Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating them with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time, and ever since, have acknowledged.

So in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul mate, and the model for some os his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks they had made to what should nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to dwarf his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was often the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interprtation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators of often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by several other overlapping ideas and explorations of the diverse meanings of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaboration’.

Thus alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

But other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

And other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’ but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. Almost all of the artists are given thumbnail biographies which focus on their love lives and their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as much as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

(Not to be left out, there is a special room off to one side for gay men, and an alcove devoted to transgender artists such as Claude Cahun, who also very much subverted and challenged and transgressed the usual blah-blah-blahs of bourgeois blah-blah.)

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multipole partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim. And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this key element – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. of the curators’ central premise. What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on, radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

So some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering. With some notable exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described and illustrated as being predominantly interested, in their lives and art and writing, in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences.

At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s.)

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic. But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or the site of transgressive desire or that their work was an epitome of queer citizenship, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time interpreted using the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve read about them – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

And that’s before you have to assimilate the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in the room dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes.

For when the curators had written out this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place, it turns out to be interesting, and fun, to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

The glossary suggests that you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Got enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’, groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading the wall texts but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point – obvious really – is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it was more a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be its sole designer. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did. The beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

But blink and you might miss an important artistic collaboration. The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (who he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp, really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These had something almost nothing else in the exhibition had – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This was a really calming, absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. It’s designed to.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth.

Also, as to one of its central premises – that ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is not that radical a thought – as is indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that this interpretation of necessity omits the stories of working people of both genders in those continents, let alone the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard). In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works.

But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ focus on Modernism being defined by couples, love and relationships and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth – derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, David and Victoria Beckham, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of modern artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Futurism by Richard Humphreys (1999)

This is a nifty little book, an eighty-page, light and airy instalment in Tate’s ‘Movements in Modern Art’ series.

In its seven fast-moving chapters it captures the feverish activity of the Italian Futurists from the eruption of the First Futurist Manifesto, which was published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909 – until the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, to which many Futurists had attached themselves – in 1944.

Thirty-five hectic years!

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

That founding manifesto is worth quoting at length (this is just the middle part of it):

  1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
  2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
  3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
  4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with ardour, splendour, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervour of the primordial elements.
  7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Humphrey makes the point that, despite the movement’s noisiness and name, there is actually very little about the future in Futurism, not in the sense that H.G. Wells and other contemporary science fiction prophets conceived of a future of shiny space ships, worlds transformed by technology, super-intelligent beings, death rays, aliens and so on.

Futurism was much more about getting rid of Italy’s enormous historical and cultural past – a vast artistic albatross around their necks, which the Futurists thought prevented Italian artists and writers from engaging with the exciting new developments of the present.

This insight explains their lack of interest in the future, but their obsession with destroying the past, in order to liberate artists and writers to engage with the technological marvels of the present. 

It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.

Museums: cemeteries!… Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!

It explains their feverish iconoclasm – Italy’s museum culture was strangling the current generation so – Away with it!

In truth I tell you that daily visits to museums, libraries, and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for artists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner… But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!

So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!

Historical and social background to Futurism

Humphreys gives some historical and social background. Italy was only unified as a state in 1870 and in the following forty years its economy failed to keep pace with the progress experienced by the more heavily industrialised nations of northern Europe. Urban Italians in the north (Milan, Turin) felt ripped off by capitalist industrialism, while Italians in the south (Naples to Sicily) lived in astonishing rural poverty. The result was forty years of political and cultural turmoil.

Seeking distraction from domestic problems, the government embarked on colonial adventures, notably in Abyssinia where the Italian army managed to be defeated by the locals at the Battle of Adua in 1896. Humiliation heaped on humiliation.

Futurism was just one among many voices and movements seeking cures to Italy’s apparent stagnation, including Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Nationalists, neo-Catholics and right-wing proto-Fascists.

The Futurist present

In the fifteen years or so leading up to 1909 the world of science and industry had generated a dazzling array of new technologies which were transforming human existence and age-old ideas about time, travel, communication, vision, language, space, matter.

This might sound exaggerated but the inventions of the period included the electric light, the telephone, the telegraph with its huge cables laid across the floors of the world’s oceans, the x-ray, cinema, the bicycle, automobile, airplane, airship and submarine. One of the very first movies was about a manned flight to the moon. Anything seemed possible.

Why then, raged the Futurists, were people still queuing up to look at Botticelli, when outside their windows human existence was changing at unprecedented speed?

Futurist manifestos

Futurism was a writers’ movement before it was an artistic one (like Symbolism). The manifestos were themselves embodiments of the new style, the new attitude towards language, the new verbal excitement! And, being a loquacious race, there were plenty of them!

Futurist members

The driving force (pun intended) was car-mad Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

The principal artists were Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, and Luigi Russolo, and the Italian and Swiss architects Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone.

Offshoots included the wonderful English artist C.R.W. Nevinson, and the Canadian Percy Wyndham Lewis, who set up his own copycat movement, Vorticism, in London, which for a while included the poet Ezra Pound and the anti-romantic intellectual T.E. Hulme.

In France the artist Robert Delaunay, in Russia the artists Mikhail Larionov and Kasimir Malevich and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, all drew inspiration from Futurism’s dynamic iconoclasm.

Futurist art

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was probably the most important Futurist painter. Humphreys shows him developing quickly from social realism in 1909, through a version of Seurat’s Divisionism in 1910, and then – like all the Futurists – responding to the dazzling impact of Braque and Picasso’s Cubism in 1911.

States of Mind - Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

States of Mind  II- Those who go by Umberto Boccioni (1911)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson was immensely influential during this period, with his idea that human beings are driven by an élan vital or life force, which pushes us forward through the subjective experience of time, bursting through the encrustations of traditional life and traditional clock time.

This notion chimed perfectly with Cubism which adopted multiple viewpoints, as if the viewer were in numerous different positions at the same moment.

