I returned to the Royal Scottish Academy’s Galleries many times to view the partial reconstruction of Steven Campbell’s 1990 work On Form and Fiction before it was taken down. I have no idea who now owns this piece, probably his family, but I repeat my previous suggestion that a permanent site should be found for it. Perhaps Summerhall, Edinburgh, would have space, and if that was to be considered, Glasgow worthies might be aroused to claim the artist’s piece for themselves.

The assemblage – I’m avoiding the term installation to prevent contamination  – consists of a number of framed paintings around 109 cm square hung at intervals surrounded by sketches one of which is developed in the central work. Despite the variety of images, techniques, styles and ideas involved in all this, it is impossible to find any awkward arrangement or signs of a changed decision. Campbell’s compositional abilities are infallible and spontaneous. All the elements of Campbell’s genius are here. Yet his best work was still to come.

Campbell never relied on gigantic scale to make an impact, unlike so many modern artists. In the three important exhibitions in Scotland that followed On Form and Fiction, Pinocchio’s Present, 1993 and The Caravan Club, 2002, both at The Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh and the posthumous exhibition shared between Glasgow Print Studios and Glasgow school of Art, 2008, no painting is much bigger than Constable’s six footers. But they display the most incredible invention, which seems to flow organically. The human figure is ever-present combined in the most energetic positions, falling, dismembered, emerging three-dimensionally-modelled from flat backgrounds, dissolving, even mutating. Yet the painter never resorts to any stylisation or cubist clichés that so dates many paintings influenced by early modernism. Also, he avoids the sort of arbitrary distortion that spoils some of Stanley Spencer’s work. There is a fabulous wealth of imagery and this, plus bright colour, flat pattern making, representational painting and at times even expressionist brushwork, is all orchestrated to read perfectly. Campbell can make absolutely anything work.

The jazz and classical saxophonist Branford Marsalis was recently on Radio 3’s weekday, morning feature, where a distinguished guest discusses musical experiences and chooses music. Marsalis talked of his amazement on first hearing Richard Strauss’s revolutionary opera Salome. However, when it came to choosing some music to be played, he selected a passage from Der Rosenkavalier. The interviewer was clearly perplexed. The saxophonist explained that in the later opera, Strauss demonstrated that he knew all classical music. In the same way we are aware that Campbell understands and uses, the whole history of Western visual art and thus avoids the path of linear innovation, each step attempting to trump the previous one, that arrives at unmade beds, a light being switched on and off, canned artists’ excrement and so on.

Faced with work like Campbell’s, the puzzled layperson is apt to ask, ‘What does it mean?’ A literary key is sought. But paintings don’t work that way. Some paintings may have a story behind them but they have to outlast their iconography otherwise we could make nothing of work from different cultures and different belief systems. Campbell in an early exhibition at the Fruit Market Gallery, Edinburgh, drew inspiration from the stories of P. G. Wodehouse.  Knowledge of this would not help in the appreciation of his work. He has also drawn on Hichcock films. Yet I am a confirmed enthusiast for Campbell’s painting without ever having seen a single one of the director’s works.

In the catalogue for The Caravan Club there is a reproduction of a painting in acrylic on paper, measuring 65x74.5 inches, entitled A bag of dust mite balls goes by perspectively. It is a favourite of mine. In the upper part of the composition a number of figures are behind windows. They could be of a bus or a train. Three arms appear to reach out holding leather cash type bags with metal clasps arranged in strict perspective. Yet they are not attached to the figures, only to the bags by their gripping hands. Columns of dust spout from the clasps, ending in human heads. The work is very painterly, in parts in a watercolourly way.

I know little of how Campbell worked, except that he generally painted his oils on unstretched canvas, stretching the pieces when finished. It is unlikely that he thought up zany ideas and then painted them up like Magritte or Dali would. I feel it belittles this painting to call it surrealist. Magical is more appropriate. One feels that in some mysterious way Campbell’s brush and his imagination worked together to produce immaculate conceptions like this one.


Depending on what was first visited, this year’s Edinburgh Festival might seem a poor one for visual art. The main imported show at the SNG Modern 2 until 19th October, is American Impressionism.

