DURING the second decade of the 21st century, a series of key exhibitions of modern Scottish art and artists have been mounted in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Between 2011 and 2014, there were the three Scottish Colourists – FCB Cadell, 2011; SJ Peploe, 2012; JD Fergusson, 2013; then The Two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, in 2014; and most impressively, Modern Scottish Women Artists in 2015.

The current exhibition, A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950, continues the story of art in Scotland in the first half of the 20th century, making a number of new discoveries along the way and providing a welcome re-assessment of many overlooked and forgotten artists. It runs till June 10.

Another major exhibition, Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art 1540 to Now, which ran in the Royal Scottish Academy from November 2017 until January this year, told the story of the relationship between the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Galleries of Scotland, and the book that was published for it, edited by Tom Normand, is a marvellously rich anthology of essays on different aspects of the whole story of Scottish art, by distinguished contributors including Duncan Macmillan, John Morrison, Joanna Sodden and Tom Normand himself.

Taken together, all of these exhibitions present a formidable overview of the modern movement in Scotland and its history. The overwhelming conclusion they demonstrate is that far from being a parochial backwater with artists repressed by Calvinist negativity, this is a world of adventure and experimentation, nowhere more evident than in the past hundred years.

We could argue that Modernism begins in Scotland with Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and the Celtic revival in the 1890s. Geddes was a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1968-1928) and his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1964-1933), and the artist John Duncan (1866-1945). These figures are not fully represented in the New Era exhibition but they feature in the catalogue, so perhaps the first thing to say is that broad and exciting as the exhibition is, it also opens doors to other areas of activity, other artists of all kinds, writers, composers, sculptors and painters, who are vital to our understanding of modern Scotland and what the arts can do.

We’ve written before in these columns about JD Fergusson and SJ Peploe in Paris just before 1914, in the company of the most revolutionary artists and writers in Europe at that time, as well as the political revolutionaries, including Lenin. They were at the coalface of the revolution. But even today, in this exhibition, it’s still a shock to stand quietly in front of Fergusson’s Etude de Rhythm (1910) and let its meaning sink in. At first, it’s a rich sworl of colour and movement, deep greens and blues in a background vortex of deep reds and thick dark lines of energy, separating and connecting the colours, driving inwards to the central representation of flesh colours – and that’s the clue.

As soon as you bring the lines of energy together with the predominating curves and colours of the bodily figurations at the centre of the painting, you see it depicts two bodies in vigorous and happy congress. The catalogue entry admits rather cautiously that it “might at first seem to be an abstract image, but it probably represents a couple having sexual intercourse”.

How times have changed in Scotland! This would have been unmentionable even a few years ago in a National Galleries catalogue. Polite as the description is, the painting represents both energy and rhythm and a wild sense of joy. Not Cubist but Curvist, rhythmic, pulsing. Power is there, but it’s celebrated, engaged with appetite.

Read the painting alongside James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Marcel Proust and Hugh MacDiarmid at their most outspoken: Fergusson in 1910 is in tune with the most radical progressive elements in their work, if not ahead of them. And all have their message to be delivered even now to all the most reactionary forces in Scotland and Europe, those that would foreclose on what we might do at our most liberated.

Remember that Fergusson forged an important friendship with Picasso and both were committed to the struggle to establish a new art. But Peploe’s Edinburgh dealer refused to show his new work. We shouldn’t underestimate the very real difficulties these pioneering moderns faced here in Scotland. There were no institutions then – and not many individuals – truly dedicated to delivering the deepest insights and understanding of these new works to as broad a range of people as possible. The mediators were often gatekeepers, standing in the way.

A New Era shows that were artists were not only forging new paths in Edinburgh and Glasgow but also further afield in Montrose and St Andrews. In the 1920s, in Montrose, the sculptor William Lamb and the artist Edward Baird were producing new visions alongside Hugh MacDiarmid.

