Greetings fellow art lovers! If you’ve found your way to this blog, you may have already heard that we’ve recently launched a virtual exhibition called ‘Modern British Art: A Story’ on Art UK! This selection of artworks from Swindon’s collection charts an interesting history of art, from the light-loving New English Art Club to the latest developments in Contemporary painting.
However, as is usually the case, there is so much more to the story than the space of an exhibition caption allows! So this blogpost is the first of a series providing a more in-depth look at what artists of the 20th Century were trying to do with their boundary-breaking artworks…
The London Group is a good place to start, since it gives me the opportunity to talk about three of the most iconic artistic groups of the early 1900s – The Camden Town Group, the Bloomsbury Group and the Vorticists – and the way they joined forces to go against the grain of authority.
Let’s begin with the Vorticists, who came together in 1914 to embrace the speed and dynamism of the modern machine age. They conveyed this by reducing their subjects to hard, geometric patterning, and creating energetic compositions made from bold lines and harsh colours. William Roberts’ Study for ‘Bank Holiday in the Park’ is a sketch for a painting exhibited with the London Group in June 1925.
By this time, the Vorticist group had lost its momentum. After witnessing the horrors of World War I, many of its artists, including Roberts, felt disillusioned with its focus on the machine age. However, we can see the legacy of the movement’s visual language in this piece. The angular, faceless figures and the dynamic composition were characteristic of Vorticism’s response to the speed and technology that defined the new century they lived in.
Despite the Vorticists’ enthusiasm for all things fast and shiny, The Bloomsbury Group’s forward-thinking attitudes have perhaps given them more staying-power in the public conscience. This informal group of artists, writers, philosophers and other intellectuals were connected by an interest in visual experience and the pursuit of knowledge. They were also driven by left-liberal politics and a rejection of typical middle class conventions and behaviours.
The Bloomsbury artists were among the first to embrace the idea that art did not need to reflect reality, but should rather have a reality of its own, and be led by formal design elements such as line, colour, shape, space and rhythm. They were also revolutionary in the way they broke down divisions between fine art and craft. According to the Bloomsbury Group, art no longer needed to belong to the realm of the gallery, but could be a part of everyday life.
Vanessa Bell’s Nude with Poppies is a design for a bed headboard depicting a nude of simplified and elongated forms beneath two large poppies. Flat planes of colour, bold outlines, and a lyrical and organic quality define this important painting from Swindon’s collection.
Finally we have the Camden Town Group; a short lived yet important cohort of artists active between 1911-13. Its artists drew their subject matter from the world surrounding them, embracing the essence of modernity through its people and its places. In doing so, they used techniques that captured light, colour and form with more intensity than was seen previously in British art. Thus, the Camden Town Group has become synonymous with art made just before World War I.
The group was named after the area in London where its founders Walter Sickert and Spencer Gore lived and worked at the time. Marie Hayes was a model who posed for both artists; most notably for one of the most famous Camden Town Paintings, Ennui by Sickert. Gore’s portrait of Hayes was painted early on in the Camden Town Group’s short lifespan, and shows his talent for capturing the play of light on a subject through rapid brushstrokes and colour.
In 1913 the Camden Town Group transformed into the London Group and embraced the whole spectrum of modern art in the capital. As such, artists of the Bloomsbury Group and the Vorticists (among others) joined too. Though their styles were different, their intentions were aligned. As an exhibiting society, the London Group opposed to the traditional and conservative styles still advocated by the Royal Academy, and helped to catapult British art into the Twentieth Century.
Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer for Art on Tour)