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A very English modernism

Finding the avant-garde in the countryside, while downplaying the influence of refugees from fascism

Frank Dobson, The Giant, Cerne Abbas, 1931

The usual account of the rise of modernism in 1930s Britain places due emphasis on the contribution of refugees from Nazism. Few aspects of our culture were unaffected. The visual arts, architecture, design, music, opera, theatre, dance, film, publishing, photojournalism, academia, broadcasting—all benefited from the influx of central European artists and intellectuals, many of them Jewish, who stopped here temporarily, en route for the US or elsewhere, or settled permanently. They brought a scientific rigour, an unsentimental attitude to the past, and a political consciousness which were in sharp contrast to what must often have seemed to them the cosy provincialism of English cultural life.

Very few émigrés from Nazism feature in Alexandra Harris’s book, the main exceptions being Nikolaus Pevsner and László Moholy-Nagy: Pevsner because he later published The Englishness of English Art and Moholy-Nagy because he took the photographs for John Betjeman’s book An Oxford University Chest. Harris cites the latter project as an example of “how constructivists and antiquarians could work side by side” in an “attempt to reconcile international modernism with the language of local tradition”. This, in a nutshell, is her thesis. Whether the works of Betjeman, John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, the Sitwells, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh add up to a kind of soft modernism reflecting the English character and climate is an interesting question. In a chapter on “Village Life”, Harris makes the surprising suggestion that the rural village was a centre of the avant-garde. One had always been led to believe that everything radical happened in Hampstead or Soho.

Harris writes with panache and insight about her favourite writers and artists and makes illuminating connections between the art, architecture, music and literature of the period. Her book is packed with pleasurable and sometimes bizarre detail. Recalling the nostalgia for an English countryside that was rapidly being altered by industrialists, developers, mechanised agriculture and the motor car, she dissects the romanticisation of village and farming life by urban intellectuals such as F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot. As Leavis denounced mass culture and the alienation of modern society, Eliot was forming close links with a fringe group called English Array, which “condoned Hitler’s…fight for the pure soil of Germany” and which was led by the “anti-Semitic and eugenically-minded” Viscount Lymington. Eliot’s Christian faith, Harris notes, led him to a love of English churches, while it was Piper’s love of churches that, conversely, led him in 1940 to be confirmed in the Church of England: “Both men were…able to use Christian places as symbols of permanence that would speak beyond the religious community.” This was especially poignant in wartime, when numerous churches were damaged or destroyed in the Blitz.

Harris is unimpressed by the formalist art criticism of Roger Fry, with its doctrine of aesthetic purity divorced from everyday life and its dismissal of narrative and the subject—arguably English painting’s singular strengths. She clearly sympathises with those who, like Kenneth Clark, came to believe that “purity is a dangerous word to apply to such a complex and vital matter as art”. What is missing from her book is a critique of the strong British attraction to anarchic and irrational movements, such as dada and surrealism, as an antidote to Fry and abstraction. The huge “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London in 1936 was, after all, an event of some significance, bringing together a remarkable group of artists and poets united by their interest in the nocturnal world of dreams and the unconscious. Henry Moore and Paul Nash were on the organising committee, along with Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, while lectures were given by André Breton, Paul Eluard and Salvador Dalí (dressed in a diving suit). Two years later their hero Sigmund Freud, fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna, arrived in London, where Dalí would draw his portrait.

Harris does not mention either Freud or Penrose; yet the latter’s extensive collection of surrealism had been completed by the outbreak of war and was influential on British artists, through regular exposure at the London Gallery in Cork Street—which Penrose owned—via illustration in the London Gallery Bulletin, and at parties at his house in Hampstead. Edward James, the great patron of Dalí and Magritte, is also absent from this account: as the first to publish Betjeman’s poetry, one would have thought he deserved an entry. Monkton, his Lutyens house in Sussex, with its “interventions” and furniture by Dalí, might also have merited inclusion in Harris’s section on the fantasy or escapist country house. But these are perhaps minor criticisms when set against Harris’s prodigious research and infectious enthusiasm for her subject.

Richard Calvocoressi, Director, The Henry Moore Foundation

Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, Alexandra Harris, Thames & Hudson, 320 pp, £19.95 (hb)

Welles Coates, The Isokon building, Hampstead, London, 1934, home to Moholy-Nagy, Gropius and others
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11 Aug 11
15:52 CET


I've thoroughly enjoyed reading Alexandra Harris's book but would echo some of the concerns expressed here. British artists of the 1920s and 1930s were acutely aware of developments across the Channel. Paul Nash for one despaired of British art's structural weakness and lack of experiment, and looked to mainland Europe for inspiration. Perhaps Britain's wartime isolation has given us the idea that British artists were similarly isolated between the wars. They were not, although there were some who - like Nash and Piper - experimented with ideas like abstraction before returning to narrative and natural forms. Harris's book champions those artists who did not adopt the precepts of international modernism and have therefore languished in obscurity - Eric Ravilious being perhaps the best example of a painter who was left out of almost every 20th century book on British art but who is central to Harris's vision.

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