Exhibition: 13th February -4th May 2008, Tate Britain, London Catalogue: Tate Publishing, 2008
The immediate pre-war period from 1910 to 1914 was one of enormous excitement and change within the English art establishment. The list of innovative artists, art movements and exhibitions during those years captures a pivotal moment in the shift towards modernism in this country, and, it could be argued, in Europe as well. Roger Fry's hugely significant Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, Marinetti's visits to London to promote the Futurist vision, the talent about to emerge from the Slade School of Art with Bomberg, Rosenberg, and Epstein, and Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist movement all demonstrate that something momentous was happening.
The question of that something's precise nature has led art historians to formulate several theories about the development of modernism in England. Despite the differences of opinion, it is generally agreed that the artistic experiments and new styles all shared a common focus that can be traced to its origins in 1863, in the French writer Baudelaire's essay "The Painter of Modern Life." Here he called on artists to abandon classical subjects and concentrate their efforts on portraying modern life as they saw it around them, especially the new urban environment.
Subsequent groups of artists rose to this challenge, from the early Impressionists to the pre-war avant-garde, a movement with so many important strands that the Camden Town Group are somewhat hidden in its shadows. Fry's first Post-Impressionist exhibition closed in January 1911, and the Group were formed in the spring of the same year. The catalogue for the Tate exhibition explores the Group's founding, discussing the social, artistic, and financial impetus that drew the artists together. Although emergent at a time when art seemed to be drifting towards abstraction, the Camden Town Group challenged this trend with several unusual pictures that recorded the world around them.
Some of the exhibition's most famous pictures revolve around the murder of a woman, Emily Dimmock, in a case which caused an immediate sensation when it was revealed that she had worked as a prostitute to supplement her husband's income. Within a short time a customer of hers, Robert Wood, was arrested and charged. The trial was surrounded by a media circus; according to the catalogue, theatrical performances in were stopped by the announcement of the 'not guilty' verdict. The case drew public attention to the miseries of the very poor in a city where extreme poverty often went hand-in-hand with prostitution. Walter Sickert's series of interior scenes show a reclining female nude, with a clothed man in the background shadows. The titles he gave these pictures add to their sinister mystery: What Shall We Do About the Rent? (1908) and Dawn Camden Town (1909) point viewers towards the crime story, but leave unanswered the question of where the portrayed scenes fit in the narrative. Sickert deliberately manipulates the spectators' knowledge, making us provide the context for the pictures and, in the process, consider the narrative form inherent in this kind of painting.
The third of the exhibition's nine sections, Modernity/Metropolis, is the most balanced and consistent in terms of overall quality: indeed, it is the only part of the show that is not dominated by Sickert's brilliance alone. Since Baudelaire's war cry contemporary urban themes such as the theatre, working women, railway stations, and the city itself had all become commonplace subjects for the modern artist, so that artists were distinguished from one another not by their choice of subject, but by their technique. In this respect the Camden Town Group had several artists who could match Sickert. Amongst the most spectacular pieces at the exhibition is Charles Ginner's Piccadilly Circus (1912), a remarkable work which, in its subject matter and stylistic execution, celebrates modernity. The paint is almost three-dimensional in its thickness—this is Seurat's pointilism applied with a palette knife instead of a brush-tip. The reproduction in the catalogue gives some idea of the paint's thickness, but a close look at the original canvas allows us to appreciate how it adds to the picture's impact: the city's bustle is emphasised and exaggerated through Ginner's handling of the paint. Most English painters of the period controlled paint's physical nature and strove for uniform flatness, yet here Ginner deliberately challenges this convention, laying the paint thickly so that its texture enhances the vibrancy of the modern city scene.
On the whole, however, Sickert's works tower above those of the other artists on display. For some of the Camden Town Group the juxtaposition with Sickert works to their disadvantage, showing them either unable or unwilling to free themselves from the influence of the past. Nowhere is the contrast more obvious than in the exhibition's final section, entitled Home Front. By the time war broke out in August 1914, the original Camden Town Group had been disbanded for nine months. It had re-formed as the London Group and now included a much wider range of artists than previously, attracting figures such as Epstein, Bomberg, and Wadsworth, who were at the forefront of the modern English art scene. Most English artists reacted patriotically to the outbreak of war, and there are a number of uncritical responses in this exhibition: in particular, Gilman and Ginner's interior scenes evoke the gentle homelife that the war was about to destroy forever. With tones that are mostly in harmony with the subject matter, these works must have seemed retrogressive to the more experimental artists in the group. Only Sickert succeeded in producing an unsettling masterpiece, a haunting work which ranks among the finest English paintings of the war: Brighton Pierrots (1915). Pierrots were travelling groups of entertainers, especially popular at seaside resorts. In this picture Sickert freezes a moment in the evening performance of Jack Shepherd's Highwaymen against a darkening sky. The central performer is still, perhaps about to begin a recitation or song. In front of him are rows of empty deckchairs, symbolic of the missing men now fighting abroad. There is authority in the way Sickert captures the bleakness and futility of such a performance in the England of 1915. Recruitment for the army was slowing down with growing public awareness of the carnage in France and Belgium, and, as casualties continued to outnumber volunteers, conscription was on the horizon. While Sickert is ostensibly recording an ordinary summer seaside concert, his real theme is the effect of the war on this and many other social and cultural activities: the actors may perform, but the audience are engaged elsewhere.