And it also helped to explain the Futurist concern to capture movement in time. Of Boccioni’s States of Mind  II- Those who go (above) Humphreys writes that it includes:

  • lines of force which are intended to convey the trajectory of moving objects, as well as drawing the viewer’s visual emotions into the heart of the picture
  • simultaneity to combine memories, present impressions and future possibilities into one orchestrated whole
  • emotional ambience in which the artist seeks by intuition to combine the feelings evoked by the external scene with interior emotion

Specifically, Those who go depicts ‘the oblique force lines of the passengers’ movement in the train as is speeds past a fragmentary landscape of buildings’ (p.32).

I found all this fascinating and insightful. This is a short but extremely useful book.

Humphreys goes on to analyse how Futurist principles were applied in the paintings of Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Giacomo Balla.

Abstract speed by Balla is a triptych of paintings intended to show the effect of a car approaching, passing, and having passed. Below is the third of the set, showing a simplified green landscape against which the lines of force show the air turbulence caused by the car which has just passed by, tinged by pink representing the car’s exhaust fumes.

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) by Giacomo Balla

Further sections describe:

  • Futurist literature – Marinetti’s wholesale attack on traditional syntax especially in his famous book, Zang Tang Tumb, promised ‘the complete renewal of human sensibility’.
  • Futurist sculpture – its use of movement and ‘lines of force’ easily grasped in Boccioni’s wonderful Unique forms of continuity in space (1913) – illustrated at the top of this review – and now in Tate Modern.
  • Futurist music – the attempt by Luigi Rossolo to create a new ‘art of noises’, conveying the sounds of the city through a set of ‘noise intoners’ with names like Exploder, Crackler, Gurgler, Buzzer and Scraper, the use of machine sounds which hugely influenced modernist composers like Antheil, Honegger and Varèse.
  • Futurist photography – from the evidence here, the attempt to capture blurred motion by Anton Giulio Bragalia.
  • Futurist cinema – using every trick available including split screens, mirrors, bizarre combinations of objects and painted frames to convey movement, abrupt transitions, dynamic energy, epitomised by Amado Ginna’s Vita Futurista (1916).
  • Futurist architecture – As early as 1910 Marinetti and collaborators in Venice, from the top of St Mark’s Campanile, threw thousands of pamphlets then bellowed from a loudspeaker at the confused crowd below inciting them to burn the gondolas and tear up the bridges. Futurist architects, led by Antonio Sant’Elia, threw out Art Nouveau curves and natural motifs in favour of soaring vertical lines, rejecting the entire European tradition in favour of thrusting, machine-led New York. – Construction for a modern metropolis by Mario Chiattone (1914)

The Vorticists

I’ve always thought Christopher Nevinson was a much better Futurist than any of the Italians. Marinetti (who called himself ‘the caffeine of Europe’) recruited Nevinson who became a paid-up Futurist when he signed the ‘Vital English Art’ futurist manifesto in 1914. Nevinson’s paintings are harder-edged, more finished.

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

The Arrival by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (c.1913)

In London Marinetti stirred things up with a Futurist exhibition held in 1912, but drew a blank when he encountered an artistic entrepreneur almost as forceful as himself in the shape of Percy Wyndham Lewis.

In 1913 Lewis created ‘Vorticism’, combining hard-edged Cubist-Futurist inspired visuals with texts supplied by Ezra Pound or T.E. Hulme, all wrapped up in their inaugural magazine, BLAST!

I’ve read a lot about Lewis and Pound but Humphrey is the first author I’ve read to identify the fundamental difference between the Futurists (who the Vorticists dubbed ‘automobilists’) and Lewis’s gang.

Whereas the Futurists wanted to throw themselves into the speeding world, to lose themselves in the milling crowd, and their art investigated emotions and ideas stemming from movement – Lewis was an unrepentant individualist, determined to keep the world and the ghastly hoi polloi at a distance.

The essence of his notion of ‘the vortex’ is that it is the utterly still point at the centre of the incessant motion of the modern world. It is a detached observer. For Lewis the emotional (and in some cases, even spiritual) element in Futurist painting made it soft, made it dispersed. Lewis wanted an art which was hard and clear and focused.

Humphreys also references Edward Wadsworth and the sculptors Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, all of whom showed the clear influence of the Futurists.

Epstein’s Rock Drill (1914) may be my all-time favourite work of art.

London had been stunned and stunned again by Roger Fry’s two landmark exhibitions of post-Impressionist art in 1910 and 1912. It reeled again from the Futurist exhibition opened on 1 March at the Sackville Gallery and featuring Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini.

In these years just before 1914, for the general public, journalists and their readers, ‘Futurism’ became the generalised term for all avant-garde art.

The Futurists at war

In one of the manifestos Marinetti notoriously wrote that ‘war is the sole hygiene of the world’, and the artists responded to the advent of the Great War with enthusiasm, holding a number of pro-war happenings.

However, their art wasn’t as violent or inspired by war as you might expect.

Boccioni was killed in 1916 and his final works show – astonishingly – a return to the figuratism of Cézanne.

Just before the war Carrà was in Paris having second thoughts about ‘Marinettism’, as its critics called it. When he was called up in 1917, he was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico. They collaborated for a while on a completely new style which they called ‘metaphysical painting’ by which they meant: instead of Futurist movement, stillness; instead of fragmentation, structure. Instead of immersion in the flow of modern life, de Chirico and Carrà sought detachment, poise and simplicity. And a hint of humour.

They were part of a widespread ‘return to order’ which affected artists and composers across Europe. De Chirico’s odd, dispassionate classicism was to be one of the tributaries of Surrealism a few years later.

Nevinson served on the Western Front and made much more exciting images of war than anything – on the evidence here – the Italian Futurists managed, for example the wonderful Le Mitrailleuse (1915).

Futurism and Fascism

In the turmoil immediately after the end of the First World War, despite the death or defection of the first wave of Futurist artists, Marinetti tried to maintain the Futurist brand with theatrical performances and pamphlets.

Although attracted by some anarchist and left-wing ideas, he in the end plumped to support Mussolini, whose Fascist Party marched on Rome and seized power in 1922.

