The first in a promised series on long-gone art exhibitions, this time a mini-show at Tate Britain dedicated to William Roberts
When looking at the Vorticist exhibition here in this very venue, we saw how David Blomberg's 'Mud Bath' (below) had a totemic influence on the group he never officially joined. Mostly they seem to have seen it as a step ahead from something like Matisse's 'Dance' (below below).
And, okay, you can line them up that way should you choose. But Blomberg was most likely trying to evoke the loss of self that can be generated by group frenzy. While the Vorticists too often saw in it something linear, the next footfall in the regular advance of the avant garde - the collapse of the figure into abstract angularity. If a little geometry is a good thing, then more of it must be better – right?
They drew, in short, the wrong lesson and went tilting off at the horizon line. Blomberg had pitched his painting precisely, at the point where the human figure tips into the abstract. That's what makes it so compelling and so memorable an image - that it's so stark and striking yet so hard to pin down. It hits you and then it lingers.
William Roberts, however, was not caught up in this charge. He may have gained more of an insight into Blomberg through studying alongside him at the Slade. Or the self-identifying prole may have refused to fall in line out of personal animosity with Vorticist guru (and arch toff) Wyndham Lewis. Perhaps he was simply smarter than the pack. Whichever, it ended up the same way, and he refused to fall in with the frog-march and instead embarked upon... well, let's check it out.
The earliest piece on show, 'Leadenhall Market' (1913, above), is a pencil drawing made while he was still a student at the Slade. Particularly when placed against the bold use of colour he was employing later, it would be easy to dismiss it as juvenilia. In fact, incipiently, everything's here.
The tubular geometry he would use for anatomy is already emerging. But more significant is the composition. It's calm descriptive title (almost inviting the prefix “study of...”) belies its contents, for the figures are thrown in a tumult that often seems fractious. The crowd pours into view like a raging river; faces are sometimes realised, sometimes not, as if semi-discerned under it's froth. It's almost the opposite of Jose Munoz's comic strip art, whose street figures are trapped in an alienated individualism. For better or worse, these are thrown together.
Though it's shown only through a preparatory sketch, its with 'Return of Ulysses' (1913, up top) that Roberts ceases budding and starts to flower. Actually, it doesn't even matter that it's just a sketch. There's many sketches in this room, and beside them the paintings often look like sketches blown up rather than filled in with any greater detail - the blocky faces, the thick lips, the eyes a clamped-closed line. If there's a lingering influence from Blomberg's bathers, they look as much like the graphic icons of the working man from Otto Neurath's Isotype picograms. Equally drawn from the world of graphics is the posterly look – the limited palette of deep but vivid colours.
Vorticism was almost absurdly short-lived, and by 'Athletes Exercising in a Gymnasium' (1920, above) we're already past it. If Roberts seems to be moving away from the Blomberg style, then by this point so was Blomberg himself. The figures are less bold geometric colours, and more naturalised. However stylised and transformed they may be, we can see the basis in actual people in a real space. It's almost like 'Mud Bath' decoded. Perhaps because of it's transitional nature it's not one of Roberts' best, but looks like something of a half-way house.
'The Port of London' (1920, above) is, conversely, the least Roberts-like work on show here and much more successful. Described by the indicia as “unusually a landscape composition”, the few figures are faceless and non-dominant. You can see the influence of Impressionism and it's celebration of everyday life. (Water-side scenes being of course an Impressionist favourite.) But it's an English Impressionism, of quiet business, of caps and chip wrappers, something akin to Stanley Spencer or later Edward Burra. Roberts would habitually walk the London streets and frequent its bars. And he paints the waterfront warmly, like a portrait of an old friend.
'The Cinema' (above) was painted the same year, but is based on the genre of Music Hall paintings, by Walter Sickert and others. Traditionally the genre celebrated the unruly liveliness of such popular entertainment, with a boisterous audience undifferentiated from the stage. Formally, Roberts distinguishes his cinema from such shenanigans - fencing off the silver screen into a square in the upper corner, and giving it it's own separate palette of gold and bronze.
