Friday, 18 January 2008

"Modern Britain" Exhibition

The exhibition traces the development of British art and society across six decades and includes over 250 works from the holdings of major public collections across Australia and New Zealand.
One visit is not really enough to appreciate the exhibition fully – there is too much to absorb in one go. It is displayed in two parts – the "Britian at War" section is across the foyer from the main part in the usual exhibition space and is a significant exhibition in its own right.

As you walk in, you know you have hit pay dirt right away: Sam Peploe opens the batting for the Edwardians with four jewel-like still-lifes, highlighted dramatically against dark backgrounds. I am very partial to the post-impressionists and here are some outstanding examples of the way they emphasize geometric shapes and distort form for expressive effect, while continuing to use the vivid colours of the Impressionists.

I particularly liked his "Still life – Apples and Jar" which came from the Art Gallery of NSW. Its glowingly simple shapes within black outlines bring stained glass to mind and is a nod to C├ęzanne whom Peploe much admired.
It is amazing to think that his art dealer, Peter Dott, was so appalled and scandalised by these bold forms that he cancelled the solo exhibition he had scheduled for Peploe at his gallery. (Not unlike the publisher who knocked back Harry Potter.)

Still among the Edwardians, there were three portraits that stood out for me: "La Belle Chauffeuse" by William Nicholson, "The Black Hat" by George Henry and the compelling "Professor Smith" by Oswald Birley.

Nicholson's portrait of the playwright Sylvia Bristowe, fashionably dressed in the coat and scarf of the female motorist, portrays the modern Edwardian woman: she has means of her own, drives her car and looks out of the frame with serene confidence.

"The Black Hat" (1910) depicts an elegant, sophisticated society lady of the period, sumptuously painted. I was reminded of the lush society portraits of the same era by Sargent and Boldini, painted to hang in the town and country houses of the Great and the Good.

Critics often complained that George Henry's "luminously harmonious portraits" were too decorative to be real portraits. His philosophy, however, was "there is no reason why a portrait should not be a piece of decoration, while preserving the character of the subject". Onya, George! Down with the critics - I enjoy looking at his lovely "decorations".

In Oswald Birley's portrait, "Professor Smith", the subject, with Punch by his side, looks enigmatically at the viewer. Punch and Judy puppeteers are traditionally given the courtesy title of "Professor". Despite the Punch and Judy show being part of a carnival, I found the picture a bit edgy and eerie rather than light-hearted: the underlying violence and brutality in Punch and Judy has always evoked more unease than humour in me, and that is perhaps why I find the professor's faintly menacing air fascinating.

There are some very interesting examples of work by the Bloomsbury Group and the Camden Town group, but I will skip lightly over those, except to mention a lovely little still life, "Jug and Eggs" by Roger Fry, which I have much admired in Adelaide's excellent art gallery and was happy to see again. I like the way he painted the frame in a chequerboard pattern.

There are a number of excellent portraits by both Gwen and Augustus John – the one that held my attention was "Poppet ", a portrait by Augustus John of his daughter. John had five children by his wife Ida and three by his mistress Dorelia – they all lived together and he liked to use his family as subjects.


I was struck by the similarities as well as the contrast between the portrait of Augustus John's son Robin and the "Boy with white scarf" by Lucien Freud painted some 30 years later. Both are realistically portrayed: Augustus John at that time was influenced by Italian Renaissance art, and Lucien Freud's meticulously detailed realism and palette of cool neutral colours made me think: "Hah! He's been looking at Ingres!"


Robin, a schoolboy just before the first World War, has a look of tranquil innocence – the scar on his upper lip the result of his love of tree-climbing. Freud's sitter, Charlie, a young petty criminal from a large disadvantaged family, lacks the aura of innocence: behind his defiant gaze lies a wealth of experience and disillusionment. Done more bag-snatching than tree-climbing in his day, would be my tip.