Humphreys is good on the surprisingly broad and liberal cultural atmosphere which Mussolini maintained in Fascist Italy, partly under the influence of his Jewish mistress, partly because he wanted to encourage all the arts to support his idea of a neo-classical resurgent Italy.

The first wave of Futurists had died or fallen away during the Great War. Now Marinetti had to whip together and motivate lesser talents.

In the 1930s there was a great vogue for airplanes all across Europe, and the book concludes with some vaguely modernist paintings of cockpits and swooping machines of the air. The Futurist brand staggered on into the Second World War with Marinetti, now an overt Catholic, giving his unstinting support to the Duce. But by then the initial buzz and thrill of 1909 Futurism was only a distant memory.

Futurism today

The Futurists insisted that humanity destroy its enervating attachment to clapped-out traditions, accept the violent reality of human nature, reject artificial and sentimental morality, and live on the basis of how life is now – not what it used to be, or how we would like it to be.

I warm to many of these ideas, particularly given the anti-sentimental findings

  • of modern genetics and evolutionary psychology (which tend to prove that we have much less ‘say’ over our character and behaviour than we like to think)
  • of ever-accelerating computer science (which has already undermined old-fashioned ways of thinking, talking, writing and communicating)
  • of environmental degradation (no matter what we say, we are destroying the planet, exterminating countless species every year, filling the seas with plastic, melting the ice caps)
  • of modern war, of which there never seems to be an end (Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria)

As a thought experiment, reading and falling in with the Futurists’ worship of speed, violence and the utterly modern, at the very least opens up new ways of feeling about our present situation.

Stop whining about Brexit and Trump and Weinstein, Marinetti would have yelled! Embrace the chaos!


Related links

Related art reviews

The Post-Impressionists by Belinda Thompson (2nd edition 1990)

Impressionist artists paint what they see; post-Impressionist artists paint what they feel

Post-Impressionism

The most important thing about ‘post-Impressionism’ is that the expression was coined in 1910, by an English art critic (Roger Fry), well after the painters it referred to were all dead. It is generally used to describe the principal French painters of the 1880s and 1890s, specifically Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, along with lesser artists of the period – but is an entirely invented, post hoc expression.

This large format book (30 cm tall x 23 cm wide) includes 180 illustrations (80 in dazzling full colour) so that, even without reading the text, just flicking through it is a good introduction to the visual world of the era.

The Impressionist legacy

Essentially, the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had broken with the constraints of the style of academic painting which was required to gain entry to the annual exhibitions at the official Paris Art Salon – thus also breaking with the traditional career path to establishing a professional livelihood through sales to traditional ‘bourgeois’ patrons.

The Impressionists saw themselves as a group of ‘independents’ or ‘intransigents’ who broke various rules of traditional painting, such as:

  • the requirement that a painting depict grand historical or mythological subjects – the Impressionists preferred to depict subjects and scenes from everyday life
  • the requirement for each painting to be as realistic as possible a window onto an imagined scene by concealing brushstrokes – whereas the Impressionists foregrounded highly visible dabs and brushstrokes
  • the requirement to bring each painting to a peak of completion, with a high finish – whereas the Impressionists often let raw canvas show through, deliberately creating an air of rapid improvisation in pursuit of their stated aim to capture ‘the fleeting moment’

The Impressionists also established the idea of organising group exhibitions independent of the Salon, a new and provocative idea which placed them very firmly outside the official establishment. The history of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, is complex and multi-layered.

Meanwhile, their great patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, developed the idea of holding one-artist shows organised in such a way as to show each artist’s evolving style and subject matter, itself a novel idea at the time.

And lastly, the Impressionists garnered from their various writerly supporters a range of manifestos, pamphlets and articles defending them and explaining their artistic principles.

These, then, were the achievements and strategies which the post-Impressionists inherited and took full use of.

The weakness of post-Impressionism as an art history term

Thompson’s book from start to finish shows the problematic nature of the term ‘post-Impressionism’ almost as soon as you try to apply it. Sure, many of the ‘post-Impressionists’ exhibited together at a series of exhibitions in the 1880s and 90s – but they were never a self-conscious group, never had manifestos like the Impressionists.

Far from it, during the 1880s Gauguin, who developed into a ‘leader’ of many of the younger artists, expressed a violent dislike of the so-called ‘neo-Impressionist’ group which developed in the 1890s and which was virulently reciprocated. Yet, despite hating each other, they are both now usually gathered under the one umbrella term, post-Impressionism.

The new young artists of the 1880s and 1890s worked amid a great swirl of artistic movements, which included Symbolism (Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau) and the would-be scientific neo-Impressionism (often identified with Pointillism) of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, as well as the influence of non-French artists such as Ferdinand Holder (Swiss) or James Ensor (Belgian) and, of course, of the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh. All of these came from different traditions and weren’t so in thrall to the essentially French Impressionist legacy.

Again and again consideration of the term post-Impressionism breaks down into the task of tracking the individual careers and visions of distinct artists – with the dominating personalities being Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, but with lesser contemporaries including Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Eduard Vuillard also contributing.

If you can make any generalisations about the ‘post-Impressionists’ it is around their use of very bright, harsh garish colours (compared with the Impressionists’ more muted tones) and their departure from, their flying free from, the constraints of a ‘naturalistic’ ideology of painting ‘reality’.

In summary

Thompson’s book is an excellent and thought-provoking account of the complex of commercial pressures, individual initiatives and shifting allegiances, characters, theories, mutual competition, individual entrepreneurship and changing loyalties which undermine any notion of a clear discernible pattern or movement in the period – but which makes for an absorbing read.


Four key exhibitions

The first half of the book gives a detailed account of a series of key exhibitions, which she uses to bring out:

a) the differences between so many of the artists
b) their changing ideas and allegiances

The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition (1886)

Of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition we learn that only Degas, Pissarro, Guillamin and Berthe Morisot of the original group exhibited, Renoir and Monet having cried off, partly hoping still to exhibit at the Salon. Degas created a lot of ructions by insisting that the show take place during the same weeks as the official Salon’s big annual exhibition – a deliberately provocative gesture – and insisting that a number of his figure-painting friends take part, though they had little real affinity with Impressionism (namely Mary Cassatt, Forain, Zandomeneghi and the completely unrelated Odilon Redon).

