Inspired by Civilisations: Radiance

In “Radiance”, Simon Schama returned to Civilisations on BBC2 to meditate on the role and place of colour within the world’s cultures. Through the great Gothic cathedrals of France, the vivid brilliance of the Venetian Golden Age and immersive, dreamlike landscapes of Indian painting, he demonstrated the central position of colour as the celebration of life; offering a glimpse beyond into the world of paradise. He also showed what artists could create when their world was filled with darkness, through the late paintings and etchings of Francisco de Goya and the triumphant re-emergence of colour's central role through the work of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. In this blog post, we look at two works from the galleries that tie in with some of the themes Simon explored in this episode.

In the National Galleries of Scotland’s prints and drawings collection, one small watercolour sketch stands out as one of the most triumphant explosions of colour seen in the development of Scottish art.

In 1889 the same year Van Gogh painted his iconic Starry Night, the thirty-one year old Scottish artist Arthur Melville was in Paris to see the Exposition Universelle. During his stay he also experienced the bohemian atmosphere of the Montmarte district, where he produced a series of watercolours in a tiny sketchbook, capturing the fleeting scenes of the world around him.

Arthur Melville, Dancers at the Moulin Rouge, 1889

Dancers at the Moulin Rouge is a near-abstract blend of vivid yellows, blues and reds accomplished by a few rapid brushstrokes as he raced to capture the movement of the dancers; with the areas of running washes suggesting the petticoats illuminated by the stage lighting. It is a testament to Melville’s mastery of watercolour, yet it is also a celebration of the joy of colour in art; reacting against the gloom of a modern, industrial world. Look ahead just over a decade though, and we can see an example of an artist “wandering into the darkness” at the dawn of the 20th century.

The sombre works of Picasso’s "Blue Period" were the result of a decline in the artist's psychological state from 1901-1904, a reaction to traumatic experience in his life. In Picasso’s case, this is believed to have been triggered by the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas.

Pablo Picasso Mère et enfant [Mother and Child] 1902 © Succession Picasso. DACS, London 2023

Later that year, Picasso had sunk into severe depression; his works filled with cool hues of blue; depicting figures who appear to be isolated and cast out from society.

The painting Mère et Enfant dated from this time in Picasso’s career and was influenced by his regular visits to a prison hospital for women in Paris. Here he encountered the miserable situation of the female prisoners and their young children; which would have seemed ideal subjects for the work that Picasso sought to create at this time.

In Mère et Enfant, the mother has turned away from the viewer, implying a sense of shame and isolation that is compounded by the domination of the melancholy blues on the canvas. Despite the original rejection of these works and their underlying themes of depression, the Blue Paintings today are amongst the most popular of Picasso's works

These two works from the National Galleries of Scotland offer only a small sample of the spectrum of colours from the bold to the subtle that are present in the collection. If you would like to explore further, you can filter artworks on the website by colour, or even search for works by colour. Why not give it a try and see what you can discover?

Civilisations aired on BBC2.

12 April 2018