Sunday 25 September 2011


At Brighton Museum until 9th Oct

“Everything was going to be new. Everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.” - Virginia Wolff

Those of an age to know the classic kids’ show ’Tiswas’ will recall the line “we don’t just throw this show together, you know.” The thing is, here at Lucid Frenzy HQ, that’s exactly what we do. Bloomsbury-ites Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were, as this show helpfully tells us, “among the first British artists to embrace strikingly new developments in painting from continental Europe.” Plus one subject here is a woman. (You may even be able to guess which one from the information already given.)

In short this raises the same two questions raised by the Tate’s recent Vorticist retrospective. Namely, was the British response to Modernism mere copyism, or did it develop their own styles? And were women artists able to get a seat at the table? Except the Vorticists not only succeeded the Bloomsbury set, they were a definite and quite vociferous reaction against it – like punk after hippy. In short, these pieces are getting posted the wrong way round! Still, the questions remain good ones.

Encountering Modernism (Into The Water)

The works in the first room, ’Bloomsbury Before Bloomsbury’, are notably in thrall to Post-Impressionism. Duncan Grant’s series of self-portraits, and the still lives by both artists, are redolent of Gauguin. They’re works which quite deliberately look painted, in broad flecks of colour, drawing attention to themselves as art objects. The vivid and intense hues vie strangely, but appealingly, with the stillness of the still lives and portraits.

But at times even these bohemian types seem to be suffering from English restraint. Unlike Gauguin, classical references still proliferate. There is something almost proto-Ernst about the eerie figures in Grant’s ’The Dancers’ (1910/11, above). Yet, for all their nakedness, there is something sedate about their so-called dancing which rather belies the title. You can’t help but mentally compare it to the wild abandon of Matisse’s ’La Danse’ (1909, below) and find it a pale imitation. In fact the show supplies a likely date when Grant would have seen this Matisse; it was first shown in London in 1912, in an exhibition staged by his cohort Roger Fry.

So, in a section titled ’Encountering Modernism’, when did it first cross Grant’s path? The first of these ‘Post-Impressionist’ shows, was two years earlier, and it may have been what galvanised him. I had previously seen his ‘Bathing’ (1911, up top), but most likely a copy as I’ve no memory of it being so large. (I have walls at home which are smaller!) We are now well away from the world of portraits, the figures are in dynamic action poses with the emphasis on their musculature, all faces obscured or turned away from us.

The show suggests the figures can be seen as the steps in one person’s motion, diving off the shore and heading towards the boat. But the composition isn’t quite linear enough to insist on this reading, in fact Grant is probably smartly having it both ways. He’s simultaenously enchanted by the idea of the naked group, throwing off their clothes en masse and hurling themselves into the same body of water, a proud defiance of social convention. (You would need to be an inattentive viewer indeed to skip the gay subtext.)

The show speculates on two other possible sources for this bold leap. In April 1911 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes first performed in London, leading to “a new emphasis on the sensuous presentation of the body.” But it also considers the influence of Byzantine mosaics, picked up during Grant’s youth in Burma. Though both are foreign influences, they notably do not work in the same way. In the second, Grant is plugging straight into ethnic art brought his way by colonial links, just like his continental brethren. This is an instance not of Modernism copied, a continental import, but streams running in parallel. (French artists tended to be influenced by the loot of their own empire, Africa and the South Seas.)

The next year Grant painted ’The Ass’ (above) ; in a bold repudiation of the earlier Classicist references, this is an unabashed portrait of a simple beast. The composition gives the figure solidity, but the diagonal hatching of the linework also convey a sense of movement. The narrow palette, more variations of shade than colour, place the beast in it’s environment rather than bringing it forwards from a background, as if it is part of its world. Nature is not a source of symbols or narratives but itself a fit subject for art. The show mentions “neo-pagan” as a buzzword of this scene, and this is quite a neo-pagan work.

From the same year, ’Still Life – The Dinner Table’ (above), though not actually Cubist, shows the school’s influence in it’s insistent break-up of objects into colour and form. However, many actual Cubist works seem all but uninterested in their ostensible subjects; their focus is on reworking painting itself, with the objects depicted a mere means to this end. Grant’s choice, conversely, could not be more pointed. What could be more redolent of old English rituals and graces than the domestic dinner table, map and church of table manners? Grant is assaulting the solidity of its objects, as assuredly as if he’d yanked the tablecloth away.

1914’s ’Abstract-Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound’ breaks with still lives as Grant’s most formally innovative work in this show. It’s a long abstract work, of scroll dimensions, too long for your eyes to take in at once. But this was deliberate, for Grant envisaged it being rolled past your eyes in a kind of prototypical animation. We are shown both the still painting and a video of it spooling. The two classic conceptions of paintings, that they are of something and are chiefly measured by the strength of their composition, are thereby upended.

