The Boys head for Europe again

The exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen opened in mid-September and first reports of it are very congratulatory. It is installed in a spacious and modern gallery, and looks great, with all our favourites there and several comparative paintings by Hague School artist. It runs until 7 February 2016 – see it here

We hear a lot (did anybody say too much?) about how Glasgow School of Art’s wunderkind are representing Scotland at successive Venice Biennales. Well done, Scotland will benefit from the publicity. But it seems to be completely forgotten that over a hundred years ago it was quite commonplace for Scottish artists to be appearing not just in Venice but in every major European city (and several in America, too) – and not just every two years but several times a year for several decades.

pastures new

The Glasgow Boys started to show abroad in the 1880s, first in Paris at the Salon and its more progressive counterparts and then in 1890 at the Glaspalast in Munich. Here they were hailed as the new avant-garde, the most progressive painters of their kind in Europe. Yes, good they were, but as progressive as Gauguin and Van Gogh or Cézanne? Hmmm. But they certainly transformed the large exhibitions which dominated the art world at the time. Their painting was fresh, full of integrity, definitely ‘modern’. In Scotland the Glasgow Institute was revived by them, the Royal Scottish Academy quaked at the the intrusion of these uncouth voices from the west (plus ça change…). In London their presence at the New English Art Club and the International Society challenged the stuffy and hackneyed orthodoxy of the Royal Academy itself.

The younger generation of German painters, and the writers and critics, who saw the Boys in Munich in 1890 were inspired by them to secede from the establishment, to set up ‘secessionist’ societies where the Boys were lauded and welcomed. And this enthusiasm for the new painting from Scotland spread across the continent – to Barcelona, Berlin, Antwerp, Darmstadt, Brussels, Ghent, St Petersburg, Budapest, Rome, Vienna and, of course, Venice. Their paintings were bought for civic and national collections. They made Scotland synonymous with modern art, as well as shipbuilding and engineering. They paved the way for Mackintosh and his friends, for the Colourists. If it was Scottish it was progressive.

But, like so many painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their stars waned after the 1914-18 war. Not just painters – whole artistic movements were consigned to the doldrums, to be rediscovered by a new generation of art historians (and fashionistas and all of the style gurus that the 1960s spawned). Art Nouveau was the first to benefit from this reassessment as one of the most energetic and widespread artistic phenomena of the last 500 years. In 1968 the Scottish Arts Council assembled a pivotal show of the Glasgow Boys but the baton was not picked up except by insightful devotees such as Andrew Patrick of The Fine Art Society. In the 1980s scholars began to reassess their work as part of a general investigation of so-called British Impressionism and momentum grew, culminating in the major exhibition of the Boys at Kelvingrove and the Royal Academy in 2010-11.

Although similar national groups were reassessed over the same period, in France, Scandinavia, Italy and Spain, they tended not to travel beyond their own national borders. But that is due to change in 2015 with a major exhibition of the work of the Glasgow Boys at the Drents Museum in Assen, Holland. The Boys were undoubtedly inspired by contemporary Dutch painting that they could see in the dealers’ galleries in Glasgow and the genesis of this exhibition was to explore these connections. But it has turned into a very important display of the Boys, with the public collections that own their work opening their stores wide to ensure an unparalleled collection of major paintings will be on view. This may all be well known to a Scottish audience but the Drents musuem’s curators are convinced that these powerful images will generate positive reactions among Dutch exhibition go-ers.

The show is planned for September – so make a note in your diaries. It’s going to be as good as the 2010 Glasgow exhibition and will even have some works denied to the organisers of that event. Almost all artists trained in Scotland in the 20th century owe a debt to the Boys so if you’re a fan of Scottish painting this will be a show not to be missed.