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True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh until October 29th
Four stars

In the shop of Modern 2, the postcard reproductions of some of the eighty paintings brought together for this bumper compendium of 1920s and 1930s British realism are racked next to those of Ladybird book covers and vintage posters advertising Scottish holiday destinations. This may be a happy accident, but in their complimentary depictions of idealised versions of brave new post-war worlds, they are all too appropriate aesthetic near neighbours.

While the blast of World War 1 exploded Dada and other abstractions into noisy life elsewhere, here the landscapes look unsullied, their occupants impeccably turned out. Over four rooms we see that world at work, rest and play. From the Italian inspired co-opting of bustling communities and religious iconography in the first, the second room's set of portraits flit from the windswept idyll of James Cowie's much seen A Portrait Group (1933/about 1949) to haughty-looking women playing cards alone.

This not only points to tweedy subversions that would come later, but sets the template for TV production designers working on post-modern Agatha Christie remakes. Algernon Newton's Canal Basin (1929), meanwhile, which sits in the third room's collection of rural and urban still lifes, sets the tone for former Clash bass player Paul Simonon's own Thames based paintings a few decades later.

It is the fourth room's cavalcade of picnickers, hikers, circuses and funfairs that really capture a new sense of a new leisured class. It's no surprise that Fortunino Matabia's Blackpool, originally commissioned for a London, Midland and Scottish Railway poster, was also used to advertise the northern English fun palace as a holiday town. The realism here, then, is far from gritty, and, as everyday experiences are writ large in the likes of Edward Burra's The Snack Bar (1930), this particular truth points to the brightest of futures.

The List, July 2017

ends

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