It is as if nature is officially announcing that winter is over. There is the gaiety of a blue sky which soars like a triumphal banner from the shining haze above one horizon all the way over to the other. There can’t have been a sky like this one since last spring, for the light is as richly intoxicating as wine which has been long in the bottle. The Meadows is aching in the sunshine and everybody is scuttling about in distress, increasingly overdressed. There are crocuses gloating at me in this light, with their fat little shells the unreal colours of confectionery wrapping.
When I arrive the sunshine is suddenly against me. Most of the paintings are displayed in the front, south-facing room, and the light is slanting in, plunging those which are not touched into disproportionate gloominess.
“Passages” is a collection of acrylics on paper and gesso. I have already written nearly all of what I have to write about David Forster, in an article from 2014 called “A Glance at David Forster.” He paints Edinburgh and Scotland with a lucidity and dynamism which are conventionally missing from landscapes. He takes for his subjects hillsides, riversides, patches of woodland, and the disused areas behind gates and walls. He equips his paintings with lines from the Grimms’ folk tales as titles. Forster’s landscapes are always implausibly bare, without any humans or animals on the scene, and the quintessential tension of his paintings derives ultimately from this absence.
In common with another talented Edinburgh artist, Peter Standen, Forster is sending back topographical samples of apparently random scenes from an apocalyptic or unpeopled planet. You know that you are never going to locate a little person walking across any of his landscapes, but at each new painting you nonetheless stop and scour the terrain for them. You know that they are not there, but you continue to look. These paintings might not be haunted but you certainly are.
I have written all of this before, of course, but today I am thinking in particular about the light. Has any painter of Scotland ever factored in so little rain? Forster’s landscapes are usually calm or pleasantly ruffled. We often see them at dawn or dusk, though it is seldom specified which one. An exception, “And at the time when people lighted the candles,” captures that uneasy atmosphere when the streetlights are activated prior to sundown. This is a time when shadows are creeping across the landscape and the peripheral vision is alert for silent figures amongst the trees. In “And toward evening (Linlithgow)” you are looking down on the woods in the gloaming and your searching becomes mildly frantic. Where is Wally? The same can be said of “The funeral bird came to cry in the night (Pentland Hills).” The title promises a bird and so you assume for once that you have a fighting chance. There is, inevitably, no bird.
Modern attendees of art exhibitions might rather lazily assume that the old landscape painting is spent. Just as nobody composes viable violin concertos or Latin oratory these days, the landscape painting has surely no appeal to any artist who possesses an authentic will to power. Forster’s paintings immediately contradict this assumption. They practically glow with playfulness and energy.
Just look at “Great giants dwell on the lake (Fingal’s Cave, Staffa).” The roof of rock over the cave is as dense as thatch. The choppy sea is the texture of heather. Overhead, the sky is a sprawling lattice, as vast and heavy as a spaceship. This is nature enhanced by Forster’s faerie light and its shining atmosphere. Perhaps it is not supernatural but extra-natural.
Just look at “At last she came to a little well with three trees standing beside it (Dunkeld).” The scene is full of movement, as if the north, south, east and west winds have all gloriously collided here beside this brook. Yet everything represented in this painting is actually, as you can tell from the water, totally still. There is nothing openly supernatural and so perhaps it is simply extra-natural.
Just look at the paintings which feature fires. “And towards evening (Linlithgow)” and “In the great north sea (Scalpay)” show empty landscapes in which bonfires have been left unattended. Nobody is cooking anything or being warmed by these fires. There is an eerie scarcity of smoke. What is being burned and who is doing the burning?
Just look at the paintings which feature houses. Images such as “My house is out there in the dark forest (Dalmeny Estate)” and “I will give her my little house (Raasay).” They depict mean, lonely little dwellings, which a solitary walker might happen upon and feel no urge to explore. Houses that you would look upon with a shudder. There is most likely a witch packed away inside each one, plotting behind the walls.
Just look at “In a little hut on the edge of a lonely forest (Balquhidder),” which is my favourite from all of these paintings. The “hut” is a battered caravan and yet, in common with all of Forster’s houses and buildings, it looks as old as his mountains, just as his trees look as old as his skies. This caravan has been plucked from the human world, like a baby swapped for a changeling, and it now stands timelessly under the faerie light. Moreover, the trees have become startlingly human and their tangle of squirming limbs seems to lean expertly out of the painting. There is nothing openly supernatural and so perhaps it is simply extra-natural.
Let us pause for a moment over the mundane. Flowers are sometimes added to Forster’s landscapes and this sweetens them unnecessarily. The flowers resemble those gloating crocuses which I had mentioned earlier, and they twinkle like decorative pink icing over the foliage. The scenes of Scotland are occasionally too touristy, as if it is being insinuated that they should be snapped up by visiting Texans. If you are going to evoke wildernesses, you should go for it with all of your heart, and there can be not even a tasteful murmur of sentimentality.
The gallery had also arranged two of the paintings so that they were looking out of the windows. Stupidly, I went outside to examine them and saw very little from the distance of the pavement. Once I was back inside again, the gallery staff kindly wheeled around the pictures so that my curiosity could be satisfied.
My curiosity about Forster’s paintings is still as fresh as they themselves are. What will he send back next from his faerie world? “Passages” runs until the 30th March.
[A selection of the paintings referenced above can be viewed here.]