Echoes

Tom Phillips

  • 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.

Though scarcely begun, the Eighties have already acquired their own flavour. While there is hardly a ‘New Spirit’ in the land, there is a recognisable pattern of activity – notably a hurried retrenchment on the part of those not too old to be nimble, exemplified by the ever-swelling numbers of the brotherhood of Born-Again Figurationists who have assembled under the banner of that brilliant Savonarola of painting, R.B. Kitaj. Others, numbed by the indulgence which has allowed them for years to get away with eternal réhauffées of tired imagery, find themselves lapped in a race which they thought was a sprint but which turned out to be a marathon. The pack thins and the stayers are revealed in the lead (Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and Adrian Berg, for example). With so many of the tedious political attitudes of the artists of the Sixties discredited, those who have been slow to slough them off (following Kitaj’s example once again) have found themselves disqualified.

If this seems like exaggeration, note what the students are looking at. Can one imagine, in 1981, a crowd of them turning up to stare say, at the vacuities of Kenneth Noland (the nearest aesthetic equivalent to eating a Big Mac)? It is Hopper and Beckmann who pack them in. They shun the bland, packaged dexterity of the current Jasper Johns print exhibition at the Tate. For the first time since the Fifties the student is searching for quality. He is ignoring such irrelevances as mere largeness of scale (or reputation) and is now more likely to be seen savouring the small pungent epiphanies of Howard Hodgkin than gazing at a Rauschenberg, however huge.

It is almost as if the younger gallery-goer had already digested Charles Harrison’s salutary and illuminating study of the theory and practice of Modernist art in England, with its detailed clinical case-histories of groups and individuals. Sniffing its moment, this book appears as the tide moves against the uncritical survey books of recent years, whose chief characteristic has been a coy evasion of assessment and a lazy acquiescence which makes them accessories after the fact in one of the most rigged promotional rackets in the commercial world. In England as elsewhere, an artist, once his reputation has passed a certain threshold, is immune from criticism. In the case of major artists, this can itself be destructive (it is possible to attribute Moore’s decline in the Sixties to such irresponsible cossetting), while feebler celebrities are merely given a licence to print money (literally – vide the misleading and barrel-scraping offers in the colour-supplements). Mr Harrison’s English Pantheon is small and he stands at its portals like Minos, ‘judging and despatching’. Underlying the banishments from his text (along the lines of ‘the works of x will call for no further consideration in these pages’) is the classical theory of tragedy: Mr Harrison has a sure touch in finding those defects and spots of nature which grow within a man marked for decline. Artists such as Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, John Piper and Graham Sutherland depart from his text, and while it is tempting to quote the manner of their going it is more illuminating to give a sample of the way in which he addresses himself to the much more difficult task of describing the nature of a better-nurtured talent. Here he is on Christopher Wood:

Yet Wood was never possessed of the kind of quasi-modernist technical facility which seemed to come so easily to the petits-maîtres of the School of Paris. The tendency of his work was always towards a robustness of facture which bordered on the ham-fisted. The encounter with Wallis provided an ‘ethical’ justification for the technical exploitation of this quality. The result was a form of subject painting invested with a sense of poetic drama, yet devoid of those meretricious aspects of surface and treatment by means of which lesser French painters kept the material world at bay. In the history of English painting between the wars Wood’s position was unique. The technical interests of advanced painting during this period virtually ruled out the appearance of people except as a complex form of still-life object or as disembodied tokens of a social world actually irrelevant to the purposes of the paintings themselves. On the Continent the Surrealists treated human themes and subjects, but generally by means of deliberately disruptive pictorial strategies. In Wood’s work alone in England the possibility was retained that a picture might somehow treat of the social and psychological lives of people without mediation either by an individualistic technical extravagance or by a covert reference to sophisticated insights from elsewhere.

So close is this book’s analysis of the work of forward-looking artists in England between the dates by which Mr Harrison chooses to encompass the movement (1900-1939) that, after reading of the squib-like groups with their shifting formations and reformations, a missing factor slowly asserts itself: all this is echo rather than source. Perhaps Modernism can hardly be said to have happened in England at all. In comparison with the movements on the Continent and the epic individual contributions of its major artists, any account of Modernist activities in England (or rather in London) must read like the annals of a flea circus. This is most clearly demonstrated by examining those artists who emerge as Mr Harrison’s heroes. Apart from Epstein’s bold beginning (‘Rock Drill’ of c.1913 still looks fresh, and, in its original form, startling and unassimilated) and the odd burst of action from Wyndham Lewis, the self-styled skeleton in the cupboard, his three protagonists are Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore. Nash’s was a fine sensibility and Nicholson’s lyrical gifts are husbanded with a rigour rare in this country’s art: yet, of the three, it is only Moore that can be said to have had a marked influence on the language of 20th-century art as a whole. Nash and Nicholson developed, out of the discoveries of European Modernism, personal and local dialects. Throughout the tale of Modernism in England, from Fry’s organisation of the first exhibition of Post-Impressionism at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 to well after the end of the Second World War, it is clear that here was an outpost distant from the centres of decision and largely reliant for its artistic development on messengers from abroad and on the occasional visiting evangelist like Marinetti.

In a recent book on Picasso there is a map showing his few travels, the most exotic and quixotic of which is a visit to England: Caesar in Ultima Thule. The very notion of Picasso in Sheffield has, significantly enough, a rather dreamlike quality. He did not feel it necessary to linger in London and his journey was made for political rather than artistic reasons. Other visitors also came, driven by different though not unrelated political forces. English artists travelled and returned with news, but the traffic in ideas was always in the one direction. In 1934, to give a firm example of how English art of the time was reacting to, rather than generating, ideas, Ben Nicholson visited Mondrian’s studio and professed himself baffled by the work he saw there: and, as he modestly admits, he was still not sure of his ground on visiting the same studio a year later.

These perspectives are of course not absent from Mr Harrison’s writing, though it is a natural consequence of his thesis that some distortions arise, especially since he has decided, for good reasons, to illustrate only English works. I am not sure that reproducing 20 works by Paul Nash, some rather feeble, reinforces his argument. Also, in a larger context, some of his more dismissive remarks might seem overheated. While the minor abstract works by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s strange musically-accompanied scroll have received praise disproportionate to their quality, they were not thin accidents but genuine probings that could well have been taken up by stronger artists. I first found myself disagreeing with the author’s assessments of individuals on page 16, where he characterises Ruskin as an artist – curiously enough, comparing him with the ‘professional’ William Morris, and saying that he was ‘no more than a competent amateur’. An examination of the tortured water-colour currently on exhibition in the British Museum’s fine show of new acquisitions might change his mind. Let me mention one quibble (and Mr Harrison is not alone in the misunderstanding). In describing Epstein’s ‘Female Figure in Flenite’ of 1913 he claims: ‘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.’ 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.