What, if anything, is the legacy of British Modernism in British art today?


Modernism, and its British manifestation especially, is much disputed still. The movement is positioned vaguely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the influencing factors identified as industrialisation, urbanisation, and increasing aesthetic introspection. The modern in art has generally been associated with the breakdown of the Western tradition of art mirroring nature – a tendency that appeared concurrently with the rise of nationalism in Europe. The Impressionists started to fragment their brushstrokes and give priority to atmospheric effect just as Italy and Germany formed nation states; and so, as the Serbs demanded independence and the Austrian Empire teetered on the brink of shattering into its component ethnic groups, Cubism flourished and Kandinsky claimed to have reached true abstraction in painting. But Britain stood apart both from the cutting edge of European modernism in its move towards abstraction and from the radical redrawing of national boundaries. Yet British art during the early twentieth century was certainly not lacking in dynamism. British Modernism, therefore, demands a different interpretation to the wider movement, rooted as it is in the traditions, society, history and culture of Britain as an independent nation. Art reacts to political events or social conditions, but reacts in a way consummate with the national character. Thus it seems entirely appropriate that following the horror of the First World War and the accompanying disillusionment experienced by those who survived it, the British sense of humour should prevail. Accompanied, of course, by a quiet celebration of the enduring British landscape. In a subtle manner, as is customary to the British disposition, these were the means by which British Modernism made its subversive voice known in the years immediately following the war.

ovidDouglas Goldring, assessing the attitude of young British artists in the 1920s, concluded that the hostility of public and press bred in them ‘an affected arrogance, which is an inevitable result of real or imagined “persecution”’ – and this led to a ‘vein of mordant satire.’  Those whose careers had been cruelly interrupted by the war – such as Wyndham Lewis, once leader of the radical Vorticist movement, left artistically isolated in the Twenties – were understandably disaffected and their paintings appear hard-edged, tainted with bitterness [Lewis, ‘Tyros (A Reading of Ovid)’, 1920-1, left]. However, the satirical strain of modernism developed beyond this initial reaction, younger artists picking up its thread and creating modernist satirical works that were light-hearted and mocking – and, most importantly, radically contemporary in their style, technique and topical subject matter. Satire’s traditional function is a moralistic one, the correction of social vices through ridicule; in the context of the 1920s, when accepted moral values were being challenged and rejected, leaving codes of behaviour uncertain, satire was a weapon of moral ‘rearmament’, an undermining of punitive censorship and political cant. Satire in this sense counterbalanced with ridicule the mood of fear and mistrust that permeated the post-war years.

It cannot be claimed that a comparable climate of fear or instability exists today; however, the mode of satire has persisted within British art, mutating to address the prevalent issues of each subsequent generation. And it seems to be making a quiet but marked renaissance among contemporary British artists. Where once the cinema and jazz music were considered dangerously decadent, a modern ‘opiate of the people’, today these anxieties are directed towards the internet and technology advancing beyond our control, by the unseen yet ubiquitous threat of jihadists and drones. In response, a number of artists have chosen to address these issues by using the traditional forms of painting and drawing to make a satirical comment on today’s society.


Edward Burra came of age in the early 1920s, the war a constant backdrop to his otherwise quiet middle-class upbringing at Springfield, Rye. His work from this decade draws on the muted dissent of modernist satire – indeed his friend and mentor Paul Nash dubbed him ‘the modern Hogarth’.  His paintings are concerned with the surface of things, detached from their subject matter, depicting a false gaity that masks – both literally and metaphorically – a seriousness and anxiety so ubiquitous that it was, consequently, deeply unfashionable [Burra, ‘Minuit Chanson’, 1931, above]. Burra’s work is determinedly awkward to classify – a fact he no doubt revelled in – and this may go some way to explain why he has been for so long overlooked as a important figure in British modernism.

dockside-cafe-marseilles-by-edward-burraAs Jane Stevenson argues, Burra is ‘a considerable complication in the story of English modernism’, a far cry from those modernist icons such as Ben Nicholson who were neo-classical ‘in the sense of being restrained, cerebral and strongly dependent on design’; she describes Burra in contrast as a ‘baroque modernist’ [Burra, ‘Dockside Cafe, Marseilles’, 1929, left; and ‘Harlem’, 1934, below right]. This terminology is a useful way to approach British Modernism as it bifurcates, describing more than simply the figurative versus the abstract, or design versus narrative. The term ‘baroque’ hints at the anti-classical elements of humour and bad taste, as well as a new focus on modern urban life, that Burra’s works embodies. Attempts were made to involve him with British Surrealism – Paul Nash encouraged him to join Unit One in 1933 and Burra showed with the British Surrealists in 1936; Harlem 1934 by Edward Burra 1905-1976but on a wider European basis, Burra’s work seems to correspond better in style, subject matter and socio-analytical purpose to the New Objectivity movement in Germany in the Twenties. The title New Objectivity (or Neue Sachlichkeit) suggests an anti-metaphysical and anti-romanticist mentality, a matter-of-factness, and its characteristics have been variously defined as a sharp focus, inexpressive brushwork, unified and undramatic lighting, and often an unnaturally close standpoint; Richard McCormick describes it as ‘a “sober” and unsentimental embrace of urban modernity’, open to ‘modernity and mass culture.’  New Objectivity – and its best-known representatives such as Otto Dix and Georg Grosz – has come to symbolise in visual terms the culture of Weimar Berlin. Burra’s use of similar tropes to represent the popular culture of post-war London, Marseille or Toulon should therefore be valued more highly as a critical modernist statement.


