Modern! The Vitality and the Variety of British Modern Art


Essay by Mel Gooding


Featured artists:

‘The internationalism of modern art makes it difficult for the critic to claim a distinctive type of art for his own country. There is no British art since 1945 – there is an art, more vigorous than any art Britain has known since the death of Turner (1855), which has made a distinctive contribution to the world-wide movement of the arts.’ Casting around for a way to open this short introduction to the exhibition, aptly and provocatively titled ‘a demonstration of abstraction, colour and form by post war British masters’, I chanced upon these words by the greatest English critic of the mid-century, Herbert Read, introducing his own selection of British artists for an international publication, in 1959, on European and American ‘art since 1945’. Read’s bold assertion – implicit in those opening words − is that in the 1930s British painting and sculpture had for the first time since the mid-19th century, re-entered the international arena, and that this level and quality of engagement with modern ideas in art had continued well into the post war period. And he was right.


Indeed we could truthfully say that as art changed and developed beyond that period, and on into the present century, much of the best British art has maintained its force within the swirling currents of international modernity, carrying on the tide of post war and contemporary modern art a new and distinctive sculptural fantasia (Deacon, Kapoor, Woodrow, etc.), consolidating the exciting regeneration of figurative painting (Bacon, Auerbach, Caulfield, etc.), alongside the continuing and various adventures of abstraction (Riley, Hoyland, Beattie, etc.). To pick up on those later trends may be the task of a future exhibition, another ‘Month of Modern’, but here we have a marvellous selective recapitulation in miniature, so to speak, of Read’s golden post war ‘contribution to the world wide movement of the arts.’ It is an enthralling demonstration of British art responding dynamically to the energies of modernist abstraction: to encounter these works is to become part of the action.


First of all, we can’t but be struck by the sheer diversity of the art in that period of creative ferment. The variety of abstract styles and manners brought with it opportunities for apparently infinite experiment and discovery, for the expression of every kind of imaginative impulse: the pictorial or sculptural realisation of ideas of abstract order and geometric serenity; the description in purely non-figurative terms of natural energies and forms; the expression of pure joy in nature or art or the intimation of psychological uncertainties and existential angst. Above all, this new freedom from naturalistic representation extended from the artist to the spectator: it is we who must, with a generous heart and an open mind, look in these pictures to discover for ourselves allusions and correspondences, perceptual immediacies and mental nuances. Abstraction turns the tables on us, gives us unprecedented imaginative liberty to think and feel for ourselves. To live with a vital abstract painting or sculpture is to be continually challenged, to be surprised and delighted by new responses.    


Take, for example, two paintings here, made within three years of each other in the mid-1960s by John Wells, the quiet genius of Newlyn, much respected by his more celebrated fellow artists in Penwith (represented here by Bryan Wynter, Patrick Heron, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and Roger Hilton) but for many years hardly known beyond that magical terrain. They suggest a preoccupation with geometric form, in this case the rectangle. In the first, Composition with Squares (1964), drawn freehand with a pastel crayon, the composition of ‘squares’ is actually a cluster of irregular rectangular, brusquely coloured shapes, most of them, we might grant, quite like squares: they seem in perpetual motion, centrifugal or centripetal, agitated, as if confused, not only in their denomination as squares, but in their intention to be ‘composed’. In the second, Inverse Variation (1967), the squares are ruled with exactitude, the oil paint thinned and applied with perfect evenness, their arrangement, as the title suggests, seemingly ordered according to a strict proportionate principle. Two moods, two states of mind, two ways in which the world might be conceived: two equivalents for contrasting states of mind.


Now consider Interior with Piano (1953-54) by Ceri Richards, the nearest thing to a naturalistic ‘picture’ in this exhibition. We are confronted by a complex kaleidoscopic image of brilliantly facetted colour-lights as if refracted through a prism. As the eye becomes accustomed to the flicker, it begins to find a kind of perceptible order, just as it does when we enter a brightly sunlit room from the shadow of a darkened hallway. The light appears to stream in from a window at top left, and catches the keyboard and curved frame and shape of a baby grand piano. The sheet music spreads its lyrical wings like a white bird about to take off; and is that a figure in the foreground, hardly discernible in the dazzle, bending over to study another music sheet? Light, colour, crystalline forms, organic forms: correspondences to the dissonant chromatic chords of a pianoforte cadenza. The mineral geometrics here have no thought-provoking function: rather they catch us up into the vividly immediate visual music of a moment’s ecstatic sensations; we are rapt in a sensuous world of sound and light.


Both Gillian Wise’s Directed Path (1966) and Mary Martin’s Rotation MM1 (1968) are constructions that form (detachable) parts in serial explorations of geometric permutations. We are asked to contemplate, by inference, the infinite diversity of such configurations, to see them as elements in the dynamic structure of the world and of physical movement in the world. Martin’s spiralling rectangular volumes, reflecting light, creating shadows, reduces Richards’s scattered and disordered particles of colour to rigorously black and white, dark and light order; Wise takes a line for a rigorously directed walk – one of so many possible! – around a perfect configuration of white squares. The eye follows, thinking of alternatives. The mathematically ordered world, as modern physics has shown us, is never still, never rigid in its formal possibilities.


And neither is the phenomenal, elemental world in which have our being. Adrian Heath was a London-based painter, steeped in European abstract painting, finding (as his titles indicate) his characteristic forms and pictorial dynamics, block, vortex and interlock, spin, spiral and flow, in art itself. He was obsessed with the formal disposition across the canvas surface of colour, tone, brush-stroke, line and shape; but aware always that these vital forms and their relations are painterly equivalents to the forms and energies of nature. Bryan Wynter lived, by choice, in a remote windswept moorland cottage high above the sea near Zennor in West Penwith. He was a painter of immersive experience, a swimmer and canoeist, a kayak-rider of dangerous white-water rapids. In his later paintings (he died at 60, in 1975), with an almost perverse elegance, he reduced the powerful forces and currents of flow in the aquatic element (which provide his titles: Meander, Confluence) to swirling linear patterns and colour shapes that imitate, with an extreme abstraction, the play of light and shadow on water. It is as if these paintings are stylish elegies for the violent exhilarations of earlier, more chaotic sensations. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, another acute observer of natural forms and forces - rock strata, tidal current and folding wave - in her Blue Disks on Black no. 3, (Wind on Waves Series), (1971) resorts to a premeditated, purely formalistic motif to suggest a phenomenal natural event. Different artists, different devices, different realizations: diversity in artfulness. This is a game of recognitions, correspondences and contrasts that one could go on playing as the eye and the mind move from one work to another in this fascinating and beautiful exhibition: British modernist art in this period offers infinite pleasures to the receptive heart and mind.


Mel Gooding