Anyone who doubts the vitality of painting should head to Edinburgh this summer. There, among the films and installations that imprint the Art Festival with fashionable energy, a trio of painters delivers an encounter as gripping as any of their peers. Up for discussion are big subjects: painting, looking, thinking, being. Yet delivered across three spaces, Inverleith House, Bourne Art Gallery and City Art Centre, it is only in retrospect that the power of the encounter becomes apparent.
The titan here is Philip Guston, the Canadian-born artist who single-handedly confronted the questions that turned 20th-century painting into an ideological battleground. Figurative or abstract? Observation or idea? Objective or non-objective? Unlike his peers who stuck to one credo, Guston explored them all and was rewarded with acclaim and opprobrium in equal measure.
The virtue of the show at Inverleith House is its diminutive scale. Displaying just nine paintings from the late, figurative chapter of Guston’s oeuvre, it reveals the painter at his most troubled and troubling.
Born in 1913 in Canada to Ukrainian-Jewish parents, Guston was brought up in Los Angeles. It was a traumatic youth, scarred by the suicide of his father and the violence inflicted on immigrant communities by the Ku Klux Klan. As a child, Guston would shut himself in a cupboard and make drawings under a naked lightbulb.
After early figurative forays, by mid-century Guston was a leading abstract expressionist, lauded for canvases where radiant, amorphous auras bubbled up through neutral-hued impasto oceans. By the late 1960s, however, he had rejected abstraction.
Spanning the decade from 1969 to 1978 – two years before Guston died – this exhibition underlines the fact that Guston’s images were diabolically dark, yet laced with an irony and courage that rescue them from despair. It opens with two canvases, “The Meeting” and “The City” (both 1969). Both painted in Guston’s signature, cartoon-like graphic – thick black contours enclosing shapes in pinks and reds that suggest not warmth, but rather a cold, angry inflammation – the first depicts hooded figures huddled beneath a shadeless lightbulb; the second layers skeletal, Colosseum-like edifices in the manner of a minimalist Piranesi. Humans are absent, yet the black window-slits ineluctably recall the Klan eyeholes.
A close friend of Rothko, Guston shared with him both a love of Russian literature – Dostoevsky in particular – and an appreciation of early Renaissance painters such as Giotto and Piero. Looking at one of the most enigmatic canvases here, “The Black Sea” (1977), one suspects the pair shared too Auden’s perception that “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters”.
Like many Rothkos, the painting is bisected into two bands, here representing sea and sky, whose surface is wild with gesture and tone, while in the middle floats an object that resembles a flatiron. It is as if the shadowy, painful energies that lurked within Rothko’s hermetic veils have broken through into the light.
Tormented though he was, Guston never succumbed to his friend’s overriding desolation. His images may have tortured him but they probably saved him too. Fusing neo-expressionist style with self-conscious conceptuality, Guston was a pioneer of much contemporary painting.
At Bourne Fine Art, a compelling exhibition traces the journey of Jock McFadyen through this minefield to reach nirvana in stunning, recent landscapes. Born in Paisley in 1950, McFadyen studied at the Chelsea School of Art in the 1970s, where, according to a riveting Q&A in the catalogue, he specialised in Hogarthian comedies that were “commentaries on the undoing of painting”.
By 1982 he had wearied of this “too knowing” practice and decided to risk making a “picture of what I saw”. Canvases that date from his volte-face are merciless exposures of human frailties – in “Isle of Dogs” (1984) three burly toughs stare at a naked woman as if they have stripped her with their gaze – that recall the embittered brilliance of George Grosz.
These paintings brim with chromatism and detail yet the figurative melodrama overwhelms them. Fortunately, an epiphany while designing sets for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet The Judas Tree in 1990 saw McFadyen turn to landscape.
The results are masterpieces of observation and gritty romanticism. Never has London’s Gherkin looked more tender and melancholy than in “Bud” (2007), which captures it pale and crystalline above a graffiti-scarred backyard. Framed by marshes whose watery turquoise chimes with the brighter sky, a brutal apartment block – “Pink Flats” (2006) – possesses a lonely grandeur that owes a debt to Whistler and Constable, yet is thoroughly of its moment.
McFadyen desires to make paintings that are a “creditable and organic way of seeing the world”. Today, that is almost a revolutionary proposition. Yet when Leslie Hunter started painting, at the turn of the 20th century, it was not so much. Born in 1877 on the Isle of Bute but raised in California, Hunter is one of the quartet known as the Scottish Colourists.
The retrospective at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre is a dazzling celebration of Hunter’s declaration that “everyone must choose their own way, and mine will be the way of colour”. An illustrator by trade but burning with artistic ambition, he arrived in Paris at the dawn of the new century and plundered Old Masters and modernists alike. Early still lifes – “Lemon and Knife” (c.1913), “Chrysanthemums in a Chinese Vase with Phoenix” (c.1913) – revel in clotted citrus, titanium white, Dutch blue and raspberry against lightless black grounds in a manner reminiscent of Dutch masters by way of Fantin-Latour and Manet. Yet so shocked was Hunter by the rebelliousness of works by Picasso and Matisse, which he saw at the apartment of Gertrude and Leo Stein in 1908, that he declared he wished he had never seen them.
Over the next two decades, as he shuttled between Scotland and France, Hunter made peace with post-impressionism. The exhibition’s tour de force, “Peonies in a Chinese Vase” (1925), sets chunky, Cézanne-like flowers and fruit against patterned tablecloth and curtain in colours that crawl across the canvas with the fecundity of Matisse. Such academic rule-breaking found little favour in Scotland. In 1927, a Glasgow show of Hunter’s Provençal drawings saw him denigrated for the influence of “degenerate” French artists.
Hunter’s final works, of houseboats on Loch Lomond, possess a cool, restrained loveliness. Distilling primrose yellows, leaf greens and misty blues and greys to a watery translucence, he never compromised his faith in the power of colour. Plagued with ill health his entire life, he died in 1931, at the moment he was convinced that the door he had been “kicking at for so long ... is beginning to open”.
By then, of course, the surrealists had long turned their attention to their inner landscapes. Guston is their heir, and between him and Leslie Hunter lies a gulf. How interesting that the youngest painter of this trio, Jock McFadyen, offers us a bridge between them.
‘Philip Guston: Late Paintings’, Inverleith House, until October 7, www.rbge.org.uk
‘A Life in Colour: Leslie Hunter, Scottish Colourist’, City Art Centre, until October 14, www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk
‘Jock McFadyen: The Ability to Cling’, Bourne Fine Art, until September 15, www.bournefineart.com
The Edinburgh Art Festival runs until September 2, www.edinburghartfestival.com