While the Tate exhibition highlights the significance of the Camden Town Group in the development of English modern art, it does not show that they played a major role on the international stage. Instead, it confirms their accepted status as an important faction working parallel with the main trajectory of early twentieth century English art. Stylistically the Group made no major innovations, no ground-breaking or challenging artistic statements that threatened to overthrow the art establishment. In fact, without the Sickert works, their output could be dismissed as containing little of genuine importance. The Sickert contribution adds significant quality to the Camden Town Group exhibition and catalogue, and serves to retrospectively enhance the Group's reputation.--Paul Flux
Ian Walker's So Exotic, So Home-Made: Surrealism, Englishness and Documentary Photography
(Manchester University Press, 2007)
The quotation in the title of this book (from Patrick Keiller's psychogeographical film London) is an excellent description of the land- and cityscapes captured in those English documentary photographs that, by adding a surrealistic tinge, present us with an unsettling combination of the familiar and the strange. In his Introduction, Ian Walker promises to investigate "the intersection of three concepts -Englishness, Surrealism and Documentary" in pictures of industrial, rural, and metropolitan landscapes, and to explore the "shifting dichotomies" that emerge: "the north set against the south, the urban against the rural, London against the rest."
His two essays on Paul Nash are fascinating, examining Nash's reactions to three different locations: Avebury and its megaliths, Swanage and its fantastical architectural features—salvage imported by the local marble magnates from London—and a field in Gloucestershire where Nash discovered fallen trees that looked like walking monsters, the inspiration for his little book Monster Field: A Discovery Recorded by Paul Nash, in which, through the accompanying text, he attempted to "solve the problem he had set himself of being English and modern at the same time." Walker's analysis of the Avebury episode, in which Nash took photographs that anthropomorphise the standing stones, is frustrated in its aim of showing the electrifying effect that it had on Nash's paintings of southern, rural Deep England (a term first coined by Patrick Weight), by the omission of the paintings themselves—understandable from the point of view of cost, but making it impossible for the reader to see how the photographs formed the models for the paintings. The heterogeneity of Nash's output is a theme of these chapters: Walker observes that "Where continental artists working between media….continued to keep their work in different media separate, Nash sought to bring them together."
The study would have had a tighter focus had Walker left out the chapters on Eileen Agar's Brittany photographs and Roland Penrose's photos of the Balkans, which, while interesting, do not really add to our understanding of the interaction between Englishness, surrealism and documentary photography, particularly given these artists' close personal identification with the Continent. An examination of Continental studies by more self-consciously English photographers could have revealed far more about Abroad as an "'other'…..opposed to the home of England." The story of how Humphrey Jennings became involved with the nascent Mass-Observation movement is rather more compelling, including a potted history of Mass-Observation itself, which, launched partly as an anthropological examination of the Abdication crisis, attempted to sound "the English collective unconscious.... with a particular attention to what was implied by Lautréamont's expression 'Poetry ought to [be] made by all, not one'." Walker remarks acutely that the movement is so interesting precisely because it is an "unstable mixture of poetry and sociology, anthropology, surrealism and journalism." The chapter discusses Jennings' transformative visit to Bolton—his first exposure to the industrial working class—and the images he made of it, and contests the accepted interpretation of his film Spare Time as patronising in its depiction of working-class amusements.
When he examines pictures of the industrial north by Humphrey Spender, Julian Trevelyan, and Bill Brandt, Walker offers some fascinating reflections on how the north has been imagined in English culture: "it is industrial, inhabited by the working-class, and the urban desolation is matched by the harshness of the landscape….It is, moreover, a place where light seems in short supply." It is Worktown, the place of dark satanic mills, defined against the Deep England of the south. Walker shows how Priestley's hugely popular English Journey reinforced this image of the north, forming, along with the Jarrow marchers, the mental background to these photographers' northern forays. He challenges the view that Spender's photographs are predominantly influenced by the English social documentary tradition, arguing for a surrealistic element in them. Brandt's photographs are, of course, the most interesting of these northern studies, so famous that they have helped to construct the popular image of the north during the thirties. Walker concludes that the photographs made by all three men were far from objective, influenced by the photographers' southern, middle-class, and surrealist backgrounds, so that their images are "not a simple transposition of a familiar 'reality' but something rather more complex, ambiguous and estranged."
