Monday, 21 November 2016

Review: Meeting Modernism

It won't come as a massive surprise to you that I'm not a big fan of modern art.  Sorry, that should be Modern Art, with nice big capital letters, because when you hear people talk about Modern Art it tends to consist of Modern Art is great, Victorian Art is rubbish.  Now, you and I both know that the truth is a mixture of both, for example there are some appalling pieces of Victorian art as well as being some pieces of sublime beauty.  Likewise, therefore I am rather partial to twentieth century figurative art, which is why I was most happy to learn the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth were doing an exhibition of their twentieth century art collection...

Poster for the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery (1922)
Whilst primarily a gallery of gorgeous nineteenth century art, the Russell-Cotes has always had room for some very special works of 'modern' art.  Usually kept in the Morning Room, these, and many others, have been moved into the main exhibition gallery and are a group of joyful, beautiful exuberance. They are part of the collection brought in by the first curators after the death of the founders Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes in the 1920s.  There are landscapes, War Art and Golden Age pieces that capture the romance of interwar years.

Spray (1920-30) Harold Sandys Williamson
I have a particular weakness for Golden Age: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, Enid Blyton, bobbed hair and Pennies from Heaven.  It's all marvellously glamorous and a number of the art works in this exhibition reflect this wonderful aesthetic.

The Bather (c.1930) Thomas Martine Ronaldson
There is something particularly fitting in seeing these seaside images of health and vitality in a gallery that overlooks the ocean, and they are a collection of sparkly pearly skin and turquoise sea.  It's enough to make you want to strip off and leap into the Solent.  Okay, maybe not in November...

Te aho te rangi wharepu (1907) Charles Frederick Goldie
There are also some lovely references to the Russell-Cotes' passions including a set of paintings of the indigenous people of New Zealand, a country beloved by Merton and Annie. I have always liked seeing the Russell-Cotes' collection of Goldie's Maori men and women as they have such a solemn dignity and they are extremely moving pieces of art.

Boy and Goat Joseph Hermon Cawthra

St Francis of Assisi (1930s) Winifred Leveritt
There are pieces of sculpture included, some tradition like the little boy and the goat, some more stylised, like St Francis of Assisi by Winifred Leveritt. This shows the tension inherent in the show - at what point did Victorian style lose its grip on public taste?  What replaced it?

At the Well of Samaria (1935) Joseph Southall
For some, taste didn't change.  As late as the Second World War, artists more traditionally thought of as Victorian or early Edwardian were producing works in a similar vein.  However, something like Southall's stiff tempera medievalism fits nicely with Eric Gill's overly sensual Biblical studies, very modern in rendering.  Seeing them together it gives a more honest narrative of the evolution of artistic taste.  The idea that Victorian notions of style and subject stopped with the death of the old queen becomes nonsense when faced with someone like Southall or even Frank Cadogan Cowper, merrily sticking to their guns in the middle of the twentieth century.

Near  Worbarrow Bay, Dorset (1930) Philip Leslie Moffatt Ward
There is plenty of local colour in the exhibition, such as this jolly landscape which could easily be titled 'Five Go Mad in Dorset' and make you long for some ginger beer and an intrigue about smuggling.

Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff (1927) Maxwell Armfield
Finally, special mention has to be made to one of my favourite modern paintings in the Russell-Cotes collection.  I love Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff because of the amount of questions it raises: She is 'Miss' Chaseley, yet wears a wedding ring.  The flappers coming down the path seem calm and yet in the tiny pond to the right the boat is being tossed around in a storm.  She wears what seems to be Edwardian dress, yet it is 1927.  I have many outrageous theories about Miss Chaseley (who was Armfield's landlady when he was boarding in Bournemouth) and will happily share them with anyone who fancies a bit of speculation but they revolve around a naval death...

Self Portrait (1941) William D Dring
The exhibition is on until next April and is a lovely way to brighten the Winter months, so get yourself over to Bournemouth.  Further information can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Super stuff. As a graphic artist I always find myself veering away from a lot of 20th century modernism and looking to the great commercial artists/illustrators of the early to mid parts part of the century. Think of the marvelous railway poster art and the fantastic cartoon work of artists such as Lawson Wood, Heath Robinson etc. Maybe a feature on the Commercial Greats would make an interesting post for the future.


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