"MODERN BRITAIN, 1900-1960; Masterworks from the Australian & New Zealand Collections"; November 15,2007 to February 24,2008, at the National Gallery of Victoria (International), Melbourne; or "THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD"
Would you like to write it then, Wallace? Oh, you've already written it. Hmmm. "I was of three minds", yeah, yeah. To have the three combine or coalesce; or, simply, one to concentrate. But there's another blackbird -- there! "Who can pick up the weight of Britain, / Who can move the German load / Or say to the French here is France again? // It is nothing, no great thing, nor man / Of ten brilliancies of battered gold / And fortunate stone. It moves its parade / Of motions in the mind and heart, // A gorgeous fortitude. Medium man / In February hears the imagination's hymns / And sees its images, its motions / And multitude of motions // And feels the imagination's mercies, / In a season more than sun and south wind, / Something returning from a deeper quarter, / A glacier running through delirium, // Making this heavy rock a place, / Which is not of our lives composed . . . / Lightly and lightly, O my land, / Move lightly through the air again." [Imago, 1948] Hmmm. An echo in my head of F. M.Ford's thought about the historical composition of the English which, in America's case after the 2nd World War, is the tale of a similar roosting. Thus New York's supplanting of Europe, yeah, yeah,one of those consoling ideas of youth which seemed then the keenest thought and not at all without a grain of truth. But the years pass and the New World's moment also passes; all that's subsumed as the International Style, grown in America, imported by everyone else, dulls as well. And all along one's been wondering what happened to Britain, to Germany, to France, what happened to Europe, what happened to the sovereignties of the rest of the world?
It was much anticipated to say the least. Several months out and the enthusiasm was building among friends including a bevy of local painters. For years Alan Pose & I have consulted the house copy of Anne Kirker & Peter Tomory's British Painting, 1800-1990, in Australian & New Zealand Public Collections (Beagle Press, 1997). We've imagined the show that could be mounted upon the foundation of our own Melbourne (NGV) collection; welcomed the little tasters along the way, always hoping for the bigger splash!
In that indispensable book's introduction, Anne Kirker writes, "In addition to providing a comprehensive listing of British paintings currently held in public collections in Australia & New Zealand, it could serve as an entry into a number of research topics, such as tracing the reception of British art in Australia..." (p9)
Anne Kirker was also the curator of the National Art Gallery of New Zealand's survey show, The First Fifty Years : British Art of the Twentieth Century(Wellington, 1981), admitting "an essentially modernist approach" but hoping "at the same time to make clear the overall diversity and richness of British art during the last fifty years of this century." The catalogue for the New Zealand show reproduces several of the pictures also found in the Melbourne show, the most striking of which is Gertler's classically sculptural yet palpably modern half-nude, The Straw Hat (1924).
And where is Anne Kirker now? Writing finely honed poems in Brisbane...
Spencer Gore's glorious The Icknield Way (housed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) graces the book's cover --no wonder my wondering at the familiarity of its reproduction in The Australian, illustrating Andrew Stephens review --we've been looking at it (without studying it) for a decade! And then seeing it in the flesh at the show -- not as vast as I'd imagined but big enough! Big enough as anthem for the discussion, the best of several supported by the show, concerning landscape in itself and as the subject in the pincer of the polemics featuring the pictorially identifiable, topographically verifiable on one hand and abstraction's sport with line & colour on the other.
The Age & The Australian, chalk & cheese as usual. Robert Nelson's article headlined, "Taking modernist out of the modern"; Andrew Stephens, "Landscape of Tumult".
Keywords & phrases in Nelson : "moderation of its modernists"; "something too suspicious in the British psyche, something too sceptical and pragmatic, to bring off the formalist convictions and conceptual confidence of radical modernism"; "soft modernism"; "decorative appeal"; "lacklustre and messy, failed modernism" (this in relation to Tunnard, Nash, Power, Cant, Piper, Hitchens, Vaughan, Epstein; lemons & pears aside, Nash & Hitchens, Tunnard & Piper, 'lacklustre & messy' ?); "fatally brown and dull" (of Spencer's "allegorical work of the '30s"); "heroic modernism" (its general absence, that is)...
