Decades | The Art of Change 1900–1980

On now until Sun 7 Jan 2024

Open daily, 10am–5pm

Admission free


Try our free audio tour


This fascinating, free exhibition takes a journey through 80 years of art, from 1900 to the 1970s. Spanning a period of dramatic change, moving from the birth of the motorcar to the dawn of the space race, each work on display is drawn from the Gallery’s world-class collection of modern art.

Decades | The Art of Change 1900–1980 takes visitors through a series of six chapters across six rooms at Modern Two. Each chapter speaks of a particular moment from across the twentieth century, when artists rebelled against the previous generation, creating works which came to characterise a period.

Beginning with French artists who painted with electrifying colour, the first room includes work by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Their brightly coloured landscape paintings were so radically different that the artists were given the derogatory label ‘Fauves’ – meaning ‘wild beasts’. The term stuck and Fauvism had a major impact on British and particularly Scottish art.

Two fabulous new acquisitions, by Scottish Colourists FCB Cadell and JD Fergusson, feature in this room. Leith-born JD Fergusson, who lived in Paris before the First World War, was one of the key Scottish artists of the twentieth century. Painted in 1911, Flowers and Pink Box, is vigorous and confident in its brushwork, bright and clashing in colour. The Rose and the Lacquer Screen, by FCB Cadell, combines several of his favourite still-life props: a rose in a transparent vase, a black fan and its trailing ribbon and a detail of the lacquered screen that dominated the drawing room of his house in Edinburgh’s New Town. These new acquisitions have been generously donated by private owners.

Moving into the 1930s, artists such as Piet Mondrian believed that art could change society. This room features work by Alexander Calder, Paule Vézelay and Ben Nicholson.

Entering the 1940s, abstraction and idealism were replaced by grim realism. Featuring work by Francis Bacon, Joan Eardley and Bet Low, these paintings and sculptures, created both during and immediately after the Second World War, speak of a new reality.

The 1950s saw a battle between Abstraction and Realism. This is illustrated by two mural projects created for the great Festival of Britain exhibition of 1951, which will be shown together here for the first time. Josef Hermann’s project shows a row of miners - builders of a new socialist order; Victor Pasmore’s mural project is instead a daring essay glimpse of spiralling abstract forms. Exceptional creations by Alan Davie, Louise Nevelson, Fernand Léger, Eduardo Paolozzi and Elisabeth Frink are also on display, making up the 1950s presentation.

Art became celebratory, playful and experimental in the 1960s. Sculptors abandoned traditional materials such as bronze and marble for ‘soft sculpture’, exemplified in the work of Jann Haworth, Yayoi Kusama and Duane Hanson’s iconic Tourists.

Throughout the 1970s, artists took Abstraction and Minimalism to extremes. Fred Sandback’s Untitled, 1971 - two coloured cords which cut across the corner of the room - questions the very notion of art as something with three-dimensional form or narrative meaning.

The Keiller Library will focus on the motif of the hand in Surrealist art and writing. Drawing on works by Man Ray, Edith Rimmington and Salvador Dalí, from the national collection’s world-class holding of Surrealist books and archive material.

Radical, questioning and experimental, this selection of one hundred works from the national collection shows ways in which artists have continually pushed the boundaries and created art which defines its time. These pieces still have the power to shock and make us think about our world today.

Event highlights

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Event accessibility

Exhibition accessibility

  • Large print labels
  • Wheelchair access
  • Hearing loop


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Gallery facilities

Detailed information on accessibility at the National Galleries of Scotland

Parking for visitors is available at both Modern One and Modern Two. A donation is requested of £5 for up to 4 hours and £9 for 4-8 hours. Our payment meters have contactless capability. There is free accessible parking for blue badge holders.

  • Information desk
  • Wifi
  • Wheelchair access
  • Accessible toilets
  • Changing places toilet
  • Wheelchairs available
  • Public toilets
  • Disabled parking
  • Lockers (£1/£2)
  • Baby changing facilities
  • Buggy park
  • Seating throughout
  • Bike rack
  • Parking
  • Café
Getting here

Getting here

The Modern is located 15 minutes’ walk from Princes Street. It includes two buildings, Modern One and Modern Two, set in a beautiful sculpture park.

Venue map
  • Open daily, 10am–5pm<br> 25 & 26 December: Closed<br> 1 January: Open 12noon–5pm
  • Open daily, 10am–5pm<br> 25 & 26 December: Closed<br> 1 January: Open 12noon–5pm
73 & 75 Belford Road, Edinburgh, EH4 3DR

Decades | Shop

Decades | Shop

Art gifts to take home and celebrate 80 years of art, from 1900 to the 1970s

Decades | Free Audio Tour

Delve deeper into the art with our free audio tour. The tour includes descriptions and insights for 14 of the artworks on display in this fascinating journey through 80 years of art.  

Friends go free

Friends go free

Become a Friend to enjoy unique access to the nation’s art collection with unlimited free entry to exhibitions, Friends-only exhibition previews and a 10% discount in our gallery shops & cafés.

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