Earlier this month, Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum opened an exhibition entitled “Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900.” On the whole, I tend not to agree with their use of the word ‘pioneering’ when describing ‘the Boys’ (not to be confused with Laurel and Hardy), although I do admire much of Sir James Guthrie’s earlier work on show here, especially ‘A Hind’s Daughter, ‘A Highland Funeral,’ and his portrait of ‘Miss Helen Sowerby,’ all of which cast a much more critical and impactful eye on the subjects and settings they portray than the works of the others on show.
For the purposes of this article though, that debate is of little importance. The main focus of my concern is with the careless banding about of the term ‘the everyday’ throughout the literature accompanying the exhibition. It is a term common in criticism of all of the arts, but on reflection, it strikes me that its usage implicitly involves a right-wing celebration of social division based on class. The immediate impression given by works depicting ‘everyday’ life or ‘typical’ people is one perhaps of egality; that in the face of classical subject, ‘normal’ people are receiving cultural attention. Inherent in this process, however, is a prescribed staticity of class that not only denies the subject – in the case of the Glasgow Boys, often the peasantry – the potential for social advancement, but thrives on their arrested development.
It should be noted that the term ‘the everyday’ never appears in the exhibition’s descriptions of the other common subject of the works of the Glasgow Boys, the middle classes at leisure. Instead, ‘the everyday’ is practically synonymous here with peasant life, characterised by the mundane. This is explicitly the case with the descriptive text accompanying William York Macgregor’s ‘A Cottage Garden’, which describes the scene as a frame of mundanity that has been energised by the painter’s use of colour. The idea that life – specifically peasant life – requires an impressionistic touch of colour to become exciting or spontaneous is not one , notably, that has an equivalent in the interpretations of the ‘leisure’ paintings on show. This seems like an approach to criticism that, far from being egalitarian, is instead really quite teleologically elitist.
There is another issue that stems from the criticism of this exhibition. I was once told a story about an individual who took a train ride through the Irish countryside and then remarked, “Do you know what I saw? … No people.” The point of this story was to highlight the flight from the land that has taken place in Ireland over the Twentieth century. This movement has been closely reflected in Scotland to: if you were now to take a train ride through the Highlands, you would be likely to witness a similar dearth of people tilling the land. In spite of this marked movement out of the countryside – which was, in nearly all cases, also a movement to the city, words like ‘typical’ are still relentlessly used to describe rural agrarian scenes such as the ones on show at the Kelvingrove. This is no revelation. Scotland, like Ireland, still outwardly portrays itself, through its tourist board, as a rugged, rural pasture which is charming in its distance from the onslaught of faceless modernity. This is, of course, all fabrication. Cities like Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow are world-renowned artistic centres that exemplify the degree to which their respective countries are strongly established as urban economies. Glasgow’s self-identification as ‘Scotland with Style’ doesn’t exactly shrink from this metropolitan identity, wielding it to project an air of freshness and modernity.
Scotland has two conflicting identities: the one exemplified by the work of the Glasgow Boys, that of an unchanging agrarian outpost, established by the tartanists of the Eighteenth Century and perpetuated by the tartanists of this day; and the more representative one that is socially progressive, culturally enlightened and urban-centred. While these dual identities are seemingly able able to coexist peacefully, I would nonetheless argue that it is highly suspect that the major retrospectives of the art of the city continue to focus so strongly on the art expressing the former identity, while the Kelvingrove – the most visited museum in the city – hesitates to push the work of Glasgow’s contemporary talent to the forefront of the city’s cultural identity. This season, The Glasgow Boys were preferred again, despite the large amount of overlap with last year’s ‘Impressionism in Scotland’ exhibition. Glasgow’s cultural gatekeepers stand guilty not only of wrongly presenting their city as an artistic one-trick-pony, but of aligning themselves with an implicit and unrepresentative message of social immobility.
by David Jackson