A fresh look at old friends
In taking the 20th- century British art in our state galleries for granted, we’ve overlooked important work and significant influences, writes Sebastian Smee Modern Britain 1900- 1960 National Gallery of Victoria International, until February 24.
EVERYONE knows that art coming out of France in the first half of the 20th century was livelier than art coming out of Britain. But accepting the artistic pre- eminence of France before World War II is one thing. Using this as an excuse to ignore artists from across the Channel is quite another, for among them were some of the most brilliant and unique artists of the modern era.
It’s easier to admit this today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Tastes that used to embarrass us are being re- examined.
This development is particularly welcome in Australia, where for so long public galleries looked with stubborn myopia to Britain for the latest in contemporary art. The result has been felt with acute regret ever since: our collections lack great paintings by the greatest European artists of the 20th century, but are packed to the rafters with paintings by Brits.
Modern Britain, the summer exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, is about proving what more and more people in the art world have long been thinking: some of this stuff we spent so much time looking to was actually pretty good.
The 250 works, by 93 artists, in Modern Britain have all been taken from collections in Australia and New Zealand. If this sounds like a limitation, one point of the show is to make us think again.
In truth, the long- held bias of Australian galleries towards Britain has made it possible to tell a remarkably convincing story about British art between 1900 and 1960. It’s not definitive, it’s not exhaustive; but it has amazing scope and depth, and it amounts to a show that can seem raffish and cosmopolitan one minute, and deeply and wonderfully eccentric the next.
The show begins in the Edwardian era with works by Samuel Peploe, the Scottish colourist who so influenced Margaret Preston, and William Nicholson, a classic example of a painter who fits no obvious modern categories but is just gobsmackingly good.
Nicholson painted his sultry portrait of the playwright Sylvia Bristowe early in his career, in 1904. Queen Victoria had died in 1901 and social and aesthetic values were suddenly up for grabs. Look at the portrait, then, for one possible answer to the question of what modernity entailed: beautiful, independent women driving fast cars.
Bristowe, with high cheekbones, blue appraising eyes and sensual lips, is depicted here as a fearlessly chic motorist in an oyster- white coat, driving gloves and spotted scarf. The influence of Whistler and Manet is evident in the subtle attention to tones and the bravura brushwork, while Nicholson’s Francophilia ( in its way, a very English attribute) is on display in the title: La Belle Chauffeuse . In the same room we see another passionate, dark- toned work, this time by William Orpen. Something about the setting, its air of secrecy, the woman’s vulnerability, put me in mind of threat- filled works by Edgar Degas and Walter Sickert. But there are, we are reassured in the catalogue, ‘‘ no sinister implications in this joyful meeting’’. It’s just the artist and his wife having a slightly saucy smooch.
Sickert does appear elsewhere in the show, in gratifyingly sinister guise. His three versions of the Raising of Lazarus , each held in different state collections, have finally been reunited, and his fabulous Mornington Crescent nude, which anticipates much in the work of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and even Australia’s Brett Whiteley, is the highlight of the small section devoted to the Camden Town Group.
Harold Gilman’s brilliant Clarissa ( 1911- 12) is in the same group and I couldn’t help noticing a striking resemblance between it and a selfportrait Australia’s Grace Cossington Smith would paint just a few years later.
At this point, the exhibition dutifully nods to the influence of the Bloomsbury set, with paintings and furniture by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. But the display is thin, which only reminds us that the artistic output of Bloomsbury was negligible in comparison with its literary legacy.
Still, for British aesthetic sensibilities in general, the contribution of one of the Bloomsbury set, Fry, was incalculable. Fry’s two postimpressionist exhibitions, introducing a broad British public to the art of Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, had the effect of brilliantly timed explosions on moribund aesthetic tastes in
Britain ( and, by and by, in Australia). Virginia Woolf, in reference to the first of these shows in 1910, wrote: ‘‘ On or about December 10, human character changed.’’
