In the autumn of 1997 the Royal Academy of Art mounted Sensation, an exhibition of artists promoted by Charles Saatchi that included Damien Hirst, Michael Landy and Marcus Harvey’s notorious painting of Myra Hindley. As the title of the exhibition suggested its aim was to shock. Many might be forgiven for thinking that such an act of épater les bourgeois was something new on the British art scene. But a fascinating exhibition, Uproar! at the Ben Uri Gallery, which marks the centenary of the London Group, an artists’ exhibiting society set up at the beginning of the 20thcentury to provide a radical alternative to the staid intellectualism of institutions such as Royal Academy, (rather ironic given its later involvement with Sensation) shows that rocking the Establishment boat is nothing new.
Charting The London Group’s first 50 years, the show reveals its complex history, its arguments, schisms and ideological discords. The choice of name signalled inclusivity, rather than the neighbourhood parochialism of the Fitzroy Street Group, The Camden Town Group and the Bloomsbury Group. Created at a time of exceptional turmoil in the British art world it brought together painters influenced by European Cubism and Futurism, and survived the early resignation of its founding fathers, the Danish-French artist, Lucien Pissarro, then living in London, and Walter Sickert, to continue to this day. From the onset the group’s radicalism enraged many diehard critics. The Connoisseur snottily complained that in the work of Epstein and others ‘the artistic tendencies of the most advanced school of modern art are leading us back to the primitive instincts of the savage.’ That many of the artists then panned now rank among the pantheon of British modernist greats might give some critics pause for thought.
From the start uproar raged both inside and outside the Group. There was press hostility to the ultra-modernists, rivalry between the Group and other exhibiting societies such as the New English Art Club, not to mention the warfare between Camden Townites and Wyndham Lewis’s Vortecists, between the Surrealists and realists, as well as differing political attitudes exemplified by Mark Gertler’s anti-war stance and Wyndham Lewis’s bellicose right-wing posturing.
At the Ben Uri Gallery curators Rachel Dickson and Sarah MacDougall have created a show that includes fifty works from fifty different artists who were members of the Group between 1913 and 1963. Composed mainly of pieces shown in past Group exhibitions, a significant proportion of the work comes from the gallery’s own collection. In contrast to the Bloomsbury aesthetic there is a strong Jewish presence. The ‘Whitechapel Boys’, who included Mark Gertler, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein, were united by ethnicity and friendship and the need to find exhibiting alternatives outside the establishment rather than by style. Founded in July 1915, in the Jewish ghetto of London’s East End, the Ben Uri Gallery was set up in response to these restrictions. The London Group’s open submissions policy encouraged many Jewish émigrés to submit work, as it did many women. Among images of a lost Jewish way of life is David Bomberg’s savagely dark painting Ghetto Theatre, 1920, its vertiginous balcony crammed with shabbily dressed spectators with mask-like faces.
Hung chronologically the exhibition is an education in British Art history. It is also a record of social change and a desire to make sense of a complex, conflicted world in the midst of rapid flux. The exhibition starts with Harold Gilman’s Fauvist style portrait of Sylvia Gosse, followed by Ethel Sands delightful Vuillard-like interior that shows a lost upper middle class world of good taste, quiet and privilege. This stands in contrast to Spencer Gore’s depiction of Harold Gilman’s Letchworth house designed by the garden city architects Barry Parker and Stanley Unwin as part of a modernist utopian project. John Bratby’s 1955 Kitchen Interior stoked the uproar in the press with its depiction of the drudgery and squalor of much post-war British life. The domestic chaos, the black frying pan nailed to the wall, the Lux soapbox, the mean little gas stove depicted in thick gloopy paint, all speak not only of hardship but of a lost bohemianism.
But it was Mark Gertler’s 1914 The Creation of Eve which was the painting that caused most media uproar. Already up in arms against modernism, an increasingly jingoistic press considered this Blakian image with its Rousseau-style Garden of Eden and its cavorting Eve as ‘impertinence with a seasoning of blasphemy’. The Morning Post declared it ‘hunnishly indecent, while Gertler found, to his surprise, that ‘some people in a rage [had] stuck a label on the belly of my little ‘Eve’ with ‘Made in Germany’ written on it.’
Numerous other insights are offered into the period including Nevinson’s angular and disturbing 1916 Returning to the Trenches. Here men returning to the front seem little more than cannon fodder, part of a relentless military machine. While Charles Ginner’s 1916, Roberts, a depiction of a hospital ward where the moustachioed men stare into space from their iron bedspreads covered with cheerful floral bedspreads, shows the traumatic aftermath of war. There are paintings from the Bloomsbury Group that now seem rather nostalgic, such as Duncan Grants idyllic Window, South of France, 1928 that depict a world recovering from the ravages of one war and not yet shaken by another.
There is a wonderful painting by Ruskin Spear of a dark London winter in 1940 when then only colour in the tenebrous street is a woman’s red hat and experimental abstraction from Victor Pasmore, Mary and Kenneth Martin. There are also numerous women. Some relatively well known, such as Eileen Agar, and others such as Dorothy Mead with her stunning Self-Portrait, 1960, who are surely ripe for reappraisal.
This is a fascinating exhibition that shows the ferment, the maelstrom of ideas and the rather undervalued richness of British art in the first half of the 20th century.
Ethel Sands, The Pink Box, 1913, Oil on canvas,
John Bratbury, Kitchen Interior, 1955-56, Oil on Board, Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead; Wirral Museums Service, presented by the Contemporary Art Society
Mark Gertler, Creation of Eve, 1914, Oil on canvas, Private collection
C.R.W. Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, 1916, Dry point etching, British Museum
Duncan Grant, The Window, South of France (A View from a Window), 1928, Oil on canvas, Manchester City Gallery, Gift of the Contemporary Art Society
Dorothy Mead, Self Portrait, 1960, Oil on canvas, Ruth Borchard Collection c/o Robert Travers Work of Art Ltd. Piano Nobile, London