The Art of Unpredictable Weather
The Scottish painter W. G. Gillies (1898 to 1973) once said: ``I have always enjoyed weather; always seen landscape pictorially, and I've got immense pleasure from recording swiftly in drawings and watercolors the fugutuve, the subtle and the grand. A weather-ful exhibition of Gillie's watercolors of Scottish landscape has proved a popular event during this year's Edinburgh Festival (though not specifically part of the festival). It has acted as a quiet reminder to visitors at this highly international annual celebration of the arts that they are in Scotland, the land of weather. (Though the weather they have encountered on the streets of the capital has probably been an effective reminder, too.)
The painter Fuseli remarked that John Constable's paintings (of his native Suffolk countryside) made him reach for an umbrella. Gillies, in his own style, or various styles - since he was unpretentiously experimental and responded to different landscape-encounters with different methods - painted landscape as the mirror of the sky's activities. He depicted it as the ``place beneath'' on which the ``gentle rain'' drops and across which the cloud-shadows and patches of sun chase each other.
Even when he chose not to show much of the sky, the land itself, as in ``Beached Boats, Kippford'' (bottom, this page) for instance, was presented as entirely responsive to the sky. In painting landscape, Gillies painted weather.
At least since the 18th century, landscape painters in Britain, particularly those using the ``fugitive'' and ``subtle'' medium of watercolor, have made something remarkable out of the national obsession with the island's endlessly unpredictable weather.
Many painters in the 20th century have continued to make art out of the changing dramas of light and shadow, cloud and wetness and wind - rather than breaking new ground - which might seem determinedly provincial in outlook.
John Houston, a younger Scottish painter, touched on this when he quoted Gillies's reply to someone who ``asked him how he thought the future would assess him. He said, `Och, a very good minor Scottish painter.' ''
By the record of everyone who knew him, Gillies was a modest, gently humorous man, but his somewhat effacing self-assessment may prove not far from the truth.
Houston, however, adds that Gillies is ``somebody you always go back to and get a surprise - particularly by showing you what you can do with something you've seen a million times.''
The point, perhaps, is that a close, heartfelt interest in the familiar and the local - in essence a love affair with the place where you were born and know well - can be as much a springboard for art as the unfamiliar is to the itinerant and restless.
Provincialism does not necessarily denote littleness of outlook or even lack of universality. There is probably a great deal more to be said for a good minor artist than an overambitious one who aims at ``greatness'' and misses.
Gillies presents a problem to those who attempt to write about his work. He was one of the least theoretical of painters, and was little concerned with the kinds of ``meanings'' words too often attach portentously or extravagantly to pictures.
All art tells a story, even if it is only the story of the movement of a brush. It may be nothing more than the story of a painting holiday with friends. Gillies (who was a lecturer and finally principal at the Edinburgh College of Art) went on many such painting trips, covering most of Scotland.
He worked swiftly when painting out of doors, and there are various recollections of his producing in a day quite a number of finished watercolors while a companion was slowly cogitating and worrying over one small part of a single picture.
Gillies's prolific output became famous. He has been described as someone for whom painting was as natural (and continual) as eating.
He reminds one of the American painter Milton Avery, who similarly turned out painting after painting in quick succession. The obvious difficulty of such productivity is a degree of qualitative variation - but then the same is true of some slower painters.
Gillies judged his work after the event, and he thought some paintings much more successful than others. But he rarely destroyed anything he had done.
John Bellany, another Scottish painter (quoted, along with Houston and others, in W. Gordon Smith's book ``W.G. Gillies, A Very Still Life'') offers the following appreciative comment: ``He was in awe of the wonders of nature. He saw and portrayed nature tirelessly, with his own special freshness. He lived and breathed inside the landscape and with his alchemy could produce, from time to time, a masterpiece - sometimes with the innocence of a child and at other times with the sophistication of a sage. He was a `good artist.' ''
If one calls Gillies a provincial artist, the characterization should be qualified by noting that he was not an ``ignorant'' one. He had trained briefly in the Paris studio of Andre Lhote and followed this not particularly successful time with travel in Italy.
He certainly knew and appreciated the work of such internationally regarded artists as Edvard Munch and Georges Braque, both of whom exhibited in Edinburgh.
Munch had a profound, if not lasting, influence on him, and freed him up to see how landscape can contain and convey some of the deepest symbolic feelings and inner moods of an artist.
Some of Gillies's stronger oppositions of darkness and light, vividly seen in many of his Scottish landscapes, have some fellowship with the Northern expressiveness of Munch. But equally, it could be that Gillies looked at a painter like Emil Nolde and absorbed his way of storming a landscape and grasping it almost spontaneously in paint.
Although he was capable of a cleanness and an almost naive clarity in his use of the transparency of watercolor, Gillies's watercolors are at their best when he is jumping noisily from heavy, silhouetted darks to contrasting passages of vigorous light, using large brushes and bold, immediate placings of strong pigment.
In such paintings, he gathers the energies of a whole scene into his framed space so that it is pictured as the experience of an intense moment rather than a merely topographical record or a careful piece of observation. ``The Village Letter Box'' (top, Page 16) is, splendidly, just this kind of painting.
It is not possible to look at a fine collection of Gillies's Scottish landscape watercolors and then drive or walk or take a train through the Scottish countryside - particularly the lowlands - without encountering hints and reminders of Gillies on every side.
Such a stimulating reciprocation between art and subject-matter is an fine justification for any artist's work.
Gillies confirms for his viewers the way they may have already seen and experienced Scottish landscape. But more than that, he contributes, through the medium of paint, a viewpoint that greatly enriches one's appreciation of this landscape.
* `William Gillies: Watercolours of Scotland' will be on exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, through Sept. 25.