But from there he quite deliberately undermines his own composition. A woman's head strays across the corner of the screen, the angle of her body pulling it's diagonal composition out into the auditorium. The figures mostly look to the screen, but from a bustle of different poses. They're not in the neat rows you'd expect to see in a cinema. One group sit on a bench at right-angle to the screen, while the couple on the lower left seem more interested in each other. Others amble in, even though the film is already showing. The capped, uniformed, upright figure dominates the auditorium, and looks to be some sort of usher or guard. But his arms are folded, his eyes angled up at the same screen as everybody else.
The cinema was held by some to draw a line under the Music Hall era, to mark the imposition of order. Not to Roberts. He's celebrating the crowd, its carefree, good-natured unruliness, its true nature lying unabated beneath those bureaucratic rules and regulations.
It features a device characteristic to Roberts which might at first seem paradoxical - to give each figure a unique pose while withholding any individual features. After all, this is no faceless horde but a cheery gang. But Roberts isn't concerned with the people that make the crowd up, he's concerned with the sum of parts. Roberts' subject matter was his own people – the English working class.
'Deposition From the Cross' (1926) uses a device Roberts shares with Spencer and other artists of the era - uniting not just modern and classical themes, but the everyday with the legendary. Here, despite that title, the emphasis is not on the cross but on the ladder. The figures are in modern dress and multi-racial. When you hang pictures up in a row like this, you cannot help but see a sequence to it. And unlike 'The Cinema' they're not at their leisure but at work, united in common purpose. The earlier claim that the crowd is innately untameable is now more nuanced, more muted.
Yet, while the face of Jesus is obscured, three sets of eyes triangulate upon him. Rather than being stuck on a cross, like the figure on the far left, he's handled tenderly. Again despite the title, it's ambiguous whether they're taking down or placing up his body. This is Jesus the modest carpenter's son, who belongs not to Kings and Queens but to working people.
But there's also an almost Communist reading, to file alongside the religious one. One of the paradoxes of capitalism is that our need to sell our labour is what brings us together. With common orders, wage labour gives us common purpose. Jesus could represent salvation but also workers autonomy, which had seemed so strong immediately after the Great War. Perhaps it's significant that this was painted the year the General Strike was defeated.
With 'The Art Gallery' we suddenly fast forward to 1973, and with the leap in time comes a corresponding change in style. Most immediately noticeable is the new palette. Colours are now brighter, pinks and purples, the once-dark background a mustard yellow. But the bigger shift is in the figures. Heads are no longer blocks but rounded, individualised, caricatured, like his cartoons from the '50s seen elsewhere in room.
In what must surely be a snub to Vorticism, geometric abstract artworks are thrown into the background - almost blocked out by crowd, barely space for a triangle to protrude. Unlike the screen of 'The Cinema', not a single figure looks to them - instead they look at each other or out to us. Roberts, the great chronicler of life in the streets, finds the visitors more interesting than the art. Had he been in the Tate the same day as me, he'd doubtless have found more inspiration in the crowd than on the walls.
And yet there's a trade-off. Cinemas, at least in Roberts' day, had one mighty screen in a large auditorium. While art galleries featured a multiplicity of works, making gallery-attending a more individualised experience - something reflected here. (It's perhaps a paradox of our age that, as general life becomes more closeted, modern art is becoming more installation-based or otherwise experienced collectively.) Figures are blocked together, in one heaving clump, but their body languages places them in chatting couples or family groups. If the Cinema could still be like the Music Hall, the Gallery is no longer like the Cinema. As figures grow features and gain their individuality they lose their common purpose. The two works probably reflected their respective eras.
Much of the criticism directed against Roberts (and there's plenty) is simple art snobbery. True, he sometimes gave a romanticised view of the working class, which took its subjectively as almost self-evident. But his sin was not to depict the lower orders through the necessary distancing devices, not to place them as his subject, his sin was to give them collectivity.
However, it shouldn't be denied that he could be repetitive, falling back again and again on familiar themes and devices. At its worst his work looks like Playpeople in stock sets, ready to pushed around in little dioramas. A child's eye parody of working class life, one cliché swapped for another.
I'm forever insisting that British Modernism needs bigging up, and complaining when this or that artist doesn't get a major retrospective. Whereas this time we may well have been better off with a greatest hits sampler rather than the comprehensive box set. However, while in life Roberts walked his own furrow and kept the art establishment at a firm arms-length, there is no need to keep him in such a box today. As mentioned above, there are frequent overlaps between his work and other British Modernists of the time. His contribution should not be over-stated. But it should be celebrated.