The National Galleries of Scotland know how to make the best of their collections. Instead of mounting group shows that labour under some needlessly complex and forced curatorial conceit, they take simple starting points, and run with them, revealing much on the way.
Cutting Edge: Geometry in Art 1910-1965 draws a line from the first flush of Cubism to the tail end of Constructivism, taking in Op Art and, too, works by artists that are not so easily aligned with a single movement.
Fittingly, the show opens with Picasso’s Deux Figures Neus, a 1909 drawing that teeters on the line between Cubism and the art that had gone before - the distortions of perspective and multiplied viewpoints are present, but the subject matter, a woman with a lute, a man offering a cup, are thoroughly traditional. In a contrast that is almost shocking, it is followed by Tete, a collage made in 1913 that suggests the form of a face with rigourous economy - a neat evocation of the speed at which the Cubist revolution progressed. Tete is, too, atypical of Picasso’s work, almost in the mode of later work by Kurt Schwitters - and, in one of several surprising tangents, Schwitters is here amongst the Cubists with Mz.299, a scruffy little collage assembled from strips of found paper that just fits in here thanks to its radiating lines.
Next comes a room devoted to work made in Britain between 1910 and 1940. There are some poor works here, and some honourable failures, but these are more than padding, revealing the sometimes shaky adoption of new modes in Britain. An untitled piece by Alistair Morton owes an obvious debt to Mondrian but exchanges economy for excess, its divided canvas heaped with linear and curved forms. Stanley Cursiter’s The Regatta is downright embarrassing, a tentative stab at Futurism that fails completely, from its subject matter on. By way of contrast, the St. Ives set, and Ben Nicholson in particular, are shown to have fully absorbed and co-opted the radical movements in Europe, forging ahead with a peculiarly British sensibility. Nicholson’s 1937 Painting stands out - Mondrian looms large again, but with a muted palette and a willingness to display the work’s origins in still life, this is something new.
After this, the collection of Op Art is a disappointment. Sure, Bridget Riley is at her vertigo-inducing best and a set of Wedgewood plates by Eduardo Paolozzi remind us that these movements were quick to influence design, but while these works fit the geometrical remit, they fall flat, too tricksy to be taken entirely seriously.
Thankfully, the rather dull Op art precedes the exhibitions real highlight, the selection of rarely-seen work by post-War British artists on loan from the collection of Ken Powell.
Where the Cubists sought to present the world anew, analysing and reconstructing it in response to the flat planes of paper and canvas, but never quite divorcing art from the world, these paintings, sculptures and reliefs take a very different tack.
John Ernest’s Maquette for a Tower is a tiny essay on negative space using twin interlocking wireframe towers that bear layered platforms in black, white and transparent plastic and perspex. Across the room, Construction with Aluminium Plates is similarly architectural, again draws attention to what is not there, and ends up as a sort of three-dimensional analogue of Dutch neoplasticism, with colour removed and form to the fore. Anthony Hill’s Orthagonal Composition returns us to two dimensions, with four black blocks placed seemingly at random, but balanced perfectly in terms of their area. The room is dominated, though, by a set of closely related pieces from Ernest, Hill, Victor Passmore and Gillian Wise; reliefs, or wall-mounted sculptures, in which oblongs and squares of familiar materials - copper, formica, perspex, wood - interlock and align.
On the one hand, these are outward-looking works, in their use of quotidian materials, both domestic and industrial, and in the delicate balancing of forms according to the golden ratio, which, besides its long-held place in art and architecture, governs the branching of trees, and the growth of crystals. On the other, they are self-contained, self-reflexive, approaching the point of being closed systems, or even logical tautologies - this is art about itself, about the relationships between forms. It’s also slippery stuff at times. The use of perspex and plastic is not simply a gesture toward the world, the transparency of these materials is used as a framing device, bringing cast shadows or faint reflections from the world into the work.
This is thrilling stuff that is especially resonant in Scotland, where artists continue to follow the lead of those in Powell’s collection - Toby Paterson, for example, or Craig Mulholland - and a fitting end to a show that not only contains work by the greats of the 20th Century, but offers a new route into understanding their work.
This review was first published in The Herald on April 27th, 2007.