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

By Michael T. Saler | Go to book overview
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1
FRAMING THE PICTURE

Discourse analysis is always in a sense, unfair to authors. It is interested not in what they have to say or feel as subjects, but is concerned merely with statements as related to other statements in a field.

JAMES CLIFFORD 1

THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY English arts and crafts merged with the twentieth-century avant-garde, romantic medievalism with visual modernism, “functionalism” with “formalism.” It is the story of how the London Underground—one of the largest and most respected public transport systems in the world in the interwar period—conjoined with England's artistic underground during these years; it is the story of how this modern and mechanized transport system paradoxically became the culminating project of the English arts and crafts movement. It is also the story of how a network of prominent individuals in England, inspired by the ideals of John Ruskin and William Morris, attempted to integrate modern art with modern life: an attempt that corresponded in some respects to the well-documented efforts of continental avant-garde groups like the Italian futurists, the French surrealists, and the Russian constructivists. The English version of this narrative has yet to be told, even though it was in interwar England that the avantgarde aim of abolishing the distinction between art and everyday life attained its widest realization. 2

I start from the premise that there were many modernisms. “Modernism” is often associated with stylistic innovations, but it also encompassed numerous conceptions about the nature and purpose of art, many of them antithetical. Two such antithetical conceptions, formalism and functionalism, were arrayed against one another in early twentieth-century Europe and America—and particularly in England. In a phrase made famous by Virginia Woolf, it was “on or about December, 1910” that members of London's Bloomsbury Group promulgated a formalist conception of art, which in turn provoked a response from an informal network of individuals, many of them from the North, who advocated a more functionalist conception of art. While the English “avant-garde” has often been associated with Bloomsbury, the opposing network of “medieval

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