David Bomberg, In the Hold, Tate Gallery
On a sweltering day, there is no better place to be than a picture gallery. Their cool, hushed corridors hung with the aloof eyes of the long dead are a glorious relief from the oppressive glare of the sun. As such, in heat more akin to New York than London, yesterday I went to Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is England’s oldest public art gallery. Located on a leafy street in the historic and breathtakingly beautiful South London suburb of Dulwich Village, it is surrounded by its own parkland and bordered by gorgeous Georgian houses. I have never visited before; the permanent collection of Old Masters is not really my cup of tea, but I was enticed to go along thanks to their current exhibition of five 20th century artists who I have wanted to learn more about since reading Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns.
Paul Nash, The Combat, Victoria and Albert Museum
As it happens, Alexandra Harris wrote one of the essays in the exhibition catalogue, which is marvellous, and I wish I’d read it before going as it would have enabled me to put what I saw in a wider context than the exhibition information boards can give. The catalogue is written by David Boyd Hancock, who also curated the exhibition; his multi-stranded biography of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Christopher Nevinson and Dora Carrington received such rave reviews that an exhibition of their works was called for, and thankfully Dulwich Picture Gallery responded to the demand (adding a sixth artist, David Bomberg, to the mix). I don’t know a huge amount about any of these artists; I just know that they were connected to leading figures in the cultural world in the early 20th century and I was intrigued to find out more about them and how their work reflected the period. They all attended the Slade School of Art between the years 1908 and 1912, and their teacher, the famous Henry Tonks (who was an instrumental character in a novel I read last year, Toby’s Room) referred to their extraordinary eruption of talent as a ‘crisis of brilliance’ that was never to be repeated.
The selection of their works shown in the exhibition is fascinating. on entering, you are confronted with David Bomberg’s ‘In the Hold’, an extraordinary vision of coloured shapes that looks like it was painted yesterday. To see the date of 1913 next to it is truly amazing; it completely shattered my perception of the early 20th century mind. Walking further into the exhibition, I continued to have my existing knowledge of the period trampled over. Mark Gertler and Stanley Spencer were producing abstract and ingenious images of humanity that revealed a generation of young people railing against the status quo of their society. Self portraits and portraits of one another reveal the faces of young men and women who are uncertain and troubled about their future in a world set on war.
Dora Carrington, Self Portrait, National Portrait Gallery
Many of these young artists painted their experiences of this war that would bring their world to an abrupt halt; the dreary, pain etched canvases show the devastation and disillusionment the conflict caused these passionate, idealistic creatures of an innocent age. Sadly, many of them could not cope with their artistic temperaments, killing themselves before they had a chance to truly live. Others slipped into obscurity, failing to recapture the extraordinary vision of their youth. Only Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash remained lauded throughout their lifetimes, but strangely enough theirs were the works that called to me the least in this exhibition. It was Christopher Nevinson who struck me as the real genius; his abstract, clean lines that most clearly reference the art deco movement out of all of his contemporaries reveal a dynamism that I felt the others slightly lacked. I could have stared at his amazing painting of a plane careering through the clouds all day.
Christopher Nevinson, Spiral Descent, Private Collection
If you are in a position to make it to Dulwich, I highly recommend you making the trip. If not, the exhibition catalogue is brilliant. I never normally buy exhibition catalogues as they cost a small fortune, but this one was worth every penny. I have been glued to it all weekend and I can’t wait to learn more about these artists.
Christopher Nevinson, War Profiteers, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum