Modernism is an extraordinarily big umbrella. In my first ‘Classical Reception’ lecture I remember being taken through a whole range of themes and motives characterising English authors of the early 20th century, all going under the label of ‘Modernism’. The ‘masculine’ as well as ground-breaking feminist ideals; the myth of the machine, but also the charm of nature and of the primeval; ancient fragments on the one hand, and the grandeur of epic poetry on the other: Modernism struck me as a wide, much-encompassing category.
John Banting, ‘One-Man Band’ (1954)
The exquisite exhibition ‘Sussex Modernism’ at Two Temple Place factors in the role of Sussex in the artistic productions of several protagonists of Modernism. The most successful element of this display is undoubtedly its original angle, looking at Modernism from an original perspective while catering to the present enthusiasm for the early 20th century. It proves it is possible to go to an exhibition on a seemingly trite topic, and still be surprised, amazed, moved, and inspired.
From artists such as W.S.Blunt and E.Gill, to famous personalities like Salvador Dalì and John Piper, the exhibition presents some of the connections British and international artists had with Sussex. Alongside traditional art-forms such as painting and sculpture, ‘Sussex Modernism’ showcases unusual and engaging material, spanning from a small coffin donated by Ezra Pound to Blunt to a lampshade decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
Vanessa Bell, Lampshade (1935)
Fascinating are the influences coming from the Classical world, from Leda exemplifying the wish to preserve transient moment (in a colourful chest by Duncan Grant) to feminist ideals expressed by Persephone (fleshed out in a statue by Franck Dobson). Equally, I was captured by the Christian-related material Modernist artists produced with great zeal, despite most of them being atheists or agnostics. I was especially captivated by ‘Nativity’ by Vanessa Bell (1946) and the ‘Sketch for the Nativity’ by Hans Feibusch (1940), which combined a limited palette and simple lines with an intensity difficult to attain in religious scenes.
David Jones, ‘Madonna and Child in a Landscape’ (1924)
Spread across three different rooms, all the material included in the exhibition is engaging and appealing. Its arrangement, however, might have been more cohesive (taking of course space limitations into account). While all artworks involving sea depictions are grouped together, the themes of motherhood and Christianity are scattered across several rooms, while perhaps it would have been more productive to gather them all in the same place. I particularly enjoyed the when the theme ‘Madonna with Child’ was juxtaposed to works simply portraying a mother with her baby, prompting reflections on motherhood and humanity. I feel that a more consistent arrangement would have perhaps been more effective.
The subtitle of ‘Sussex Modernism’ is ‘Retreat and Rebellion’. Visiting this show feels like a retreat and a rebellion at once. On the one hand, visitors have the chance to withdraw for half an hour (or more!) in the breathtaking interiors of Two Temple Place, looking at some unusual art. At the same time, the exhibition stages a conceptual ‘rebellion’ by breaking free from the chains of rigid categorisation. It feeds on and presents to the public a snapshot of what Modernism truly is: a powerhouse of exciting and revealing works, appreciable precisely because of the breadth of the teams they investigate.