Thursday, 28 March 2013

An Outbreak of Talent at the Fry Art Gallery

Edward Bawden, Costume Design for The Tempest, 1933, Fry Art Gallery
If we could hitch a ride in the Tardis back to the 1930s we would return with a rather different view of the decade's art and culture. Not that too many people have much of a view at all, so brainwashed are we into believing that British art snoozed through a long period of under-achievement that began with the death of Turner and ended with the post-war success of Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney.

It is true that interwar British art was for the most part a modest business, unsurprisingly perhaps given the economic vagaries of the time. Artists painted the artwork for posters or beavered away in other areas of industrial design. They produced murals (now mostly vanished) and wood engravings (now mostly hidden in old books and obscure archives) and worked in the under-appreciated medium of watercolour.

Edward Burra, Hop Pickers Who Have Lost Their Mothers, 1924, Fry Art Gallery
Few achieved international recognition at the time. The movers and shakers of the art world were continental Europeans, whose aggressive modernism mirrored political upheavals. In Britain, the well-meaning socialists of the Artists International instead pioneered auto-lithography as a means of sharing art with the masses, and bought ambulances for Republican soldiers in Spain.

One British artist who won international respect - Magritte named him 'master of the object' - was Paul Nash, and his influence on the period, and on British art more generally, is highlighted in an exhibition that opens at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden this weekend.

Paul Nash, Poster for British Industries Fair, 1935, London Transport Museum
'An Outbreak of Talent' was the expression used by Nash to describe the remarkable collection of artists who studied at the Royal College of Art in 1923/4, when he was employed there as a part-time tutor in the Design School. Much later, in 1935, he wrote in the magazine 'Signature':

Ten years ago I was teaching at the Royal College of Art. I was fortunate in being there during an outbreak of talent, and can remember at least eight men and women who have made names for themselves since then in a variety of different directions; in Painting, Edward Burra; Applied Design, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, and Eric Ravilious; Textiles, Enid Marx; Pottery, Bradon (sic), also William Chappel in Stage Design and Barbara Ker-Seymer in Photography. 

Why he failed to 'remember' the two biggest stars of the RCA firmament, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, is unclear, but it may have had something to do with the battle then raging between abstract and non-abstract artists. Ravilious and co. were very much in awe of the Yorkshire contingent, whose table in the RCA refectory was - to use an expression from another time and place - where it was at.

Edward Bawden, The Three Graces, 1928, Fry Art Gallery
Anyway, what the Fry has done - and being the Fry, no doubt done with wonderful attention to detail - is to gather together paintings, drawings and other works by the artists named, all of which were created before 1935. In other words, Nash might have seen them before passing judgment, and they may have helped him form his opinion; the inclusion of his own work will perhaps enable visitors to see paths of influence or matrices of interest.

Knowing the Fry, you can expect some lovely things by Bawden and Ravilious in particular, but I'm hoping to see work by Barnett Freedman and Enid Marx, two excellent artists we should know better. As for Nash himself, I'm always on the look-out for pictures I haven't seen before. He could turn a shopping list into a thing of mystery and elegance. As far as I'm concerned, he was the grand-daddy of the YBAs, an artist way ahead of his time. But that's another story...

FFI: Fry Art Gallery - NB always check opening times before travelling!

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