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.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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