The evolution of British modernism from the late 19th through the 20th century is a story less told than the familiar tropes of modernism that evolved in France over that same period. Although the names Manet, Monet and Matisse are familiar among those even with a slight interest in art, Nash, Bomberg and Sickert remain far less likely known. The recent decision by former education secretary Michael Gove to drop Art History from England’s A-level curriculum in the coming years-along with Archeology, Classical Civilisation and Statistics-to make exams “more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous,” increases the odds that the subject will become even more obscure to those to whom it most belongs. Thankfully, not all share this opinion, and through an exchange with the Tate Museum at the Getty, recent acquisitions at The Huntington Library, and an exhibition skillfully culled from the permanent collection at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art by guest curator British art historian Peyton Skipwith, the oft-overlooked period is getting its due.
“As you all know,” began Skipwith at a recent lecture held at SBMA, “history has no beginning and no end, it is a continuum.” Though these words were spoken in direct reference to the current exhibition, “British Art from Whistler to WWII,” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, they are equally apropos in considering the continuity and connections between the artists-colleagues, critics, mentors, friends and lovers-on view at all three SoCal institutions. David Bomberg, for example, with works on view at the Huntington’s “Blast! Modernist Painting in Britain, 1900-1940” and SBMA, taught both Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, both featured artists in the six-person exhibition, “London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj” on view at The Getty.
Rebelling against the academic tradition was a defining aspect of the modern impulse, and English artists also paved multiple paths of dissent. The Pre-Raphaelites turned heads with their “offensive realism” at the British Royal Academy as early as 1849. The New English Art Club, another group of young rabble-rousers, collectively rebelled against the Academy in 1884. Walter Sickert, once a student and studio assistant of expatriate James Abbott McNeil Whistler, was a founding member of the Art Club was also a principle in the later Camden Town Group, organized in the early 20th century, whose members would often gather at his fittingly Camden-based studio. With a vision similar to the nearly contemporary Ashcan School in the US, the Camden painters sought to depict, in gritty detail with earthy palettes, the reality of their contemporary urban culture. Among the artists affiliated with this officially men-only group were Duncan Grant, J.D. Innes, and Wyndham Lewis who later founds the Vorticism movement.
The opening gallery of From Whistler to WWII at SBMA sets the mood for the years leading up to and following Roger Fry’s transformational “Manet and Post-Impressionists” exhibition of 1910 that famously introduced the likes of Cézanne, Seurat and van Gogh to English artists and the wider public-much to the latter’s chagrin. Works here include a stunning tonalist painting of Yachts Lying off Cowes: Evening (1882)by Philip Wilson Steer and early landscape paintings by Walter Sickert. “The attraction to plein-air painting, the idealism of Impressionism, is absorbed through Paris and the Académie Julian where many of the artists went to study,” explains SBMA’s chief curator and assistant director Eik Kahng as we pass by the works, “yet, this kind of plein-air painting is occurring almost a full 40 years after Impressionism.”
Moving in the second gallery is a revelation of the impact of Post-Impressionism on the English tradition. There’s “Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and then they all go crazy,” say Kahng, “All is thrown out and they start over again, and then there is just a huge explosion of creativity, and the response and the reaction to that.” Encompassing the period before, during and between the wars the exhibition also features many paintings crafted in a very English style of Surrealism, such as works by Eileen Agar and John Tunnard. The exhibition also held a few surprises with a pair of sketches by art critics Roger Fry and John Ruskin; haunting Studies for Gassed (1918), a pair of sketches featuring with a solemn line of soldiers walking through a field of their fallen comrades by John Singer Sargent-better known for his paintings of gossamer frocks than wartime fatigues; and a trio of works by the enigmatic artist Paul Nash whose work ranges from his years as a war artist, to lyrical and surreal landscapes (such as those on view here), to his later cross-disciplinary decorative arts.
Named for the short-lived eponymous avant-garde journal produced by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, the exhibition Blast! is organized around three recently acquired paintings, which as director of art collections at the Huntington Library Kevin Salatino points out, are also the first 20th-century British paintings that the Huntington has ever acquired. These works take center stage in a modestly sized exhibition space, contextualized by numerous works on loan from a private collection. Duncan Grant’s Vase of Flowers with Lemons (1913) provides clear evidence of the new direction in painting that marks British art of this period. Grant was a member of the Bloomsbury Set (another well-educated group of anti-academes, along with Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Virginia Woolf to name a few), was among the artists to show in Fry’s second Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1912, and also involved with avant-garde Omega Workshops. This group followed the precedent set decades earlier by William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement, but a decidedly Post-Impressionist twist. As one might expect, Grant’s still life is anything but traditional, a clash of warm jeweled tones-lemon yellow, tangerine orange and translucent reds-are offset with pale tints of blue and strident black outlines that do little to assert control over the composition.
