(Blogpost) The Advance of Abstraction: Unit One and the Seven and Five Society

Hello and Happy December! Needless to say, the lead-up to Christmas is going to be a little different this year, but we’re hoping to keep things upbeat with a series of blogposts charting the history of modern British art. That’s right… this Christmas we’re giving the gift of Art History… from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery right to your screen!

This is all happening alongside our online exhibition ‘Modern British Art: A Story’, which charts the many ideas that energised art in 20th Century Britain. Over the course ten blogposts, I’m expanding on some significant artists, groups and movements that feature in the exhibition, to provide a bigger picture of British art during this time.    

Of course, one of the main ideas that transformed art of the 20th Century was abstraction. Some artists realised that art no longer needed to replicate the world around them (photography could do that well enough!) but could be impactful in other ways. It could be about form, line or colour, it could represent a sensations, dreams or memories, or be analytical and hard-edged. Whatever the drive, abstraction was a very new idea, and in order to succeed artists needed to be bold, brave and collaborative.

The previous blogpost in the series looked at The London Group, which bought three early 20th Century groups together to promote everything new and edgy in art. Another important collaboration was Unit One, which formed in the mid-1930s and embraced both abstraction and Surrealism (to be covered in another post)!

Unit One was led by Paul Nash, who wanted the work to show ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit’. Other group members included modern art icons Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. In the absence of a more specific unifying principle, the group was only active from 1933-35. However, it was important in establishing London as a centre for abstract art, and held a seminal exhibition named Unit One: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, in 1934.

Ben Nicholson made important contributions to the development of abstract art in Britain, and Composition in Black and White was painted the same year Unit One was launched. It marked a significant change in his style, which moved away from recognisable subject matter and towards pure abstraction, and broke down distinctive barriers between painting and sculpture. The painting is characterised by a monochrome colour palette and a variety of textured surfaces, into which he scraped a gestural combination of straight and curved lines, to reveal a white painting underneath.

Ben Nicholson, ‘Composition in Black and White’, 1933, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery

Another notable triumph for Nicholson was his transformation of the Seven and Five Society. The group was founded in 1919 to promote traditional and conservative values in art, in reaction to the emergence of modern movements in the early 20th Century. However Nicholson joined in 1924 and, along with a number of other celebrated artists, transformed it into a modernist group that championed abstract art. They changed its name to the Seven and Five Abstract Group, and held the first all-abstract exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1935.

Such a dramatic change in ethos meant most of the original members retreated. Ivon Hitchens was the only artist to stay in the group from start to finish. His work hovers between abstraction and figuration, never completely abandoning recognisable subject matter, but becoming increasingly characterised by flattened forms, bold colour and loose brushwork throughout his long career.

Ivon Hitchens, The Chinese Bowl, 1936, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery

In The Chinese Bowl, there is a sense of receding space with the bowl in the foreground, the reclining figure reading a book in the mid-ground, and a curtain or wallpaper in the background. Yet the forms are reduced to flat, painterly planes of colour, which lead the eye from one element to another. Here, Hitchens shows us the essence of the scene, rather than a direct imitation. 

That’s all for today! If you’ve enjoyed this little slice of art history, don’t forget to visit the exhibition on Art UK, and/or follow this blog by scrolling to the top and clicking “follow” at the bottom right of the screen. Don’t forget, you can also leave us a comment if you wish!

Blogpost by Katie Ackrill (Project Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

One thought on “(Blogpost) The Advance of Abstraction: Unit One and the Seven and Five Society

  1. Pingback: (Blogpost) Modern British Art: Making Waves in St Ives | Art on Tour 2020

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