It is useful to learn that the pointillists Seurat and Signac, along with the old-timer Pissarro and his son Lucien (who were both experimenting with pointillism), were given a room of their own. This explains why they gave such a strong vibe of being a new and distinct movement and so prompted the critic Félix Fénéon to give them the name ‘Neo-Impressionists’.

As mentioned above, Gauguin had a falling-out with Signac which led the followers of both to crystallise into opposing camps.

The Volpini Exhibition (1889) – ‘Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste’

To mark the centenary of the Great Revolution of 1789, the French government sponsored a huge Universal Exhibition, to be held in buildings erected in the grounds around the newly opened Eiffel Tower.

As part of the Exhibition the Salon/Academie of Beaux-Arts staged a big show designed to tell the story of French painting over the previous century, which included some but not many of the Impressionists, and then only of their early works.

Gauguin organised a rival show at the Cafe Volpini in the nearby Champs de Mars made up of artists he had met painting in Brittany, including Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Léon Fauché and Louis Roy. Later historians credit this show with the launch of a ‘Pont-Aven’ school (named after the French town where Gauguin had developed his style) but Thompson shows how varied in look and style these artists were, which tends to undermine that claim.

Notable were the absentees: Toulouse-Lautrec was considered for the Volpini show but eventually debarred because he’d been exhibiting at a private club, and van Gogh, who desperately wanted to be included, was prevented from doing so by his art dealer brother, Theo, who thought it was a tacky alternative to the official Exhibition.

To the untrained eye the pieces shown here:

  • have gone completely beyond the Impressionist concern for the delicate depiction of light and shadow into a completely new world of vibrant colours and stylised forms – The Buckwheat Harvest by Émile Bernard
  • and, if they are depicting ‘modern life’, they do so with – instead of dashes and daubs of light – very strong black outlines and sinewy lines, very much in line with Lautrec’s work and the feel of Art NouveauAvenue de Clichy, Five O’Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin

The word ‘synthétiste’ appeared, applied to Anquetin’s work, and meaning the combination of heavy dark outlines with areas of flat, unshadowed, uninflected colour.

The art critic Fénéon wrote an insightful review of the exhibition in which he singled out Gauguin as having found a new route past Impressionism which was also completely opposite to the pseudo-scientific approach of the pointillists, a style in which Gauguin:

rejects all illusionistic effects, even atmospheric ones, simplifies and exaggerates lines

giving the areas created by the outlines vibrant, often non-naturalistic colouring. – Breton Calvary, the Green Christ (1889).

During the late 1880s a young painter named Paul Sérusier, studying at the Academie Julian, had gathered a number of devotees who called themselves the ‘Nabis’ or prophets, and they decided that Gauguin was the vanguard of a new painting and set off to Brittany to meet and copy the Master.

Gauguin was also at the core of an essay written by the painter and critic Maurice Denis – ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionism’ – which claimed that:

  • Gauguin was a master of a new style which emphasised that a painting is first and foremost an arrangement of colour on a flat surface
  • therefore, it is futile trying to achieve illusionistic naturalism
  • and that the neo-traditionists (as he called them), having realised this, were returning to the function of art before the High Renaissance misled it, namely to create an art which is essentially decorative – which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is

The Fourth Le Barc de Boutteville Exhibition of Impressionists and Symbolists (1893)

This exhibition featured 146 works by 24 artists and displayed a bewildering variety, including as it did Impressionists like Pissarro, neo-Impressionists like Signac, the independent Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘school of Pont-Aven’ followers of Gauguin, and ‘Nabis’ like Bonnard and Vuillard. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is confusing.

The explanation for it being such a rag-tag of different artists and styles is that it was one of a series put together by the thrusting new art dealer, Le Barc de Boutteville. The main beneficiaries were the ‘Nabis’ who fitted in well with the contemporary literary movement of symbolism. – Nabi landscape by Paul Ranson (1890).

Thompson brings out the political differences between the pointillists – generally left-wing anarchists – and the Nabis – from generally well-off background and quickly popular with established symbolist poets and critics.

The Cézanne One-Man Show (1895)

Cézanne acquired the reputation of being a difficult curmudgeon. In the early 1880s he abandoned the Paris art world and went back to self-imposed exile in his home town of Aix-en-Provence. When his rich father died in 1886, Cézanne married his long-standing partner, Hortense, moving into his father’s large house and estate. To young artists back in Paris he became a legendary figure, a demanding perfectionist who never exhibited his work.

The 1895 show was the first ever devoted to Cézanne, organised by the up-and-coming gallery owner and dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The 150 works on display highlighted Cézanne’s mature technique of:

  • creating a painting by deploying blocks of heavily hatched colour built up with numerous parallel brushstrokes
  • his experiments with perspective i.e. incorporating multiple perspectives, messing with the picture plane
  • his obsessive reworkings of the same subject (countless still lives of apples and oranges or the view of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire)

The one-man show marked a major revaluation of Cézanne’s entire career and even prompted some critics to rethink Gauguin’s previously dominant position, demoting him as leader of the post-Impressionists and repositioning him as the heir to a ‘tradition’ of Cézanne, placing the latter now as a kind of source of the new style.

You can certainly see in this Vollard portrait something of the mask-like faces of early Matisse, and the angular browns of Cubism (Picasso was to paint Vollard’s portrait in cubist style just 11 years later), even (maybe) the angularities of Futurism. It all seems to be here in embryonic form.

Thompson’s analysis of these four exhibitions (chosen from many) provides snapshots of the changing tastes of the period, but also underlines the sheer diversity of artists working in the 1880s and 1890s, and even the way ‘traditions’ and allegiances kept shifting and being redefined (she quotes several artists – Bernard, Denis – who started the 1890s revering Gauguin and ended it claiming that Cézanne had always been their master).

Themes and topics

In the second half of the book Thompson looks in more detail at specific themes and ideas of the two decades in question.

