Little uproar 100 years on

Paul Carey-Kent on “Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group, 1913-63” at the Ben Uri Museum & Gallery, London, until 2 March

Stanislawa de Karlowska, Swiss Cottage, 1914. ©Tate, London 2013

This mixed bag of 39 paintings and 11 sculptures provokes several questions. Why are they here – in the modest St John’s Wood premises of London’s Jewish Museum of Art? The 50 chronologically arranged works celebrate the centenary of the still-extant artists’ exhibiting society, the London Group, the glory years of which were its first 50. Only the works by Bomberg and Kossoff are owned by the Ben Uri Gallery, but its chairman claims the common aims of the group and the gallery in supporting potentially marginalised artists, especially migrants.

What was the “Uproar”? The London Group saw itself as a radical alternative to the staid Royal Academy, and some of these works did provoke the public, such as Mark Gertler’s bizarre vision of God plucking Eve from Adam’s ribs, The Creation of Eve, 1914, thought to be anti-patriotic during the First World War; or Rodrigo Moynihan’s Objective Abstraction, 1935-36, the vague whites of which the Observer compared to “the bottom of parrots’ half-cleaned cages”. There is other radical work here, notably from the Vorticists, but the defining characteristic of the London Group was its inclusivity that extended, unlike the Camden Town Group, to women, who make up 20% of this show, and enabled it to include members of many more restrictively named factions: Bloomsbury, Euston Road, Fitzroy Street, Borough. Lowry is present, proving again he was no outsider, as is Henry Moore – although perhaps he should not be, as apparently he never paid his subs. The breadth reflects the foundational efforts of Harold Gilman, whom even Wyndham Lewis, not one to praise others, paid a back-handed compliment: the “very frigid Anglican core of his make-up as a painter…came into full and useful play in his functionings as president of a group”. Much of the work is unchallenging and includes some ersatz versions of Continental trends: the “uproar” occurred primarily among the members, due to personality clashes and varying conceptions of what made for good art. The 1920s, for example, saw accusations that Duncan Grant received favourable treatment because Roger Fry and Clive Bell considered him - implausible as it may now seem – the best living English painter.

So is everyone who matters in that 50 years of British art to be found here? Not quite. Among those who were not Group members are Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Patricia Clough, Anthony Caro and (without buying the Tate’s recent claim that he is the pre-eminent British artist of the last century) Richard Hamilton. Edward Burra, Graham Sutherland, William Scott and Frank Auerbach were members, but are not included. Still, the range is impressive, and the substantial accompanying book is a model of clear-eyed scholarship, with no fewer than 39 contributors plus the show’s in-house curators, Sarah MacDougall and Rachel Dickson – indeed, the whole enterprise would be worthy of a higher-profile institution.

Is there any exceptional work? There are some masterpieces by Gaudier-Brezeska, Bomberg and Nash. Matthew Smith and Mary Martin are caught just as they hit on what would make them first-rate artists: Smith’s aggressively vivid and stark Fitzroy Street Nude No. 2, 1916, justified his tag of “the English Fauve”; Martin’s Columbarium, 1951, a beautifully modulated relief carved into a plaster square cast from a baking tin, saw her break into using space to create the movement she had previously sought in two dimensions. We also see the adventuresome early best of two sculptors whose later, more routine, work has undermined their critical reputations: Frank Dobson’s dramatically headless Seated Torso, 1923, shows how powerfully he assimilated Modernism before his nudes became more Romantic; and Lynn Chadwick’s Untitled (Iron Sculpture), 1951, in which a three legged animal-come-machine clutches a sharply blue fragment of glass, is among the most effectively menacing of the works characterised by Herbert Read as capturing “the geometry of fear”.

Are there discoveries to be made? It was two of the relatively unknown women who struck me as potentially worthy of revivals. Robert Bevan’s Polish wife, Stanislawa de Karlowska, a Group member from its inception till her death in 1952, has an appropriately local view alongside one of her husband’s best paintings. The strange attenuations and colour contrasts of Swiss Cottage, 1914, stand up well. Dorothy Mead, the Group’s first female president (1971-73) takes Bomberg’s late style a step further towards abstract simplification in her elegantly androgynous Self-Portrait, 1960. Back at the intra-Group tensions, it was fellow member William Coldstream who had expelled Mead from the Slade School of Art for refusing to take a course in perspective.

So we are left where we started, with a mix of masterful and dud, radical and safe, familiar and revelatory. “Uproar!” is hardly uproarious, and is not representative enough to allow firm historical conclusions to be drawn, but it is certainly a show worth enjoying.

Published Tue, 18 Feb 2014 15:15:00 GMT

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