Hitting the buffers

Peter Wollen

  • Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916 by Christopher Butler
    Oxford, 318 pp, £27.50, April 1994, ISBN 0 19 811746 9

In the summer of 1913, Jacques Copeau, the French stage pioneer, who had just founded his Théâtre du Vieux Colombier in Paris, wrote to Duncan Grant asking him to prepare the costumes and design for an innovative production of Twelfth Night. Grant completed the commission, using fabrics from the Omega Workshop for the costumes, and went over to Paris the following February to attend rehearsals and install his work. While there he was taken to Picasso’s studio by Gertrude Stein, a visit which led to him bringing Picasso some rolls of old wallpaper which he had found abandoned in his hotel room, so that Picasso could use them for his collages. Thus Blooms-bury played its part.

In fact, as a result of this visit, Bloomsbury moved momentarily right into the forefront of early Modernism. Both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell immediately began making abstract collages, or ‘arrangements’ as they called them, using fabrics and papiers collés. Picasso himself, it should be noted, did not make the same move to abstraction in his own collages, and neither did Braque or Gris. Nor did they use the vivid, saturated, contrasting colours which Grant and Bell adopted, in line with the decorative aesthetic developed in the Omega Workshop, which revelled in bright colour and abstract design. Curiously, the collage which Roger Fry, the founder and organiser of Omega, made at the same time, incorporating l/2d. and 5d. No 88 bus tickets, has much duller colours, rather closer to a Cubist palette.

Of course, the Omega Workshop style itself derived from Parisian influences – from the Martine workshop run by the great fashion designer, Paul Poiret, as well as from Matisse and the Ballets Russes – and had a close analogue in the work produced in Paris by Sonia Terk Delaunay. Delaunay made an abstract papiers collés binding for Blaise Cendrars’s book of poems, Pâques à New York, executed in front of the poet on 1 January 1913, and they collaborated again on another extraordinary ‘simultaneist’ book, La Prose du Transsibérien, published in October that same year. When its 22 accordion-like panels were unfolded, printed text and painted design ran alongside each other – like musical chords, Apollinaire said – and stretched out to two metres in length. Only a year later, Duncan Grant also produced a scroll, Abstract Kinetic Painting with Collage, which was several yards in length, designed to be viewed as it was unwound through a light-box while Bach was being played. This extraordinary work, quite without parallel elsewhere, combined ideas of synesthesia derived from Scriabin’s concerts, during which coloured lights accompanied the music, with collage techniques taken from Picasso. It was an unprecedented achievement.

In his exciting but frustrating book on early Modernism, Christopher Butler discusses the Delaunay-Cendrars work in some detail, with-in the context of simultaneism, but does not mention either Duncan Grant or Vanessa Bell at any point (although her husband Clive, a critic rather than an artist, is respectfully discussed). Butler treats Bloomsbury as exclusively a literary group concerned with appreciating and theorising visual art rather than producing it, which is simply wrong. Moreover, he ignores the link with Picasso described above, seeing Bloomsbury’s ‘failures to appreciate non-Fauvist work’ as probably preventing them from ‘coming to terms with the early work of Wyndham Lewis’. As a result, they ‘ceased to be in the vanguard at the very point at which they had produced a potentially powerful and accommodating theory for its art.’ In the summer of 1913, however, Wyndham Lewis was still working in the Omega Workshops – in effect, an employee of Fry, which could hardly have pleased him. In October he walked out. In December he showed in the so-called ‘Cubist Room’ of an exhibition at Brighton, in whose catalogue he wrote of the artist’s mission to penetrate ‘into a transposed universe, as abstract as, though different to, die musicians’. By March the next year, as Grant returned from Paris and Picasso, Lewis had obtained the funding to open his own rival to Omega, the Rebel Art Centre, and in July he published the first issue of BLAST.

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