Published  14/04/2011

Romancing The Modern

Romancing The Modern

Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists And The Imagination From Virginia Woolf To John Piper
By Alexandra Harris
Thames & Hudson, London, October 2010

An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters
National Gallery, London
3 March–30 May 2011


Historians have not yet thoroughly or conclusively addressed the phenomenon of “Modernism” in the arts (and architecture), and society has remained increasingly confused about its nature and indeed about its 20th-century cultural role. If anything, the pattern is clearer in literature, than in the arts and in architecture. Perhaps it is because of the complexity of the century itself and the ebb and flow of tumultuous events.

Accordingly this publication, authored by Alexandra Harris, arrives now as a distinctly 21st-century exercise in a scholarly yet objective historiography. This could not be more timely, for whilst the public at large does its best to take stock – at one remove – of the particularly English course that modernism demonstrated in the years between the wars, in fact, the real debate, seemingly settled in continental Europe, has only just appeared to have begun in Britain, extended duly into the immediate post-war period. There is also, currently, the exhibition An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters at the National Gallery, which provides an interesting comparison to the English context for emergent modernism between the wars.

In England, the proclaimed protagonists of modernism in literature, art and architecture did seem to share in a common enthusiasm that ran across the boundaries of each. The poet John Betjeman ran a banner article in the Architectural Review endorsing the modern in November 1931.1 From the same stable, the talented critic P Morton Shand actively promoted continental modernists from Walter Gropius to Alvar Aalto, the already famous architect from Finland.2 There was TS Eliot and there was WH Auden. By the early 1930s however, a perceptible mood of disenchantment with industrial landscapes set in, and there was increasing recourse to rural themes, activities, locations, and finally refuges. By now Betjeman himself was delighting in the picturesque in Victoriana and in English parish churches. Together with the artist John Piper he recoiled then at the evident threat to an England that still held to a rich tapestry of history (much of which was imaginary). In the emergent paintings of both Piper and Eric Ravilious there is a poignant romanticism. In the former case hanging out with symbolic enclosure; in the latter, resonant with a windswept emptiness. All this was in effect a poetic reprise for all that was being lost or about to be so.

Harris covers a broad canvas, and fortunately extends this to the early post- war period. When was the turning point? This dissolution and quest for pastures new did not occur at the outbreak of the new war in 1939. It came earlier as the author conclusively demonstrates, somewhere c1935. There were the wistful photo-documentations by László Moholy-Nagy, such as of Eton (1935–7). The landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe and garden designer Russell Page found themselves executing classical work (Jellicoe an avowed modernist) at the same time as establishing an excellent contemporary Visitors’ Centre at Cheddar Gorge (1934), creating a classical garden at Ditchley Park, altogether more or less simultaneously. Gordon Russell adapted his modernist furniture design and hired Jellicoe to design his contemporary London showroom as well as to design and execute harmonious steps in his Chipping Camden garden. There was indeed an ambivalence in the air, perhaps motivated by the growing scarcity of work. By 1936 Jellicoe had produced that masterly garden design in the Renaissance tradition at Ditchley Park for Ronald Tree, which was highly praised. In 1935, in another marker of the times, the modernist/activist P Morton Shand, at a peak in his career, was turned down for the sought after Directorship of the Barber Institute in Birmingham, although fully supported by an impressive list of European leaders in design. The post went to a traditionalist historian. Meanwhile Nikolaus Pevsner had taken to deftly researching historic English architecture, while this was accompanied by his Pioneers of Modern Design, drawing there from earlier work by his Architectural Review colleague Shand.

By contrast, the architect Bertholt Lubetkin stuck with modernism in his celebrated Highpoint II Flats in Highgate (1938), but set the seal on this ambivalent critical mood by adding two “Caryatid” figures, copied from the Erectheion on the Acropolis in Athens, as an ultimate gesture as Harris says, a statement of freedom to break the rules. Lubetkin, rather like Sir James Stirling 40 years later, “preferred not to be categorised”. A year later, Lubetkin threw in the sponge and disappeared, off to farm in Gloucestershire. But, as Harris asks, was this not also a “principled decision to experience an older way of life while not losing sight of his urban vision?” By 1940 Shand himself had somewhat disappeared into wartime obscurity after an equally dazzling mid-career engagement with modernity. Jellicoe who was too old for call-up, acted as an air raid warden and became Director of the wartime fugitive Architectural Association School. His career as a landscape architect flourished after 1945 again but he was always ready to reach for traditional precedent.