Woolf, of course, exaggerated. It’s possible to argue that the character of British art ( never mind ‘‘ human character’’) was actually undermined by certain artists’ slavish devotion to the post- impressionist gods, Cezanne in particular. But to say this is not to champion either conservatism or isolationism; it is just to recognise that the battles of those days are over and we are free to see merit wherever we please.
The show skips through another 20 or so subsections, some devoted to individuals, others to artistic groups, others to themes such as the nude, religious visions and landscape.
The religious visions section contains an outstanding display of 27 paintings and drawings by Stanley Spencer, highlighting the extraordinary strength of Spencer holdings here and in NZ. The display attests to Spencer’s inimitably English genius, inseparable as it was from chronic tendencies towards wish- fulfilment and sentimentality. Look at the extraordinary use of patterning in Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta and at later light- filled masterpieces such as Cookham Lock and Wheatfield at Starlings , or at the disturbingly beautiful portrait known as Daphne by the Window, Northern Ireland .
For many years the precociously gifted Augustus John loomed over English art as its resident bohemian and rebel. Four portraits of members of his family remind us of his brilliance. The portrait of his daughter Poppet, in particular, is one of the exhibition’s highlights: note the vigour and dash of the paintwork around her sleeve, the sexual insouciance of her pose. But other examples of work by John, including the ghastly, Italianate La Belle Jardiniere , suggest an overall achievement that was flimsier than it might have been.
Works relating to World War I by the vorticists and others are in short supply. But another section on World War II, in a separate room at the end of the show, is utterly compelling. Several works by Stella Bowen, including Bomber Crew , are among the highlights. Look out, too, for some modest but thrilling smaller works by Eric Ravilious.
The focus on the war reminds us that the bias of Australia’s public galleries towards British art looks dumb only in retrospect. Australia was, after all, a British colony until 1901, and remained part of the Commonwealth after it was federated. Artists who travelled generally went to Britain. And, of course, young men and women from both countries, some of them artists, were yoked together again twice over the next four decades, thanks to two world wars.
One can go on and on about how slow British artists were to come around to the innovations of Picasso, Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Constantin Brancusi. But they were not always so very slow, and when they were, it was often because they were busy husbanding their original visions.
What other part of the world could have produced an artist such as Cedric Morris, for instance, his limitations so evident, the force of his sincerity so palpable? Where else could have produced Freud, Bacon, David Bomberg or Ivon Hitchens, all first- class painters represented with fine works in this show?
Given Britain’s great tradition in portraiture, it’s no surprise that the section devoted to portraits is the best. Along with Freud’s littleknown early work, Boy with aWhite Scarf , from the Art Gallery of South Australia, the finest works are Victor Pasmore’s Head of a Man, Morris’s Portrait of Frances Hodgkins and — perhaps the real knockout — Madeline Green’s Glasgow , a superb double portrait in a down- atheel realist tradition.
Much of the abstraction on display in the last stages of the show seems infelicitous, at best. Look out, instead, for sections devoted to two intriguing artists, Glyn Philpot and Tristram Hillier; a gutsy female nude by Matthew Smith; mysterious, emotion- drenched landscapes by the likes of Bomberg, Hitchens, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland; and jaunty faux- naive works by Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis.
The NGV has been wanting to mount this show for decades. In putting the various strands together — a mammoth task, involving scores of scholars, curators and conservators — its senior curator of international art, Ted Gott, has done a brilliant job. ( His task was greatly assisted by a 1997 study by Anne Kirker and Peter Tomory called British Painting 1800- 1990 in Australian and New Zealand Public Collections .)
The exhibition catalogue is superb ( all the works are illustrated), and the restoration and conservation of many long- neglected paintings a tribute to all involved. The show is not only a joy to walk through, it’s a wonderful slap around the chops for those made woozy by the mere mention of Montmartre. Some great modern art, this show reminds us, was made elsewhere, too.
Brits and pieces: Bomber Crew ( 1944) by Stella Bowen, far left; Portrait of Frances Hodgkins ( 1928) by Cedric Morris, left; and Home Farm, Iping ( 1944) by Ivon Hitchens, below left