More modern than meets the eye

If the suggestion of a trip to a modern art gallery leaves your head swimming gleefully with hopeful images of soiled mattresses and sections of cow floating in formaldehyde, then this exhibition is not for you. Cadell’s work shows its modernity in a looseness of brushwork, a brightness of colour and a Gauguin-esque flattening of the picture plane. His work shows innovation at a subtle and technical level that may well leave lovers of contemporary art feeling decidedly underwhelmed. But the appreciation of art comes in the understanding of it as a reaction to and a part of the culture of its time. The development of Cadell’s style from loose impressionistic brushwork to the flat, block colours indicative of primitivism, gathering inspiration from the bright light and rich colours of the Mediterranean along the way, would surely have left many of his contemporary Edinburghers thoroughly scandalised.

"A Lady in Black" by F. C. B. Cadell

The exhibition is organised into four rooms, separated by a corridor partly overlooking the gallery’s restaurant. It consists of mainly oil paintings, but the intersecting corridors are hung with some very charming pen and ink sketches mainly depicting scenes from army and navy life based upon his experiences serving in World War I. While these drawings will never be able to compete with the power of his work in paint, they are cleverly done and certainly should not be passed by. With a couple black lines and a slick of colour, Cadell brings to life a stern army officer, laughing sailors or a huntsman approaching a fence. It is also worth stopping to take note of the timeline showing key events in the artist’s life as well as photographs of himself, his family, and his friends and patrons.

The exhibition creates a good balance between informing and displaying. As usual, the pictures are complemented by short paragraphs in each room discussing different aspects and stages in the artist’s life, but the works are also supplemented by display cases showing several small objects that belonged to the artist, many of which are portrayed in his work. In one room, dedicated to Cadell’s work on the island of Iona, the display case contains contemporary photographs of many of the scenes that Cadell painted on the island. Upon reflection, while the idea of this addition was a nice one, I am still undecided as to whether it adds anything to the appreciation or understanding of the artist’s work. Possibly the curator felt it necessary to provide evidence that the beautiful blue skies and clear turquoise oceans that Cadell depicts in his peaceful seascapes are not a total fiction. Looking out at a drizzly February afternoon, most patrons would not be able to believe that Scotland could ever produce such spectacular weather.

On a last autobiographical note, after perusing about half of the exhibition, I noticed a tiny sentence printed on the wall informing me that it had been painted to match the drawing room of Cadell’s Edinburgh New Town house, which acted as his studio for much of his life.  Suddenly the room lit up with new meaning and a certain feeling of intimacy with the artist’s creative process. His beautiful depictions of society women, bathed in weak, northern light become less distant and yet remain somewhat aloof in their elegance. This combination of artwork, artefact, and information means that this exhibition will appeal to a wider audience, rather than just the hardcore art lovers among you.

The best way to conclude a visit to the modern galleries is in the restaurant. I suggest you aim to organise your perusal so it ends around tea time; they do a lovely scone! With concession tickets at a very reasonable five pounds and the galleries only a short train ride away, this is an excellent excursion for the aspiring aesthete and budding social historian alike.


Elspeth McDowell

Image – Cea