Keywords & phrases in Stephens : "a complete surprise" (of Reynolds large paintings); "romantic British landscape convention"; "such a wealth of great British art...in Australasian galleries" (unaware of the Kirker-Tomory register?); "a whole rhapsody of themes that might have formed smaller, discrete shows in themselves : brilliant landscapes, voluptuous nudes, fascinating portraiture, still-lives, war-artists' work, post-war modernity"; "vibrant riot of colour"; "luxuriantly vivid works" (of M Smith, Bomberg, Sutherland, Holmes, Passmore); "the threat imposed on the classic landscape of the imagination" (re the neo-romantics); "a captivating vista that melds social, political and art history with the broader canvas upon which it all happens : the land beneath our feet"...
I'm sorry Robert Nelson, you probably read it when it was published --Robert Hughes, that is, in Time magazine, 1987 --but only read by yours truly today as Cathy O'Brien & I pick through our spoils from Bendigo's illustrious Book Now second-hander. Hughes article, English Art in the 20thCentury, is collected in his book, Nothing, If Not Critical (Harvill, 1991), bought --I must get this in --before walking through Rosalind Park in mid-summer Northern Victorian dry heat and ascending to the Bendigo Art Gallery to see The Long Weekend : Australian Artists in France, 1918-1939, the lovely book-end of a sort to Modern Britain, which is the actual destination of this note.
A wall-text at The Long Weekend exhibition seems to me utterly apropos a conversation Modern Britain inspires and to another aroused by Nelson's review's curiously ideological sideswipes; words to the affect that most of the Aussie Parisiennes resisted the modernist styles of that time & place, were happy to be there and to continue in their own sweet ways. And that is the point : jettison the notion of progress for the arrogance it is and in our time at least regard all modes as legitimate & contemporaneous, retaining one's discriminations for works in themselves. Stylistic or modal differences might be considered genre, something literature & film are able to accommodate (although we're aware of the time it sometimes takes for work to be recognized for those qualities appreciated beyond the genre). A moot point is whether the liveliness of a work emanates from style or subject, but it wouldnt be much of a work if these were so evidently separable. Style in art within the general sense of progress has been synonymous with historical time, but once progress as punitive paradigm dissolves, when style is particular and not the inevitable or logical generality, something else obtains.
The human warmth or palpability of Bessie Davidson's apartment interiors --their authenticity I'd like to say, their, as-it-were, habitable reality --in The Long Weekend exhibition were, to my eye, easily distinguishable from the exact line & application, technically perfect painting of Hilda Rex Nicholas, Stella Bowen & others. She was (they all were) modern but not modernist... In Davidson there's impressionism, Cezanne, perhaps something of Braque & co's generic encapsulation, density, congested enclosure, but most of all she's a la her own personable mode --aeons from Robert Nelson's vaunted "heroic" and none the worse, contra formalist-progressivist thinking, for it. [P.S. 10-03-08. Looking at Vuillard's Mme Bonnard With Her Dog (1907) at the NGV, reminded of the qualities I responded to in Bessie Davidson. The illusion of depth in the panelled construction; figure on chair, dog in foreground, curtained door behind, and another room behind these. The soft warmth of the colours translates into the words I've used before, human, palpable. Maybe too the post-impressionist warmth I see in Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman...]
For the record, Robert Hughes wrote this : "It would be hard to think of a more overdue subject for an exhibition than 'British Art in the 20thCentury' , the panorama of 310 works by some seventy artists at The Royal Academy in London. Our fin de siecle is the natural time for summing up, and the subject of modern British has never been tried in depth by an American museum. No matter what quibbles and demurrals one may have about the choice of this work or that name, no one with half an eye could spend a couple of hours in Burlington House and By leave without asking why the cumulative achievements of British painters and sculptors --as distinct from the popularity of a few individuals, such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney -- have been so scanted by the official and mainly American annals of modernism. (....) So why do so many of the lesser known things in this show [Hughes mentions Sickert, M Smith, the Vorticists, Spencer, Bomberg, Epstein, P Nash, Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach, Kitaj, Hodgkin] now strike us as not just a footnote to, but an essential part of, the visual culture of the past 80 years : neither "provincial" nor "minor" but singular and grand? What muffled this recognition? Partly, the English themselves : a nation always mingy in valuing its own artists."
Hughes traces the origin of said mingyness to Roger Fry & Bloomsbury (Clive Bell et al)'s valorisation of everything French and the denigration of everything English. Thank God Provincial England & the Colonies saved me from most of that; even when New York was at its most attractive I hadnt realized that the assumed price of the new was the heads of the artists I'd grown up with!
