Knobs, Dots and Grooves

Peter Campbell

  • Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations edited by Alan Wilkinson
    Lund Humphries, 320 pp, £35.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 85331 847 6
  • The Penguin Modern Painters: A History by Carol Peaker
    Penguin Collectors’ Society, 124 pp, £15.00, August 2001, ISBN 0 9527401 4 1

In 1910, Sickert, writing about the newly formed Contemporary Art Society’s plan to buy modern work for public galleries, gave three reasons for thinking it a bad idea. First, it would encourage artists to paint the wrong kind of picture: ‘It will be the exhibition picture that will gain ground and the room picture that will suffer.’ Second, spending decisions which should be personal would be delegated: ‘I notice that the minimum subscription for membership is a guinea. I would beg those who wish to spend a guinea a year to buy a drawing a year by a man whose talent they fancy, at the very beginning of his career.’ Third, the committee would be composed of experts and critics. It would put too much power in their hands: ‘Why should a collector have to ask Mr MacColl if Mr Steer is a good painter?’ (MacColl was on the staff of the Tate.) The Turner Prize is just one piece of evidence that Sickert had a shrewd sense of where things might be heading. There are still adequate, in some cases excellent, livings being earned from room pictures, but big reputations are made by way of exhibitions and the publicity that accompanies them.

Nearly half a century later, Kenneth Clark, writing to Eunice Frost at Penguin about the inclusion of Braque in the Modern Painters series, which had until then featured only British artists, said:

The old scheme seemed to me valuable because it helped people to understand painters whose work they could buy, and it thereby helped the painters . . . The new scheme is entirely different because the painters you propose do not require help and their reputations were long ago established and none of your readers could afford to buy their works.

Sickert’s and Clark’s belief that the health of art in their time lay in modest private patronage was a tacit admission that opportunities for painting’s equivalent of the big production number – altarpieces, history paintings, group portraits in council chambers – were either unavailable or compromised. Even in France, where masterpieces of exhibition painting (like those by Géricault, Delacroix and Courbet) had been produced well into the 19th century, it was the room pictures of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, not the exhibition pictures of the Salon painters, that held sway. It wasn’t just a matter of size. If a picture is to be seen all the time, a degree of disengagement, an absence of overt emotion, will give it a better chance of holding its place. When Modernism of one kind or another suggested new ways of representing things, or of making abstract pictures which were not of things at all, in Britain and France at least it chose a quiet voice and bland subject-matter. Cubists painted still lifes and a few portraits; even Picasso only occasionally took on the grand themes of war, history and morality.

In the tradition that includes Sickert’s ‘room picture’, the focus had shifted from content to style by 1910. It was no longer a case of moral tales for the parlour, erotic pictures for the bedroom and devotional ones for the oratory. The portrait had already been substantially displaced by silver photograph frames arranged on tables. The most successful genres were the landscape, the still life and the (often peopled) domestic interior. Even if they were adventurous aesthetically the private buyers Sickert and Clark wished to encourage would still want pictures of modest size and unemphatic subject-matter. Stanley Spencer painted his potboilers because there was a less ready market for his religious pictures. Critics explained that it was the way the representation (or non-representation) was achieved that made a work of art valuable, not the thing represented.

By the 1920s and 1930s, however, a style was becoming available which suggested that, even in England, a public art that was not exhibition art might be possible. Circle, an ‘international survey of Constructive art’ edited by the architect Leslie Martin, the Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo and the abstractionist Ben Nicholson, was published in 1937. Although they roped in a few contributors, such as Herbert Read, who were willing to give the Surrealists (for example) the time of day, only non-representational painting, abstract sculpture and asymmetrical and undecorated architecture are illustrated. The names on the cover show native troops stiffened by a strong contingent of European Modernism’s finest and fiercest. The painters and sculptors run from Arp and Braque to Henry Moore, Antoine Pevsner and Tatlin; the architects from Aalto and Breuer to Tecton; the writers from the scientist J.D. Bernal and the architects Le Corbusier and Gropius, by way of the painter Mondrian, to the typographer Tschichold. The book begins:

A new cultural unity is slowly emerging out of the fundamental changes which are taking place in our present-day civilisation; but it is unfortunately true that each new evidence of creative activity arouses a special opposition, and this is particularly evident in the field of art . . . popular taste, caste prejudice, and the dependence upon private enterprise, completely handicap the development of new ideas in art.

If real war had not come so soon, we might look back on Circle’s call to arms as the beginning of an English revolution. As it was, years passed before the most hopeful enthusiast could reckon that much of Circle’s kind of modern art, or even of modern architecture, was close to the gravitational centre of British official culture. A slighter, more digestible version of the Modern would reach that notional point rather more quickly. The public were being introduced to it by way of printed ephemera (posters, for example), applied art and a scattering of public sculpture. Then there were artists – Edward Bawden, for example, and Edward Burra – who were also topographers, decorators or illustrators; in the 1930s even Graham Sutherland would have qualified. They carried on doing very English things on which Edward Lear (his landscapes and his nonsense), Blake and Samuel Palmer were plausible influences. As well as exponents of this brand of applied art and romantic landscape, and of what now looks like late Post-Impressionism – Matthew Smith, Duncan Grant, Frances Hodgkins, Victor Pasmore – there were more eccentric talents of various sizes, like Stanley Spencer and David Jones, who were very English (or very Welsh) and not international at all. In drawings of wrapped sculpture in landscape and moonstruck megaliths Moore and Paul Nash gave even Surrealism an English edge. You could find evidence of deep-rooted native character, according to taste, or of parochialism.

