We tend to think of the Edwardian era as a time of long dresses and top hats, but it was also a period in which the British Empire began to disintegrate and the world shuffled towards a bloody war. The Edwardian interlude, roughly from 1901-14, was a time of radical social change that saw the first stirrings of many phenomena we associate with the late twentieth century, including sexual liberation and globalisation. It was an era of extremes, as the old world and its values were undermined by the rapid progress of technology and communications. It was a time of extravagant wealth and ostentation counterbalanced by the rise of the labour movement and the suffragettes.
Times of transition generate personal insecurity (during the Edwardian era Sigmund Freud became a household name) – while acting as a stimulus for creative activity. China is currently in the midst of such an upheaval, reflected in the soaring ambition and imagination of Chinese contemporary art.
In London two new exhibitions are exploring linked but contrasting aspects of the art of that turbulent period, each owing a debt to one influential personality. Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19, at the Courtauld Gallery, looks at Roger Fry’s attempts to bring the ideas of modern art into the field of commercial design. Fry was an artist, but is best known as the critic who introduced Modernism to Britain in a famous show at the Grafton Galleries in 1910, where he coined the term ‘Post-Impressionism’. For six years, from its headquarters at 33 Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury, the collaborative workshops Fry initiated, sold textiles, rugs, pottery, lamps, furniture, clothing, and other artistic bric-a-brac.
Futurism, at the Tate Modern, looks at the explosive impact and far-reaching influence of the movement founded by the Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, which set the scene for every avant-garde enterprise of the twentieth century. From the moment the first Futurist Manifesto appeared on the front page of Le Figaro in February 1909, the world was irritated and seduced by Marinetti’s grandiloquent statements. “Futurism” became a by-word for anything that was modern, provocative or unconventional in art and literature. It was the first movement that aimed, from the very beginning, to conquer the planet. Aware of the value of the media, Marinetti staged spectacles, publicity stunts and photo opportunities that won the group an international notoriety.
Although Fry was not impressed with the Futurists’ antics, he and Marinetti had many acquaintances in common. They had both been associated with a French group of poets and artists called the Abbaye de Créteil, that grew out of the Symbolist movement but declared its devotion to the dynamism of the modern world. Yet where Fry and his fellow Bloomsbury artists had an admiration for “primitive and peasant” forms, and borrowed freely from other cultural traditions, the Futurists were outspoken anti-traditionalists.
This was in part a reaction to an Italian art world fixated on the wonders of the past, from the Romans to the Renaissance. The first Futurist Manifesto began: “We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.” It burst into rapturous praise for “a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” For the Futurists a racing car was more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace.
The Manifesto’s most extreme pronouncements sang the glories of war – “the world’s only hygiene”; and called for the destruction of museums, which were seen as the cemeteries of art. Another of Marinetti’s tenets was “scorn for woman.” It was so extreme, so pointedly offensive, so supremely silly, that many dismissed the Manifesto as a bad joke. Nevertheless the flame had been lit, and Futurism quickly became the standard by which all modernist innovations were judged. This was particularly disturbing for those French Cubists who were busy turning Picasso and Braque’s experiment into an academic discipline. To counter the Futurist onslaught they plunged ever more deeply into French tradition, inventing elaborate pedigrees that extended from the classical past to Cézanne.
In his catalogue essay, curator Didier Ottinger, traces the way sometime Cubists such as Léger, Delaunay and Duchamp were lured by the glamour of Futurism. The poet, Apollinaire – the supreme spin-doctor of modern art – began by denouncing the Futurists and ended as a promoter. Within a few years it was almost impossible to draw a line between the various movements and crypto-movements Futurism had begotten. Ottinger lumps everything under the pragmatic heading “Cubofuturism”.
This would have been a more accurate title for the Tate exhibition, because a large percentage of works on display could not be called Futurist. There are, for instance, numerous paintings by Picasso and Braque – including the latter’s Grand Nu (1907-08), which narrowly missed being acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, and now resides in the Centre Pompidou. There are works by Russian avant-gardists such as Malevich, Popova, Larionov and Goncharova; and by British Vorticists such as Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and C.R.W.Nevinson.
Many of the bona fide Futurist works by Balla, Boccioni, Carra, Severini and Russolo look drab in this context. They are dark and congested, revealing their origins in 19th century Symbolist aesthetics while striving furiously to proclaim their modernity. The result of this self-conscious commitment to experimentation was a manic urge to paint an entire exhibition on every canvas. ‘Speed’ is suggested by multiple layering of forms, while ‘light’ is a mass of fragmented particles. But what seemed outrageously modern to contemporary eyes now appears old-fashioned. These avowed enemies of tradition remained wedded to the easel and its manners.
To turn from the excesses of the Futurists to the Courtauld exhibition is like waking from a bilious hallucination. In the Omega Workshops the modernist impulse was tamed and domesticated; lured from the temple of Art and resettled in the kitchen and the drawing room. Roger Fry saw this procedure as decidedly life-enhancing. “It is time that the spirit of fun was introduced into furniture and fabrics,” he wrote. “We have suffered too long from the dull and the stupidly serious.”
Fry may have been referring to the doctrinaire Cubists as much as the histrionics of the Futurists, but “the spirit of fun” has its own problems. If there was an element of opera buffa in the Futurists, for a certain section of English society, “fun” is synonymous with “irony” – a habitual vice of the artists and writers associated with Bloomsbury. One may stare forever at the works of Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant, but they persistently fail to rise to the challenges set by Picasso, Matisse or even Derain. This is partly a question of talent, but also one of attitude. In their supercilious way, the Bloomsbury set treated life as a game to be played with wit, verve and style. The same applies to their art, which borrows the outward forms of French modernism in a detached and intellectual manner.
Although he waxed lyrical about feeling and expression Fry was shrewd enough to realise that Bloomsbury art was all design and no heart. It was ideally suited for rugs, fabrics and furniture – and may have seemed the ideal way to introduce Modernist aesthetics to the skeptical, pragmatic minds of the English. The identical thing occurred in Australia, where Modernist design was admired by the same audience that reviled modern art.
In even some of the most accomplished Omega designs, such as a dynamic study of confronted peacocks attributed to Fry himself; or a rug with a geometric pattern designed by Vanessa Bell for the adventurous Lady Hamilton, there is no real feeling for colour. This tendency to make colour – and colour combinations – too garish or too dull is a hallmark, not only of Bloomsbury, but of 20th century British art in general. People blame it on the weather, but I suspect it is mainly because artists, preoccupied with the subject, have rarely treated colour with the seriousness it requires.
Fry may have spoken about “barbaric colour” and the “tremulous line”, but the results were eminently tasteful – albeit too advanced for anything but a small, exclusive audience. When Fry was forced to close the Workshops in 1919 he admitted his failure, but argued that it would have succeeded “in any other European country apart from England.”
In indulging the British genius for self-mortification, Fry may have been overstating his case. As this exhibition suggests, Omega exerted a noticeable influence on English art and design, and did much to encourage open-minded attitudes. It was a cosmopolitan gambit on behalf of civilisation – even down to the Pacifist attitudes the workshop held during the First World War. By contrast, the war-loving Futurists embraced the conflict, with fatal results for the movement, and for Boccioni who was killed in a cavalry accident. Their new kind of beauty found in speed and war turned out to be the “terrible beauty” described by W.B.Yeats, born from the union of idealism and folly. There was much to be said for channeling one’s revolutionary impulses into furniture and fabrics.
Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19, Courtauld Gallery, June 8 – September 20, 2009
Futurism, Tate Modern, June 12 – September 20, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 27, 2009