2052AM01X-12-07-22Charles Avery is one contemporary artist working in Britain who has inherited this legacy of British Surrealism and New Objectivity-influenced artists such as Burra [Avery, ‘Untitled (Expedition)’, 2012, above, and ‘Ceci nest pas un Bar’, below; Burra, ‘Funfair’, 1928-9, right]. He works predominantly in pencil with splashes of colour; his scenes from the lives of ‘The Islanders’, an ongoing project, portray frozen moments in a parallel society, the narrative ambiguous. An early review describes his ‘anachronistic style of drawing’, with its air of detachment and irony that signal it as a satire.

cb588c57194969cfc94ee5461d4beb6dThough ‘The Islanders’ project depicts a fictional and allegorical world, its similarities to our own give its subtle satire a force akin to Burra’s, while the moral aspect suggested by the allegorical ‘history’ of the Island provided by the artist is an essential element of all satire. The characters embody various principles and propositions, not caricatures but philosophical types – in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s characters in his early satires represent different intellectual points of view. In this way Avery combines the surreal and the real of an easily recognisable contemporary reality that provokes a very British self-deprecatory humour. It is an approach deeply rooted in the painting of Burra or William Roberts, and the writing of Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley or Anthony Powell in the 1920s.


Meanwhile, Avery also inherits some of the theatrical zest of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant. In the eccentric fashions and the figures’ placement within scenery that resembles stage set designs, a parallel reality is created that echoes back our fetishes and foibles, making them utterly ridiculous. Rex Whistler, a friend and contemporary of the Beaton/Tennant coterie and the same age as Burra, achieved a similar effect.   In his mural for the Tate Restaurant, ‘In Pursuit of Rare Meats’ (1926-7) and in his double portrait of the Dudley Ward sisters [1933, below], for example, he uses the classical landscape backdrop of a Claude Lorrain painting, then inserts comedic or incongruous characters, both contemporary (in the case of the sisters) and entirely fictional (the caricature of a black servant who seems to belong to a Firbankian world of fantasy and innuendo). Like Avery, whose own name appears on the door in ‘Avatars’ [2005, above right], Whistler is sometimes tempted to portray himself in his imaginary world – here in the guise of a satyr spouting water from a Watteau-esque fountain, leering with unashamed desire at the beautiful Penelope Dudley Ward.

Angela & Penelope Dudley Ward 1933

Whistler’s incongruous insertion of elements of modernity into the idealised landscapes of Claude is also echoed by Ged Quinn. Born in 1963, Quinn grew up during a period of intense technological progress that was in many ways as disorientating as the twenties must have seemed. Such inventions intrude on his peaceful landscapes with an absurdity that underpins the humour of satire.

ged_quinn_fallIn ‘The Fall’ [2006, left] the figure of Antonin Artaud falls from the sky like Icarus or Lucifer, hurtling towards the burnt out remains of Edison’s ‘Black Maria’, the first ever movie production studio, looking forlorn and vulnerable next to the majestic classical ruins that loom over it. Similarly, in ‘Dreams of Peace and Love Gradually Giving Way’ [2006, below right] a makeshift cinema has been constructed in another Claudian landscape, with a spacecraft from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ floating on a raft. 1080The flotsam of defunct technology? A mockery of human striving? As Whistler’s characters frolic and picnic extravagantly in a historical landscape that does not belong to them, so Quinn’s figures and structures find themselves stranded in romantic paintings, forlorn and ineffectual. In both cases, the contemporary insertions subvert the traditional British landscape tradition, and, out of context, are simultaneously rendered ludicrous.

The British sense of humour was tainted by disillusionment in the 1920s and, in combination with an intelligent and incisive analysis of contemporary society, created a new form of visual and written satire. In today’s art, the same attitude of cynicism and caustic wit, sophisticated yet anarchic, is clearly present. And not only in the artworks themselves but also in the elaborate hoaxes that send up the art world itself. In 1929, Brian Howard, together with John Banting and Bryan and Diana Guinness, organised an exhibition by a mysterious artist named Bruno Hat, duping the critics with their ironic synthetic cubist compositions in distinctive rope frames [below]; in 1998 the writer William Boyd, along with David Bowie, Gore Vidal, Karen Wright and John Richardson presented a hoax biography of an abstract expressionist artist named Nat Tate.


