The many masks of modern art

Scottish art It says a great deal about our sense of values - as well as our cultural arrogance - that we should assume that size and geography can determine quality in art.

What makes this particularly ridiculous is that only 40 years ago, any Europeans asked to name even one major contemporary American painter would almot certainly have answered that there were none, and that the only American artist of any consequence was Alexander Calder.

And yet Americans now act as though they had cornered all of the world's best art - and that the only art today of any value is that which shows unmistakabe signs of having derived from American styles and formal ideas.

This just isn't so. It is true that, beginning with the Abstract-Expressionists and continuing right down to the more recent photo-realists and new imagists, Americans have exerted a profound influence upon world art. But it would be naive to assume that other nations haven't gone along pretty much on their own, taking only a cursory glance right and left, to see what the ''advanced'' artists of other countries were doing.

What other countries have produced may not always have resulted in art of earthshaking importance, but it has nevertheless been generally authentic, good, and remarkably up to date.

One country of which this has been especially true is Scotland. Somewhat off the beaten path of most major international artistic events - although also the proud possessor of a rich tradition of its own - Scotland has yet managed to produce some of the most engaging, subtle, warmly human, and lyrical examples of modified Modernist art to be found anywhere today.

I say ''modified'' because Scottish artists only took from the Modernist movement what they felt was appropriate to their own tradition and vision, and were, as a result, adapters and modifiers rather than true revolutionaries. They were ''modern'' artists whose quality and worth derived from the truth of their insights and the delicacy, depth, and range of their sensibilities, rather than from the novelty of their forms or the shock value of their ideas.

This is not to say that Scottish artists haven't been original and innovative - only that they haven't ventured into totally unfamiliar areas to stake out virgin territory for themselves. They have often been pioneers, but only after at least one other had broken trail.

It's interesting that this should be an issue. The very fact that it is indicates the extent to which Modernism's emphasis on pushing back frontiers and expanding sensibilities (almost to the breaking point) has permeated the way we look at art today. It isn't enough that an artist be original, good, and true. To win our highest and deepest respect today he must also be a pioneer and a revolutionary.

This is unfortunate, because it distorts the accomplishments of many excellent artists of our day, and assigns them a lesser category of worth than they deserve. Are Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore any less good as artists because their art derived, to an extent, derived from principles formulated in the first decade of our century? Or because they were, as a result, adapters and modifiers rather than revolutionaries in the simplest sense of the word?

This question is of particular importance when dealing with contemporary Scottish art. After going over exhibition catalogs, art journals, books, color reproductions, photographs, and written personal reminiscences devoted to it - and after viewing as much of it in actuality as I could - I've come to the conclusion that a great deal of extraordinary art has been produced by Scottish artists in this century, but that, as far as the art world as a whole is concerned, almost all of it would have to be categorized as conservative and therefore, to the wild-and-woolly art revolutionaries of the world, it is simply irrelevant.

That is so, even though such Scottish artists as R. T. H, Smith, James Cumming, William Burns, John Houston, W. G. Gillies, William Littlejohn, William Bailie, Alexander Fraser, Dennis Buchan, Philip Reeves - to name only a few - work very successfully in one or another of the ''modern'' styles, and Alan Davie has established a modest international reputation for his lively and colorful ''expressionistic'' paintings.

One of the qualities I like most about Scottish art may actually be one of the things most held against it in certain quarters, and that is its gentle lyricism. There is something inherently (and quietly) celebratory about the Scottish art I've seen and this, at least partly, defies the influence upon it of the traditionally more solemn and formal hotbeds of Modernism, such as Germany, France, and the United States.

There are some countries that manage to resist all foreign pressures - subtle or otherwise - to change their image or their ways. Korea springs to mind here. No nation was ever under more pressure to subvert its cultural identity - yet it resisted. As a result, Korean art, while similar in many ways to the art of China and Japan, remained largely separate from both in philosophy and style.

Scotland is also a country that has retained its cultural identity and integrity. The cost, of course, for such proud retention of national identity, is often relative obscurity in the art world. But that, to my mind, is a price well worth paying - especially when the alternative is loss of one's creative soul.

Of the many Scottish artists whose work I've seen in the original or in reproduction, two, in particular, stand out: Joan Eardley and Elizabeth Blackadder.

Joan Eardley was one of those rare artists whose fullest identity and deepest levels of fulfillment were realized in and through paint. As the years went on, she increasingly saw and experienced the world around her as paint, color, shapes, lines, etc., and not as something that first had to be translated carefully, step by step, into paint and color. She saw and painted pretty much as a single act of perception - something that was also true of Constable (witness his magnificent oil sketches), Van Gogh, and John Marin at his best.

She was a rare artist. Her late landscapes rival anything done in that genre since World War II. ''High Tide - A Winter Afternoon,'' a slashing, boiling picture over eight feet wide, is as superb a piece of painting as any done anywhere in the past 40 years - most particularly since it fuses the best of what erupted with the Abstract Expressionists, the best of the grand tradition of European landscape painting, and the best of her own deepest personal experiences. I cannot help but feel that had she lived beyond her early middle years, she would probably have achieved world stature.

Elizabeth Blackadder is a totally different sort of artist. Her work has more to do with gentleness of touch, subtlety of placement, and exquisiteness of color than with charged emotion - be it directed at humans, landscapes, or the elements. There is a delicacy, a wit, and a lovingness about her paintings and drawings that reveal a creative personality more inclined to share gently with the viewer what she loves and enjoys than to utilize those objects for strictly formal or expressive purposes.

In some ways she composes in the same way as a housewife sets her best silver and china on her best linen for a Sunday dinner with dear friends: lovingly, carefully, precisely, with everything in its proper place - and all laid out to make a neat design and pattern. When she draws the family cat sleeping happily upside down, paints watercolors of flowers, or composes a painting such as ''Interior With Rug,'' it is with such genuine warmth and affection that we can't help but feel warmth and affection too.

But even more than that, she composes and paints with such art that we are aesthetically enchanted as well.

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