Alexander Moffat and John Blackburn: a joint masterclass in portraiture and abstract art: Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
To celebrate the publication of “Facing the Nation: the portraiture of Alexander Moffat” with text by Bill Hare, (Luath Press), the Open Eye Gallery is showcasing a fascinating collection of portraits of eminent Scottish writers, poets and artists of the 20th century.
Around the walls one can “meet” a very dapper Richard Demarco (1988), in a blue linen suit, and the crème de la crème lady of letters, Muriel Spark (1984) – most apt to view this charming, youthful portrait as we celebrate her centenary year.
“Attempts to capture the spirit of the place are rarely fortunate; it is wiser to point to its literature as the embodiment of a thousand subtle and vagrant traditions”. John Buchan
Following Buchan’s view that arts and culture reflect the beating, emotional heart of a nation, Alexander Moffat has long been at the forefront as a social and political commentator – the subject of his book, “Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland.”
During the early 1960s, he studied with John Bellany at Edinburgh College of Art, both strongly committed to reinvent portrait painting for the vibrant modern age. As Head of Painting and Printmaking at the Glasgow School of Art, (1992 – 2005) he encouraged a fresh resurgence of figurative studies, inspiring a talented group in particular – Peter Howson, Steven Campbell, Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski – all of whom went on to experience flourishing careers in their individual ways.
This quartet, the “new Glasgow Boys” are all illustrated here as eager young students, such as Campbell and Wiszniewski captured in a simple pencil sketch, like a quick painterly “snapshot,” taken in 1987 at Nico’s, no doubt a favourite haunt.
Giving people a sense of place, Moffat’s iconic masterpiece, “Poets’ Pub” (1980, National Gallery of Scotland) is an imaginary vision of the leading, late great Scottish poets and writers gathered around Hugh MacDiarmid, set in their regular Edinburgh drinking dens, Milne’s Bar, Abbotsford and Café Royal.
In this exhibition, the poet also takes a central role, viewed as a soulful philosopher, no more so than the Gaelic bard, Sorley Maclean. The lithograph of MacLean, against a Hebridean mountain peak, portrays the man as well as his land and language, so engrained in his work.
In a soft shadowy portrait, the Orcadian poet and novelist, George Mackay Brown presents a thoughtful gaze with a sense of sadness in his gentle blue eyes.
Unlike a photograph, it is the art of the portrait painter to draw out hidden depth through gesture and facial expression. This masterly portfolio of well known movers and shakers of the Scottish art and literary scene, past and present, captured with clarity in oil, pencil or charcoal, reveal a moment of silence, and private reflective mood.
“There is more power in telling little, than in telling all” Mark Rothko
On the other side of the hallway at the Open Eye, there is also a stunning exhibition of “Paintings from the Studio” of John Blackburn, selected by Dr. Ian Massey. After studying at Margate School of Art, in 1954, Blackburn decided to leave post war Britain to travel in search of new horizons in New Zealand and then (following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin) to the South Pacific. Returning to England in the early 1960s, his work was exhibited at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (alongside William Scott and Roger Hilton) and was soon critically acclaimed as an abstract painter of originality, invention and vision.
Through a purely abstract vocabulary of shape, structure, colour and contour, Blackburn’s minimalist approach is far removed from realistic representation of a figure or landscape. Take time to wander around the room to study these cool, crafted and composed images to let the space, tone and texture convey its underlying meaning about place and time.
“John Blackburn is an artist who relates strongly to the raw experience of human life, and although ostensibly abstract, his paintings are rooted firmly in life as it is lived on a day-to-day basis. … with a deep sense of empathy in a wider sense.” Dr. Ian Massey
An essential aspect of his work is the use of found objects and disused materials – old nails, scrapings of rust and varnish – to combine physical aspects of the past and present; as the artist describes his working method ..’using stuff that has been used before gives the picture a life before the picture is started.’
The colour palette is quite enchanting, a blend of ochre, grey, black, brown, juxtaposed with a sudden splash of green or soft pink, across a richly patterned geometry of squares, ovals and circles.
Titles are sometimes humorous, such as “Two Forms (Lemon Meringue)” or an enigmatic, “Untitled”, but across this marvellous retrospective, there is a tangible sense of peace and contentment to reflect the artist’s philosophical view of humanity and our place in the world.
Also on display around the gallery, there is an evocative selection of paintings on the theme of the sea by Chris Bushe, John Bellany, Donald Provan and Archie Dunbar-Smith, as well as a range of prints and jewellery.
Book Launch: Alexander Moffat and Bill Hare will take part in a discussion on “Facing the Nation” at the Open Eye on Wednesday 24 January. Reservations essential – contact the gallery for more information.
January Exhibitions – Alexander Moffat & John Blackburn (and other artists)
10 – 29 January, 2018.
Monday to Friday: 10am to 6pm; Sat. 10am to 4pm.
The Open Eye, 34 Abercromby Place, Edinburgh EH3 6QE – tel. 0131 557 1020