The war brought something that followers of neither party – international or native – had much reason to expect. It provided niches in which even mildly difficult art, if it was recruited by a well-placed cultural operator, could flourish. Sales to the state and official – even to a degree public – recognition followed. But even when the sponsors got it right there was a limit to what could be absorbed. The native had a decided edge over the international.

Of all the cultural sponsors active in 1937 Clark, then only in his early thirties but already director of the National Gallery, was the most glamorous. In December of that year he was offered a knighthood. He owned some wonderful paintings. He was a friend of artists, Sutherland and Moore among them; he collected their work and that of their contemporaries. And he was very well connected, socially and officially.

On the day war was declared, Clark went round to the Treasury to ask if he might be allowed to submit plans for a War Artists scheme. His first aim was to save art by putting artists to work and ‘as far as possible to prevent them from being killed’. He got his money and a War Artists Advisory Committee was set up. For the duration Continental Modernism would be on hold. English painting, isolated from foreign influences and competition, would be carried on as war work. Far from stifling expression, sticking to subject-matter that bore some relation to the war seems very often to have been a benefit. It was not surprising that those who already had reputations as illust-rators fitted in: that Bawden’s Edward-Lear-like quirks suited the job of recording Commonwealth troops and camp life in the countries Lear himself had travelled through; or that Eric Ravilious, whose ability to build pale order out of ordinary things made him the Piero della Francesca of the cornershop and the provincial high street, was able to catch a military sickbay’s combination of bleak and neat, or make the inside of a submarine as ordered as a perspective view of an ideal town. But that Moore should find a source for poses and images of unsentimental solemnity in the sleepers who lined the platforms of the London Underground, and Nash the stuff of still lifes imbued with enigmatic melancholy in the sun-struck remains of downed German aeroplanes, was less predictable.

Not even Clark could find a hook on which to hang a war commission in Ben Nicholson’s constructions (he wasn’t in any case very enthusiastic about Nicholson’s work at that stage). But John Piper, who had tried his hand at pure abstraction, had by now turned to topography and was therefore recruited; and when Clark was shown Moore’s first shelter drawings, he was able to say that there was no reason now for Moore to fight shy of being a war artist.

War artists’ art, like the war novels of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, was stronger on boredom, home-front detail and character than adventure and horror. Nobody expected a Guernica – or if they did they didn’t get one. No Goya or Otto Dix emerged – the drawings Ronald Searle made in a Japanese prison camp come closer than anything officially commissioned. It was only after the war, in Francis Bacon’s screaming, distorted figures, that something was produced that could conceivably be thought of as addressing the worst of what had happened in Europe. When John Russell said to Moore, ‘In your own work the shelter drawings would be the counterpart of Guernica wouldn’t they?’ Moore understandably made a modest sidestep: ‘Certainly the shelter drawings did seem to get through to a much larger public than I’d ever reached before, and it did seem to me an extraordinary and fascinating and unique moment in history.’

In their subsequent careers the war artists often seemed to be at a loss. His nude self-portrait apart, Spencer’s reputation, for example, is more firmly based in the Burghclere chapel murals from the First War and the Glasgow shipbuilding pictures from the Second than on anything else he did. English romantics, encouraged and protected by wartime isolation, have not worn so well; when peace came and the art world went international, the native violets faded quickly smothered by stronger, if ranker growths. Very few of them, or their immediate predecessors, have any reputation outside this country.

Moore was an anomaly. He didn’t fade in the brighter light of peace but instead made an international reputation. Yet much of the material in his collected writings – like the answer to Russell quoted above – seems to be conciliatory, as though he felt he had been inadvertently gross or unnecessarily difficult and wanted to make up for it. He is deeply respectful of the Old Masters and often suggests that his art does not break with the past but reaches back, via tribal art and craft skills, in particular those shared by all carvers, to something universal and humane. His brief contribution to Circle has the telegraphic staccato of manifesto prose, but none of the aggression which often accompanies it. Abrasive, make-it-new Modernism was not his style. What he said and wrote about his work is consistent; he changed his mind little, though he trimmed back certain claims which he saw made sense as a personal credo but were absurd when asserted as general rules. The idea that truth to material, simplicity and the universal psycho-aesthetic effectiveness of certain shapes – those of smoothed pebbles and bones, for example – are central to all good work, has to be violently stretched if it is not to exclude most post-Renaissance sculpture. He was not an iconoclast. He was happy to reach for generalities, to say such things as ‘I don’t think we shall, or should, ever get far away from the thing that all sculpture is based on in the end: the human body,’ which suggest that there has been no real break, that the old game and the new game are, in essence, the same. His transformations of the human body were not shocking – or not for long. Where Picasso typically deals in violence, particularly sexual violence, and often emphasises and distorts teeth, fingers, eyes and ears – what a child picks on when drawing people – Moore smoothes these things, often obliterating them or reducing them to knobs, dots and grooves. Bones were a recurrent source of inspiration. Picasso dealt more with the flesh.

