FOLLOWING on from their fascinating retrospective of British Realist painters, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art presents a survey of early 20th century Scottish artists working in the more radical artistic genres of the period, from Fauvism to Surrealism, Constructivism to Abstraction.

It is perhaps the least known story of Scottish art. Perhaps the reason for such relative obscurity is that whilst many artists toyed fruitfully on the fringes of each of these movements, few grasped them wholeheartedly, for how could they, when the centre of Constructivism was in Moscow, or when the beating heart of Surrealism was in France or Belgium?

For artists who stayed in Scotland for their careers – and whilst many did, many others did not – finding a new Scottish language for the radical experimentation flowing through an artworld which was not as free as that of Paris, say, was an ongoing if exciting labour.

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It was JD Fergusson, another of the Scottish Colourists, whose passion for Parisian artistic culture and its freedoms sparked the move of the somewhat traditionalist Scottish art establishment towards Modernism, argues Alice Strang, senior curator at the SNGMA, and curator of this thought-provoking exhibition. Thoroughly internationalist in outlook, Fergusson railed against the constrictions of the Scottish art establishment, creating bravura work in Paris in the 1910s inspired by the Impressionists, then the Fauvists. Works shown here include the recently restored Etude de Rhythm, named jocularly for the Rhythm journal Fergusson founded in Paris, a painting of an erotic function, functionally erotic.

Here, too, is Samuel Peploe, whose early flirtations with abstraction and Cubism, after a brief stint in Paris from 1910-12, are instructive, the dark Fauvist outlines, the bright colours zinging from canvases made at Royan in France. In the following years he produced works that nodded towards Cubism, in the angled shapes of the objects in works such as Still Life (1913), although it is clearly the drama of representation that holds Peploe’s eye. The rest seems like passing experiment, despite his attempts to get the work seen and appreciated in an aghast Edinburgh, whose institutions and public found little to admire in such "modern" works. Soon after he reverted to his own form of realism.

There are Stanley Cursiter’s brief, impassioned excursions into Italian Futurism – again in style if not in mind – a series of dissections of movement, of fragmentations, toyed with, then abandoned after the First World War. Surrealism was the thing, both in Paris under Andre Breton and amongst those artists in Scotland looking to make sense of the nonsensical destruction of the war years.

In the excellent catalogue accompanying the show, Strang points out the thirst for a more internationalist outlook by those who did not venture to Paris or further afield, as seen in the enthusiasm for bringing exhibitions of artists such as Edvard Munch, Paul Klee and Picasso to Scotland in the 1930s. A new liberalism pervaded the halls of Edinburgh College of Art under Hubert Wellington. The influences on the walls in this wide-ranging survey are hugely diverse.

There is the "almost" Surrealism of Keith Henderson. There is Beatrice Huntington’s quasi-Cubist Muleteer from Andalucia. There is a dark, tempestuous McTaggart, After the Storm, Loch Tay. There is William Gillies, inspired by Klee. There is Agnes Miller-Parker’s ram-packed The Horse Fair, with its Cubist inflections.

There is the self-taught Edwin Lucas and his surreal The Shape of the Night. There are Magritte-y notions, Dali-esque dabblings. What emerges is a thirst for the new, a quest for something different that could be labelled Scottish.

The final room, as we edge into the 1950s, is diverse but instructive, from Margaret Mellis’ St Ives work, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham’s assured Glacier abstractions, Paolozzi’s sculpture table, William Turnbull’s distinctively modernist Aquarium sculpture. This is the final stop-off, the end result, the work beyond the modernism of the Colourists. Influences are worn both heavily and lightly.

Mellis’ understated Relief Construction in Wood (1941), a series of laminated wood geometries overlaid in a simple box frame, is very much of its mid-century, St Ives era, the nod to Ben Nicolson clear. Nearby, sculptor William Turnbull’s bronze fish mill in frozen minimalism, an artist influenced by many movements and yet able to turn them into something which, whilst recognisably of the genre, was also very recognisably his own.

Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier (1950) is one of a superb series that marked her emergence as one of the pre-eminent British abstract artists of the 20th century, a painting resulting from a visit to Switzerland’s Grindelwald Glacier. In the hall outside, she is pictured climbing the glacier in a stunning photo that seems to symbolise the radical and exploratory nature of the period documented in this exhibition, its artists on route to a truly outward-looking Scottish modernism.

A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900–1950, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), 73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, 0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org. Until Jun 10, daily, 10am–5pm, £10 (£8)