Impressionist exhibitions are often seen as pandering to middle-brow, conservative taste but I rather like them. Painters of the school often painted a work a day for large periods of their lives, so there is a good chance of seeing paintings that have not been killed off by continuous reproduction. Unfortunately, there were very few American works in this collection that merited a second glance. Mary Cassatt, America’s one genuine Impressionist, was not even represented by her best work, and of the two fine Whistler seascapes reproduced in the catalogue, only one made it to Edinburgh. The display might have been boosted by some of the early works by Edward Hopper that could plausibly come under the Impressionist banner.

At SNG Modern 1, hosting part of the multi-venue Generation exhibition, we were reminded of how greedy contemporary art is for space (installations) and consumptive of time (slowed down films and videos) providing little enlightenment, entertainment or excitement, and all in a building that is so unfriendly to this sort of thing that you think ‘mistake’ and ‘misuse’.

The SN Portrait Gallery has two very disparate exhibitions, John Ruskin: Artist and Observer and John Byrne: Sitting Ducks. I would sum up both with the same phrase: skilful but not very exciting.

However, there are two wonderful visual experiences to be had in Edinburgh this year.
At the SNG at the Mound until 14th September, the three greatest Titians can be seen together. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the chance of a lifetime.

In the RSA building the reconstruction of part of Steven Campbell’s exhibition On Form and Fiction of twenty-four years ago, affirms that not all is over for painting in the twenty first century. Campbell, who sadly died at the height of his powers, was that rare thing, an intellectual painter. He solved the problem for the modern artist of ‘making it new’ not by following a teleological line leading to attenuation and nothingness, but simply by being unremittingly inventive with compositional infallibility. I hesitate to call this work an installation. Rather it is the intellectual decoration of a space with large paintings in colour surrounded by additional compositions in monochrome. It would be futile to look for any literary key to this work, but there is a figure constantly on the move in the monochrome works that wonderfully binds the whole piece together with the ghost of a narrative.

While this Campbell masterpiece could not have been produced at any other time than late twentieth century, it is part of its allure that it hints at some fictitious Renaissance palace.
Yet there are very few rooms successfully decorated in a cohesive fashion with the full glory of expressive art from that or any other era. Because of haphazard commissioning, the Sistine Chapel is a mess. The Michelangelo ceiling, which is further away from the viewer, is on a bigger scale than the same artist’s Last Judgment, the side wall is a hotchpotch. With artists not having full control many great works are crowded into side chapels piled one on the top of another. Mantegna’s great Camera degli Sposi is an exception, Giotto’s Arena Chapel another. In Britain some might suggest Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel but for me it is ruined by the ugly divisions between the panels, some of which are not Spencer at his best.

Surely some permanent site should be found for the Campbell work. It would be a wonderful asset for Edinburgh or Glasgow.


Must there always be a nasty edge to nationalism? We’ve already had a Scottish writer using the categories 'settlers and colonialists' about the English in Scotland and chuckling on a television interview over the reaction it caused. But artists have a very bad record in this area and much greater figures than Alasdair Gray have been guilty.

Wagner immediately comes to mind. He wrote a notorious essay Judaism in Music 
and after his death, he had the burden of being Hitler’s favourite composer. It worked the other way for the Danish/German painter Emile Nolde. His posthumous reputation was saved by his work being included in Hitler’s Exhibition of Degenerate Painters. He was, in fact, a nasty northern nationalist, a member of the Nazi Party expelled from the Berlin Secession for anti-Semitism.

Some of the Russian nationalist composers known as the Mighty Handful were also anti-Semitic and on occasion it got into their music. It is difficult to see how music can show this vile prejudice, but apparently the Goldenberg and Schumuyle movement from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an attempt. Simon Winder in his history of the Habsburgs, Danubia, writes that Janacek ‘was a thoroughly unpleasant Slav nationalist of a dotty kind’. Because of the settling of nationalist scores after the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Winder also suggests that Mahler, a German-speaking Moravian and a Jew to boot, and Hugo Wolf, a German Slovenian, were perhaps fortunate to die before the deluge.

There are a fair number of great writers from the past who show a nationalist-hate side. Norway’s Nobel laureate, Knut Hamsun showed his nasty northern nationalism in his obituary of Hitler, calling him ‘a reformist character of the highest order (to whom) we his close followers bow at his death’. He had previously given his Nobel prize money to Goebbels. France also had a very unpleasant novelist of high literary quality, Céline, equally famous for his disgusting anti-Semitic tracts. At least France has not seen fit to name a public building after him. However, in the Norwegian village of Oppeid there is a Knut Hamsun Centre, which has been described as a stunning piece of concept architecture.

