Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Art at Edinburgh

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Art at Edinburgh

Article excerpt

One day, somebody will stage an exhibition of artists taught at the Slade by the formidable Henry Tonks, who considered Cézanne a 'curiously incapable' menace, and a cracking show it will be. Until then, we must take what we can from exhibitions like True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s. Here, many of Tonks's pupils, and others schooled with similar exactitude, can at last reclaim their rightful positions in British art after decades in the wilderness, pushed into the shadows by the alpha art of abstraction and the ironies of pop.

True to Life is a marvellous show. The portraiture is the stand-out stuff, dominated by the limpid virtuosity of Meredith Frampton and Gerald Leslie Brockhurst. Striving for a smooth, 'brushless' finish, these artists were harking back to the clarity and order of 15th-century portraiture, more Van Eyck than Van Dyck.

There's an entrancing calm in these works, and a startling level of reality, or so it seems. While the finish may appear faultless, the construction is often more playful. Brockhurst's 'By the Hills' (c.1939), the seductive poster image of this show, is actually a mix of two women. Preparatory drawings by James Cowie show the evolution of his painting, 'A Portrait Group' (1933/1940), and how it was assembled. The finished grouping of figures is another composite, both real and strange, vivid and flat.

Even better is Cowie's portrait of his wife who stares out of the canvas, eyeing the viewer with a wry confidence. Things get weirder as the exhibition wanders away from portraiture, with some distinctly non-realist works by Edward Burra and Stanley Spencer indicating a darker, more confusing Britain than that shown elsewhere by the perfect picnickers and jolly hikers of James Walker Tucker and Harold Williamson.

'Coming Clean', a contemporary photography exhibition by Graham MacIndoe, presents a devastating modern realism. Twenty-five images record the photographer's heroin addiction and the dismal existence he led shooting up in a bleak Brooklyn apartment. Self-portraits show the emaciated man injecting dirty brown liquid into his arms, lolling, sick and wasted, in his squalid flat surrounded by the detritus of his habit. Shooting through the filthy lens of a cheap digital camera, MacIndoe, who was in New York working as a photographer when his addiction began, never lost his eye for an image and the photos, though wretched and bleak, are faultless compositions that revel in the sour electric light and grimy detail of his charmless life. …

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