How could an artist of the mid-20th century 'go Modern' and still 'be British'? When Paul Nash asked this question in the early 1930s he was addressing a generation of painters and sculptors who were caught between an insular figurative tradition and the exciting formal experiments of international Modernism. Their varied and imaginative response made 20th century British art peculiarly diverse.
Late 19th century artistic developments in France were so slow to cross the English Channel that Roger Fry's 1910 exhibition of Manet and the Post-Impressionists provoked outrage. With the trauma of World War One reinforcing this conservative tendency, British artists of the 1920s tended to look backwards rather than outwards for inspiration. The rediscovery of Samuel Palmer and John Sell Cotman inspired a revival both in watercolour painting and in the British landscape as a subject; artists continued to be inspired by natural forms and a sense of place right through the century.
By the early 1930s a loose artistic movement had grown up around exhibiting groups such as the Seven and Five Society, whose members tended towards the figurative and the pastoral. One, Winifred Nicholson, went on to devote a lifetime to the exploration of colour, but did so mostly through landscape and still life, rather than through abstraction. The pressure to modernise was intense, however, and in 1935 the Seven and Five Society, having been taken over by Ben Nicholson and John Piper, held Britain's first exhibition of abstract painting and sculpture before promptly imploding; Piper soon abandoned abstraction, but continued to experiment with techniques and media.
An influx of émigré artists from Nazi Europe later in the decade made London briefly the world capital of Modernism, while the International Surrealist Exhibition held in the capital in 1936 encouraged a homegrown movement. Even here, though, Paul Nash and Tristram Hillier chose to root their work in landscape and natural forms.
Post-war the tide turned firmly in favour of abstraction, with the United States of America now the main source of influence. After the horrors of a war inspired by nationalism, critics, institutions and the public embraced international styles of art, and artists like John Hoyland and Merlyn Evans turned away from representation to explore colour and form. Even among abstract painters, however, there was a tendency to maintain a connection to the natural world; Patrick Heron, for one, continued to feel 'the enormously powerful rhythmic energies of the granite outcrops beneath my feet'.
Meanwhile, the modern figurative tradition established during the 1920s continued to evolve. Modern British art is characterised less by groups and movements than it is by individualists, artists who successfully drew on a range of influences to create their own vision. This is as true of sculptor Elizabeth Frink as it is of painters Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan, who both explored different styles without losing touch with the reality of the world around them. Like so many other Modern British artists, they were reluctant to abandon natural forms and real places; this exhibition is testament to their success in 'going Modern' while 'being British.Russell
James Russell is an independent author, lecturer and curator who specialises in 20th Century British art and design. Having written acclaimed books on Nash and Ravilious for The Mainstone Press, he has just completed a biography of Edward Seago which will be co-published by Lund Humphries and Portland Gallery in 2014.