Art Scene

In January 1910 Roger Fry had a chance encounter with a young married couple on the platform of Cambridge railway station that would lead to one of the most important and influential art exhibitions ever to take place in London.

The couple were Clive and Vanessa Bell. Both were, like Fry, artists; she was the daughter of the scholar Sir Leslie Stephen and the older sister of Virginia Woolf; he was, like Fry, a graduate of Cambridge University. Also like Fry, he had spent time studying in Paris, where he had discovered the work of Matisse and Gauguin. When Vanessa (who’d last seen Fry some four years previously) spotted him waiting for the same train she reintroduced herself. It was a fortuitous convergence of interests: Fry had been pondering the thought of holding an exhibition in London of the latest French painters. Now, enthusiastically, he explained his idea. As Vanessa listened, she watched Fry, ‘his face bent a little down towards his MS but not reading, considering, listening, waiting to reply, intensely alive but quiet. “What astonishing beauty” I thought looking at the austere modelling in the flat bright side lights from the train window.’ Not surprisingly, they would later become lovers.

Clive Bell liked this idea of an exhibition of French modernists. He told Fry that he would be ‘proud to help’ in any way he could – but added that the scheme was so fantastic that the chances of pulling it off seemed slim. So, whilst Fry’s friendship with the Bells blossomed, the exhibition was shelved: nothing more was heard of it for six months.

In the meantime Fry was introduced to the couple’s wider circle of friends, which congregated at their home in Bloomsbury’s Gordon Square. They included the painter Duncan Grant, the writers Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and E. M. Forster, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. They were much impressed by Fry’s erudition and intense personality; Virginia was particularly captivated. As she later recalled of their first meeting, ‘He appeared, I seem to think, in a large ulster coat, every pocket of which was stuffed with a book, a paint box or something intriguing … he had canvases under his arms; his hair flew; his eyes glowed. He had more knowledge and experience than the rest of us put together.’ With Fry there was ‘always some new idea afoot’, Virginia would recall, ‘always some new picture standing on a chair to be looked at, some new poet fished out of obscurity and stood in the light of day’. With Fry’s arrival, the Bloomsbury Group was effectively complete.

Then, later that same year, the Public Art Galleries in Brighton hosted a now largely forgotten exhibition of modern French artists. It included works by Derain, Signac, Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse. Fry attended, and though the press reviews were largely hostile, the idea he had outlined to the Bells was rekindled. With Clive Bell and the journalist and literary critic Desmond MacCarthy in tow, he headed off to Paris. Together the three men visited the Parisian dealers and private collectors, arranging an assortment of paintings to exhibit at the Grafton Galleries in London’s Mayfair. Fry did not have an exact idea of which artists or works he wished to exhibit, nor high hopes that the show would be a success. Nonetheless, MacCarthy later recalled Fry’s ‘raptures’ as they looked through the pictures that had been generously put at their disposal in Paris. ‘He would sit in front of them with his hands on his knees groaning repeatedly, “Wonderful, wonderful”.’

Fry was spellbound. Virginia Woolf described him at the Grafton Galleries gazing at the paintings, ‘plunging his eyes into them as if he were a humming-bird Hawkmoth hanging over a flower, quivering yet still. And then drawing a deep breath of satisfaction, he would turn to whoever it might be, eager for sympathy.’ Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Matisse would dominate the London show. They included such now- famous works as Matisse’s Fille aux Yeux Verts, Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergères, and Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. There was also a work by Picasso, Portrait of Clovis Sagot.

Although some of these paintings were already twenty or even thirty years old – and four of the five major artists represented were dead – they were new to most Londoners. The show was going to be an eye-opener for an insular audience brought up on the realism of the classical tradition – a tradition exemplified by contemporary British painters such as William Rothenstein, William Nicholson and Augustus John. Fry’s ‘new’ continental paintings were not, by and large, ‘about’ anything – they did not have a narrative or a literary inspiration in the way that most Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist paintings did. They were portraits, or landscapes, or still-lives, painted with a distinctive, idiosyncratic eye. They were anti-narrative, anti-naturalistic: form and style dominated. Only Walter Sickert and, before him, James Whistler, seemed to be offering anything akin to this modern art being painted on the other side of the Channel.

