- English Art and Modernism 1900-1939 by Charles Harrison
Allen Lane, 416 pp, £20.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 7139 0792 4
If that famous omnibus has not yet reached Clapham, its poor browbeaten passenger, the unwitting touchstone of our century’s discourse, should he turn his thoughts towards art, might reasonably assume that Modernism and Modern Art were acceptable ways of referring to what is going on at the moment. He would perhaps be bewildered and dismayed to learn that we are so well into Post-Modernism that Neo-Modernism must be just over the hill. Indeed, according to Frank Kermode, we passed out of Palaeo-Modernism some time ago (imperceptibly, one presumes, as through the tail of a comet). He might, however, be consoled by the knowledge that artists themselves are confused, though themselves in turn consoled by remembering Barnett Newman’s aphorism: ‘Aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.’ It is not difficult to imagine a painter, like some character in Borges, looking himself up to find out what to call what he was doing; the isms grow in quick and dull profusion, and a week is beginning to be a long time in art as well.
Vol. 3 No. 8 · 7 May 1981
SIR: Four paragraphs into Tom Phillips’s review (LRB, 2 April) I was surprised to discover that it concerned a book I wrote myself. I appear to have become part of a movement in which ‘for the first time since the Fifties the student is searching for quality’ and Howard Hodgkin. My book, it appears, has been ‘sniffing its moment’. If so, it is a stale smell by now, as my patient publishers could testify. English Art and Modernism: 1900-1939 was commissioned some ten years ago, and derived largely from work done in the previous decade.
Tom Phillips appears to have read at least one paragraph with some attention, since he quotes it in full as a representative of my valuations, though without the ensuing qualification by which its intended truth value is considerably shifted. Otherwise he seems concerned to do nothing so much as convey his own sense of irritation at the provincialism of English art. The point of view has been well enough rehearsed, and I have not claimed to contradict it. If Tom Phillips is making a criticism (as his tone suggests that he is, though his logic hardly supports such an intention), it seems to be that the subject of the book is the subject of the book.
Apart from this he offers to correct a ‘misunderstanding’ in my view of Epstein’s Female Figure in Flenite, of which I wrote that ‘it suggested a high degree of confidence on Epstein’s part in the expressive distortion of the human figure and in the strength of his response both to tribal sculpture and to the formal vigour of early Cubist painting.’ Phillips’s reproof is that ‘this seems a little grandiose when one compares the piece in question with the typical Abron (Brong) “soul figure” that it imitates so closely. The use of such material by the Cubists was much less slavish.’ The sentence I wrote does not claim that the Epstein sculpture gains by comparison either with any specific tribal sculpture or with early Cubist painting. It merely asserts that Epstein appears to have felt confident in certain ways. As an artist himself, Tom Phillips must sometimes have felt a confidence in respect of his own competences which was not entirely justified by their subsequent exercise.
But as regards his anxiety lest English art be seen to occupy the centre of some international stage, I will bear this lesson in mind, at least in the continuation to English Art and Modernism upon which I am now engaged. This will cover the years 1940-80, and will thus span the period of Mr Phillips’s own working career to date. I can reassure him that I will do my best to define the limits of the pond in which he swims, lest the brilliance of his own splashings be lost from view.