Bold Masculine Genius: Glasgow Boys at the Kelvingrove
A bold, maverick genius pervades the work on display in the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow’s West End. The Glasgow Boys were not all Scots, but I found the work to be very Scottish: earthy, grounded, strong, dare I say it -- masculine.
In today's gender neutral world, it was nice to see images from a time when mustaches were de reguerre; a time when kilts were not viewed as a fading embarrassment (see Fig 1).
In painful contrast to the rather subdued Glasgow Boys exhibition sits the uber-commercial artist-as-philistine Jack Vettriano show, only worth mentioning as a counterpoint to the quality featured in the superior Glasgow Boys exhibition upstairs. Superior why? It is simply because the attempts manifest in the admittedly disparate set of Glasgow Boys paintings are evidence of an authentic group essay into experimental innovation. Whilst the cynical commodification of Baby Boomer fetishes and dreams embodied in the wretched kitsch pastiches painted by the aesthetically-jaded hand of Jack Vettriano reek of wine receptions and auction room floors.
But I digress. Experimentation was the name of the game for the Glasgow Boys: ‘such artists as Guthrie, Lavery, Melville, Crawhall, Walton, Henry and Hornel.’ Taking the cue from French Impressionists, but more specifically Jules Bastien-Lapage,  the Glasgow Boys ventured out into the unknown to pursue a new style of painting, as is stated in the following excerpt from an exhibition placard:
Many of the Glasgow Boys spent summers painting in rural Scotland, following the example of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who painted at the small French village of Damvillers. The villages of Moniaive, Cockburnspath and the small town of Kirkcudbright all provided subjects. Whether painting rural labourers working in the fields, local children or village worthies, the Boys all sought to record daily life.
and it further states:
This was a time of experimentation. They faced the various practical and artistic challenges of their new approach, such as painting out of doors, making people look natural in a landscape setting or capturing the differences of light and shade.
I was genuinely surprised and delighted by the story behind the paintings featured in the Glasgow Boys exhibition. It tells of a pioneering group of male artists who, in the midst of fin de siècle ferment, broke free from the then-current art industry canon to probe the possibilities of a freer form of artistic endeavour. The spirit they were chasing had been sparked in the previous generation by their much-admired hero James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whom they referred to as ‘The Master’, and who was of Scottish descent.
By all accounts a truly maverick American, James McNeill Whistler had challenged the staid and stodgy established British art world by placing aesthetics above other technical considerations in the execution of his work. Whistler had humiliated the influential art critic John Ruskin, who had famously stated that Whistler had gained “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face”, referring to Whistler’s beautiful Aestheticist masterpiece Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (see Fig. 2).
The Glasgow Boys, too, were derided as uncouth upstarts. Consider, for example, the criticism directed at George Henry’s A Galloway Landscape, in a critique written for the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times of 12 Februrary, 1890:
"Take for instance A Galloway Landscape of George Henry. It may be clever but it is not art. It is utterly destitute alike of perspective, atmosphere, and poetry, three very serious defects, as we take it, in a landscape picture."
‘Henry’s picture caused bafflement and alarm when it was first shown at the Glasgow Institute in 1890. The Hanging Committee, of whom James Paterson was one, placed the Glasgow Boys' pictures in one room, dubbed "the Chamber of Horrors".’
The critics of the Glasgow Boys school, who I would hazard to guess were probably steeped in the traditions of Neoclassicism, or who perhaps considered themselves ‘current’ in the development of then recent movements such as Pre-Rafaelitism, Aestheticism, and Impressionism, neglected to comprehend the sublime beauty of paintings like Japanese Lady With A Fan (Fig. 3), also painted by George Henry.
George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel journeyed to Japan in 1893, and spent 18 months there, observing and painting Japanese people and places. Their trip was financed by the art dealer Alexander Reid, and shipowner and collector William Burrell.
Although the influence Japanese design had on late 19th century Western art cannot be overestimated, and has been well expounded ad nauseum by countless art historical treatises, it warrants mention that the art produced by the Glasgow Boys was heavily in debt to the flat, often muted aesthetic present in Meiji-era prints and wares.
As can be seen in what I consider to be one of the most beautiful of the Glasgow Boys’ paintings - Japanese Lady With A Fan - subdued yet photographic muted earth tones, in many places crisply delineated, are set off by small shocks of red-painted flowers on the fan held in the hand of the subject, and the simple red head of a pin in her hair. But the most curious aspect of Japanese Lady With A Fan is not its faceless protagonist:
The Curious Brushstroke
The most curious aspect of the overall oeuvre put forth by the the Glasgow Boys is not the great variety of styles they utilised and invented for their paintings - the ‘harmonious conglomerate disparity’ as I like to put it, but it is their strangely endearing advocacy of the usage of square brush strokes - perhaps as a marker of discontinuity with past movements - that flags them as congenial rebels.
