Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Realism is often seen as dim, dull and directionless. This enthralling show proves that, between the wars, it was anything but
This exhibition invites us to look at art that has long been scorned or ignored. British realist painting between the wars is primarily associated with the Royal Academy during that institution’s most retrograde period; when shown in the annual Summer Exhibition, its complete rejection of cubism or any form of fragmentation helped keep at bay modernist influences from the continent. In 1937, the critic and supporter of the avant garde Herbert Read declared realist painting to be “occasionally competent in a technical sense, generally sentimental and always utterly insignificant”.
Yet many of the pictures in this exhibition were hugely popular in their day and fetched huge prices. In 1926 the Cornish artist Dod Proctor painted a fish merchant’s daughter, dreaming on her bed in dawn light. The painting, titled Morning, attracted such a pitch of interest that the Daily Mail, in a fit of national fervour, bought it for the Tate Gallery. “Realism,” Wyndham Lewis astutely remarked, “is a fine, manly, practical word that appeals to everyone as safe and satisfactory.”