"The Interval Before Round Ten" (1919-20) by William Roberts, caught my eye. It is a very energetic compsition in the Modernist manner, all angular forms and dramatic movement, showing helpers in the boxing ring waving towels to cool the boxers down. I liked the spectators in the foreground: they reminded me of John Brack's rush hour crowd in "Collins Street, 5pm".


There are some beautiful landscapes: my favourite ones are "The Icknield Way" by Spencer Gore, with its intense colours and dramatic sky, and "The Cliff Road" by Graham Sutherland: a strangely ominous picture that drew me to return several times for another look. It belongs to the NGV – I can't imagine why I haven't seen it before: I positively haunt the place!


I was entranced by a collection of linocuts, a medium which flourished between the World Wars. They are full of rhythm and energy - I liked the Art Deco-ish designs and the lovely muted colours.


There were four L.S.Lowrys, one of which, "A Man Taken Ill", belongs to the NGV, but the others come from WA and New Zealand and I hadn't seen them before. Lowry is always a treat for me. I know he is all about illness and accidents and the "dark satanic mills", but his pictures never make me feel depressed – on the contrary, I like all those ordinary people (and the kids with balloons and the babies in prams and the dogs) going about their daily business.


In the "Nudes" section, I found it interesting to see how the modernists harked back to the Old Masters: Matthew Smith uses a zaftig model in the Rubens style for his "Nude with Pearl Necklace" ; for "The Straw Hat", Mark Gertler consciously chooses the same kind of healthy, voluputous model as Renoir, whom he greatly admired and Rodrigo Moynihan, with his "Model Resting", is not the first painter to echo Manet and Goya. The one that stood out for me was "Study from the Human Body" by Francis Bacon. It is a heavy male figure in dark tones, seen from behind, partly concealed by filmy curtains. There is a poignant sense of melancholy about the figure, who seems about to walk out of view.

I have to touch briefly on the "World War II" section, which warrants a visit of its own. I found Louis Duffy's "Christ Evicting the Money Changers" particularly apt – a modern allegory depicting munitions being traded in a graveyard. The painting resonates with the embattled times we live in, constantly beset with fat cats making money out of young men being killed in unnecessary wars.

Stella Bowen made preliminary sketches for a group portrait of an air crew from 460 Squadron at Binbrook RAF Station, just before they flew on their next bombing operation over Germany. The seven airmen, one British and six Australians, did not return and her "Bomber Crew", became a memorial painting. Their names are on their helmets and on the ribbon at the foot of the picture. The picture hangs in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Graham Sutherland's pictures of bombed-out buildings under the collective title "Devastation", are dark, bleak and terrible. By contrast, John Piper's paintings of the aftermath of bombing raids concentrated more on the bits that survived.
"Toller Parsonage" and "Binham Abbey, Norfolk" are two of his works that I particularly admired.
There are pictures of exhausted sailors resting on deck; of soldiers manning artillery; of fighting men in the desert, in the air and at sea, as well as of civilians living their lives as best they can among the chaos of conflict.
It is a collection that gives a good overview of Britian at war, and can only make those of us who have never had to live through a war, extremely grateful that we have been spared that experience.

"Modern Britian" is such a large exhibition that I can't possibly describe all the goodies on offer – I haven't even mentioned the delightful Tristram Hilliers, the wonderful Henry Moore sketches, drawings and sculptures; the design section featuring Clarice Cliff, Wedgewood and Staffordshire bowls, jugs and plates; the Abstract and Surrealist section … you will have to go and see for yourself. Looking at art is a very subjective experience, and there are probably many things I have overlooked which you would enjoy.
I recognised many favourites borrowed from our own NGV collection and thought again how lucky we are to have such a wonderful body of work on permanent display right here in St Kilda Rd and at Fed Square, to visit whenever we like, free of charge!

"Modern Britian 1900-1960" by Ted Gott, Laurie Benson, Sophie Matthiesson NGV Publication 2007"Gallery" Magazine Nov/Dec 2007"Gallery" Magazine Jan/Feb 2008

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