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.

Lewis indeed approached abstraction at this time, in gouaches such as The Planners (1913). He later described that work as having been produced when ‘a mental-emotive (by this is meant subjective intellection, like magic or religion) impulse is let loose upon a lot of blocks and lines of various dimensions, and encouraged to push them around and to arrange them as it will.’ But Lewis disapproved of Picasso’s move to collage, summarily noting, in 1914, that

the placid empty planes of Picasso’s later ‘natures-mortes’, the bric-à-brac of bits of wallpaper, pieces of cloth, etc, tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency. These tours-de-force of taste, and DEAD ARRANGEMENTS BY THE TASTEFUL HAND WITHOUT, not instinctive organisations by the living will within, are too inactive and uninventive for our northern climates, and the same objections can be made to them as to Matisse DECORATION. The most abject, anaemic, and amateurish manifestation of this Matisse ‘decorativeness’, or Picasso deadness and bland arrangement, could no doubt be found (if that were necessary or served any useful purpose) in Mr Fry’s curtain and pincushion factory in Fitzroy Square.

This rancorous moment, when Picasso and collage were thrown into the dustbin together with Bloomsbury, was for Lewis the parting of the ways with any further new developments in Parisian Modernism. His abstract vein soon came to an end, having lasted little longer than Bloomsbury’s abstractions. Yet, until Lewis launched open warfare on them, Bloomsbury viewers were still sympathetic to his work, despite their aesthetic differences, and despite Lewis’s preference for the mental-emotive rather than the sensuous-decorative, the angular and dynamic rather than the rectilinear and balanced, the heavily black rather than the brightly hued. Bell, for example, wrote in praise of Lewis’s Kermesse as ‘a piece of pure design’ and only qualified his opinion, when he reviewed Lewis’s new work in the 1913 Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition at the Doré Galleries, by noting that ‘he is inclined to modify his forms in the interest of drama and psychology to the detriment of pure design.’

Interestingly, Vanessa Bell disagreed with her brother Clive over this issue. In January 1913 she wrote to Leonard Woolf:

The reason I think that artists paint life and not patterns is that certain qualities of life, what I call movement, mass, weight, have aesthetic value. But where I would quarrel with Clive is when he says one gets the same emotion from flat patterns that one does from pictures. I say one doesn’t because of the reasons I have just given – that movement, etc, give me important aesthetic emotions.

In this light, it is not surprising that Bell and Grant only persevered with their abstract arrangements for two years or so, before reverting to more Fauvist and figurative work. Abstraction never took hold in England, either in Bloomsbury or in the Vortex. Butler, I think, is inclined to exaggerate the differences between the two, both of whom briefly and almost simultaneously experimented with abstraction. Rancour was expressed on both sides after Lewis decided to challenge Fry’s position as the arbiter of Modernism in London, yet the pictorial record tells a different story. All concerned could agree to praise a great early Modernist painting such as Bomberg’s In the Hold, exhibited in March 1914 and acclaimed equally by Fry and by Lewis’s friend, T.E. Hulme, whom Butler cites at length. Bomberg’s goal of imposing a 64-square grid on the flux of dramatic movement – dockers manhandling inert bodies up ship’s ladders and through trapdoors – and thus ridding the finished work of any trace of ‘literary romanticism’, could be approved on both sides, whether in the name of significant form or of escape from relativism into the absolute.

The dominant model of abstraction, both for Bloomsbury and for Vorticism, had been provided by Kandinsky, whose work was exhibited in London by Fry himself and whose theoretical manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, was excerpted and respectfully reviewed in Lewis’s Blast. Kandinsky was fascinated by the idea of correspondences between the arts, especially painting and music. In Munich, he painted water-colours which he then gave, as it they were musical scores, to his composer friend, Thomas von Hartmann, who selected one and, so to speak, played it. Then a third friend, the dancer, Alexander Sacharoff, joined them and improvised a dance to the music, concluding by pointing to that painting which he felt best expressed what he had just danced. As Butler recounts, in what is really the centrepiece of his book, Kandinsky was so excited by hearing a concert of Schoenberg’s music in 1911 that he wrote immediately to the composer and struck up a relationship with him that was soon cemented by Schoenberg’s revelation that he, too, was a painter. Kandinsky exhibited Schoenberg’s paintings in the Blue Rider shows he organised, and published Schoenberg’s writings in the Blue Rider Almanac.

