Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

LISA TICKNER

Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 336 pp.; 46 color ills., 104 b/w. $45.00

This is a rich and abundantly detailed study, one that long simmered, as Lisa Tickner acknowledges in her opening sentence. The subject is modernism, or what in less stentorian tones can be referred to as certain modernist ambitions played out in British art in the first years of the last century. It is a familiar yet still difficult topic. Of modernism itself we have an acceptable account: that it was a response to the simultaneously developing forms of capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, and, as Wyndham Lewis put it in a characteristically bold phrase, it was to be "almost entirely credited to Anglo-Saxon genius." But at a cost, he added, for busy with "this LIFE-EFFORT" England became "the last to be conscious of the Art that is an Organism of this new Order and Will of Man" (p. 193). Tickner claims that if Britain was not rebellious enough to accept modernism itself-the terms "modernity," "modernism," "modernise" had long been used in English criticism, but they referred to the battle of the ancients-still, there are moments of modernism to be recognized within the visual arts and understood from a cluster of issues that emerged in the cultural commentary of the period: a sense of the Englishness of English art, wrested from its basis in rural landscape into the urban, the virile, the industrial, and the primitive; the association, by supporters and detractors alike, of avant-garde practice with radical social and sexual politics; the demand for rough and masculine work (Lewis again)-this to be an answer to the supposedly degenerative influence of women and homosexuals; and finally the development of a certain fashionability of the avantgarde and the transformation of patronage, the art market, and the media.

The tone of any account of British modernism is not easy to set. Tickner is careful to avoid a trap that has caught lesser spirits, that of either underplaying the influence of the Continent or, as with the collages of 1914 by Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant, of exaggerating the formal possibilities of the art in England of this moment-just as too much could be made of the Objective Abstractions of Graham Bell, Rodrigo Moynihan, or Geoffrey Tibble twenty years later. Between such extremes there is much to be done, especially if the focus of the account is extended beyond the boundary of art history to recognize and understand what Tickner, using contemporary parlance, calls the "permeability of the work" (p. 212), that is, the object of art seen within a far wider cultural field. Within the sociology of modernism, historians, passing over the idea of gender, have often ignored the possibility that the new modernity, sometime after about 1880, disrupted certain patterns of social intercourse to give women an autonomy in all aspects of their professional and sexual lives that was not available earlier in the age of industrialization. Money and class would still matter. But for some, as Gertrude Stein put it, "life without father" could now begin, and "a very pleasant one" it might be (p. 197).

Tickner's narrative and her selection of artists-Walter Sickert, Augustus John, Lewis, Vanessa Bell, and David Bomberg, each of whom is discussed in a separate chapter-are based on Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements, an exhibition that was held in May and June 1914 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The show featured works by Sickert, John, Lewis, Bell, Bomberg, and others. Grand public exhibitions had been deeply important occasions in the world of art in London since at least 1769 and the first summer shows at the Royal Academy. Yet this one was very different, as was the gallery, which was located in Whitechapel, an area in the East End that teemed with poor immigrants, most of them Jewish. The show's intent-to present to the public all that was new in art-- was the same as that of Twenty Years of British Art, which was held at the Whitechapel in 1910 to mark the tenth anniversary of its founding. …