Presaging the pixel, the Glasgow Boys assimilated from French painter Jules Bastien-Lapage  a unique technique of painting in small squares, which combine together to form a unique texture in many of their paintings. Although my first guess might be that the Glasgow Boys were following an Impressionist path of iconographic reductivity in order to achieve a certain aesthetic or effect, Seurat’s chromoluminarism could just as easily have been an influence, perhaps as a way to imbue certain works with the characteristics of lithography, or even photography.
One little discussed collective trait of the Glasgow Boys, their aesthetic, and their output, is that it is quintessentially Scottish -- but also inspired by the American myth of the maverick or cowboy, as it was interpreted for them by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Legends of the American Old West had made an impact on the peoples of the British Isles, with personalities like Buffalo Bill inspiring a new sense of rebelliousness amongst otherwise pacified Victorian Britons. 
A Study in Scarlet - the first Sherlock Holmes story - is an example of this new form of Western romanticism: Half of it takes place in the American Old West - replete with gunslingers, Mormon polygamy, and desert chase scenes. That something so quintessentially British as Sherlock Holmes fiction should include American romanticism as one of its chief components speaks volumes as to the potency of focus directed at 19th century America by the collective British mind.
By defeating and humiliating the darling of English art theory John Ruskin, Whistler had done what William Wallace had done: gone up against the English and won! (the battle if not the war). Not only that but he had asserted his highly charged individualism - which would, of course, have been seen as part and parcel of his being American, despite that fact that he had grown up in Russia and England, as well as in America, and was culturally influenced by all three nations.
The recalcitrance directed at the English social hierarchy, which -- it has to be stated -- is natural to many Scots, likely motivated the Glasgow Boys to seek to establish a Scottish foothold in the new Modernity dawning in the latter part of the 19th century. Indeed, the Glasgow Boys were at the forefront of this new epoch in art history, and deserve credit for pushing the boundaries very far. They broke with the establishment; created new techniques, aesthetics, and practices; and formed what would become a powerful new wave of experimentation which would inspire their heirs - most notably The Four - to achieve new artistic heights for Scotland, and bring in a unique identity for Glasgow which is only now beginning to be appreciated and fully valued.
Nestled away in a side gallery which lacks any exterior indication of its contents is a delightful assortment of highlights from the collective oeuvre of the Glasgow Boys. As one surveys painting after painting, a common thread begins to emerge. The curators have strung together a network of brave attempts which encapsulate the overall zeitgeist of the 1880s and 1890s. This is where the Boys are geniuses: they unabashedly attempted every style and variation that took their fancy. There are japonesque embarkations, quasi-Impressionist endeavours, realist exertions, Whistler knock-offs, even an Art Nouveau-like ballerina (Fig. 4) and fairy (Fig. 5).
The gallery itself is a worthy space, and I hope that the Glasgow Boys will find a permanent home in it. It is just off of the Kelvingrove Museum’s main hall, and as such allows easy access and is simple to find. It is divided up into themed subsections having to do with things like “Painting in Rural Scotland”, “Modern Life”, “The Lure of Japan”, “Symbolism” and “New Directions in the 1890s”. The “New Directions in the 1890s” breaths life into the story of the Glasgow Boys by letting us know what happened after their initial zenith as a group in the 1880s:
After the formative years of the early 1880s, when their work had a clear similarity, in the 1890s the Glasgow Boys began to pursue their own individual paths. They kept their friendships, but growing reputations, new family commitments or simply a desire to break away from youthful radicalism led them in very different directions.
Some, notably the landscape painters, maintained the style of their early works. Some became successful portrait painters. Others specialised in animal or flower subjects. They were all in full control of their chosen medium, with national reputations at home and international fame ahead of them. They no longer had to compete to exhibit in the major venues in Britain and Europe - now, exhibition organisers everywhere were eager to show their latest works.
I’m happy to convey that I thoroughly enjoyed the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow’s West End. I hadn’t previously known about the Glasgow Boys, and I was struck most by just how avant-garde they really were! They took the revolutionary art movements of their time, reinterpreted them, and applied them with vigour. They copied styles without compunction, and ventured to conjure new spirits into the realm of art. It is touching to think that a camaraderie could bear such strange, subdued, but beautiful fruit -- and at such an early time when they were surely breaking major barriers and combatting serious criticism.
If I walked away with a favourite artist, I think it would be George Henry because of an aesthetic affinity I feel I have with his art. But there was such a collective zeal amongst all of the Glasgow Boys - if their paintings are an appropriate basis to judge such a thing - that one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the charm exuding from this amassment of brilliance in painting.
