Caroline McNairn (16th May 1955 - 29th September 2010) was considered by many to be the best Scottish painter of her generation. An obituary by Andrew Brown.
Since McNarin's tragically early death from aggressive cervical cancer, tributes have flooded in from artists and curators worldwide, in particular from Russia and America where her work was held in even higher esteem than her native Scotland. Indeed in 1989 she was the first foreign artist since the Russian revolution to have a painting purchased by the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow where her work was exhibited in the company of her heroes, Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse.
In the early 1980s she was one of the first of a new generation of Scottish expressionist artists to exhibit in New York and Chicago promoted by the 369 Gallery, Edinburgh with which she was closely associated from its foundation in 1978, not only as a regular exhibitor but as an inspiring teacher and artistic advisor. She had a critically acclaimed and ground-breaking show in 1986 at the cutting edge Avenue B Gallery in Manhattan where her work was admired by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the same year she also had shows in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, and in 1990 spent a year working in the Soviet Union exhibiting with the notorious Kievsky Station Group in Moscow and Odessa.
As Christina Lodder, Professor of Art History at St Andrews University, wrote in 1997, “living and working in Russia for almost a year was clearly a great liberation. She was exposed to the extraordinary art of the Ikon, the radical aesthetic of Russia’s modernists such as Malevich, and to that passionate discussion of aesthetic issues which dominates Moscow’s artistic life. She began to see Western art and her own painting from a different perspective”.
I first met Caroline in 1972 when we both studying Fine Art at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art, and we were comrades in artistic arms from then on. A close friend and I were at her bedside with her husband the writer and sculptor Hugh Collins in the Borders General Hospital on the night before she died, and she laughed and joked as usual despite the seriousness of her condition. We also discussed at length an exhibition of her grandfather’s, her father’s, and her own paintings about to open at Hawick Museum (the Private View of which she was determined to attend) and a planned collaborative exhibition of Hugh’s sculpture in conjunction with her painting. She was a trooper to the end.
Caroline and Hugh met in the late 1980s when he was on day release to the 369 Gallery from Barlinnie Prison where he was coming to the end of a sixteen year sentence for murder. From the beginning she believed in him both artistically and spiritually and he believes that his rehabilitation as an artist and author of four books is entirely down to her. It was love at first sight for both of them and after his release from prison they married in 1993 and were inseparable from that moment on.
In leaving Edinburgh and moving to a rustic cottage in the Scottish Borders five years ago, she was returning to her roots for her family were from Hawick where her grandfather had been proprietor of the local newspaper and an accomplished amateur artist much influenced by the writings of Vincent Van Gogh. Anne Redpath, William Gillies, and William Johnstone were family friends, and Caroline’s beloved father, John McNairn, who died last year aged 98, studied at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1920s and then in the early 1930s in Paris under Othon Friesz, the friend and pupil of Cezanne. Thus Caroline was only two steps away from the father of modern art and therefore, it is not surprising that the heroic period of early twentieth century art had such a marked influence on her.
As the distinguished Russian art critic, Konstantine Akinsha wrote in 1990 “The first time I saw Caroline McNairn’s pictures was during the Moscow exhibition of 369 Gallery in 1989. Half a year later I visited Edinburgh. From my first day in the city I thought I was in one of Caroline McNairn’s canvases. Her paintings are a mixture of interiors and city views, still lives situated on the foreground and pictures which if hung on invisible or visible walls play a role of picture inside picture. For me this double space, this absence of a border between an apartment and a street, is not only the artist’s invention, but a symbol of Edinburgh, the city where people never curtain the windows in the evening. As a result of this strange (for a foreigner) custom I felt during my night walks I was walking not only through the streets but through the apartments. But if I was observing the theatre of private lives from the street, the figures, painted by the artist, were often watching the play of a city through transparent walls […]" Many critics have noticed the artist’s connection with the tradition of the French art of the first decade of the twentieth century.
Why does Caroline McNairn try to be Matisse with a strong Scottish accent today? For us, the generation living in the kingdom of total irony, the rebellion of the French ‘wild beasts’ looks like a life in Eden. Caroline McNairn is looking for harmony in that phase of twentieth century art which is classical modernism for the contemporary art historian. For Caroline McNairn art history is a tool for her work just like brushes and paint. Her nostalgia for ‘modernism’ is a sign of our time which is dreaming about the heroic days when the artist still had something to overthrow”.
Christina Lodder also understood the importance and originality of Caroline’s vision: “It has been said of Caroline McNairn that she is an abstract painter who works with figures. Indeed despite the presence of representational elements her compositions are constructed as if from abstract components, focusing preeminently on how a painting is made. The end results hold the opposing forces of figuration and abstraction in a fine equilibrium which never actually disintegrates, however much it seems to be on the verge of doing so. This approach is no more apparent than in the treatment of the figures themselves. They are important compositionally but are visually ambiguous. Occasionally depicted as mere outlines, they also achieve an unsteady solidity as their shape coalesces from a loose layering of differently coloured brushstrokes. Each mark of paint is like an esoteric sign with its own distinctive shape, colour and texture. These define the figure, yet simultaneously threaten to destroy the figure’s coherence. The balance is constantly shifting, thus imbuing the paintings with tremendous vitality, energy and power.”
In my opinion Caroline McNairn did what all great twentieth century Scottish artists from the Colourists through Joan Eardley and Alan Davie have attempted to do; the almost impossible task of synthesizing paint and experience. Her untimely death at the height of her abilities is a sore loss for her family and friends and a blow to Scottish art.
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