects.  His is a romanticised interpretation of impoverished peasants and a world away from Millet’s powerful depiction which sets the standard for the theme. Clausen’s Shepherd’s Boy of 1883 lacks spontaneity and attributed dignity we can expect with this subject which might have something to do with his pieces being reworks of photographs.

Dominating this first room is local artist, Joseph Farquharson’s On a Clear Eve – a typical scene from rural Scotland and which is every bit as iconic, if you’ll excuse the over-worked term, as Vettriano’s pictures. While apparently over-sentimental his scenes are, in fact, pretty realistic representations of our countryside’s continuity with its past.

So while Farquharson appears romanticised and isn’t, Alex Main’s 1889 The Gleaners steers us into the realm of Vettriano’s fantasies with its starkly delineated costumes and figures set against a background of sun bleached corn fields. This work most definitely lacks any of the strengths and and authenticity of Millet’s Gleaners.

The McTaggart sea pictures including children in boats are interesting in that he blends straight figurative with abstract backgrounds. They remind me of Hornel.

Étretat: L’Aiguille and the Porte d’Aval of 1885 – a pastel by Monet is a stunner. A small composition of cliffs and sea. The dark rocks in the foreground stark against the blonde sea under portentous skies is a great demonstration of contrast or perhaps conflict in this little scene.  

There’s a pretty washed out Pissaro, Gelée blanche Éragny of 1895. An oil on canvas. It failed to hold my attention.

From the subtlety of Pissaro to a bold composition of oriental patterns in hot shades of red, ochre, blue and green. This 1894 oil of Japanese Dancing Girls by Hornel is very lively with its impression of constant movement. A very pretty piece with plenty to occupy the eye with its exotic dancers in their kimonos and coloured fans and as with his outdoor scenes the play of light across the canvas invigorates his compositions.

Am I the only person in Scotland who does not like or should that be appreciate Peploe? To me his Peony Roses (oil 1906) – a vase of white paeonies against a black background does nothing for a fine bunch of flowers. As for his Coffee Pot of the same year, well this is a very, very still life which is wholly underwhelming.

Let me get myself off the hook by saying how much I enjoyed Cadell’s Iona (oil). Yes I know this is a familiar enough, tame?Scottish landscape but his bold, assured brushstrokes handle the pastel blues, greens, yellows quite masterly and the pale tones are saved from being boring by vibrant red tops to the chimneys and a stark red roof.

Bernard Meninsky’s pen and ink sketch of 1918 is worth a mention and his Lovers on a Beach of 1947 in pen, ink and guache is demonstrably Picasso-esque with its monumental figures of the lovers reclining across the foreground – all legs, arms and torso leading to tiny heads. It’s quite fun but decidedly derivative.

I like the great tones in Robert Colquhoun’s The Two Sisters of 1944 (oil). Flat abstract, almost Braque-like. The colours too – ochres, burnt Sienna and darker tones. But then there’s his twist. Colquhoun gives rounded form to his faces so radically transforming the picture’s structure.

Talking of Braque, there is a small brown crayon drawing on paper of Les Pommes (1927). It’s a subtle representation of masterly simplicity.

Edward Wadsworth has created a wholly absorbing very decorative scene of translucent blue water and rusty red sailed vessels in The Cattewatter, Plymouth Sound. This tempera on board of 1923 looks as if the steps in the foreground have been cut out of cardboard, as do the pier and arching cliffs. The whole effect is quite beautiful and tranquil. 

I usually like Stanley Spencer’s work but I found being close up and personal with The Baptism (1952) strangely discomfiting. Not sure why. Christ and John the Baptist are given mask-like faces and are surrounded by children in contemporary costume. It’s big and bold and uses traditional compositional ploys to lead the viewer around the picture such as the reeds caught up in the figure of Christ. A child’s hand is painted as a shell.

Spencer’s Daughters of Jerusalem, a scene from the road to Calvary with more contemporary kids is brimmed full of the emotion we associate with this artist.

Further along I was confronted by Duncan Grant’s horrible picture of a coffee pot so kept on walking.

Portrait of Natalie Gray, an oil of 1928 by Mark Gertler is big and luscious and frieze-like and the piece chosen for the cover of the accompanying catalogue (which I didn’t buy as I know it would be relegated to my already overstuffed bookshelves all too soon – okay and I’m tight).

On to Lucien Freud’s Boy on a Sofa is in the third room. A pencil, charcoal, coloured chalk on paper work from 1944 it has a young boy staring straight ahead but not directly into the eyes of the viewer so we can stare back as long as we like and not feel any guilt. It’s cool with steely blues, greys and brown so that the child’s face is deathly pale. It’s very different from the expected images of Freud’s work not just in the subject matter but the precise handling and control he once exercised.

There are several Joan Eardley pictures in this room. Andrew with a Comic c1955 and others. I don’t get Eardley (although I do own another artist’s work based on an Eardley but as it isn’t actually Eardley …) Her Cuddling the Child immediately reminded me of Käthe Kollwitz but I prefer Kollwitz. In fact I love Kollwitz’s work – she was so accomplished and capable of conveying incredible emotion with the sparcest of working.  There is a gallery devoted to her work in Cologne which is inside a large block with shops as I recall but well worth searching out. Incredible stuff.

There is a rather nice R. B. Kitaj paste of Marynka Smoking. It really doesn’t much matter whose work I’m looking at, I always find some influence in it so if you get irritated by this then stop reading now because I’m off again. I expect it was Kitaj’s intention to have his model hold a pose straight out of Ingres. Ingres used to be a firm favourite of mine – and could be again but I haven’t looked at any of his pictures in years. This is typical although I have to say that Kitaj is no Ingres and possibly he wouldn’t disagree. Nice yellow cushion.

Howson. Well you either like him or you don’t – I think.  Howson grotesque faces are now so familiar, leering out from his oversized canvases. Medieval gargoyles or those character parts from religious pictures of 15thC Italy or do I mean 16thC? But his are kind of fatty, puttyish. It’s certainly a powerful image but I get the feeling it’s there to stop the viewer in her tracks and perhaps shock and after the shock, well what? The face of Jeremy Isaacs is the most pleasing at the centre of the picture. Was that him before he tried to stop wind turbines being erected on whichever Scottish island he had a holiday home?

By this stage my back was aching and I was hungry but Frank Auerbach’s Head of Helen Gillespie (oil 1963/4) caught my eye with its thick impasto which forces the viewer to back off to make out the sculptural form of the head of Helen Gillespie. I liked it for the craftsmanship which went into it. It’s clever. But I was definitely tiring by this point.


As I left the exhibition I notice along the balcony the Vettriano loaned to the Gallery, not the one in this exhibition which didn’t make a mention in the Gallery’s website blurb on the show. The one familiar on mugs .

Bloody hell – woman as meat.

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