'The Age of Enchantment': Dulwich Picture Gallery

By Poe, Simon | British Art Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

'The Age of Enchantment': Dulwich Picture Gallery


Poe, Simon, British Art Journal


This exhibition did just what good exhibitions are meant to do. On leaving, you emerge into a world subtly transformed. As you walk back down Gallery Road towards West Dulwich station tree roots glimpsed out of the corner of your eye seem to writhe like those in Arthur Rackham's illustrations. Hedgerows conceal ... what? Perhaps this is an easier trick to pull off in Dulwich Village--a bosky escapist fantasy as whimsical as anything on view inside the Picture Gallery--than it would be in central London. A lovely doll's house by Jessie M King, for instance, has plenty of Arts and Crafts equivalents in the streets outside. Still, the exhibition really did deliver on its title's promise. The enchantment on offer was real.

That said, much of the work on view was not only escapist but nostalgic and sentimental. The world to which it so successfully transported one is that of childhood-that-never-was; and while, as I walked away, one part of me wanted to skip, kick leaves, and have somebody to hold my hand as I crossed the road, another was wondering what on earth had got into such an obviously talented group of artists. It could have been one of a number of things. The consensual illusion of a long hot 'Edwardian summer' was hard won, and Britain at the fin de siecle was beset with anxieties (about the Boers, the suffragettes and the strikers), but the answer probably lay in the Wilde trial of 1895. Boatloads of confirmed bachelors fled to the Continent and British culture experienced a bout of moral panic, flinching away, not just from Decadence, but from reality itself. A generation dived under the bedcovers and hid. The artists in this show seem to have stayed put, creating private fantasy worlds, right through the years 191418 and on into the 20th century. Going around the exhibition, one had to read rather carefully between the lines to perceive any reference to the events that were convulsing the world outside. Only a lingering sense of unease, of horror even, or of a too-fixed staring in the other direction, dissuaded one from the suspicion that many of them had simply been too far away with the fairies to notice that there was a war on at all. In fact, though, it turns out that several of them contributed illustrations to books sold on behalf of the war effort. People needed distraction and they were there to supply it.

There may have been a danger that some of the artists at the core of the exhibition (Rackham, perhaps, Charles Robinson, Maurice and Edward Detmold, or Kay Nielsen) would be overshadowed by the bigger names into whose august company they have been thrust. In the first room the curator, Rodney Engen, had contextualised their work with that of Aubrey Beardsley (thus making the connection with Wilde) and in the last--the structure of the gallery imposes a possibly unintended linearity on his argument--with that of Leon Bakst. …

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