However, the idea is probably better than the execution. And Grant’s choice of accompanying music (Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, with it’s palatial pace) is more retro than Modernist. You couldn’t help but want to see it play against different scores, to check how they change and modify the visual experience.

Vanessa Bell – Abstract Freedom

Alert readers may note that we have focused on Grant so far. Vanessa Bell’s mother, Julia Jackson, had been a Pre-Raphaelite model, giving us a neat narrative – from muse to artist in a single generation. However, with Bell’s works we face a similar problem as we did with the women Vorticists – however much we might want to herald them, many just aren’t particularly good! Her compositions in particular are often strangely unfocused and empty, like awkward snapshots.

Ironically, however, this means the further she moves from conventional representation - the more radical she gets... the better she gets. Experiments with textile design are described as giving “the artists a freedom to experiment with abstraction”, something which works particularly well in ‘Maud (Furnishing Fabric)’ (1913, above). But perhaps her best work here is the Matisse-influenced screen mural ’Bathers in a Landscape’ (1913, below), combining figures with abstract forms yet making the two feel seamless. (Could it be significant that each artist’s best work is a mural or is heavily influenced by them?)

To Conservative Charleston

Once named after a then-bohemian quarter of London, Grant and Bell then moved to the rural Charleston House. Though their original aim was to get out of the war effort, it was somewhere they never left. As if these neo-pagans were rooted in geography, their post-war style is so different they might as well have all taken on a different name. “I want to paint unrealistic realistic works,” Grant wrote in a letter. “Anyhow, I’m never going to live in the town again. I can’t think why anyone does.”

Charleston often became their subject. It’s painted as idyllic, seemingly in perpetual summertime. But idyllic seems the opposite of dynamic. The pictures aren’t all bad, it should be conceded some of them are good, but they’re no longer thrilling. Everything no longer needed to be new. The buzzword became neo-classicism. Their new name should have been the Conservative Charlstonians. Conventional still lives and portraits return, for example Grant’s orthodox ’Portrait of Lydia Lopokova’ (1923). As with all bohemians, they simply reverted to their bourgeois roots.

You could almost tell the story of the exhibition by three of Grant’s works ’The Dance’, ‘Bathing’ and ’Bathers by the Pond’. (1920/1, above). The title’s shift from verb to noun is telling. The bathers now loll idly on the bank or in boats, a dog curled at their feet. If one was suggestively sexual, the other is positively post-coital. The party had got going, everyone had dived in. Now the moment of action was passed.

To take a more recent bohemian commune familiar to us punk-generation types, imagine if a collection of Crass records had continued with their times in Dial House after the band ceased – 12”s of the sounds of the kettle on the hob, the garden fork digging the organic potatoes. And of course this is the Twenties - the era when society was at it’s most revolutionary and when Modernism was most on fire – not just the brief burst of Vorticism in Britain, but Dada, Constructivism and the Bauhaus.

Continuing the notion that Charleston was their muse, the best works seem not of but done to the house. Painted cupboard doors have been rent from their hinges and added to the walls. (Most works in the show have not been taken from Charleston itself, but photos and film show us these.) Grant’s cartoony ’Painted Corner Cupboard’ (1924) is perhaps the finest thing in this room. Meanwhile a video pans around the house. “It was a well of inspiration,” it enthuses, “where every surface called to be painted.” Though Charleston is very near Brighton, I have never previously felt inclined to visit it. This is the nearest I’ve come to feeling I should.

With It And Without It

The problem with being so terribly now is that it’s not long before you’re so terribly then. This was when Modernism was developing at such a frenetic pace that a few short years separated avant garde from obsolete. And it often insisted on portraying itself in this way - as a linear advance, a series of formal innovations, each of which made their predecessor redundant.

Bloomsbury blazed for longer than Vorticism, but never so brightly. It never stamped its own style on Modernism as firmly as its successor. It’s rather reminiscent of the R&B boom of Sixties London. Though a foreign music was enthusiastically reproduced, it took the later contribution of the Beatles and Stones to transform it into something new.

Then again, it’s a little like the old Tommy Cooper sketch. He tells his doctor “it hurts when I go like that”, so his doctor replies “then don’t go like that.” If there is one place where we should use our powers of hindsight to not see Modernism as it styled itself, surely this is it. Of course we could and should see a show such as this as a kind of historical barometer. But... guys... when it’s an art exhibition, maybe you can also consider the aesthetics.

Of course aesthetics can’t be uncoupled from politics or history, like they somehow float transcendent. But to suggest it’s merely determined by those things is a reductive and clod-hopping apology for materialism, the sort of thing you expect from Stalinists. The crucial issue is the interplay. We can look at how styles and works fitted into an ongoing narrative, but also how they interacted with their own times. Grant in particular turned up some great works, which capture much of the heady excitement of those years. To look away would be a blindness.

Postscript: Please do not assume that just because we've finally covered a still-running exhibition that this timely posting is set to last...

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