Following in close chronology is a painting of Dora Carrington by Mark Gertler, which combines a distinctive Cubist reduction of form with nod to Renaissance monumentality. “Flatness becomes very important to him, unmodulated color, and simplicity of line,” describes Salatino of the enigmatic portrait, “this is just as avant-garde at that moment in London as anything else that is going on, including people like Wyndam Lewis who creates Vorticism or what Ezra Pound does with language.”
Even in the intimately scaled Blast! exhibition, the sharp distinction between pre- and post-war artistic strategies is evident. The geometric forms of the early 20th century, as evidenced in David Bomberg’s cubist Figure Study (1913) give way to the later expressionist style found in the third acquired work, also by Bomberg, The Slopes of Navao, Picos de Europa(1935) inspired by the landscape of northern Spain. “What happens, of course, is that the war happens, and anything to do with the machine is suddenly less attractive…it is the return to order, a re-embracing of the human and the pastoral,” Salantino explains. “It is particularly pronounced in Britain. And that’s what happens to Bomberg.”
“London Calling” at the Getty takes up, chronologically, where the other two leave off. However, the stubborn tradition of figuration remains in even the most avant-garde of British Art at a time when the figure is notably absent in contemporary trends elsewhere (one might be tempted to insert a kitschy Brexit reference here). This pre-occupation with figuration, perhaps tied to that pesky undercurrent of British individualism, is a central component of the loosely affiliated “London School.”
The expansive exhibition devotes a separate space for each artist, allowing the synchronicities of each to manifest. Moving through, it is readily apparent that the unifying principle of “London Calling” is not a specific technique or style, but as Getty director Timothy Potts states, who co-organized the show with drawings curator Julian Brooks and Tate Britain curator Elena Crippa, provides a consistent look to the people, landscapes and urban settings of London as subject.
The exhibition opens with Michael Andrews, arguably the least recognized artist of the six, who studied at the Slade School of Art under Lucian Freud, among others. Within this space we are taken from his last year at Slade with the planarity of The Man Who Suddenly Fell Over (1952) to the literally gritty Thames Painting, the Estuary (1994-95) with sand and ash mixed into the paint created during the final year of his life. This is followed with Frank Auerbach, whose paintings show a strikingly consistent high-keyed palette of style throughout his long career from the icing-thick brushstrokes Morning Crescent with the Statue of Sickert’s Father-in-Law (1966) to the distilled Morning Crescent-Summer Morning (2004). The evolution is subtle in Auerbach, but as Crippa describes, “We get a sense of the energy of movement of the street with his strong perpendicular brushstrokes,” but over time, as Crippa quotes the artists words: “I began feeling like I could get rid of the history of the picture itself and each day start anew.”
The exhibition continues with Leon Kossoff, who, with paintings like Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn afternoon(1971), sought, as Crippa describes, “to take the everyday into the monumental” through his paintings, and to “collect the memory of the city where he was born and lived and continues to paint every day.” The thickly encrusted surfaces of the paintings act almost like archeological layers to dig through and collect the experiences of the artist, who turns 90 this year and continues to explore the world through paint. Following is RB Kitaj, who coined the moniker “School of London,” and is described by the Getty’s Brooks as “the most bookish” of the artists on view, and whose works are a combinations of biographic, historic and literary references rendered in a boldly gestural, often disjointed and fragmented figurative style.
A hallway devoted to drawings and sketches by the sextuplet leads to the shows finale, features iconic works by Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. The two final rooms are each anchored by two very different works: Bacon’s soul-wrenching Triptych August 1972, painted following the suicide of his lover, George Dyer and Freud’s monumental, in surface and scale, nude portrait of the performer Leigh Bowery (1991). The aggressive fragmentation of the figure in Bacon’s painting is nearly unparalleled, unsettling and all consuming. Contrasting Bacon who, according to the Getty preferred to paint portraits from photographs, Freud “seemed to have rarely left the studio.” The early style of Freud’s portraits crisply articulated planar evolves into the lush surfaces, somewhat akin to those of Kossoff and Auerbach but devoted to devastating renderings of human flesh. As Brooks describes of the iconic work, “Bowery worked with his body, a performance artist, a fashion designer, but that’s all stripped away and you just get the naked body. And yet, there is something incredibly Herculean, like the Farnese Hercules, like a big classical sculpture.”
Finally, it is the sum of these experiences that manifest in the so-called “School of London,” or the “Camden School” or the “Omega Workshops”-the anguish of Bacon, dark intimacies of Sickert, or the formal explorations following Fry’s exhibitions. These histories and paintings are contemporary explorations of the private and public spaces, of urban cities and country landscapes, of London and beyond. They document myriad views into the turbulence of the 20th century and its surrounding decades. They are neither too elite nor unambitious. They are, unarguably, well worth knowing and preserving, even at the A level.