From Naturalism to Symbolism

If one overarching trend marks the shifting aesthetic outlooks from 1880 to 1900 it is a move from Naturalism to Symbolism. In 1880 artists and critics alike still spoke about capturing the natural world. Symbolism was launched as a formal movement in 1886 with its emphasis on the mysterious and obscure. By the end of the 1880s and the early 1890s artists and critics were talking about capturing ‘hidden meanings’, ‘subtle harmonies’, ‘penetrating the veils of nature’ to something more meaningful beneath.

Thus although Monet and Cézanne continued in their different ways to investigate the human perception of nature, the way their works were interpreted – by critics and fellow artists – shifted around them, influenced by the rise of an increasing flock of new art movements.

Thompson vividly demonstrates this shift – the evolution in worldviews from Naturalism to Symbolism – by the juxtaposition of Women Gleaning (1889)  by Camille Pissarro and Avril (1892) by Maurice Denis just a few years later.

The difference is obviously one of vision, style and technique, but it is also not unconnected with their political differences. Pissarro was a life-long left-winger with a strong feel for working people: his oeuvre from start to finish has a rugged ‘honesty’ of subject and technique. Denis, by contrast, was a committed Catholic mystic who spent his career working out a private system of religious symbols, a personal way of depicting the great ‘mysteries’ of the Catholic religion.

Politically, thematically, stylistically, they epitomise the shifting currents, especially of the 1890s.

‘Synthesis’

Synthesis/synthetism was a common buzzword of the Symbolists. It means the conscious simplification of drawing, of composition and the harmonisation of colour. Included in this general trend were the taste for Japanese art (liked by everyone from the 1870s onwards), the symbolist fashion for ancient art e.g. from Egypt, and for ‘primitive’ European art i.e. the Italian 14th century.

(This growing taste for exotica and the non-European obviously sets the scene for the taste for Oceanic and African art which was to come in in the early years of the 20th century.)

Interestingly, Thompson shows how this same line of interpretation – simplification, strong outline, unmediated colour – can be applied both to Seurat’s highly academic pointillist paintings and, in a different way, to the violently subjective works of Gauguin. On the face of it completely different, they can be interpreted as following the same, very basic, movement in perception.

Portraiture

Cézanne’s portrait of Achille Emperaire (1868) was contemptuously rejected by the judges at the Salon. 20 years later, hung at the back of the collector Père Tanguy’s shop, it was a subject of pilgrimage and inspiration to the new generation – to the likes of Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard and Denis.

Thompson explores the differing approach to portraits of more marginal figures like Redon, van Rysselberghe and Laval, but the centre of the chapter compares and contrasts Gauguin’s virile ‘synthetic’ self-portraits with van Gogh’s quite stunning self-portraits.

The examples Thompson chooses show both artists as head and shoulders above their peers, with van Gogh achieving a kind of god-like transcendence.

Gay Paree

Thompson makes the interesting point that ‘Gay Paree’ was largely a PR, press and tourist office invention of the last decades of the 19th century, capitalising on the proliferation of bars, circuses and cabarets, epitomised by the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, and marketed through the expanding medium of posters and adverts in new, large-format newspapers and magazines.

Yet by the 1890s this had become a darker vision, a night-time vision. Thompson compares the lovely sun-dappled idylls of Renoir, who painted working class revellers at the Moulin de Galette cafe in Montmartre in the 1870s – with the much darker, sometimes elegant-sometimes grotesque visions of the dwarfish aristocrat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge (1892). The 1890s were a darker decade.

Politics

In the last few chapters Thompson brings in an increasing amount of politics. The chapter on Gay Paree had already brought out how life for the average working class Parisian, despite the tourist posters, still involved harsh, long hours at poor pay (and she throws emphasis in particular on the exploitation of women – as laundry women, washerwomen, shop assistants, and the huge army of prostitutes).

This is all set against the increasing political turmoil in Paris, which saw a number of anarchist bombings in the 1880s and 1890s leading up to the assassination of President Carnot in 1894, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. In the backlash, some art critics were arrested for their left-wing sympathies and left-wing artists (Pissarro and most of the pointillists) kept their heads down.

Later the same year – 1894 – saw the beginning of the long, scandalous Dreyfus Affair, which started with the arrest of a Jewish army captain for supposedly leaking military secrets to the Germans. He was tried and found guilty on very shaky evidence then, after a long campaign to free him, another trial was held, which found him guilty again and sentenced him to hard labour on Devil’s Island.

(Although it’s a fiction book, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy gives the most detailed account of the evidence and the successive trials which I’ve read.)

The affair dragged on for over a decade, driving a great wedge between supporters of the Establishment, of the law and justice system, of la patrie and of Catholicism – and liberal and left-wing politicians and sympathisers, who saw the whole thing as an embarrassing stitch-up, as the symbol of a fossilised reactionary order which needed to be overthrown.

The Affair also brought out a virulent strain of anti-Semiticism among anti-Dreyfusards, who used his supposed guilt to implicate the whole world of cosmopolitan culture, corruption, decadent art, sexual perversion and all the usual suspects for right-wing ire.

And the Affair divided the art world. Degas, in particular, comes off very badly. As a conservative anti-Dreyfusard, he severed ties with all Jews of his acquaintance (including his old Impressionist colleague, Pissarro). Shameful.

The Dreyfus Affair brought into focus a movement on the right, known as le Ralliement, which attempted to bring all the forces of ‘order’ into one unified movement in order to combat the perceived growth of working class and socialist movements.

Suffice to say that the artistic developments of the 1890s took place against a darker, more intense social background than that of the 1880s.

Thompson shows how this shifting political backdrop can be read into the art of the 1890s, with Catholic artists like Denis producing works full of Christian imagery, while the perfectly balanced and idealised visions of the neo-Impressionists (given that most of them were well-known left-wingers) can be interpreted as the depiction of a perfect socialist world of justice and equality.

In this more heavily politicised setting, the apparently carefree caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec gain a harsher significance, gain force as biting satire against a polarised society. (Certainly, the grotesqueness of some of the faces in some of the examples given here reminded me of the bitter satirical paintings of post-war Weimar Germany, found in Otto Dix and George Grosz.)

