As the UK Coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown is extended by at least three weeks, Alice Strang, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, considers the unusual Spring we are living through, by way of works in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection.
Spring came early this year: the vernal equinox was on 20 March 2020, marking the point when day and night were of equal length. Three days later, Boris Johnson introduced the ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ measures, under which we are now living.
London-born and Slade School of Fine Art trained Paul Nash painted a series of works inspired by this point in the seasonal calendar, including Landscape of the Vernal Equinox III of 1944.
Its setting is Wittenham Clumps in south Oxfordshire, beside the Thames. 300 year-old ‘clumps’ or clusters of beech trees crown Round Hill and Castle Hill, where evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements have been found. Nash discovered the area when he was a teenager and described it as ‘a beautiful, legendary country’. In this dream-like painting, the sun and the moon are shown simultaneously as Nash venerates and celebrates the eternal cycle of nature.
A more extreme homage to the season can be seen in Spring by Edwin Lucas of May 1940. Born in Leith and self-taught apart from evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art, Lucas had a ‘brief flirtation’ with Surrealism between 1939 and 1941. This makes him one of the few Scottish artists of the time to engage with the avant-garde movement.
In this complex and enigmatic painting, human and natural forms are brought together as Lucas ignores traditional notions of perspective and plays with scale. He leads the eye around the canvas in a never-ending rotation, challenging us to understand what is going on in an image dense with suggestions of fecundity, growth and beauty.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Spring of 1998 is an abstract depiction of the emotions commonly aroused by the season. Born in St Andrews and trained at Edinburgh College of Art, Barns-Graham worked with the printmaker Carol Robertson and the printer Robert Adams on a series of limited edition silkscreen prints. The women orchestrated the layering of colours and a vocabulary of gestural shapes across several images at once, in a flexible and intuitive way.
Spring is based on a yellow ground, the colour most commonly associated with the season. Its sense of light and energy are conveyed by floating forms which can be read from front to back as well as from left to right. They include a swooping brushed black curve and a white oval, perhaps a reference to an egg and its connotations with birth and Easter.
Seasonal hope is embodied in Spring Morning of 1915, by Cambridge-born and Slade School of Fine Art trained Gwen Raverat. Measuring just 8.2cm squared, this intimate woodcut captures a solitary figure at the start of the day. Spreading sunlight is conveyed by an area of bare paper from which its rays fill the sky, whilst it casts the shadow of the solitary figure standing on an empty road.
The branches of the surrounding trees and bushes as well as the lie of the land in the foreground and distance, are carefully delineated within sections ranging from densely printed to lightly touched. A sense of expansive space and optimism is presented within a secure double border.
We are living through an unusual Spring, which we can experience through windows, during our permitted daily exercise and whilst on vital trips away from home. It is one we will surely remember.