Lamb, whose studio is open to the public in the summer months, created exceptionally powerful works, noticeably developing in intensity and authority after the First World War. We’ll come back to Baird. In the 1930s, in St Andrews, John Tonge was building towards the writing of his seminal book The Arts of Scotland (1938) published for London’s Burlington House Royal Academy exhibition of Scottish art. The Spectator review of January 20, 1939, began: “There is comparatively little in Scottish art that can rely for its appeal on its looks alone. The fifth-century Burghead slab, incised with a bull, is impressive even if we know nothing about the symbolism of early Christianity in Scotland; but in the main it is true that half the appeal of Scottish works of art depends upon our being interested in the Scottish people and their history.”

This dismissal of aesthetic quality may have been typical but the comment also begs the question, why not be interested in art for its historical and social contexts as well as its aesthetics? The Spectator critic comments that Tonge is “appreciative without ever making exaggerated or patriotic claims; he writes out of a wide knowledge of European art, and does not ever judge by parochial standards”. This is a familiar caution, even today, but A New Era and the series of exhibitions noted above correct, qualify and revoke such crudities.

Curated by Alice Strang, surely one of contemporary Scotland’s most effective educators behind the scenes, A New Era raises all the right questions. Tonge’s partner, the American JH Whyte, editor of the vital periodical The Modern Scot and dedicatee of MacDiarmid’s great later poems, On a Raised Beach (1934) and In Memoriam James Joyce (1955), was working with him in St Andrews. And further afield, there were David Foggie in Dundee and David Forrester Wilson in Islay (both represented in Ages of Wonder).

SO what are the major revelations to be seen in A New Era, works that impress by their aesthetic brilliance as well as their historical and social context? We would single out these.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), Shellburst (c1919): an astonishing depiction of soldiers at war, destruction blossoming above them, aesthetically stunning but also evidently, implicitly, fatal.

Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980), whose husband was William McCance (1894-1970), depicts in Round Pond (Serpentine) (1930), women and children as central. It’s almost unimaginable that any man could have painted this.

James Nigel McIsaac (1911-95), Das Schloss (The Castle) (1936): Edinburgh, but a city transformed into Kafka’s nightmare trap, haunting and inimical, breathing threat, as described in Willa and Edwin Muir’s translation.

Edward Baird (1904-49), Unidentified Aircraft over Montrose (1941-42): also depicting threat, people’s faces upturned, fearful, looking at the sky, isolated clouds going by – there are no aircraft visible, only an easily identifiable Montrose townscape by the sea. Imminence is everywhere.

Charles Pulsford (1912-89), Three Angels (1949) exhibited in 1951, accompanied by an unpublished poem by Norman MacCaig, Three Angels (A Picture). Dated April 1952, its beginning is quoted in the catalogue: “Three in a row, and each one mad / looking with innocence upon / the smiling cruel, the gaily sad. / Their witless eyes beam down / on struggling song and word and stone. / Each bears a blinding crown.” The link between Pulsford and MacCaig is a valuable discovery, presumably by Patrick Elliot, author of this entry, or Alice Strang herself.

William Gear (1915-97), Autumn Landscape (1950): an abstract painting of ragged design and rich autumn colour which was pilloried with protest by public and press when it was first exhibited, even causing debate in Parliament and on the BBC’s Any Questions radio programme. Why, it was asked, should public money be spent on such an artist, such a work? It was purchased by the Arts Council for £500. Are we living now in more enlightened times? Yes for many; still, regrettably, also for many, no.

Despite its impressive range and quality, the size and scope of A New Era is limited by the small upstairs spaces of the Gallery of Modern Art Two and in the director’s foreword to the catalogue there is the admission that “works on paper and architecture were beyond the scope of the current project”. We need more. The time has come for a full-scale blockbuster show, along the lines of Tonge’s 1938 Royal Academy exhibition. Ages of Wonder. A New Era is where we should begin.

NEXT WEEK: Alan Riach takes a look at Scotland’s first novelist, the 18th-century Irvine Welsh. Who was he? Find out next Monday