Meanwhile, many other artists ‘took refuge in’ or were seeking, more personal and individual kinds of spirituality.

This is the sense in which to understand Thompson’s notion that if there is one overarching movement or direction of travel in the art of the period it is out of Naturalism and into Symbolism.

At its simplest Symbolism can be defined as a search for the idea and the ideal beneath appearances. Appearances alone made up more than enough of a subject for the Impressionists. But the post-Impressionists were searching for something more, some kind of meaning.

In their wildly different ways, this sense of a personal quest – which generated all kinds of personal symbols and imagery – can be used to describe Cézanne (with his obsessive visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire), Gauguin’s odyssey to the South Seas where he found a treasure trove of imagery, Van Gogh’s development of a very personal symbolism (sunflowers, stars) and even use of colours (his favourite colour was yellow, colour of the sun and of life), as well as the journeys of other fin-de-siecle artists such as the deeply symbolic Edvard Munch from Norway – who Thompson brings in towards the end of the book.

Landscape

In the chapter on landscapes Thompson is led (once again) back to the masterpieces by those two very different artists, van Gogh and Gauguin. Deploying the new, politicised frame of reference which she has explained so well, Thompson judges the success or failure of various artists of the day to get back to nature, specifically to live with peasants and express peasant life.

Judged from this point of view, Gauguin comes in for criticism as a poseur, who didn’t really share the peasant superstitions of the people he lived among in Brittany any more than he really assimilated the non-European beliefs of the peoples of Tahiti where he went to live in 1895.

He is contrasted with the more modest lifestyle of Pissarro, who lived in relative poverty among farmers outside Paris more or less as one of them, keeping his own village plot, growing vegetables, keeping chickens.

Or with van Gogh, who had a self-appointed mission to convey, and so somehow redeem, the life of the poor.

Conclusion

This is an excellent introduction to a complicated and potentially confusing period of art history. Not only does it give a good chronological feel for events, but the chapters on themes and topics then explore in some detail the way the various movements, artists, styles and approaches played out across a range of subjects and themes.

Paradoxically, the book is given strength by what Thompson leaves out. She doesn’t mention the Vienna Secession of 1897, doesn’t really explore the Decadence (the deliberately corrupt and elitist art of drugs and sexual perversion which flourished in the boudoirs and private editions of the rich), she mentions Art Nouveau (named after an art gallery founded in 1895) once or twice, but doesn’t explore it in any detail.

Mention of these other movements makes you realise that post-Impressionism, narrowly defined as the reaction of leading French artists of the 1880s and 1890s to the Impressionist legacy, was itself only part of a great swirl and explosion of new styles and looks in the 1890s.

It may be pretty dubious as an art history phrase, but ‘post-Impressionism’ will probably endure, in all its unsatisfactoriness, because it helps mark out the three or four main lines of descent from Impressionism in France – neo-Impressionism, neo-Traditionism, and specifically the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat – from the host of other, related but distinct, movements of the day.

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

Vanessa Bell @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘You have a genius in your life as well as in your art’
(Art critic Roger Fry to his sometime lover, artist Vanessa Bell)

More than anything I can write, this YouTube montage of Vanessa Bell’s paintings set to music by Chopin gives a good overview of her work.

Biography

Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) was born into an upper-middle-class and well-connected Victorian family. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, Julia being a niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, and cousin of the noted temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset.

Her siblings were a younger sister, Virginia (later renowned as a great novelist under her married name of Virginia Woolf), brothers Thoby (Clifton College and Trinity, Cambridge) and Adrian (Westminster school and Trinity, Cambridge), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (both educated at Eton, Gerald went on to found the publishing house named after him, and was able to help Virginia set up her publishing house, Hogarth Press).

The Stephen family lived in a smart house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, with lots of servants where Vanessa was home educated in languages, mathematics and history. She showed an early gift for art and had drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896, and then went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901 under John Singer Sargent.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa sold the Hyde Park Gate house and moved to Bloomsbury, along with Virginia and the brothers. Here they began socialising with the like-minded artists, writers and intellectuals who would form the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ who, in all areas of life, art and literature, set themselves to overthrow the stifling influence of their Victorian parents.

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the notoriously bisexual painter, Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918.

Vanessa and husband Clive, their lover Duncan Grant and his boyfriend ‘Bunny’, all moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle in East Sussex. By farming here the menfolk, all pacifists and conscientious objectors, evaded service in the Great War.

Here Vanessa and Grant painted and also worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops, an artists’ co-operative for decorative arts established by Roger Fry that operated between 1913 and 1919, and which produced interesting work in a Vorticist/Futurist style. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. The influence of contemporary radical experiments in Futurism and Vorticism are immediately obvious in many of these bold, colourful designs.

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell lived a long life and painted right through to the 1950s, but even her most devoted fans admit that the 1910s represent her most creative and innovative period. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s she was a member of a group of friends and acquaintances who pioneered new ways of living, open marriages and a very liberal approach to sexuality. But works from the 1940s and 50s show her slowly losing the radical edge of the period either side of the Great War, her depictions of the Sussex countryside or of interiors with vases of flowers, becoming steadily more conventional.

The exhibition

This is the first ever retrospective of Bell’s work. It brings together some 100 paintings, book jackets she designed for the Hogarth Press, ceramics, fabrics, photos, diaries and letters to present a themed overview of Bell’s life and career. As always with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it offers a beautifully laid out and informative opportunity to assess a rather neglected figure in English modern art.

