I believe then, as I believe now, that people’s lives and condition can be implicated by a realistic response sensitive to the places in which they live and work,” wrote James Morrison (1932-2020) in 1977. He was referring to the paintings of the Glasgow buildings that made his name as a young artist, in which he refused to include human beings despite pleas from influential circles.
Morrison had left Glasgow, where his father had worked in the shipyards and where he had studied at art school, in 1959. He settled first in the fishing village of Catterline, Aberdeenshire, where he was neighbor and friend of Joan Eardley. Here he produced detailed depictions of fishing vessels, returning to his hometown in order to practice his technique on the subject matter he knew best. He later settled in Montrose (within commuting distance of a teaching post at the Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art in Dundee), where he remained until his death. His trips to Glasgow became increasingly rare and he became known exclusively as a painter of rural and coastal landscapes. Yet this exhibition at Edinburgh’s Scottish Gallery suggests that Morrison’s abandonment of man-made subjects was actually a quest to find man’s place in a natural world he fought for. to understand.
This may surprise anyone who first met Morrison in the documentary eye of the storm (2021), in which the painter casually remarks that “people seem kind of insignificant compared to what the landscape is to me”. But by showcasing works from six decades of the artist’s career, the current exhibition reminds us that Morrison displayed not just range, but significant continuity of message as well as subject matter.
The 110 works on display (and for sale) in Scotland’s oldest shopping gallery begin with Morrison’s early paintings of buildings in Glasgow, although only the mammoth canvas Glasgow buildings (1960) is included here. Morrison attributed his embrace of “socially relevant” painting in the 1950s and 1960s to his friendship with Glasgow painters, including George McGavin and Bill McLucas. He will later cite the influence of the school of The Hague and that of Claude Lorrain, whose mark is found in the colonnade represented in Caledonia Road Church, Glasgow (1977).
The ground floor rooms progress through Morrison’s depictions of fishing boats at Catterline and the Angus landscapes for which he had become well known by the mid-1980s, when an exclusive contract with the gallery landed him allowed him to leave teaching at Duncan of Jordanstone and concentrate entirely on his own work. Upstairs, a bust of the artist’s head sculpted by his friend David Miller faces directly Beech, Montreathmont (1981), an oil painting on circular cardboard depicting Morrison’s characteristic wispy branches. But unlike its neighboring gallery, Glenesk Woods (1997), in which the trees seem to come together, Morrison’s beech is separated from the trees in the forest behind him, matching the viewer instead – and, in this case, Miller’s bust. It seems strange that Beech, Montreathmont is rather haughtily framed and covered – caged, even – in glass, while other planks are left exposed: the glass holds back the tree of interaction that Morrison’s painting invites.
After seeing Morrison’s paintings of Assynt in the far north of Scotland, Arctic biologist Dr Jean Balfour invited the artist to join his research team in northern Scotland. Arctic in 1990. He was “totally captivated” by the scenery and returned several times. “My intention was always to do in the Far North what I had done at home, which was to paint the landscape before my subject and try to give it meaning,” he recalled. he later. Morrison seems particularly successful in this intention in Collage of icebergs (1994). The iceberg is depicted on layers of overlapping planks, but its shadow on the black ocean below is flat, allowing the viewer to become an explorer by recreating the effect of ice floating towards our gaze. Grand Berg II, painted during the same expedition, captures an iceberg in a state of greatest serenity. But it emulates in the same way the artist’s experience of seeing the landscape: the division of the image into a diptych of 102 x 245 cm reproduces the perspective of glasses or binoculars, the two plates merging into a single seen over time, while the brilliant shine of the foreground contrasts sharply. with the pale shadow of the sea and sky beyond the iceberg.
The exhibition also features a showcase containing a small selection of brushes and tubes of oil paint. “I have a very limited palette and haven’t changed that palette in a very long time,” Morrison says in an interview excerpt posted alongside. “When painting outdoors, you face wind, weather changes and insects, so you need to keep it as simple and direct as possible.”
In front of the box is black landscape (1964), which shows a hilly landmass rendered in cadmium yellow and black; an almost apocalyptic marble effect of fuzzy, fiery rock. Yet our eyes are drawn to the horizon where the land meets a horizon line of pale green and gray. Here the earth enters in high definition above a carved stone arch: probably a drift towards abstraction, but in a more subtle way than in, for example, Field boundary (1965), which Morrison’s friend and colleague, David McClure, describes as a “calligraphic” imprint of “the mark of men on the lands of the Mearns”. To look at black landscapeits stone doorway to the unknown seems not only a marker of another world, but an invitation to explore it with Morrison.
‘James Morrison (1932–2020): A Celebration’ is at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, until June 25.