British Modernism's Many Manners . . . and Its American Admirers

Article excerpt

Scene: Bloomsbury, London, on or about December 1910

Dramatis Personae: PAINTERS, DESIGNERS, NOVELISTS, PHILOSOPHERS, ART CRITICS, PUBLISHERS, ARTISANS, HOAXERS, a POET-SOLDIER, an ECONOMIST, an EMINENT BIOGRAPHER, and SUNDRY Yankee folk of independent taste

Exeunt [Victorians]. Enter, with a flourish, [Bloomsberries].

BLOOMSBURY, THE GROUP OF INNOVATIVE WRITERS AND ARTISTS, came out of its embryonic phase around 1 9 1 0 as the Victorian era finally expired with the funeral of Edward VII. Its young mix of writers, thinkers, and artists stood at the vanguard of a shift in manners away from nineteenth-century formality and reticence and toward twentieth-century candor and playfulness. Male and female, mostly in their twenties, the Bloomsbury lot addressed each other by their first names, spoke openly about sexual matters, and, till the wee hours of the morning, reflected on how to spend their lives. ? Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections," an exhibition that opened in December 2008 at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, will run through April 5, 2009, before touring the country over the next couple of years and making stops at five other museums.

Fascinated by the difference between the world of appearances and the world of reality, in the visual and literary arts, the Bloomsberries (as they were sometimes called) experimented with brush and pen to express above all the subjective qualities of their work. For the painters, who opened themselves up to the currents swirling around on the Continent since the final days of Impressionism, this translated into an emphasis on line, mass, contour, and the rhythms they create.

If any one work by the Bloomsbury painters sums up adequately the era's avant-garde break with London's Victorian taste in art, and the influence of the French Post-Impressionists on British artists, it would be Vanessa Bell's 1 9 1 5 oil on canvas of Mary St. John Hutchinson, With arched eyebrow, lips slightly pursed, and cool self-assurance, Mrs, Hutchinson sits noticing something to her left, and the viewer, disarmed at first perhaps by the flatness of the composition and the coarse brushwork, feels as much as sees the various tones of the few colors in the portrait - ochre, green, and pink, and, where the whites of the eyes should be, teal. The work broke all the reigning Conventions in British painting. Treatment of subject, use of line and color, lack of shadowing, and the solidness of the background in relation to the figure are all in sync with the modernist modes that had been in style on the Continent, most notably in France.

This English modernism struck a chord with American collectors who shared Bloomsbury 's rebellious streak. They reveled in the rejection of Victorian rigidities and embraced Bloomsbury's lightheartedness. Inspired by Charleston farmhouse (itself an embodiment of Bloomsbury art and design sensibilities) and the ceramics and furniture produced by a Bloomsbury offshoot, the Omega Workshops, some Americans, before actually having the money in hand to collect, started copying the effects of Bloomsbury in their own homes, often painting their own interiors in the same unorthodox, highly decorative way,

IF BLOOMSBURY HAD BEEN AN ART DEPARTMENT, Roger Fry would have been faculty chairman. Fellow art critic Clive Bell called him the most open-minded person he had ever met. Painter, curator, and instigator, Fry studied the sciences at Cambridge in the 1 880s, developing a habit of skepticism that would serve him well as he guided painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant toward modernism in the years leading up to World War I. While at Cambridge, Fry came under the influence of philosopher G. E. Moore, who helped him and subsequently the Bloomsbury painters develop their aesthetic sense. In his best known work, Pnncipia Ethica, Moore posed the question "What things are good or ends in themselves? …