The penultimate chapter, on the surrealism of Blitz photography, shows Brandt taking yet more iconic photographs, seizing on the London blackout as an opportunity to depict his adopted city as somewhere unreal, deserted and strange. The extraordinary conditions created by the Blitz affected some artists profoundly, seeming to create a fissure in the barrier between past and present so that some fleetingly imagined themselves in Blake's London: "excitement and horror, history and the present, the real and the imaginative could become….thoroughly dissolved together during the Blitz." In the work of some artists, such as Humphrey Jennings, the countryside makes unexpected excursions into the middle of London (the dray-horse in Jennings' film Fires were Started, for example). Walker does not quite resolve the ethical problem with deriving aesthetic satisfaction from any aspect of the Blitz, but he does show how, in a city "haunted by the ghosts of the recently living," an awareness of oddity and humour was a way of keeping sane, so that surrealism and documentary naturally came together.
The final section looks at how the post-war generation responded to the change in England's political circumstances—and thus in Englishness—in surrealistic work: films by Lindsay Anderson (Walker agrees with the consensus that O Dreamland is queasily snobbish) and Patrick Keiller, Tony Ray-Jones's seaside resort studies, the recordative surrealism of Tony Breakwell's photos and diaries and Richard Wentworth's photographs of improvisations (Making Do and Getting By), and Martin Parr's earlier pictures. In passing Walker comments on the surrealism of Sgt. Pepper and J. G. Ballard's novels, and on the English adoption of French psychogeographical theory in the eighties and nineties, especially in Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair's writings on London. The chapter is not as well-constructed as the previous ones, largely because it examines too many artists in too small a space.
Some wonderful pictures are scattered throughout the book: Nash's photo of three steps, apparently leading nowhere, in the middle of a field; Bill Brandt's monumental, ineffable picture of a rain-wet Halifax snicket, and infinitely touching portraits of families taking refuge from the Blitz, "A Family Asleep in Liverpool Street Underground Station, 12 November 1940" and "A Sikh family sheltering in the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 6 November 1940"; and Martin Parr's whimsical photograph of a man cleaning windows, "Hebden Bridge, 1976," far removed from the satire of his later work. Throughout the study, Walker delineates a distinctive feature of English surrealistic documentary photography that sets it apart from the Continental sources by which it was influenced: the English obsession with sense of place, whether a pastoral Deep England, the great metropolis, or the terrains vagues --indeterminate areas— of the seaside (caught between sea and land, and traditionally a liminal zone where constraints on behaviour are relaxed) and the urban wastelands of northern industrial England. This obsession with genius loci, which Nash described "as a prime constituent of 'Englishness' in art," owes something to English surrealism's "intersection with 'Neo-Romanticism' in the late 1930s and 1940s," and Walker notes that Neo-Romanticism's "mystical and visionary" outlook conflicts with surrealism's materialism. He also identifies a characteristic tinge of frivolity, an interest "in popular culture and its pleasures," in English surrealism.
Though Walker pinpoints all these distinctively English features, he fails to adequately address the question of whether surrealism "was a force that had come from abroad to challenge the stale local culture or whether it was in fact a reassertion of certain traditions that had always existed within English culture." His expertise is in Parisian surrealism, and this allows him to suggest Continental influences—de Chirico, Man Ray, Brassaï, Magritte, and others— on the works he is examining. While this is illuminating, much more could, and should, be done on the roots of English surrealism within English culture itself; Walker does not even mention Alice until the last chapter, and then only briefly. More seriously, he does not entirely convince the reader that his attenuation of the concept of 'documentary' beyond its traditional English social realist concerns (to encompass, for example, Nash's landscape photographs) is justified. However, in his discussion of those photographs that are definitely documentary studies, he does demonstrate that documentary and surrealism are not mutually exclusive categories. The extensive notes to each chapter show that a formidable amount of research went into the study, but (as is so often the case these days) the text could have benefited from more attentive proofing.
Walker ultimately admits that the study has been fragmentary, and this is perhaps fitting given his penetrating remark that there are now even more Englands than there were when, in English Journey, Priestley commented "that he had seen 'a lot of Englands'"—raising the interesting question of whether this multiplicity of Englands is partially a product of middle-class metropolitan photographers' tendency to view places outside the capital as 'exotic.' The book's great strength is its distillation of the similarities and divergences between English and Continental surrealism, and it is well worth reading for this.--Isabel Taylor
Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and His Circle
Exhibition: 1 April-8 June 2008, Ben Uri Gallery, London, and 16 June-5 September 2008, Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds University Catalogue: Ben Uri Gallery
"Art is not a plaything, it is blood and tears, it must grow up with one; and I believe I have begun too late." Isaac Rosenberg in a letter to Mrs Herbert Cohen, 1912
The 1914-18 War effectively wiped out a whole generation of artists, visual as well as literary, but it is the poets who, for very good reasons, are most often commemorated. Thus, while Isaac Rosenberg the poet is generally regarded as one of the finest writers who lost their lives in the war, very little is remembered of Rosenberg the artist. This superb exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery therefore does not so much restore his artistic reputation as establish it on a strong foundation for the first time, demonstrating his skill as a painter and draughtsman and enhancing our appreciation of his genius.
Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890, but his family soon moved to the East End of London. At school his talent for art was recognised and encouraged, and in 1911 he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, at that time the foremost art school in the country. The list of his Slade contemporaries reads like a Who's Who of mid twentieth-century English art: David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, Jacob Kramer and William Roberts. Between 1912 and 1914 Rosenberg exhibited at the New English Art Club, and in May 1914 his work was included in an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery entitled Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements.
Despite recurring ill health, in October 1915 he enlisted to fight in the war. Interestingly, his friend David Bomberg also volunteered around the same time; like many others, the two joined up before conscription was introduced in January 1916. In the catalogue for the exhibition the curators, Rachel Dickson and Sarah MacDougall, make this significant observation: "He had considered volunteering throughout the summer and his letters see him see-sawing between 'the immorality of joining with no patriotic convictions,' and the 'strong temptation to join when you are making no money'." Here they challenge our common assumption that the volunteers invariably enlisted from altruistic motives, an idea for which, in many cases, there is little evidence. It should also be noted that Rosenberg was unfit for active service: he was quite small, below 5' 3,'' and suffered from weak lungs. He was assigned to the 12th Suffolk's bantam regiment, which only took soldiers between 5' and 5'3'' tall. Although his health continued to trouble him, he saw service on various fronts. On the night of 31 March, 1916, he was sent on a wiring patrol, and his body was found the following day along with those of his comrades. He was twenty-seven years old.
The Whitechapel at War exhibition showcases the artistic achievements of his brief life. Some thirty works by Rosenberg are on display, along with significant contributions from his contemporaries, most notably Bomberg, Gertler, Kramer, and Clare Winsten, together forming a retrospective that is rich, poignant, and enormously expressive. For the first time Rosenberg's entire oeuvre can be seen in one gallery, allowing us to appreciate his artistic talent, and, in particular, his gift for portraiture.
For me, two pictures stand out as exceptional: Portrait of Sonia, 1915, and Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet, 1916. The Sonia of the first picture was Sonia Cohen, an aspiring actress who lived with Rosenberg's friend John Rodker, and was pregnant when the portrait was painted in 1915. The picture is given considerable force by the explicit use of vertical brushwork and by the strong sense of colour in the red background and the sitter's deep blue dress, while her downward gaze further emphasises her latent power. Rosenberg was known to admire Leonardo, and the catalogue draws attention to the influence of The Virgin of the Rocks on Sonia's gaze. Portrait of Sonia hints at both the fragility of the human spirit and its enduring strength. It is a superb example of Rosenberg's ability to capture character and personality through the subtle handling of light, shade, and colour.
The second picture, Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet, 1916, is interesting both artistically and biographically, since it is the last self-portrait that Rosenberg completed. The viewer's awareness of the artist's impending death is underlined by the choice of media: gouache and chalk on a piece of crumpled brown paper that was probably, as the catalogue points out, the wrapping from a parcel sent by Rosenberg's family. However, what ultimately makes this such an affecting image is its execution. Rosenberg stares out at us, solemn yet unafraid. The steel helmet covering his hair leaves his face exposed. Almost no colour is used, with the exception of a single yellow brass button which shines in the centre of his tunic like a target. The random crumpling of the brown paper seems symbolic of the war's own randomness -who knows where the next fatality will come? The ineffable serenity and wisdom of this image give it extraordinary impact as Rosenberg's final statement.
The Whitechapel at War exhibition catalogue, which reproduces all the paintings on display, is notable for the high quality of its text. While the essays examine the details of Rosenberg's art, they also place him within the context of his Jewish background, particularly in relation to the work of other Jewish writers and artists. The cultural role of the Whitechapel Boys is discussed in considerable depth, with a particularly astute critical examination of the many small magazines published by the group during this period.
For anyone interested in early twentieth-century art or in the development of Anglo-Jewish art and literature, both catalogue and exhibition are full of delightful surprises. The curators and writers are to be congratulated on their painstaking research for this, the sixth in a series of high quality Whitechapel Boys exhibitions at the Ben Uri. Though small, the gallery has acquired a reputation for mounting fine exhibitions of work by Jewish artists, and this must rank as one of its very best. --Paul Flux