Several things emerge from a slow perusal of the exhibition’s six rooms:

Blocky painting style

Bell’s earliest paintings reflect the sophisticated sheen of her teacher John Singer Sargent (note the telltale flecks of white on the vase to give the illusion of reflected light in Iceland Poppies 1908). But even then she was being exposed to the revolutionary influence of Picasso, Matisse and contemporary French painting. In fact right from the earliest portraits shown here, she seems more naturally to take a slabby, blocky approach to paintwork – instead of trying to capture the smooth contours of a fabric or a face, preferring to map out areas of solid colour, depicted with broad chunky brushstrokes. The rough, sketched-out feel, the deliberate lack of finish and the deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour are all suggestive of contemporary experiments in Europe, but are done with a distinctive English gentleness. Despite this, something of all her formal training comes out in the naturalistic outline and presence. these traits are exemplified in one of her many portraits of her novelist sister, Virginia:

Portraits of friends and family

In fact portraits of family and friends are a recurrent feature of Bell’s work and occupy one of the six rooms here.

They represent a decisive break with Victorian naturalism and Salon art, and a wholesale incorporation of the unreal colours, simplification of pattern, crude brushstrokes and awkward anti-aesthetic shapes found across the continent in the work of Gauguin, Die Brucke, the Fauves and so on.

The portraits of her sister are among the most persuasive or gripping. I think this is the best one, all the more powerful for its ‘modern’ blanking of the face, the part which should, traditionally, be the most detailed, revealing the sitter’s character etc. All that has been rejected in favour of an interest in composition and colour.

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the portraits, as in her other genres, the later work becomes noticably more conservative and straighforwardly figurative. Enjoyable, but in a different way.

Derivative

After a few rooms I felt I had seen a lot of these paintings before, or ones very much like them – most recently in the early-twentieth-century rooms of the excellent Courtauld Gallery, which contains works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Bonnard and other post-impressionists. (The term ‘Post-impressionism’ was in fact coined by Vanessa’s friend and sometime lover, art critic Roger Fry, as an umbrella term to cover developments in French art since Manet.)

This feeling was confirmed by many of the wall labels for individual paintings and by the (very useful) audioguide by exhibition co-curator Sarah Milroy. Both frequently pointed out the influence of the Nabis (a group name given to the French painters Vuillard, Bonnard et al), of Cézanne, of Matisse, of Picasso, on individual Bell works.

For example, it is hard not to see the largest work in the show, The Other Room (1930) as anything other than a homage to Matisse – the emphasis on design and areas of bright colour over detail, the interest in the design on fabrics (the curtains, the chair cover), the wilful indifference to anatomical realism in the human figures.

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Landscapes

When Bell moved to the country, she took the urban continental style developed in her portraits (and the occasional, rare depiction of urban scenery) with her and applied it to numerous images of the landscape around the Sussex farmhouse. Many of these are strikingly composed in a kind of flat, blocky, post-impressionist style. They apply a continental mentality to the south of England countryside, a blockiness derived from Cézanne, along with the big slab brushwork of maybe Vlaminck or Derain.

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell painted landscapes for the rest of her life and the selection here allows you to see how her style, over the decades, lost the modernist edge it once had, and reverted to a tamer figurativeness. Thirty years separate the painting above from the one below.

Flowers and vases

Bell painted flowers and vases throughout her long working life. There is a room devoted just to this subject. I found these a lot less interesting than the landscapes or portraits.

Once again, a careful examination of the chronology suggests a falling away of intensity in the later paintings. The later flower paintings lack oomph. Maybe they’re content. Happy.

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

A note on colour and reproduction

Despite the brightness of many of the images included in this review, the colour which perhaps came over most from these paintings was a kind of turd brown, obvious in a work like The Conversation, or the double portrait of Frederick and Jessie Etchells (1912). A congeries of dark and murky browns, emphasised by the often plain wooden frames.

Without exception all the reproductions I’ve seen online – and even the reproductions on the hand-held audioguide – come out brighter and more colourful than the actual works themselves which, in the flesh, are mostly dour and drab, with a particular deep brown the prevailing tone. As one of the commenters I quote below put its – with some notable exceptions – ‘muddy’ gives a good summary of the majority of the paintings’ visual impact. In fact, the main visual takeaway from the show has been to make me notice just how much brown there is around us in everyday life – bricks of walls and houses, reddy-brown roof tiling, brown fences and so on.

The Bloomsbury group

More than enough has been written about the loose group of artists, writers, novelists and critics, economists and philosophers who lived in and around Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, and also had connections with Trinity College Cambridge. They shared a desire to overthrow the stuffy prudery of their Victorian parents. The philosopher G.E. Moore in his vast Principia Ethica emphasised the centrality of honest personal relationships in his definition of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life’. This represented a massive break with the strongly social basis of Victorian ideals of Duty, Honour and so on.

Thus Bell’s wholesale rejection of the Victorian naturalistic tradition in painting can be seen as part of the wider rejection of Victorian values among her wider family and friends, and her ‘open’ marriage and the complex love lives of herself and her friends constituted a breath-taking departure from the norms of her parents and the stuffy Edwardian society she worked in.

The importance of Bloomsbury as a hotbed of new ways of seeing and living is emphasised throughout the exhibition – it is unavoidable since her portraits were all unofficial depictions of her family and close friends, and so the audiocommentary and wall labels insistently namecheck members of the Group, providing details of Bell’s lovers and associates. The show features a display case showing photographs of friends and family together in the garden of the Sussex house, which convey the casual informality of this impressive group of thinkers and artists.

Bell and feminism

The Canadian curator Sarah Milroy emphasises that Vanessa was a feminist pioneer. The first wall panel claims that Bell’s

‘portraits of women offer bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new force and agency.’

With the best will in the world, I couldn’t quite see this. Some of the earliest work captures an odd, alien effect which I enjoyed, for example the worrying intensity of the female figures in –

and many of the first room of portraits are deliberately unnerving and unsettling –

and amount to a full-frontal assault on Victorian aesthetics of female beauty –

The commentary tells us that the strange and ominous Studland Beach is considered one of her masterpieces. It certainly has a kind of Expressionist alienation and Symbolist portentousness. But I don’t see it as particularly giving the women depicted in it ‘agency and force’.

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

And these are exceptions to the majority of works here. The more frequent portraits of Virginia, Iris, Molly and so on, although modernist in form, are supremely calm and placid in tone. Her sitters are generally ensconced in a comfy chair in a nicely furnished living room – and the presence in the surrounding rooms of so many depictions of the peaceful Sussex countryside, not to mention the umpteen paintings of tasteful vases of flowers – the overall effect is a great feeling of calm and tranquility.

