The British have always been self-deprecating about their late adoption of avant-garde ideas of the 20th century. The period in British art history has often been wrapped in ideas of genteel cosiness, but what curator Dr Hope Wolf reveals here is a cast of artists, writers and thinkers whose political and philosophical positions had a fundamental effect on the shape of the arts in this country to this day. The subtitle of the exhibition is “Retreat and Rebellion” and the show examines the way key figures used a rural setting as a means of escaping the social constraints of metropolitan life. Rather than characterising the English countryside as timeless and traditional, it was more a space in which radical ways of living and making work could be explored.
The exhibition draws mainly on the collections of a group of museums and collections in East and West Sussex: Charleston, the De La Warr Pavilion, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Farleys House, West Dean College, Pallant House Gallery, Towner Art Gallery and Brighton and Hove Museums – the last three of which are longstanding Museum Members of the Contemporary Art Society.
In terms of its curatorial framework, Sussex Modernism focusses on three specific moments and locations. The earliest centres on Eric Gill at Ditchling, in the first 15 years of the 20th century. The second is the period around the First World War and the Bloomsbury group. Charleston Farmhouse at Firle was the home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and the epicentre of a group that included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Roger Fry, founders of the Contemporary Art Society in 1910. Lastly, the exhibition shifts to the Second World War and pivots on Farley Farm House, home of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, and their connections to the Surrealist movement.
Throughout, Sussex is presented as defiantly other from London, and at the same time tantalisingly close to mainland Europe. Artists defined themselves as “out of place” – rejecting the city, but also not part of the Sussex community either, importing ideas and attracting émigré artists and architects who would have a permanent impact on the country.
Eric Gill positioned Ditchling as a Utopia in counterpoint to the industrial city that constrained man spiritually and creatively. Influenced by Ananda Coomaraswamy, a philosopher and art historian, Gill combined religion with eroticism. The exhibition includes beautiful examples of sculpture and drawings by Gill, while not shying away from the more problematic aspects of his sexuality.
In contrast to the Catholic Gill, the Bloomsbury group that established itself in Sussex between 1916 and 1925 was “avowedly atheist or agnostic, feminist and open to same sex relationships”. The exhibition gives glimpses of the famously complex relationships between the members of the group, using them to shed light on the political and philosophical stances they were taking, during and after the First World War. The linen chest from Maynard Keynes’ bedroom at Charleston is a case in point. Extravagantly painted both inside and out by Duncan Grant, one is struck by the evident influence of European Modernism: the sinuous nudes, the bright colours feel more southern than northern European. Matisse, whose studio Grant visited in 1909, seems to hover in the wings here.
The curator interprets the homoerotic male nude that stretches across the front of the chest in the context of the war that was raging across Europe in 1916, when it was made. The beauty of the male body would have been unbearably poignant at this moment when young men were being mutilated in their thousands just the other side of the channel. Grant was a pacifist and conscientious objector. Wolf’s commentary on his painting Leda and the Duck, on the inside of the chest’s lid, interprets the diminutive male figure in the background as a satirical jibe at the prevailing machismo. Grant’s large scale Crucifix, design for Berwick Church, 1942 is another gloriously sensual depiction of the male body – and reminiscent of the chapel at Lincoln Cathedral, where Grant’s murals were considered so provocative that they were closed to the public for 30 years after their commission. Laws criminalising homosexuality were abolished only 50 years ago this year, and the seclusion of life in rural Sussex allowed the Bloomsburies sexual freedoms that would have been dangerous in London society.
John Maynard Keynes, along with Lord De La Warr (the man behind the De La Warr Pavilion, one of England’s few notable modernist buildings), were key figures after the Second World War in the foundation of the Arts Council. That institution grew out of wartime efforts to tour exhibitions of quality around the country (based partly on loans of work from the Contemporary Art Society). Keynes’ vision for the Arts Council was that it should “carry the arts through the countryside and to maintain metropolitan standards”.
The third centre of the exhibition moves us to the period around the Second World War and the circles around British Surrealist Roland Penrose and his wife Lee Miller. The exhibition includes a section of carpet from West Dean, designed by Edward James, with the wet footprints of his wife, the dancer Tilly Losch. James was also the designer, with Salvador Dali, of the famous sofa in the shape of Mae West’s lips, a version of which can be seen at the foot of the stairs in Temple Place. Less whimsical is Flight of Time, 1949, the portrait of Miller by Penrose which reflects Miller’s depression on her return from the harrowing assignment to photograph the newly liberated camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. In 1947 Penrose was one of the co-founders of London’s Institute for Contemporary Art, a critical element in the development of post-war British art.
The exhibition is held at Two Temple Place, which if you have not been is well worth a visit in itself. Designed in the 1890s for William Waldorf Astor as the centre for his vast business interests, it is a wildly excessive Tudor fantasy that represents everything that modernism was rebelling against. It is only open for a few winter months of the year, so this gives two very strong reasons to take the tube to Temple.
Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD. Open Monday and Wednesday – Saturday 10.00-16.30, Sunday 11.00-16.30. Exhibition continues until Sunday 23 April 2017. www.twotempleplace.org