Kandinsky clearly saw Schoenberg as a kind of musical alter ego, working in the medium of sound in the same way that he worked in that of colour. He felt that his own experiments in colour harmony, which led him to defend dissonance as more radical and more complex than consonance, rather than simply antithetical to it, ran parallel to Schoenberg’s extension of musical chromaticism and the ‘emancipation of dissonance’ in his compositions. The main strength of Butler’s book is his determination to deal with early Modernist painting, music and literature in one single sweep, across Europe, arguing that parallel developments in the different arts and different countries had the same underlying causes.

He might, however, have taken his case further. For example, Kandinsky’s close friends and collaborators, von Hartmann and Sacharoff, musician and dancer, took their pre-occupation with synthetic works into different milieus after the war broke out. Sacharoff went to Ascona in Switzerland and began to collaborate with the dancer-choreographers Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman, who was a pupil of Dalcroze, the creator of eurhythmics. High in the Alps, on Monte Verita, Laban had taken over what we would now regard as a counter-cultural or New Age commune for his dance school, moving in permanently after the outbreak of war stranded him there in August 1914. The school also contributed performers to the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where dancers performed to abstract paintings by Kandinsky and in the style of sound poems by Hugo Ball, such as his notorious ‘Gadji Berri Bimba’. Ball, Butler might have observed, had himself been an associate and protégé of Kandinsky in Munich, where he was appointed to run the Artists’ Theatre and advised, by Kandinsky and others, to seek Schoenberg’s collaboration – presumably to produce Schoenberg’s own Expressionist theatre piece, The Lucky Hand.

Also on the agenda for the Artists’ Theatre was Kandinsky’s colour opera, The Yellow Sound, which contained nonsense cries from the singers, such as ‘Kalasimunafakola!’, surely an influence on Ball’s subsequent dadaist poetry. Although the war unfortunately cut these ambitious plans short, the Cabaret Voltaire is still best seen as an extension of the Munich art-world in wartime exile. It was at the Cabaret Voltaire that Viking Eggeling exhibited his scrolls of visual music, and Hans Arp and his wife Sophie Taeuber (also a Laban dancer) exhibited their pioneering abstract paintings. It should be no surprise to find Taeuber dancing to poetry – or, indeed, Mary Wigman dancing to texts by Nietzsche – in a Zurich café. Dance was crucial to early Modernism. The liberated body in rhythmic movement directly linked visual art with music, and even literature.

As a result of the war, von Hartmann, like Kandinsky himself, ended up back in Russia, where he fell under the influence of a new mentor, the Greek-Armenian mystic, Gurdjieff. During the early Modernist phase of his career, Gurdjieff was mainly concerned with perfecting a synthetic dance performance, The Struggle of the Magicians, with music by von Hartmann and choreography by Jeanne de Salzmann, another former Dalcroze dancer. It was this dance, conceived by Gurdjieff and performed in an old zeppelin hangar at Fontainebleau, which Katherine Mansfield watched as she died and which Diaghilev travelled more than once to see. Among many others, Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence also made the trip to Fontainebleau, and Gurdjieff’s teachings dogged Lawrence as far as Taos, another counter-cultural centre. The important point to emerge from this tangled history is that early Modernism was derived not only from the influence of thinkers like Nietzsche, Bergson or Freud, whose importance Butler amply demonstrates, but also from a turbulent counterculture of free-thinking theosophists, occultists, vegetarians, simple-lifers, pacifists, anarchists, sexual revolutionaries, feminists, nudists and so on, many of whom also read and assimilated Nietzsche and Freud after their own cranky fashion.

