Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century.

Author:Cast, David
Position:Book Reviews


Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 336 pp.; 46 color ills., 104 b/w. $45.00

This is a rich and abundantly detailed study, one that long simmered, as Lisa Tickner acknowledges in her opening sentence. The subject is modernism, or what in less stentorian tones can be referred to as certain modernist ambitions played out in British art in the first years of the last century. It is a familiar yet still difficult topic. Of modernism itself we have an acceptable account: that it was a response to the simultaneously developing forms of capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, and, as Wyndham Lewis put it in a characteristically bold phrase, it was to be "almost entirely credited to Anglo-Saxon genius." But at a cost, he added, for busy with "this LIFE-EFFORT" England became "the last to be conscious of the Art that is an Organism of this new Order and Will of Man" (p. 193). Tickner claims that if Britain was not rebellious enough to accept modernism itself--the terms "modernity," "modernism," "modernise" had long been used in English criticism, but they referred to the battle of the an cients--still, there are moments of modernism to be recognized within the visual arts and understood from a cluster of issues that emerged in the cultural commentary of the period: a sense of the Englishness of English art, wrested from its basis in rural landscape into the urban, the virile, the industrial, and the primitive; the association, by supporters and detractors alike, of avant-garde practice with radical social and sexual politics; the demand for rough and masculine work (Lewis again)--this to be an answer to the supposedly degenerative influence of women and homosexuals; and finally the development of a certain fashionability of the avantgarde and the transformation of patronage, the art market, and the media.

The tone of any account of British modernism is not easy to set. Tickner is careful to avoid a trap that has caught lesser spirits, that of either underplaying the influence of the Continent or, as with the collages of 1914 by Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant, of exaggerating the formal possibilities of the art in England of this moment--just as too much could be made of the Objective Abstractions of Graham Bell, Rodrigo Moynihan, or Geoffrey Tibble twenty years later. Between such extremes there is much to be done, especially if the focus of the account is extended beyond the boundary of art history to recognize and understand what Tickner, using contemporary parlance, calls the "permeability of the work" (p.212), that is, the object of art seen within a far wider cultural field. Within the sociology of modernism, historians, passing over the idea of gender, have often ignored the possibility that the new modernity, sometime after about 1880, disrupted certain patterns of social intercourse to give women an auto nomy in all aspects of their professional and sexual lives that was not available earlier in the age of industrialization. Money and class would still matter. But for some, as Gertrude Stein put it, "life without father" could now begin, and "a very pleasant one" it might be (p. 197).

Tickner's narrative and her selection of artists--Walter Sickert, Augustus John, Lewis, Vanessa Bell, and David Bomberg, each of whom is discussed in a separate chapter--are based on Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements, an exhibition that was held in May and June 1914 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The show featured works by Sickert, John, Lewis, Bell, Bomberg, and others. Grand public exhibitions had been deeply important occasions in the world of art in London since at least 1769 and the first summer shows at the Royal Academy. Yet this one was very different, as was the gallery, which was located in Whitechapel, an area in the East End that teemed with poor immigrants, most of them Jewish. The show's intent--to present to the public all that was new in art--was the same as that of Twenty Years of British Art, which was held at the Whitechapel in 1910 to mark the tenth anniversary of its founding. Indeed, when set against figures of the Royal Academy, the artists included in the 1910 exhibi tion, such as George Clausen, John Lavery, or Wilson Steer, could be thought of as working in styles and with subjects that were modern. Yet by then most of them were well known, and the pictures selected still fit very easily into the older and more directly moralizing model of cultural philanthropy that was first enunciated by the cofounder of Whitechapel, Canon Barnett. In the 1914 show, everything was different. The new curator, Gilbert Ramsay (about whom very little is known) chose works that were fundamentally new, distinct from one another in style, and could only be considered a group because they were not like the art more usually presented to the general public in London, that is to say, based on "an academic treatment of history, anecdote, and sentimentality" (p. 7, from a memorandum Ramsay wrote to the trustees of the gallery). (1)

Ramsay came to this selection of pictures only after much deliberation. He arranged them in four categories, which he defined in the show's catalogue: the first, which included examples by Sickert, he described as treating "common or sordid scenes in a sprightly manner"; the second, with John and others, made for "imposing decorative design by the creation of commanding human types"; the third demonstrated the influence of Paul Cezanne and included Lewis; and the fourth comprised works by Bell and the Vorticists, who had "abandoned representation almost entirely" and recently set up what Ramsay called a "Rebel Art Centre" (p. 7). There was a fifth section to the show, on Jewish art; Bomberg curated it and put some of his own pieces in it. This segment was obviously an ethnic rather than a stylistic category, and it was clearly directed to the interests of the local Jewish community. The classification by styles was, as Sickert admitted in a review of the show, about as just as any attempt to write contemporar y history could be, though characteristically he made fun of one group, the painters misled by critic Roger Fry "to see what could be done by caricaturing in a superficial manner the faults of Cezanne" (p. 7). Nevertheless, the point of the exhibition was certain: that if in 1910 the link between modern art and modern life came from the subjects represented--the Salvation Army, as in a painting by William Strang, or Piccadilly Circus in one by Muirhead Bone--here what was...

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