The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground

By Michael T. Saler | Go to book overview
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PREFACE

It is at least provocative, and it may be historically illuminating, to regard modernism provincially, as it were—to set modernist culture back in its context and to see it as a limited and local enterprise.

LOUIS MENAND 1

THIS BOOK TRACES THE RECEPTION AND assimilation of modern visual art in England during the interwar period and examines the implications such a local, contextual study has for the broader histories of European modernism and of modern England. It focuses on a debate about the nature of art between modernist “formalists” who sought to define art as autonomous and self-reflexive, and avant-garde “functionalists” who reacted against this definition by arguing that art had direct social, economic, and spiritual functions. The debate set the terms by which visual modernism was to be legitimated to a bewildered and often suspicious public. The formalist conception of art was indebted to the writings of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, members of London's Bloomsbury Group; the functionalist conception of art was propounded by an informal network of individuals, many from the industrial North, whom I have called “medieval modernists.”

When it comes to the visual arts, “English modernism” might seem like a contradiction in terms, particularly when one considers the country's veneration of the past, as well as its Protestant bias against images, which continued well into the early twentieth century. In England, however, it was precisely cultural standards like the past (especially the “medieval” past as concocted by nineteenth-century romantics like John Ruskin and William Morris) and the Protestant ethic of service that were drawn upon in order to legitimate visual modernism. I will argue that the formalist aesthetic was strongly challenged throughout the interwar period and that the reception and assimilation of modern art through the late 1930s owed as much to the romantic medievalism of Ruskin and Morris as it did to the formalism of Fry and Bell.

The continued influence of Ruskin and Morris's ideals in interwar England is itself surprising: it is usually thought that the arts and crafts movement inspired by the two faded into a feeble antiquarianism after Morris's

-vii-

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