One could also claim that the work of street artists like Banksy are contemporary satires. The works themselves highlight essentially serious issues such as racism, war or police violence in a witty and amusing manner; but what’s more, the fact that the originals are painted onto public structures simultaneously undermines the position of the art gallery as well as questioning the value or ownership of a work of art. Graffiti images of the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher or the grieving Madonna figures in ‘Sale Ends Today’ [2006, below] are a perfect example of the British modernist legacy: an appreciation of our artistic heritage in incongruous juxtaposition with contemporary symbolism, and a dash of mischievous and often inflammatory wit. Very British – and still bang up to date.


Rex Whistler: A Life Cut Short


Here is Rex Whistler aged 33.  A dashing red necktie, upturned collar and Byronic pose – yet with the whisper of a cynical smile – all suggest the confident young artist and social success that he was fast becoming.  A close friend of Stephen Tennant, whom he met at the Slade, Rex was swiftly absorbed into the heady and frivolous world of the Bright Young People – famously photographed by Cecil Beaton at Wilsford, the Tennant’s Wiltshire home.  They revelled in dressing up, and the eighteenth century of Watteau and the fete galante* held a particular fascination for them.

*this term, according to the National Gallery, refers to the pursuits of the rich and idle, such as flirting and acting out scenes from the commedia dell’arte.



Lytton Strachey’s response to this dedicated pastime of the feckless youth of his day has fortuitously been recorded: “The night before, they had all dressed up as nuns, that morning … as shepherds and shepherdesses.  Can you imagine anything more ‘perfectly divine’? … Strange creatures – with just a few feathers where brains ought to be.” However, this was something of a consciously assumed facade; of the men in the photograph, William Walton became an acclaimed composer, Beaton enjoyed decades of success as a photographer, not least for the royal family, and Rex was well on his way to being the greatest 20th century muralist and illustrator… Rex remained on the edge of the group, ‘too poor, too industrious, and perhaps too contemptuous to spend time in a paperchase…’ (as his brother Laurence recalls in his biography).

Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum – located in the Cathedral Close steps away from the Walton Canonry which Rex rented in 1938 – is the perfect place for a retrospective of this most underrated of artists.  A retrospective of Whistler is not an easy task; his untimely death in Normandy in 1944 truncated his career just as it was perhaps reaching maturity, while his greatest completed works are murals and therefore non-transportable.  However, the museum takes both difficulties in its stride.  An introductory 20 minute film by the artist’s nephew allows sweeping views of the houses he painted and the murals he created inside them.  With this background we move on to the exhibits – only three smallish rooms in chronological sequence, but revealing such a wealth of imagination and character, as well as a formal development, that when one abruptly reaches the exit one really does have the sense of a life cruelly cut short.

The first displays some delightful examples of his youthful ink sketches.  From the age of nine, as a schoolboy hearing news of courage and carnage on the Western Front, Rex was entering imagined drawings of the these battles into the Royal Drawing Society competitions.  His juvenile enthusiasm for gory death and exotic baddies is given free rein in detailed, cartoonish sketches of ‘A hanged man after 4 days’ or of grimacing sheikhs imposing awful retribution on their enemies.  His brother’s retrospective opinion is quoted at this juncture:

“Rex’s childhood work was not charming … it was vigorous, imaginative, bloodthirsty and above all humorous…”


And this element remains throughout his career (though the bloodthirstiness is replaced by a mordant wit with a hint of the macabre).  Rex’s career was launched, as a Slade student under Henry Tonks, by winning a commission to paint murals in the Tate Gallery restaurant in 1926.  His student work such as ‘Female Figure Seated’ bears witness to his technical facility, but it was the Tate murals which established his characteristic style of 18th Century whimsy.  The debt to Claude is obvious in the composition and framing of his landscapes (such as ‘View of Tivoli’, above), while his strong tendency towards the romantic is equally visible in Piranesi-esque sketches of ruined and overgrown Classical architecture, the formal details of which he was able to study while at the British School in Rome in 1928.


This sketch for the Tate restaurant murals would become typical of his style, a fantastical trompe l’oeil accumulation of architectural elements and italianate landscape with a cast of inexplicable, time-travelling characters – often including the artist himself, anonymous, cycling furiously off in ‘pursuit of rare meats’, or sweeping in the shadows of an arcade that stretches away out of the dining room of Plas Newydd and off into another world…


The exhibition includes sketches for the murals, and painted views of houses such as Ashcombe and Cranbourne Manor which testify to his joy in the landscape around Salisbury.  His weekend retreat was the Daye House on the Wilton Estate, where he stayed with Edith Olivier, a writer who became his greatest friend and correspondent; Rex painted the house and the nearby view of Wilton’s Palladian Bridge many times, this late version showing a new freedom in his handling of paint that contrasts with the precise, restrained technique of his murals and illustrations.

