Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to the Revolutionaries

Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to the Revolutionaries

Article excerpt

Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914

(Barbican Art Gallery, till 26 May)

It is difficult to imagine the scandal which Post-Impressionism once caused in London. Outrage and fascination greeted the arrival of pictures by Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, brought across the Channel in 1910 for a show at the Grafton Galleries. `All London is going to the Exhibition, and is deriving much amusement from it,' reported the Daily Sketch. Bateman commented on the occasion with a cartoon of shocked gentlemen attending the opening, appropriately held on Guy Fawkes night.

But even if Britain lagged behind the Continent in appreciating the latest art, it did at least invent the label for it. Critic and artist Roger Fry made a last-minute decision to call his groundbreaking show, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Although he had intended to describe the artists as 'expressionists', a journalist friend with whom he discussed the proposed title scorned the term. Fry then impatiently exclaimed, `Oh, let's just call them PostImpressionists; at any rate, they came after the Impressionists.'

The Barbican Art Gallery's homage to the revolutionary show evolved out of a recent effort to identify the major pictures which had been exhibited in 1910. Although titles were published in Fry's slim catalogue, it required art historical detective work to identify precisely which works they were. Reading University art historian Anna Robins eventually succeeded in tracking down most of the 250 pictures.

It would have been a dream come true to have brought these paintings back together, but this proved impossible. Many of the Post-Impressionist works are so important that owners are understandably reluctant to lend. The fact that most ended up in foreign collections made this even more of a hurdle. Robins knew it would be a challenge to secure loans. She admits that, if the paintings from the 1910 show could ever be reassembled, they would form `the most superb collection of modern art in the world'. Not surprisingly, the Barbican found it impossible to wave the magic wand.

The Barbican therefore opted for the more realistic goal of showing contemporary pictures by British artists beside some representative examples of Post-Impressionism. This makes it possible once again to see Vanessa Bell, Augustus John, Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry himself, alongside the European masters who inspired them. The time period was also extended slightly by the Barbican, to cover not only the 1910 show, but several others in the period up to the outbreak of the first world war.

Although the idea was a good one, the Barbican presentation is confusing. The main difficulty is that it is unclear which paintings were actually exhibited in the highlighted 1910-14 shows. For example, only one of the Barbican's four Van Goghs was in Manet and the Post-Impressionists the powerful 'Pieta' done when the artist was in the asylum at St-Remy. The other three were presumably selected because they are now in British collections, and easier to borrow. It is a similar story with the British works, which represent a mixture of pictures from the 1910-14 shows and others which were not exhibited. Although Robins's catalogue identifies the paintings featured in these early exhibitions, it would have been helpful to have included this key detail on the labels. …

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