Convincingly Alexandra Harris plots a general retreat into the countryside, by such artists as Paul Nash, Thomas Hennell, Eric Ravilious and others as notably the poet TS Eliot. Meanwhile most of the brilliant expatriate talent of the 1930s, refugee influx from Europe, had moved on to America, nor had the English poet WH Auden himself missed the cue. Those who remained were concerned to salvage the best of the past, rural and urban albeit in the face of an apparently imminent Nazi invasion. George Orwell, having survived the Spanish Civil War, was equally persuaded. A romanticist mood, if doom-laden, still prevailed in many cases was also escapist as carried over from the 1930s. John Piper produced in 1942, a definitive marker for those artists so favoured, the publication “British Romantic Artists”.3 Here he skilfully wove together the English tradition in romantic, sublime or picturesque art. In 1944, Walter Neurath, already publishing, had the idea of New Excursions into English Poetry, and Piper’s wife Myfanwy contributed. Poetry and landscape continued to be linked, as always, in English culture. When peace came, this romanticism became politically harnessed to the morale-boosting Festival of Britain, which still flirted with modernism. To gauge the socially divisive reality of the post-war epoch one need only contrast the equestrian and social preoccupations of the aging Royal Academician Sir Alfred Munnings with the haunting Cookham-based Thames-side allegorical paintings of Sir Stanley Spencer. As Harris points out, it is with Spencer that every aspect of life is“interconnected”. Munnings was in a different world.

Alexandra Harris explores specifically the Romantic Moderns in England, and she carefully relates this narrative to the evident interaction of such artists with European modernists. An abstract “orderliness” had crossed the Channel in 1935. Myfanwy Evans (Piper) covered this tendency succinctly in her crisp white journal Axis, and yet also cannily let in the divergent romanticist attitude. A growing dissent with continental movements soon flourished. However it is perhaps to be regretted that the author does not at least summarily account for what was going on across the Atlantic. Here even before the Armory Show (1913) painters such as George Bellows4 and the members of the so-called “Ashcan School” early in the century made a mark, illustrating real life in the cities. This new modernist realism ran up to later the commissioning of Charles Sheeler by the Ford Motor Company (although Bellows himself died prematurely in 1925). Then Ford asked Sheeler to convey the new industrial landscape (1927). Soon followed Georgia O’Keefe who made the transition from abstraction to nature, in desert refuge from New York City and urban culture. Likewise Arthur Dove’s work showed a form of romanticism akin to that growing back in England. In a painting such as Summer Days (1936) O’Keefe seemed to issue a romanticist rallying call, in the face of Alfred H Barr’s apparently Eurocentric espousal of hard-edged modernism at MOMA. And it was Edward Hopper perhaps who most captured a similar mood of melancholy to that in England. But his works viewed non-specific places, with only representative configuration. Significantly, however although much overlooked, came the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1930’s revealed by African-American artists. This was epitomised by the painter Romare Bearden (1912–1988) (who had taken classes together with George Grosz at the New York-based Art Students League) who reached out in his figurative painting to the broader human context. This deepened sense of perspective seems to have been what was lacking in England. As Bearden said,

It would be highly artificial for the Negro artist to attempt a resurrection of African culture in America … Modigliani, Picasso, Epstein and other modern artists studied African sculpture to reinforce their own design concepts. This would be perfectly appropriate for any Negro artist to do the same … the true artist feels that there is only one art – and it belongs to all mankind.
(“The Negro Artist’s Dilemma”, 1946)5

Something of this breadth of vision, counteracting entrenched provincialism seems to have been what was lacking in 1930s England. Such comparisons could have helped Alexandra Harris in her broader appraisal. One might say that such dialectical tensions as distinguish abstraction from representation in art could have helped isolate constraints within history, uniting rather than dividing groups, then as now. The commentator and author Bryan Appleyard6 has aptly described British cultural development beyond 1951. The onset of the Picturesque favoured by the Architectural Review gained a fresh resurgence in English architecture under JM Richards assisted by Gordon Cullen’s atmospheric drawings of pubs and alleyways, modelling a new townscape. It can be seen that Romantic Modernism expressed (and still does) a deep seam in English, indeed British culture as a whole. This outstanding and well-balanced analysis of the phenomenon by Alexandra Harris helps to explain why so-called postmodernism in architecture so readily developed such a following, a precedent to the emblematic “Signature” architectural commissions of today, which posterity may rue in due course.


1. Architectural Review, London Nov 1931.

2. P Morton Shand, The Listener, Nov. 11 1933 (transcript of a BBC Radio programme). Shand organised an exhibition of Aalto’s furniture in Simpsons’, Piccadilly, London, (1934)

3. John Piper , British Romantic Artists,  Collins 1942

4. An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters, shows at the National Gallery, London through 30 May 2011. The Royal Academy will mount a major show of the work of George Bellows in 2013.

5. Romare Bearden, “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma” Critique: A Review of Contemporary Art, 1 no. 2 November 1946, pp.16-22. See: Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 2004.

6. Bryan Appleyard, The Pleasures of Peace Art and Imagination in Postwar Britain, Faber & Faber, London, 1989.

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