Fry expected trouble: ‘I am preparing for a huge campaign of outraged British Philistinism’, he told a friend in October. The exhibition opened to the public on 8 November 1910 under the title Manet and the Post-Impressionists, a collective phrase Fry had coined especially for the show. It met with derision. The critic for the Pall Mall Gazette described the paintings as ‘the output of a lunatic asylum’, whilst Robert Ross, writing in the Morning Post, pointed out that Van Gogh had been ‘a lunatic’, and that the

‘emotions of these painters … are of no interest except to the student of pathology and the specialist in abnormality.’ The reviewer from The Times observed that such work ‘throws away all that the long-developed skills of past artists had acquired and bequeathed. It begins all over again – and stops where a child would stop.’

Heavily morally and culturally loaded, Manet and the Post-Impressionists was quite some exhibition. Back over in Bloomsbury, at the Slade School of Art, where Roger Fry was employed to lecture on the art of the Renaissance, it seemed to spell trouble. Here were congregated some of the most talented and ambitious young art students in England – what their Professor of Drawing, the brilliant but irascible Henry Tonks, later described as the School’s last ‘crisis of brilliance’. Many of these students would eventually become some of the most famous and renowned twentieth-century British painters: they included David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer and Edward Wadsworth.

Tonks was having none of Fry’s Post-Impressionism. As Paul Nash later observed, his fellow students were ‘by no means a docile crowd and the virus of the new art was working in them uncomfortably. Suppose they all began to draw like Matisse?’ Gathering them together, Tonks called on their ‘sporting instincts’, explaining that whilst he could not prevent them from visiting the Grafton Galleries, he could tell them ‘how very much better pleased he would be if we did not risk contamination but stayed away.’

Nash ignored Tonks’ request. But he left the exhibition ‘untouched’, writing long afterwards, ‘I remained at the point I had reached and continued to make my monochrome drawings of “visions”’. The response of his colleagues was equally cool. Nevinson, who had already spent some time in Paris and knew of the ‘Post-Impressionist’ artists long before 1910, went with Gertler to what was being called this ‘ultra-modernist’ exhibition. It made a limited impact on their art, however. Like Nash, they would not yet join the ranks of the European avant-garde, and they continued to pursue their love affair with the early Renaissance artists on display at the National Gallery. When Nevinson and Gertler exhibited at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea in December 1913 alongside Augustus John, The Observer perceived that ‘when their modernity is closely investigated it seems to belong more to the fifteenth century than to the twentieth century. Indeed the most “advanced” of the exhibits take us back to the days of Giotto’.

In time, however, this would change. Gradually, the influence of Post-Impressionism seeped into the work of the young Slade artists, as exposure to radically new modern works increased, and as their older English colleagues – particularly those of the Bloomsbury Group – started to display its influence in their paintings. And as the new decade wore on, the range of influences open to a young artist multiplied – and they could prove puzzling. Soon there was not only Post-Impressionism to contend with, but Cubism, Spottism,

Expressionism, Futurism, Vorticism and more – what Nevinson described to Carrington as ‘this Anarchic & egoistical condition’.

As another young Slade artist reflected in the University College Magazine: ‘Not every student can bear with equanimity the burden of dozens of semi-digested principles, the bewilderment of theories innumerable, each claiming for itself superiority over all others.’ Though Tonks had not entirely failed, he viewed Post-Impressionism as ‘an evil thing’ that ‘seduced’ the ‘most gifted’ of his students away from the English tradition represented by Turner, Gainsborough, Constable, Millais and Holman Hunt.

By 1914, when Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists launched a ‘putsch’ at a Futurist performance that included C. R. W. Nevinson, it seemed that art and artists in London were at war with themselves. ‘Life was one big bloodless brawl’, Lewis later declared with excited nostalgia. ‘To be a modern artist was suddenly to be newsworthy’, and the press was filled with stories of the antics of the young avant-garde – even if their works were largely ridiculed.

Then, almost out of nowhere, exploded real fighting – and on an unprecedented scale. Within a few months the collector Michael Sadler put forward the theory that this ‘Great War’ – the so-called ‘War to end Wars’ – was ‘the outcome of the same restlessness and seething discontent that led to the expressionist and futurist revolution’. With World War One, however, the avant-garde finally had a subject that it could get its teeth into.

Over the course of the next four years, Nevinson, Nash, Gertler, Spencer, Roberts and Bomberg would produce some of their greatest works, and emerge as the foremost young artists in the country. Yet, as individuals, none of them would ever be the same again. ‘Oh no,’ Stanley Spencer later wrote, ‘it is not proper or sensible to expect to paint well after such experiences.’ Or, as Paul Nash would reflect with some sadness, the period after 1914 ‘was another life, another world’.

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