Can a Scottish colourist be reinvented as a British modernist, or even as a European pioneer? This superb retrospective of John Duncan Fergusson is the first solo exhibition in an English museum of any Scottish colourist, and it brings a fresh, lively voice to the still contested history of British art between 1900 and 1920.

Ecossais”, Fergusson always insisted on writing after his name at exhibitions in Paris, where he made his home from 1907. Scottishness defined his identity in prewar Montparnasse bohemia: “a solid, sandy, steady-eyed Scotchman”, observed American novelist Theodore Dreiser. Yet transpose Fergusson from Edinburgh – where this exhibition began – to the breezy south coast, and the Scottish strain fades. Barely known works unearthed from private collections here place Fergusson in an avant-garde Parisian milieu in ways unmatched by any of the other colourists.

Two masterly works from 1910, “La Bête violette”, a flickering, restless lilac/yellow still life of flowers, embroidered fabrics and a little pink box (an item recurring in Fergusson’s paintings – it apparently contained his contraceptives), and a depiction of his Paris girlfriend swathed in a patterned scarf in “The Spanish Shawl: Portrait of Anne Estelle Rice”, not displayed since the 1930s, both demonstrate Fergusson’s allegiance to Matisse. “Standing Female Nude” (1920), a dynamic, angular yet sensual bronze, fuses the impact of Modigliani, Epstein and the beginnings of art deco. Seeing these works in the British modernist temple Pallant House, whose collection starts with Augustus John, Duncan Grant, William Coldstream, David Bomberg, emphasises by contrasting context just how radical early Fergusson was in terms of colour, reduction of form, bold physical handling of paint.

He began, alongside fellow colourist and friend Samuel Peploe, as a sober tonal painter of still lifes, following Manet: the accomplished “Jonquils and Silver” (1905), in a muted palette of pinks and silvery-greys, is his signature piece in this genre. But Fergusson quickly made the human figure his chief subject.

John Lavery and John Singer Sargent were inspirations for “Jean Maconochie”, his lustrous depiction of his Edinburgh lover in an emerald-green hat, and its successor “The White Dress: Portrait of Jean”, a tour de force image of a stylish Edwardian “new” woman. The works announce Fergusson’s life-long intoxication with feminine elegance and couture, but still the magnificent “The Red Shawl”, a full-length portrait of journalist Elizabeth Dryden, made in Fergusson’s first year in Paris, is unexpected for its violent hues and flamboyant decorative background.

Colour, textiles and women are the leitmotifs of the Fauvist-derived works at the core of this show. A shallow patterning of oriental rugs frames a half-nude tending white flowers in a purple pot in the exotic “Voiles indiennes”. In “Hortensia”, the model’s face is reduced to a white mask, set against dabs of brilliant colour suggesting billowing blossoms in a summer garden.

Fergusson was no innovator, but he painted with vigour and zest, and absorbed currents of modernism early enough to make authentic work pulsing with the excitement of new freedoms and formal experimentation. Like all the Fauves, however, he hit crisis by 1914. Only Matisse really pushed through the abstract implications of the movement; after the war Van Dongen, Vlaminck and Derain became conservative neoclassicists, lost to the avant-garde. Fergusson’s trajectory was equally awkward – a story that Pallant House negotiates with tact and concision.

In 1913 Fergusson met dancer Margaret Morris; she featured in that year’s major painting “Les Eus”, depicting a bacchanalian dance by a circle of male and female nudes in a forest. It could not travel to this show, but in an illuminating catalogue essay Elizabeth Cumming relates its themes of surging nature, primitivism and expressive sexuality to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which premiered in Paris in May 1913. I think “Les Eus” a horrible, overblown, absurd work, marking the beginning of a decadent monumentalism that would eventually reduce Fergusson to little more than a poster artist.

Back in Britain in 1914, Fergusson applied to be a naval war artist – he disliked the khaki colour of army uniform. “Damaged Destroyer” and “Three Submarines” dabble in vorticism, and a cubist inflection continues in works made on returning to France in the 1920s, such as the blocky landscape “Christmas Time in the South of France”. Experiments in cubist sculpture’s language of movement – “Dancing Nude: Effulgence”, “Oak Rhythm” – were his most innovative works from this period.

“Summer, 1914”, a 1934 painting of Morris in a hammock, recalling the couple’s prewar idyll, exudes heat and languor but most of all nostalgia. In Antibes through the 1930s, then in Glasgow, Fergusson continued to paint cheerfully patterned reminiscences in ever brighter sunshine palettes – “Wisteria, Villa Florentine, Golfe-Juan” (1957), “Blonde with Checked Sundress” (1958) – well into his eighties. Of no aesthetic interest, they are nevertheless hard to resist as celebrations of a life lived long and happily in defiant rejection of the dark Edinburgh of Fergusson’s Victorian childhood.

JD Fergusson, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK, to October 19.

Slideshow images: The University of Aberdeen Museums, Scotland; The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council; City Art Centre, City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries

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