Let me give some more examples. Kafka was a vegetarian, went to a nudist colony for a cure, admired Dalcroze and made a pilgrimage to his dance centre at Hellerau, was deeply impressed by the sexual revolutionary, Otto Gross (an influence on Lawrence via Frieda) and advised his sisters to send their children to a school run by A.S. Neill, a forerunner of Summerhill. Cendrars, quite rightly a central figure for Butler, was not only a friend of Apollinaire and the Delaunays, but also an admirer of Gross (on whom he modelled the hero of his book, Moravagine); he was a friend of anarchists, perhaps even involved with the Bonnot gang, as well as a collaborator with the Indian dancer, Dourga, and, later, became a guru for another counter-culture hero, Henry Miller. He translated Dehmel, whose Expressionist poems Schoenberg set to music (as he also did Tagore). Cendrars’s old friend Emil Szittya was well-known to Hugo Ball in Zurich during the Dadaist days, where Ball saw him as a kind of holy fool, akin to the Dancer of Our Lady, whose role Wigman had danced in a male persona at Ascona. Eisenstein, who tried to film Cendrars’s novel, Sutter’s Gold, was himself a devotee both of Dalcroze eurhythmics and of colour-sound correspondence. Kandinsky was deeply influenced by Madame Blavatsky. Even Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by a completely cranky theory of the fourth dimension. Early Modernism, and the bohemian milieu which sustained it, was a small world, with a myriad cosmopolitan cross-currents and counter-cultural affiliations.

If it never quite took off in England, this was surely because the leaders of the avantgarde, such as Lewis and Pound, reacted so strongly against the counter-culture – with paranoid insistence, one might almost say, seeing it as effeminate and pathetic. Indeed, for Lewis, Nature itself was ‘feminine’; ‘nature cranks’ were therefore particularly suspect. Bloomsbury, on the other hand, though sharing many of the counter-culture’s assumptions, was kept aloof by inherited wealth and social position, turning instead to the free-thinking social sets around Diaghilev and Lady Ottoline Morell. Others like Lawrence or Pound preferred the idea of a new aristocracy, although Lawrence, dreamer of the exotic imagined community of Rananim, always remained close to the counter-culture, both attracted and exasperated by it.

The true artist denizens of the counter-culture in London were mainly women, like Mansfield and Dorothy Richardson, or starving artists like Gaudier-Brzestka or the composer Van Dieren. Eliot, a potential recruit, was too snobbish and too fastidious, restricting himself in the end to vicarious membership in Nicholas Ferrar’s commune at Little Gidding. He might have got on well with Ouspensky, whose séances he attended; they had the same patron, Lady Rothermere, and a joint interest in Sanskrit studies and Eastern religion, but he drew primly back. Babbitt and Maurras proved the stronger influences. Yet The Waste Land is closer than one might think to occultism and theosophy – Eastern religion, Vedanta, the Tarot pack, mystical self-abasement.

As Butler notes, the early Modernism which excited London between 1910 and 1915 made an accommodation with ‘classicising and tradition-conscious’ English culture after the war. Only Woolf produced novels which went beyond her early work, exploring rhythms of prose and choices of diction in ways which, like the work of Richardson and H.D. – and even of Gertrude Stein, whose Composition as Explanation Woolf published – can be seen as inaugurating a project of feminine writing. As for the men, The Waste Land signalled the end of one epoch and the beginning of another, the unspeakably solemn years of the Criterion the ‘severe and serene control of the emotions by Reason’, the conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. Early Modernism was over. The waspish Harvard student who wrote ‘Prufrock’, who enjoyed Krazy Kat and Rube Goldberg, who pinned Gauguin’s Yellow Christ to the wall in his student lodgings, had now become a pillar of the English establishment. In April 1937, he confessed to Virginia Woolf that he might be finally turning into an ‘Old Buffer’.

That same spring Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell ran into Picasso in Paris and he invited them to his studio to see his Guernica, still unfinished. Eventually Vanessa Bell commented, ‘C’est un peu terrible,’ and Picasso, it seems, was pleased. But the days when they excitedly rushed back to England and changed their own style of painting were long gone. They had drifted, not unwillingly, into a backwater.