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A life of Colour

He is regarded as the most intellectual, the most sociable and the most international of the four Scottish Colourists, and if there were such a thing as the most palpable, then John Duncan Fergusson would tick that box too.

Sprawling over four rooms, the 139 works on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art deliver a definite feeling of the artist's presence. Perhaps that's because Fergusson was also the longest-lived of his group. He was born in 1874 and died in 1961, aged 87, outliving Francis Cadell, Samuel Peploe and Leslie Hunter by some 30 years and connecting with a new generation of artists they would never have met.

Fergusson was known by many of the private collectors who have loaned the majority of items for this, the first exhibition of his work to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland. A small collection of black and white photographs of the artist with his lifelong partner, the dance pioneer Margaret Morris, only adds to a sense of wonder that this smiling man, posing for the camera in Antibes in 1958, was the same one who was friends with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and personally introduced the West End of Glasgow to the concept of Modern Art.

"To think that Fergusson was part of the creation of a new genre of art within living memory is really quite moving," says curator Alice Strang, who has managed to uncover some unseen and rare works. Of the three exhibitions she has curated in the NGS's Scottish Colourist Series (Cadell and Peploe preceded Fergusson in 2011 and 2012 respectively), she says Fergusson's is the one which has attracted the greatest interest from the public, simply because he lived longer than the others and the fact that the Margaret Morris Dance School and the Fergusson Gallery are still in existence. This, says Strang, will probably be the last Fergusson exhibition to be attended by people who knew them.

What is immediately striking on entering the first room is the extraordinary confidence in his work. The portrait of Jean Maconochie (1902) and The White Dress (1904) make wonderfully clear his aim of trying for "truth, for reality through light", and it's worth remembering that not many people in Edinburgh would have even heard about Impressionism at that time. Fergusson was ambitious from the start and continued to paint on a monumental scale. He'd become friendly with Peploe and influenced by the older artist's interest in Dutch old masters Hals and Rembrandt, and it shows.

In frame after frame we see women: there are very few portraits of men, bar a taxi driver, a barman and several self-portraits. The artist's developing interest in the female form and in fashion (and especially millinery) is a delight to see assembled together and in the flesh, as it were. In their elegance and opulence, they are like the art equivalent of an Edwardian fashion catalogue.

While living in Paris from 1907 to 1913, he further developed this interest through his friend Anne Estelle Rice, who had been sent to Paris Plage with her American journalist friend Elizabeth Dryden by her editor to illustrate the latest fashion trends. She sat for Fergusson and, in the cafes and bars of the city, the artist found himself surrounded by glamorous women. Big hats and muffs were very much du jour and many of the women Fergusson painted were milliners wearing their own creations, as in La Terrasse (1908), Chez Maxim (1908) and The Blue Hat, Closerie des Lilas (1909). La Cocarde (1910), The Green Bird (1907) and Anne Estelle Rice In Paris (c1907) display Fauvist simplicity blocked with vibrant colours, and Fergusson's joie de vivre for the intoxicating atmosphere shines through.

Strang has kept Fergusson's most sexually potent paintings from this period for the penultimate room of the exhibition, shown together for maximum impact. Five huge female nudes, including Torse de Femme (1911), La Force (1910) and Rhythm (1911) are what she describes as "primordial yet sophisticated" and they hit the viewer with an electrical visual challenge. With incisive outlines and abundant voluptuousness, these are some of Fergusson's rarest and most stunning works, many having being hidden away for the five decades since his death. They remained in his Clouston Street studio in Glasgow until Morris gifted them as the basis of the foundation of the Fergusson Gallery in Perth.

Not for nothing does Strang declare Fergusson to be also the most passionate of the Colourists; these paintings are incredibly daring both in their size and their boldness. Strang believes that these paintings are key to Fergusson's central role in the Modern Art movement, another fact that separates him from the other Colourists. At this time he was friendly with the Fauvists Othon Friesz and Georges Braque, but he also knew Jacob Epstein, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau. In Paris he exhibited alongside Matisse, and understood Cubism.

As a member of the Salon d'Autumne he'd be offered free tickets to performances of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and performances by Isadora Duncan, which he viewed as immersion in total works of art. His work at this time is distilled in Les Eus (1913), his largest and most important painting, as it reflects not only his interest in nature, primitivism and his obsession with his own connection to a Celtic past (both his parents spoke Gaelic), but also because the figure on the far left resembles the young dancer Margaret Morris, a recent pupil of Isadora Duncan's brother Raymond whom Fergusson had met in January that year while she was in Paris with her dance troupe.

They became lifelong partners, and though they never married they pretended they were man and wife while living in Clouston Street from 1939. Morris provided inspiration for Fergusson's work for the rest of his life. He often taught painting and drawing at the Margaret Morris Summer Schools throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s in Britain and France, and her technique and her pupils provided him with lifelong inspiration.

But Strang believes there is more to Fergusson than meets the eye, and that his reputation as a respected Scottish artist within the European Modern Art movement is not well enough appreciated.

Even Strang, who studied history of art at Cambridge, says she was never taught about the Scottish Colourists. "We had no idea the Scottish artists has been to Paris and the South of France decades before the English artists went," she says.

The artist and the dancer moved to London at the outbreak of the First World War. They returned to France in 1929 and came to Glasgow at the outbreak of the second world war in 1939 because they thought it was the most Celtic of all the European cities; they stayed until his death.

A relatively unknown period of Fergusson's career emerges in the form of a small collection of paintings from Portsmouth Docks, where he spent six weeks in 1918 after receiving permission from the Admiralty to "gather impressions for painting a picture".

These paintings of war ships, docks and sailors are astonishing not only for their industrial, masculine subject matter, but also in their linear pastels.

Similarly, four rare Scottish landscapes, painted during a motoring tour to the Highlands in 1922 and now in private hands, are a departure from the female form Fergusson is normally associated with. They include views of Milngavie and Ben Ledi and two unidentifiable Highland views, and will be seen for the first time in over 90 years.

Also rare are Fergusson's exquisite female sculptures, which can be seen alongside the nudes. These are tiny, in oak or brass and mounted on plaster bases handmade by the artist. As they were so expensive to produce full-size, he'd exhibit them with labels saying "available to be cast". The Art Deco-influenced Eastre, 1924, is the largest full-size one on show; it was cast in 1971.

These pieces are evocative of the Celtic symbolism Fergusson was fascinated by, and the influences of both Modigliani and Epstein. They reflect his absorption with Morris's dancers and show how sculpture was the best way to capture in 3D the female form in movement.

For Strang, they are especially appealing due to their intimate size, and she highlights the dancing nude Efflugence (c1920) as her favourite piece in the entire exhibition. Tantalising as they are, they were also a source of frustration for her: there were no recorded titles, dates or casting details so Strang and her team were left to make educated guesses.

Undaunted, she concludes: "Until you see these sculptures I don't think we can really know what Fergusson was about."

The Scottish Colourists Series: JD Fergusson is at Modern Two, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh until June 15. A selection of works will tour to the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from July 5- October 19

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