1 Edinburgh Museums - Edinburgh Museums. "Edinburgh Museums - The Glasgow Boys." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/City-Art-Centre/Collections/Fine-Art/Scottish-Art-Movements/The-Glasgow-Boys.
2 The Scotsman. "Art chiefs' e-mails paint poor picture of Vettriano." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.scotsman.com/news/art_chiefs_e_mails_paint_poor_picture_of_vettriano_1_961329.
3 Telegraph.co.uk. "Art can't shock us any more, says Grayson Perry - Telegraph." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/10362277/Art-cant-shock-us-any-more-says-Grayson-Perry.html.
4 Royal Academy Home - Royal Academy of Arts. "Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900 - Exhibitions - Royal Academy of Arts." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/glasgow-boys/.
5 National Galleries of Scotland. "The Glasgow Boys − Impressionism & Scotland − Exhibitions − What's On − National Galleries of Scotland." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/impressionism-scotland/the-glasgow-boys.
6, 15, 21 Glasgow Boys Exhibition, Exhibition placard, Kelvingrove Museum, 2013.
7 Sanchez, Gonzalo J. Pity in Fin-De-Siecle French Culture Liberte, Egalite, Pitie. Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2004.
8 Royal Academy Home - Royal Academy of Arts. "Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900 - Exhibitions - Royal Academy of Arts." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/glasgow-boys/.
9 BBC - Homepage. "BBC - Scottish Roots - Histories." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/scottishroots/histories/whistler.shtml.
10 Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin. — book review, Art in America, January 1993, by Wendy Steiner
11 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold.jpg. n.d.
12 Helensburgh Heritage. "Leader of the Glasgow Boys." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=962:leader-of-the-glasgow-boys&catid=81:the-arts&Itemid=458.
13, 14 In The Artists' Footsteps. "In The Artists' Footsteps." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://www.artistsfootsteps.co.uk/stories.asp?StoryID=22&loadType=1.
16 MIT CSAIL Advanced Network Architecture Group. "Glossary of Woodblock Print Terms." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/glossary.html.
17 The List – the guide to what's on in the UK. "Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880–1900 | The List." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.list.co.uk/article/24452-pioneering-painters-the-glasgow-boys-1880-1900/.
18 Seurat and Chromoluminarism." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://problemsparadoxesandalliterations.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/seurat-and-chromoluminarism.html.
19 Buffalo Bill, Frank Christianson. The Wild West in England. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
20 The Phillips Collection | America's First Museum of Modern Art. "James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Bio." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/whistler-bio.htm.
Seurat and Chromoluminarism." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://problemsparadoxesandalliterations.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/seurat-and-chromoluminarism.html.
Telegraph.co.uk. "Art can't shock us any more, says Grayson Perry - Telegraph." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/10362277/Art-cant-shock-us-any-more-says-Grayson-Perry.html.
The Scotsman. "Art chiefs' e-mails paint poor picture of Vettriano." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.scotsman.com/news/art_chiefs_e_mails_paint_poor_picture_of_vettriano_1_961329.
BBC - Homepage. "BBC - Scottish Roots - Histories." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/scottishroots/histories/whistler.shtml.
Buffalo Bill, Frank Christianson. The Wild West in England. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Edinburgh Museums - Edinburgh Museums. "Edinburgh Museums - The Glasgow Boys." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/City-Art-Centre/Collections/Fine-Art/Scottish-Art-Movements/The-Glasgow-Boys.
National Galleries of Scotland. "The Glasgow Boys − Impressionism & Scotland − Exhibitions − What's On − National Galleries of Scotland." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/impressionism-scotland/the-glasgow-boys.
MIT CSAIL Advanced Network Architecture Group. "Glossary of Woodblock Print Terms." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/glossary.html.
In The Artists' Footsteps. "In The Artists' Footsteps." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.artistsfootsteps.co.uk/stories.asp?StoryID=22&loadType=1.
The Phillips Collection | America's First Museum of Modern Art. "James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Bio." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/whistler-bio.htm.
Helensburgh Heritage. "Leader of the Glasgow Boys." Accessed October 19, 2013. http://www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=962:leader-of-the-glasgow-boys&catid=81:the-arts&Itemid=458.
Royal Academy Home - Royal Academy of Arts. "Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900 - Exhibitions - Royal Academy of Arts." Accessed October 18, 2013. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/glasgow-boys/.
The List – the guide to what's on in the UK. "Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880–1900 | The List." Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.list.co.uk/article/24452-pioneering-painters-the-glasgow-boys-1880-1900/.
Sanchez, Gonzalo J. Pity in Fin-De-Siecle French Culture Liberte, Egalite, Pitie. Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2004.