Colour, Rhythm and Form: J. D. Fergusson and France

October 2011

Publication: The Times

This show by John Duncan Fergusson and his fellow painters G.L. Hunter and S.J. Peploe marks the fiftieth anniversary of Fergusson’s death at the ago of 86.  Appropriately, the focus is on Fergusson’s connections with France where the Perth-born artist lived and worked for many years.


Divided into four sections – Paris; the South of France; the ‘Colourist’ exhibitions of the ‘20s and ‘30s; and Fergusson’s return to Glasgow on the eve of the Second World War – the show demonstrates Fergusson’s diversity, passion, independence of spirit, and his patriotism.


Writing in the latter part of his career Fergusson stated: “Art, as I understand it, cannot be produced by a nation lacking the spirit of freedom…in my opinion Art is not a matter of skill, but entirely a matter of free expression. Let’s have freedom in Scotland and Art may appear, I mean really Scottish Art….”


Such opinions endeared the painter to Nationalists such as the writer C. M. Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) with whom he collaborated on the publication ‘Scottish Art and Letters’; it has also, understandably, allowed Fergusson to be cited by commentators who make claims for the painter which can seem exaggerated. Was Fergusson really one of the originators of Modernism and a proto-Cubist?


Nevertheless, there can be no doubting Fergusson’s seriousness in wishing to elevate painting in Scotland to a higher level of national importance and it is perhaps this politico-cultural agenda which set him apart from the other ‘Colourists’ (they were not labelled as such until much later on).


Fergusson eschewed academicism for freedom of expression and in this he was greatly influenced from many quarters, not least Les Fauves and Matisse in particular, the Impressionists, the dancer Margaret Morris (his life-long companion) and the philosophy of Henri Bergson, to name but a few.


Fergusson’s prioritisation of colour  and what he called ‘rhythm’ over the more formal aspects of painting comes at a price: his stylised representations of the human body (mostly female) can seem awkward in their depiction of bulging thighs, circular breasts and hoof-like feet, as in paintings such as ‘Les Eus’ (c.1910) and ‘La Déesse de la Rivière’ (c. 1928)

Fergusson seems on much firmer ground in essays where the arrangement of colour rather than depiction of the form is the priority in works such as ‘The Pink Dress, Cap D’Antibes’ which dates from towards the end of Fergusson’s career.


Clearly while it is important not to make exaggerated claims for Fergusson’s importance at a European level, it is equally clear that the painter’s popularity is matched by his talent – a fact which the French Government acknowledged in its purchase – at the 1931 Parisian group show Les Peintres Écossais– of  ‘La Déesse’ (along with Hunter’s ‘Lac Lomond’ and Peploe’s ‘La Forêt’). Such accolades are rare and well-earned.