The Two Roberts: Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde

It is impossible to tell if Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde had any inclination, upon meeting in 1933, of the importance that this encounter would have on the face of British art. They certainly must have left an impression, for just ten years later the two had gone from ‘obscurity to stardom’, as labelled by the director of the Two Robert’s Exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art.

The life that MacBryde and Colquhoun shared is one punctuated with tragedy. As two openly homosexual men in a post-war Britain, the couple’s enigmatic image along with their taste for surrealism led to a fever of interest from a newly flourishing art community. However after under a decade of popularity, the two figureheads of post-war modernism were destitute and by the 60s alcohol had claimed both their lives.

Exhibiting MacBryde and Colquhoun’s work together has, until now, not been considered, much like the artists themselves. This is the first comprehensive exhibition of both lovers’ work since Colquhoun’s death in 1962. Now, after 50 years of obscurity, the works of Colquhoun and MacBryde return to Scotland.

The exhibition itself is set out as a chronological journey through the pair’s shared life and divides the collection into five separately themed rooms.  The collection in Room One is primarily the watercolours and sketches from MacBryde and Colquhoun’s time at Glasgow School of Art. Like most early collections, the art displayed only gives a taster of the couple’s signature styles.

However, walking into the second room, appropriately dubbed ‘The Golden Years’, it seems impossible to imagine that these two artists have gone uncelebrated since their respective deaths.

Colquhoun’s dark, earthy palette coupled with a taste for depicting poverty and hardship has led to some strikingly emotive pieces. MacBryde’s ‘Women with Paper Flowers’ captures the imagination and seems to encapsulate the dark, nightmarish surrealism which defines both of these artists.

The movement from room two to three marks a distinct change from grainy, subtle colours to a more vibrant and contrasting palette. This change coincides not only with the art world’s move towards pop art but also with the couple’s relocation to more affordable lodgings in the country. This collection is where the couple’s relationship begins to show through. Rather than scenes of poverty and anxiety, the viewer is faced with the colourful yet intensely emotional ‘The Lovers’. It seems without doubt that the demure figure at the back is that of Colquhoun, however it can only be suggested that the curious lady in blue (an image replicated in more than one of Colquhoun’s paintings) is a representation of MacBryde.

The two last rooms do less to capture attention; their purpose is more biographical, showing the two artists’ descent into poverty, rather than displaying any great works.

The exhibition is perhaps the best Scottish collection on display in Edinburgh at the moment. It is not only filled with inspiring works of surrealism, but tells a life story as emotive as that of artists like Van Gogh.

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