The Pink Box was painted in 1929 and is among the artists most important paintings of his middle period, summarising in one image his entire artistic preoccupations at this time; the sensuality of female figure painting, the dramatic contrasts of still life arrangement and the monumental forms of sculpture. The picture was the largest and most complete composition painted at Fergusson’s new studio in the Montparnasse district of Paris at Parc Montsouris. The painting captures a spirit of painting which is rather more continental than Scottish and the fact that it was painted in the most artistically reactionary city in the world at that time is highly significant. With paintings like The Pink Box the direction of Scottish art changed entirely and Scottish art was finally freed from its eighteenth and nineteenth century heritage. Through the influence of the French avant garde, the ‘new art’ of the Colourists concentrated upon colour and rhythmic form rather than narrative. The influence of Fergusson’s great artistic hero Paul Cezanne is demonstrated through the structural, almost architectural treatment of the fruit in the foreground whilst the colouring and the treatment of the female figure owe more to the work of Gaugin.
Fergusson’s painting takes its title from the small pink enamel box among the arrayed fruit in the foreground, which had also appears in earlier works, including La Bete Violette (Private collection) and Fleurs et Fruits both of 1910. The box itself is not the subject of the painting, which is as much a figurative as a still life subject, but perhaps suggested the key colouring of the painting. The composition appears to have been suggested by a painting made a year earlier during Fergusson’s Atlantic voyage aboard the liner Transylvania to New York to attend the opening of a solo exhibition of his works at the Kraushaar Gallery. The conception of this picture was described by Fergusson’s partner Meg; ‘Also at the Captain’s table was a very beautiful American woman. Of course Fergus asked if he might make some sketches of her. She sat just opposite him, leaning on her elbows and looking over the centerpiece of fruit with flowers on either side. She looked wonderful. She agreed, and I think he gave her one of the sketches. Eventually he did an oil painting which he called Transylvania and exhibited in London. It was bought by the American original! So I have no idea where it is.’ (Margaret Morris, The Art of J. D. Fergusson; A Biased Biography, 1974, p. 162).
Sculpture was an important art form for Fergusson at this time and his inclusion of a known sandstone bust of a female figure in The Pink Box is important. A related painting Eastre and Fruits also of 1929 (Fergusson Gallery, Perth) depicts Fergusson’s bronze sculpture Eastre of 1924 (primary version Scottish National Gallery Modern) portraying the Celtic Goddess of Spring.
In The Pink Box Margaret is given prominence as a symbol of fertility whilst the statue is more peripheral. However the monumentality of Fergusson’s portrayal of Margaret is reflective of his admiration of Cambodian and Indian temple statuary, the heavy-lidded eyes and full lips suggesting an ancient, sensual exoticism. Fergusson had studied Asian sculpture at the Trocadero Museum in Paris and had produced a series of striking terracotta figurines and sandstone carvings of female nudes, one of which is included in a prominent position in The Pink Box. Margaret Morris shared Fergusson’s interest in eastern art, adopting the poses of the statues in her own dance performances. In The Pink Box Fergusson painted Margaret as a Goddess of Fertility, the fruit arranged in the foreground suggestive of devotion. The rounded forms of the fruit reciprocate the sensual curves of female flesh and carved breasts and form visual metaphors of organic growth.
Margaret Morris (1891-1980) first met Fergusson in 1913 when she was performing with her fellow dancers at the Marigny theatre in Paris. She had learnt classical Greek dance movement with Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora Duncan and developed her own highly individual style of choreography. She is now regarded as one of the great pioneers of modern dance. Before she was twenty she had established her own dance academy in Chelsea in London, with the financial backing of the playwright John Galsworthy where she taught free modes of expression. A mutual friend of Fergusson and Morris, Holbrook Jackson arranged their introduction and there followed a lasting love affair, which lasted for the rest of their lives. ‘Her dynamic personality and sensuous physicality captivated Fergusson, inspiring much of his subsequent work.’ (Kirsten Simister, Living Paint; J. D. Fergusson 1874-1961, 2001, p. 55)
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