Off the record, John Piper explains : "For twenty years the Paris Post-Impressionists had been making clear and definitive statements. They could not be ignored. By 1938 the looming war made the clear but closed world of abstract art untenable for me. It made the whole pattern and structure of thousands of English sites more precious as they became more likely to disappear. Anyway, what I had learned was now part of me, and an integral and prominent part at that. The abstract practice taught me a lot that I would not have learned without it, and all the time I had hold, through the collages, of a lifeline to natural appearances -- and so to early Palmer, to Turner, early and late (topographical and less purely topographical) and to our whole Romantic tradition in which it has always been possible for meaningful details to shine like beacons in the damp, misty evanescence of our beautiful island light and weather." Richard Ingrams comments, "What Piper could never shed was his nationality and upbringing, as he was half-expected to do by the extremists of the Modern art movement, whose aim was to reproduce a supposedly international style. He has therefore been dismissed in some quarters as provincial, a slur that could be, and probably has been, levelled at most great English artists --Blake, Samuel Palmer, Constable --who never went far beyond their native England.(....)Being an English or British painter meant resigning oneself to the probable lack of any international recognition." p22, Piper's Places (Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1983).
This introduces the cultural dimension, melding political & emotional, and precisely what informs the "nativism" I often air.
Here's Peter Fuller on Piper and the other themes I'm constantly meditating : "Piper has always been a painter of English landscape (....) through a conspicuously English sensibility. But if he sought a continuity with romantic traditions in English culture, it was a replenished continuity. His painting affirms that though life in the twentieth century necessarily involves a changed vision, and changed values, it need not, or perhaps ought not, to involve some absolute, philistine rupture with the achievements of our cultural past, nor yet with art's capacity to give pleasure through decoration." (from Images of God, p96, 1985.) Rereading Peter Fuller recently I feel the enormous loss his tragically early death was for British criticism...
Could be, of course, that Robert Hughes isnt quotable, writing too far outside of the local academics' pale. And in the Australian context, Giles Auty is definitely persona non grata if one remembers his stroppy vacation here in the '90s. Ironically, some of his art criticism echoed one's own responses to the broad swathe of awfulness apparently authorised by postmodernism's this that & the other. However, in the prestigious Peter Nahum catalogue for its British survey show of 1988, there's Auty making the very same points as Hughes. He refers to the 'Tate Gallery Affair' of 1954, when John Rothenstein struck Douglas Cooper, during the Diaghileff exhibition at Forbes House, in what Peter Nahum considered a justified & symbolic defence of what Auty calls "the continuing worth of home-produced art and traditions in the face of that long line of francophiles and advocates of international modernism who saw fit to belittle the domestic product." He reasons that "the dominance of mainstream modernism endured only 20 years from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies and subsequent post-modern practice has merely re-established the pluralism of the pre-war . Significantly, two of the major British painters of this century, Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud, have not been modernists in a formal sense. Such strands and cross-currents in art are an irritant to the neat patterns of progress modern art-historians prefer to project. The influence of Picasso dominated the lifes of certain British artists while affecting others not at all. Is this evidence of insularity or individualism? The Slade School under Tonks, reputedly the least sympathetic or flexible of teachers, gave rise to a galaxy of talents unrivalled by any other school, anywhere. The paradoxes of modern art have long outlived Roger Fry's sweeping generalisations. " (Cross-Section : British Art in the Twentieth Century; Peter Nahum, 1988)
One man seems to know his subject, the other is winging it! One (Stephens) reports on what he elicits from the curators and what's there to be seen; the other (Nelson) seems intent on pushing along his rather squeeky old barrow, and cant have seen the same exhibition, since his optic is historically & aesthetically clouded by the unreconstructed cliche regarding the merit of both British art & the efficacy of the formalist rationale. However, I'm the first to agree with Alan Pose (who initially suggested I must have read a different piece by Nelson to the one he'd seen!) that the reviews must be praised for having stimulated a discussion we've enjoyed several times a week for the last couple of months. Indeed, this recent period could be called Modern Britain, comprising the wonderful show (visited two, three, four, five times & more by people I know --Ken Parker, for example, six times!), the reviews, and the discussion about pictures, painters, Modernism, Formalism, internationalism, the local...
