True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s (4 stars)

This article is from 2017

True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

The Snack Bar, by Edward Burra (1930) / credit: © The estate of Edward Burra, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London

Largely unexplored movement between the two World Wars takes spotlight at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this summer

In the shop of Modern 2, the postcard reproductions of some of the 80 paintings brought together for this bumper compendium of 1920s and 1930s British realism are racked next to those of Ladybird book covers and vintage posters advertising Scottish holiday destinations. This may be a happy accident, but in their complimentary depictions of idealised versions of brave new post-war worlds, they are all too appropriate aesthetic near neighbours.

While the blast of World War 1 exploded Dada and other abstractions into noisy life elsewhere, here the landscapes look unsullied, their occupants impeccably turned out. Over four rooms we see that world at work, rest and play. From the Italian inspired co-opting of bustling communities and religious iconography in the first, the second room's set of portraits flit from the windswept idyll of James Cowie's much seen 'A Portrait Group' (1933/about 1949) to haughty-looking women playing cards alone.

This not only points to tweedy subversions that would come later, but sets the template for TV production designers working on post-modern Agatha Christie remakes. Algernon Newton's 'Canal Basin' (1929), meanwhile, which sits in the third room's collection of rural and urban still lifes, sets the tone for former Clash bass player Paul Simonon's own Thames based paintings a few decades later.

It is the fourth room's cavalcade of picnickers, hikers, circuses and funfairs that really capture a new sense of a new leisured class. It's no surprise that Fortunino Matania's 'Blackpool', originally commissioned for a London, Midland and Scottish Railway poster, was also used to advertise the northern English fun palace as a holiday town. The realism here, then, is far from gritty, and, as everyday experiences are writ large in the likes of Edward Burra's 'The Snack Bar' (1930), this particular truth points to the brightest of futures.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 29 Oct.

True to Life: British Realist Paintings in the 1920s and 1930s

  • 4 stars

A major review of British realist painting in the 20s and 30s, unlocking some of the secrets of this generally neglected tradition, with works by the famous (Stanley Spencer) and the not-so-famous (Thomas Monnington, Colin Gill, James Bateman and Mark Lancelot Symons).