I walked to the National Gallery of Modern Art this week. It is on the edge of Dean Village, a hidden part of town that feels like a Swiss hamlet, tucked in just off the west end of the city. For the last mile or so, my route took me along the leafy Water of Leith, full and rushing with the rain we’ve been having. The last few cities I have lived in have had wide, fast rivers slicing through them. By comparison, Edinburgh’s Water of Leith is modest. I ascend from the water to more leafiness and expanses of lawn that surround the Modern Art Gallery. I should say ‘Galleries’, as there are two buildings housing collections. Today, though, I am meeting my friend at ‘Modern Art 2’. ‘Modern Art 2’ is a commanding building that I learn was originally built in 1833 as the Orphan Hospital, and converted into a gallery in 1999. It now houses Dada and Surrealist art, work by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, and hopefully not too many orphan ghosts.
The sun is out and I am early to meet my friends. I sit on a bench and take in the lawn with its sculptures and installations. There is scaffolding, holding aloft lettering which shouts out, in bright lights: “THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE.” As all art is supposed to do, this piece, by Nathan Coley, makes me think. I know nothing of its provenance, how long it has been here, or what inspired it. Surely every work of art that speaks to you, moves you, makes you feel, commands you to stop and stay still, is a miracle in itself. Maybe this is a firmly tongue-in-cheek piece, planted here because this is a place of miracles?
K. and A. arrive and shake me from my day dream. We are there to see an exhibition that is about to come to an end. It is called, ‘True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s.’ It is my second trip to see it, having already been and loved it. My second visit is different. I’m much clearer on what I like now, much less inclined to read about the artwork and the artist, more able to stand and stare.
The paintings in the first room are dominated by canvases filled with people. Muscled bodies, full faces, bare feet, open arms, wide eyes – it yells strength and hope to me. To me, it seems to be a clear backlash after the horrors of the war and reflects the artists’ need to paint beautiful landscapes and beautiful people: youth and abundance, lush countryside, people with time on their hands playing music – pipes, flutes, accordions – while they picnic. The colours are wild: magenta, pinks, orange, purples, vermillion, turquoise. There are vibrant detailed paintings of the seaside, and funfairs, of a young woman diving off rocks into the sea, a hiking group – map spread over a dry stone wall, lazy days of swimming in rivers, sophisticated train travel in dining cars with white table cloths, the subjects smoking elegantly. I wonder about the painters, taking in these scenes and painting them, after the war, must indeed have felt like a miracle.
In a room full of portraits I stare at Meredith Frampton’s portrait of a woman reclining: white dress, red shoes, dark hair; so close to reality that I can see a gentle fuzz of black hair on her top lip. A vase of magnolias at the edge of the painting are losing their petals. She has a way to go before she will lose her looks. Lots of the artists came from the Slade School, where they had to draw, draw, draw, before they could paint. What do I know, but I think I can see that practiced execution in the clarity and simple beauty of the portraits.
There are four rooms, about 80 paintings in all. And it changes: it gets darker, and sadder. I stand for a long time in front of a painting by Edward Baird, a Scot from Montrose. It is a somber painting of his friend Dan Cross, who I figure is depicted as an intensely gazing 30 year-old. It’s all in shades of brown and ochre, painted in 1938, just before the war. He looks serious, committed – as if the painter and sitter both know what’s coming. I wonder how it treated them both. I feel a weight of foreboding looking at it. Keith Henderson’s ‘Harbour Crowd’, also painted in the 1930’s, makes me feel the same. It is a heartbreaking painting of people’s faces, only the faces, as they watch a ship leave harbor, sadness scored into faces of every age.
I could go on, and on. This is a place of miracles.