Scottish National Portrait Gallery: The Modern Scot

Until 31st December 2013

During the period of recovery and reassessment after the First World War (1914 – 1918), artists faced the problem of finding a means of creative expression appropriate for a radically altered society. Discover how Scottish artists and writers expressed a uniquely modern sensibility in the first decades of the twentieth century. Featuring such celebrated figures as Hugh MacDiamid and JD Fergusson, this display takes a closer look at the creative men and women who championed a progressive national culture and made Scotland’s distinctive voice heard.

The Scottish Renaissance Movement is recognised for bringing a Scottish vernacular voice to the universalist concerns of Modernism. The movement is renowned for its contribution to literature, but the visual arts also played a significant role. In particular the politically radical and nationalist painters William Johnstone, William McCance and John Duncan Fergusson came under the influence of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, whose project was to create a Scottish culture that was both politically progressive and artistically modern in outlook. The principal aim of the Scottish Renaissance Movement was to align the arts in Scotland with contemporary artistic and intellectual tendencies in Europe.

The artists and writers who engaged with the Modern Movement were concerned with contemporary subject matter and new forms of expression. They rejected the nostalgic sentimentality of the ‘Kailyard School’ exemplified by writers like J. M. Barrie and the ‘cabbage patch and cottar’ paintings of Edward Hornel and Sir James Guthrie. By contrast, they wanted to give expression to a unique Scottish identity that could only be fully articulated through an engagement with the internationalist concerns of Modernism.  This did not mean a rejection of the past – on the contrary, the importance of Gaelic language and culture was recognised, as was the need to repair the breach in continuity that they felt marked Scotland’s cultural history. This meant there was a strain of patriotic Celticism in the Modern Movement in Scotland, alongside the commitment to the present.

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