In a discussion about cultural reference, which soon focussed upon "Englishness", on the Leafe Press (UK) blog recently, its editor, Alan Baker, suggested to me that distance from home might deepen one's regard for many features the native happily assumes --and I suppose I do bang on a bit about hedgerows, lanes, woods, fields, clumps, The Lark Rising, Neo-Romanticism, St Ives, Keeping Up Appearances & Old Thumper ale! But legacy is certainly a large aspect of the impact of the Modern Britain show for me. I'm home from home, returned to the swathe of British art I knew from Southampton Art Gallery through my teens and to particular artists I've followed since my commuting between Melbourne & the UK began in earnest in 1987, by which time my involvement with the international avant-garde had practically dissolved. And so might legacy be the issue for colleagues who're not all expatriates either. British painting for them, despite its public subordination to European & American art, is evidently something they continue to reckon with. One might deduce then that despite the USA, the EEC & ASEAN, the British reference continues for a formidable quotient of Australian society. It might also be that what is identified in such a large body of art work, and as successfully eclectic a show as I've seen (--and suddenly my heart's pounding at the thought of a post-1960 show which would pose the question, What happened after our blockbuster's cut-off date? that is to say, what happened to painting as the profound practice Modern Britain presented? and what happened with the bourgeoning & noticeably British abstraction and to the figure & landscape streams? The NGV's Hodgkins & Sydney's huge Hockney plein-air already offer answers but with so many chapters of the story to fill-in let's not leave it too long --2010, 2015 at the latest?!), that the Modern Britain exhibition constitutes a sufficiently strong statement of regional art to demonstrate the folly of the claim for distinctions & value judgements informed by a determinist formalism & historical progressivism's set of mutual exclusivities.
That painting, per se, neednt be a perfunctory means to a dubious end, might be this show's greatest inspiration. Painting is mightier than the video-installation, believe me! It is the newer form must establish itself; painting & drawing have nothing to justify in terms of technology. The primeval means are a strength; it is the sophisticated means whose results at this time are so primitive.
The surrender of definition & judgement before the supposed volume of contemporary work was always disingenuous, actually indicating a failure of critical & perceptual nerve. Periodic bets on the state of the art are essential, especially when the flux in which the tradition is always to be found is as frenetic as it is today.
After this show, I can imagine a curatorial enthusiasm for the Australian (even Australasian) representations & speculations along the same lines as Modern Britain... There's no time to lose!
Modern Britain, 1900-1960 is not so much a historical journey as a historical hop-scotch. How the British interacted with Europe and, post-WW2, with America, and European art similarly engaged, is the example of regional art anywhere & everywhere, especially today in the global society (think of contemporary art from Asia). There are no backwaters --later times are always likely to redeem the seeming relics & oddities. Backwaters mostly reflect stagnant criticism.
Modern Britain felt contemporary, that is to say feasible as practice in terms of means & visions. The point about the Dutch Master (still-life or portrait), the Velasquez, El Greco, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso; the point about Constable, Turner, of pre-Raphaelitism, whatever, is that influence is dynamic. The original is also dynamised by its extension and vice-versa. Echoes & variations cant help but retrieve & replenish. Influence is life.
My favourites? The Johns, brother & sister, and the marvellous threesome of John, Lees & Innes; the Camden Road cameo; Passmore, Gore, Sutherland; Frances Hodgkins, exotic yet graceful; Paul Nash's magnificent wall of topographically coherent yet visionary landscapes, ditto Hitchens whose detail's all wash as though line; the architectonic & sumptuous Reynolds; the room of Spencers, ditto the Bratbys; the half-walls of Tunnards, Bawdens; the unforgetable war memorial; ah, all these & then gems here & there, Peploe, Piper, Ravillious,Smith, Jones, Bomberg, Moore, Nicholson, Wood, Wallis, Gertler,Buhler...
The most glaring omission was Lanyon, and to think the NGV actually owns Mullion Bay -- and John Nash by the sea instead of one of his glorious landscapes. The biggest joke : John Berger's 50s wall-text castigating John Bratby's kitchen sink for its rampant consumerism (wouldnt you love to have hit him with a ration-book?)! Almost as funny, the Jekyll & Hyde juxtaposition of hygenic Bowen & toxic Passmore portraits. The last word : assuredly the wall-text quoting a '30s Paul Nash, to the effect that the problem facing artists was how to be modern and British as well. But no doubt at all, Modern Britain, 1900-1960 provided a convergence of the instinctual & learned solutions.
--fin, 22-03-08Kris Hemensley