We can still to be shocked by what is unearthed about artists we admire. The current Times Literary Supplement has a note about a collection of Scottish war poems edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson. J. C. comments: “Unmentioned by the editors are the fanatical musings of Hugh MacDiarmid, who wished good luck to Luftwaffe bombers circling over London in the Blitz, and asked, ‘Is a Mussolini or a Hitler / Worse than a Bevin or a Morrison?’ Who would have thought that for all his outrageousness, C. M. Grieve could have been such a horrible N.N.N? 


Moira Jeffrey, in her Saturday Scotsman review of the J.D. Fergusson exhibition, found a few nice things to say about the artist. But she had reservations. The work could be ‘just too sweet and palatable against the acid flavours of his times,’ there were ‘comically proportioned busts and bottoms’ and ‘the irksome nature of some of Fergusson’s paintings speaks for itself. There is their repetiveness, their monumentality, their unique way of being both saccharine and butch.’ My reaction to this, just before the beginning of the year of the referendum on Scottish independence, was to exclaim out loud, ‘Well, there’s a brave girl!’ It seemed like putting a NO sticker in your window and endangering the glazing.

The Scottish Colourists are sacrosanct for much of the Scottish public. Nationalist-inclined politicians like to be photographed in front of their paintings and buy them if they can afford them. The Colourists’ work forms the visual part of the distinctiveness that separatists hope will be boosted by independence. Superiority over English art of the period is claimed, because the Scottish painters with their bright colours, were more in tune with what might be termed the significant forward stream of art history taking place in France with the Post-Impressionists and the Fauves. There were additional Brownie points for the Scots because Fergusson actually took part in a Paris exhibition with some of the French masters.

Such vicarious claims to respectability, however, are double-edged. If you are not in the field for buying, why be content with the substitutes when you can get the real thing? Why look at Peploe when you can look at Cézanne? Why bother with Cadell when you can see what is perhaps Manet’s best still life in a public gallery in Glasgow and his masterpiece of figure composition at the Courtauld in London. As a non-obligated Scot, some of the English Post-Impressionists do seem to me to be more individual, Wilson Steer, for instance and Harold Gilman. And England has throughout produced an array of artists who stand proudly outside the supposed vital juggernaut of art history: Blake, Hogarth, Palmer, Stanley Spencer, Burra, Lowry. There is no Scottishness of Scottish art like there is the Englishness of English art, as Pevsner titled his Reith Lectures.

This not to say there are no very fine Scottish painters. Ramsay’s royal portraits stand up well with any of England’s numerous continental imports (always excepting Holbein and Van Dyck) and his portraits of Rousseau and Hume are works that we look at not just to see what the philosophers were like, but for the art itself. Raeburn stands in the middle of a triumvirate of painters who could construct a perfect human face from a few broad brushstrokes. As he was a jobbing portrait painter, there are some dull works in his oeuvre, but it is remarkable how many are excellent. Yet I wouldn’t quite rank him as the equal of Frans Hals and Manet who make up the trio.

And then, earlier than the Colourists, there is William McTaggart. He is not popular like the former and has probably suffered from attempts to give him significance by linking him to French art as a Scottish Impressionist. But McTaggart cannot be pigeon holed. In some of his best work, he is an odd mixture of landscapist, genre artist and history painter. He also constructed large-scale works from small plein air sketches. If he is to be judged as an Impressionist these things will downgrade him. Many years ago at the Edinburgh International Festival, when a large exhibition of his paintings was mounted, some academics moonlighting as art critics on radio detected some narrative in his work and did just that. Martin Kemp, the Leonardo specialist, who taught art history at St. Andrew and then moved to Oxford (I’m not sure whether he was an Englishman ‘white settling’ in Scotland or a Scotsman who went on to ‘white settle’ in England or vice versa) said at the time that he thought that the exhibition would finally establish McTaggart as an important artist. He also said that he was less sure of the Scottish Colourists.

Three of McTaggart’s greatest works belong to a group which has been called by a biographer his Celtic paintings.They are Emigrants Leaving the Hebrides (Tate Britain), The Emigrants - America (private collection) and The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship which apparently belongs to the Scottish National Gallery. I have never seen it there. Is it because this historical, narrative painting does not fit with the idea of McTaggart as a Scottish Impressionist? Is it another example of the way that nationalist emotion, in trying to escape an inferiority complex, distorts aesthetic judgment?