Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Review: Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance

The exhibition Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908 – 1922 (12 June – 22 September 2013) is the pictorial consequence of a group biography A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War which was published to much acclaim in 2009 - and is a great read!  Its this year's summer exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The book's author David Boyd Haycock is also the curator of the exhibition.

At the time of its publication Jenny Uglow in The Guardian wrote 
We should call for a joint exhibition of their work, to complement the moving portrayal of their lives in this engrossing and enjoyable book.” 
and so it has come to pass.  The exhibition includes a wide range of works from major national collections (including Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the V&A and the National Gallery of Canada); as well as from regional galleries in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Oxford, Southampton and Barnsley; and important and rarely seen works from a number of private collections.  It features over 70 original works by the group and explores the artists’ development

David Boyd Haycock, the curator and author, in the first room of the Exhibition
The exhibition essentially tries to tell the story of a group of artists who had two things in common .

First they were very ambitious and second they all started their artistic careers at the Slade.  The "Crisis of Brilliance" title comes from Professor Henry Tonks who was professor of Drawing at the Slade School of Art prior to becoming its Principal in 1917 (although he was on the Western Front at the time!) The 'brilliance' references the natural talent of his students and the crisis was how they could make the most of their talent to become great artists.  The first ‘crisis’ had occurred over a decade earlier  Between 1893 and 1901, the Slade’s crop of gifted young students had at that time included Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Augustus and Gwen John, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Ambrose McAvoy and William Orpen.

The exhibition brings together some of the best and most innovative works by Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg for the very first time. (Bomberg wasn't included in the original book but has been included here for completeness).

Portrait Drawings of Artists in the Exhibition
The exhibition examines aspects relating to the evolution of the art of a group of artists whose members became among the most well-known and distinctive British artists of the early twentieth century.  

It's about a very specific period of history covering:
  • their student years at the Slade School of Art
  • the impact of the first exhibition of Post-Impressionist Painters launched and curated by Roger Fry in 1910
  • the First World War during which a number of them both served and became war artists
  • the immediate post War period and the impact of the war on them as artists.
  • It also covers a time when individual  members of the group befriended the leading writers and intellectuals of the day. In doing so individuals became linked with the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Bloomsbury Group (eg Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey whose portrait is in the exhibition)
War - Works on Canvas
Left - La Patrie (1916) by CRW Nevinson age 26/7 - relates to his work with the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1914.
Right - Portrait of Lytton Strachey (1916) by Dora Carrington (age 23) - painted not long after Carrington met Strachey.  She was later to develop a relationship with him and committed suicide two months after his death.
I rather think that people will enjoy this exhibition more if they have already read the book.  The reality is that the people are complex, their relationships are complex and putting them all together in one gallery is almost too much. That's because there's an awful lot to take in - in terms of personalities - and the exhibition takes a chronological order rather than one which focuses on each of the artists in turn.  Even with helpful annotations to the paintings it's difficult to understand all the painters and their contexts and career paths.

Their backgrounds and social and economic circumstances were very different  They all lived in very different parts of London and the South East - with Gertler being associated with the immigrant community of the East End while Spencer chose to commute to the Slade from his family's home in Cookham.

The Wood on the Hill by Paul Nash
Pen and black ink with graphite with wash
They also varied in terms of their skills as draughtsman.  My favourite Stanley Spencer was exceptionally gifted and his self portrait repays close attention.  While Paul Nash struggled with the life class and was the least talented and and Tonks left him in no doubt about this.  He advised him to "go in for nature" as he was much better at drawing trees!

The exhibition starts with the Slade years and the early work between 1909 and 1913.  This includes Spencer's first oil painting.

From there it moves on to The Slade and After" Works on paper 1910-1914 and then Works on Canvas 1910-1914.   This essentially is the period after the great Post-Impressionist Exhibition and reflects the extent to which this had an impact on their style and work.  It's clear that these artists were confronted with trying to create a new way of painting for a new century.  It was all about moving on from the likes of Alma Tadema and Sire Frederick Leighton and "Flaming June"!

It seems to me Stanley Spencer was very much leading the way in terms of his painting.  He's certainly one of the few artists I know who seems to like the challenge of the complexity of a painting involving a group of people.

Left - The Apple Gatherers (1912-13) by Stanley Spencer aged 20-22
Right - The Fruit Gatherers (1914) by Mark Gertler age 22
Then comes War: Works on paper and Works on Canvas.  There are a lot of drawings and sketches of the war by those who participated.  Interestingly some of the canvases painted during the war years are of idyllic scenes of the English countryside

War: Works on paper 1914-18
War: Works on Canvas 1914-18
Left The River Pang (1918) by Dora Carrington
 painted shortly after she set up home with Lytton Strachey.
The exhibition finishes with paintings made during and immediately after the Great War.  Some of these are iconic works and visual records of this time including Stanley Spencer’s acclaimed Unveiling Cookham War Memorial(1922) which is being displayed for the first time in almost 25 years.

Display in the Final Room of "Crisis of Brilliance", Dulwich Picture Gallery
Includes two large paintings by Stanley Spencer

(left) Christ Carrying the Cross (1920)
(right) Unveiling Cookham War Memorial (1922)

In conclusion, I found it an interesting but confusing exhibition.  The narrative which is fine in the book doesn't quite work for me and I struggled with the storyline of the individual artists - and yet I'd had the benefit of the curator's introduction to the exhibition!  I found myself wanting to follow one artist through the exhibition and to go back to the beginning and start again with another one.

Note: There's a catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition which includes extensive historical analysis of the origins and the contemporary reception of the exhibited works plus accompanying essays by David Boyd Haycock, Frances Spalding and Alexandra Harris.

Other Reviews of the Exhibition
Final Room - Post War including, on the right,
Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi’, (1918-19),
by David Bomberg

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED the book and I'd like to see the exhibition - just to see the art in the flesh... They're some of my favourite all-time artists! Great review :)


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