And the early experimentalism in this genre, as in the others, slips away as the later paintings become more conventional.

The final wall label repeats this feminist emphasis, which is clearly important to the show’s organisers:

‘One of Bell’s greatest legacies is her reimagining of the image of womanhood, with her powerful female bodies and countenances claiming pictorial space with a kind of brute force.’

Many of the female portraits from her glory years around the Great War are strange rebellions, and just focusing on the work from that specific period does emphasise their originality in the hidebound English tradition. But even the weirdest of them feel to me static and dreamlike. ‘Brute force’ is just not a phrase I would apply to Bell’s work.

As to subverting or revolutionising women’s roles, which the commentary claims she did, I also couldn’t really see it. Bell designed fabrics and painted vases of flowers; she moved to a lovely farmhouse in the countryside where she hosted charming weekends for her artistic friends; she was the loving mother of two adorable sons (Julian, who went to private school and King’s College before becoming a poet, and Quentin, who went to private school before becoming an art historian). I genuinely don’t see how this is revolutionary or subversive.

Possibly I don’t understand the times well enough, and the ongoing weight of conformity to Victorian gender stereotypes which most of her contemporaries endured. Maybe it was precisely Bell and her friends who opened the door to this kind of lifestyle, which eventually became so widespread as to become a cliché in succeeding generations.

The Omega workshop and abstraction

The works of Bell’s which approach nearest to the dynamic abstractions of her contemporaries on the English art scene – Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg or C.R.W. Nevinson – derive from her period with the Omega workshop, set up by close friends Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with the idea of producing fabrics and textiles based on their own designs. It opened in 1913, produced a wide range of domestic furnishings to modernist designs, before closing in 1920.

One of the six rooms is dedicated to Bell’s Omega phase, with patterns and designs for rugs, curtains and so on, for example the Design for Omega Workshops Fabric reproduced above. There are also examples of the book jacket illustrations she provided for the Hogarth Press, the small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917.

The biggest object in the show is the painted screen from this period, Tents and Figures – a big powerful work which conveys Bell’s interest in abstraction and bold geometric design – but with a power, you can’t help thinking, borrowed from Cezanne’s landscapes and the Fauvist use of African masks for the faces. It’s good but haven’t I seen these clashing diagonals and mask-faced figures before?

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Conclusion

I found many of the the early portraits novel and fresh, some of her odder stuff (e.g. The Conversation) bracingly disconcerting, the Omega workshop designs and artefacts an interesting variation on the Modernism of her contemporaries. I found a number of the landscapes evocative, especially the earlier, more modernist ones, and some of the still lifes prettily decorative.

But, in general, the paintings which make the biggest impact are the ones most obviously derived from Continental exemplars. Bell is an interesting artist, who produced lots of good work but maybe, in the end, is an example of the way hundreds, maybe thousands of artists in the 1910s, were gripped and liberated by wholly new ways of seeing and painting created by a handful of pioneers in France and Germany (the Expressionists, the Fauves).

One of the best paintings in the show is Nude with Poppies – admirable but… isn’t it almost entirely Matisse?

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I worried that maybe I was failing to ‘get’ Bell, so I was reassured by these comments added to the online Guardian review of the exhibition:

  • “Looks very derivative to me. Not a patch on the originals, ie. Matisse, Mondrian, Gauguin, Munch”
  • “Not in the same league as the greats of the period, though, but still… pretty pictures.”
  • “I love her early work – the abstracts and experimental portraits. The later stuff is too muddy and repetitive, and the radical edge disappears pretty quickly.”
  • “Probably nice above the mantlepiece in a suburban villa. Nowt wrong with that, I’m a great lover of domestic art. But put her in a public gallery and her work withers to almost nothing. A very second rate artist.”
  • “you really have to work hard at liking them – and that’s because they are poor; badly done, lazily composed, arrogantly confident. “

Summary

So – some arresting and some eerie portraits, a few impressive semi-abstract landscapes, lots of vases of flowers. But with the nagging sense that they are very derivative, throughout. And – to step back a bit – the enormous social, political and philosophical upheavals which were going on at exactly this time (1914-1930) and are represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art – or the impact and experience of the two cataclysmic world wars as captured in, say, the recent big exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain – are completely absent.

It is interesting that the curators chose to arrange the exhibition by theme and not chronologically. Is it because a chronological presentation would highlight the way the impact of the European post-impressionists set off a storm of creativity in Bell’s work during the 1910s – but also show how that energy faded in the 1920s so that by the 1940s and 1950s she is painting capable enough works, but many so bland they wouldn’t be out of place in a local jumble sale.

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

As ever with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s a thorough, well-presented and elegant exhibition of a neglected artist, and so a welcome opportunity to find out more, to range over Bell’s work, to try and formulate a view. Maybe I’m missing something but for me, although it contains some arresting work and some surprises and convinces me that her name should be better known and more of her work displayed in public collections – it ultimately doesn’t persuade me that Vanessa Bell was in any way a major figure.

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Unintentional comedy There are three articles about this show in the Guardian, all of which complain that Bell has too long been in the shadow of the more famous Bloomsburyites. But ironically, the subtitles of all three articles define her in precisely the terms they claim to be trying to rescue her from:

  • “Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show – The sister of Virginia Woolf and lover of Duncan Grant is long overdue recognition as pioneer of modern art, say curators”
  • “Vanessa Bell: stepping out of the shadows of the Bloomsbury set – The artist, best known for her tangled love life and being Virginia Woolf’s sister, gets her first major solo show”
  • “Design and desires: how Vanessa Bell put the bloom in Bloomsbury – She was best known as a member of the Bloomsbury group and sister of Virginia Woolf – but will the first major show of her artwork change her reputation?”

The answer to the last question is surely – No, not as long as her biggest fans, her most knowledgeable curators and her most supportive journalists, continue to define her in terms of her better-known sister, her numerous lovers and her social set – and not as an artist in her own right, which is surely how she should be presented.

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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