Moore had no reason to argue with the artistic establishment because in England that establishment was extremely kind, and supportive of his work. Jokes in the papers or at RA dinners could be ignored. In effect his work was rather gentle. He speaks of looking for ‘stillness’ and ‘monumentality’. He made family groups and mother-and-child statues which are generalised statements – very similar in their symbolic intentions to figures on war memorials, or those that decorate the plinths of statues of famous men. By the late 1920s and 1930s people might still laugh at modern art, but the anger had gone out of it. Moore’s seriousness made him an appropriate monument-maker for new public institutions (Unesco), religious buildings (Chichester Cathedral) and even businesses that wanted to make a dignified modern mark – the Time-Life building in Bond Street, for example. As time went by the pieces became larger: too large for the resemblance to natural forms still to function well. But they are now inoffensive – the eye glides peacefully over their bony lumps and hollows.

This collection of Moore’s writings, published with the support of the Henry Moore Foundation, brings together his few considered statements about his own work, previously unpublished notes, interviews, reviews by him, conversations with him and discussions in which he took part. There is one dating from 1941 between Moore, V.S. Pritchett, Sutherland and Clark about ‘Art and Life’. Pritchett starts one hare. ‘I think, Moore, some of your work looks to the average man, I should say, fairly remote from human experience.’ Moore replies that the ‘average man, who’s got very little time to look at painting and sculpture such as mine, would find some work puzzling and strange’, but says that’s only to be expected because he, Moore, has been thinking about it all day long for many years. And it was always like that. Well, not really, says Clark, because in the past patrons were much closer to artists, could ‘follow an artist’s new inventions and changes of direction’. Pritchett later asks whether there is a relation between art and society. Clark says that there is: ‘Recent art really has shown very clearly the conflict and lack of unity of purpose in recent society.’ Unity was what was wanted. Art and the people should be brought gently together.

The desire to make good modern art as accessible as its inherent difficulty, a shortage of paper and the ignorance of the common man would allow was the driving force behind another wartime enterprise. The Penguin Modern Painters, like the War Artists Scheme, owed much to Kenneth Clark, who chose the artists to be included in the series and the authors to be commissioned to write about them. He even helped get an allocation of good paper to print them on. Volumes were published on Grant, Smith, Spencer, Pasmore, Jones, Hodgkins, Burra, Bawden, Nash, Piper, Sutherland and Moore – the last five were also War Artists. Of the three contributors to Circle who were included, only the studies of Moore and John Piper appeared during the war – and by that time Piper was no longer painting abstractions. Ben Nicholson was not published until 1948. Braque came in 1959, bringing the series of 19 titles to a close.

Carol Peaker’s excellent history of Modern Painters makes a significant contribution to publishing history. Unlike the War Artists Scheme, this was a commercial venture. But at that time getting a book printed was much more difficult than selling copies of it. As the enterprise depended on official permissions and allocations it can be seen as a public as well as a commercial undertaking. Like many of the success stories of British publishing, it depended on a competent, energetic and, in this case, diplomatic woman – Eunice Frost – who rose from being Allen Lane’s secretary to having a place on the board. Clark’s ambivalence about being closely associated with the project grew as time passed. He was worried about being seen to promote a faction, and in any case was busy. It was on Frost that the administration of the series fell. It is difficult now to realise just how difficult putting together an illustrated book – even one as short as these were – could be. Making and proofing the colour plates could take months. Years passed between an agreement to publish and the delivery of copies. Poor Frances Hodgkins died before the book about her was delivered (at one point she suspected that as a woman she had been excluded). Lane always wanted Clark’s name – his contacts were less important when, after the war, plans to produce South American, American and Australian titles were discussed – and he shaped the series editorially. But it was Penguin, both logistically and as an imprint that could attract readers and buyers, which made the series possible.

It is difficult, looking back, to appreciate just how important the series was to the careers and reputations it helped advance, and what a large proportion of the easily available information about modern art of any sort in Britain it constituted. Sickert and Clark imagined that people would continue to get their art by seeing, even owning, real pictures. But the postwar decades proved that Sickert’s belief that art and its public could get along fine without intermediaries had few takers. The Arts Council, the British Council, the art schools, the Tate and other national collectors came to establish taste in just the way he had predicted. But those institutions – some of which Clark had helped establish – were also dedicated to constitutional iconoclasm. His collector’s and art historian’s feeling for continuity and common ground – the kind of thing that Moore represented – was also disappointed.