View of the Daye House with Edith Olivier Standing on the Lawn, 1942 (oil on board)

Alongside the paintings are displayed a diverse range of his illustrations and set designs, as well as a few illustrated letters which seem all of a piece despite the formal disparity between public and private intent.  His thank you letter to the queen for having him to stay at Balmoral (to design the new royal cypher in 1937, I assume, as the sketches for this appear nearby) is headed with an elaborately baroque design that is as adept as any published bookplate design.  Others to friends such as Nancy Beaton are framed with light rococo motifs that echo the extravagant framing devices so distinctive of his book plates.  And others still are illustrative, an adjunct to the text rather than


simply ornamentation, another indication of the instinctive wit and humour that pervades Whistler’s art.  His best-known illustrations are those for Gulliver’s Travels (1930) and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1935) to which his whimsical imagination and decorative style were perfectly suited.  ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’ is comparatively austere, though the exaggerated arabesque pose of the girl and the melodramatic contrast of the repellent Marsh King are in the fine tradition fairy story tradition of Rackham and Heath Robinson.


For ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Whistler allowed himself far more baroque extravagance; his interest in architectural detail and theatrical compositions are all on full display, as he leaps from romanesque arches, urns and busts to baroque broken pediments, balustrades and horseshoe staircases.  These elements asserted themselves as a proscenium arch between the reader and fantasy world contained within the pages of the book.



And here is Rex in his uniform in 1940, after being appointed Second-Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards.  He appears quietly apprehensive, a far cry from the confident youth of the earlier self-portrait.  His future and that of his whole world was in doubt; and yet in the four years of training before his death in Normandy in 1944 he continued to design stage sets for Cochran’s revues, paint portraits of his fellow soldiers, and create farcical decorative canvases for the officer’s mess – of which his ‘before and after’ drawings are worthy of Punch.  The exhibition leaves a strong impression of an idiosyncratic imagination, and a deep enthusiasm and empathy for both people, buildings and landscape.  His was an art very much of its time – typical of that dynamism and ephemerality of the interwar years in which so many bright sparks lit up before being abruptly extinguished.  And so we are left with the poignant question – what if…?


Cecil Beaton & Rex Whistler

I went to see Cecil Beaton’s war photographs at the Imperial War Museum on Monday, and then yesterday I went to see the Rex Whistler exhibition at Colefax and Fowler.  The venues could not be more different – Beaton at War in a modern exhibition space that leads you round a sort of chronological trail, almost all monochrome until the theatre designs and posters that form a postscript; Rex Whistler in a sumptuous yellow drawing room on Brook Street, the framed landscape murals looking as if they have always hung either side of the fireplace, the portraits elegantly at home in the window embrasure, and the copies of other works pinned to screens upholstered in toile de jouy.  And their respective art forms are equally distinctive, the modern art of photography versus the traditional arts of mural painting and book illustration. Yet Beaton and Whistler were both members of the same clique of Bright Young People that formed around Stephen Tennant, both were photographed posing in eighteenth century costume at Wilsford, and both seem to owe an enormous debt to Fragonard and the Rococo in their fanciful early endeavours.  Here is Whistler’s painting of the Dudley Ward sisters, the artist in a cameo role as a satyr spouting water while staring laciviously at the beautiful Penelope.

Angela & Penelope Dudley Ward 1933

Meanwhile, Beaton was arranging Edith Sitwell in romantic contrapposto before a tapestry woven with a Watteauesque arcadian scene.

NPG P867,Dame Edith Sitwell,by Cecil Beaton

Once the war took over, each changed accordingly and arguably became richer as an artist for the realism and compassion that they achieved in their respective work.  Beaton abandons the elaborate theatrical backdrops of his early portraits, the fantasies that turned Stephen Tennant into Prince Charming and Baba Beaton into a Shooting Star.  His photographs of ship building on the Tyne, WAAF training, and of soldiers and officials in Cairo and Libya, India and China are piercingly real.  There is an informality and a deep humanity to these pictures, the glance of an anonymous figure conveying all the complex emotions of the individual thrust into the destructive maelstrom of war.  Moments of camaraderie are captured and the mundane appears imbued with purpose in the struggle for the fate of nations.



Optimised by Greg Smith

And Whistler left behind the Firbank-esque charms and idiosyncrasies of ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ to produce frank and moving portraits of himself and his fellow officers, and of their life in the training camps.  His self-portrait in his new uniform is a haunting elegy to a life that was to be cut short four years later.

rexwhistler self 1940