Tracing the presence of some of the prominent modernists in the unlikely rural setting they flocked in the early days of the twentieth century, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion seeks to answer the question of what it was that drew some of the most prominent figures in modernism to the rolling hills and picturesque beaches of Sussex.
The exhibition is organised around certain unique objects which neatly weave the stories of the various modernist groups into a structured narrative. The first one of those is Eric Gill’s Garden Statue – The Virgin (1911-12) commissioned by Roger Fry, who belonged to the Bloomsbury Group. Gill’s original proposition of a nipple-pinching Virgin Mary, the sketch for which is on display, turned out to be too scandalous for Fry’s liking, which forced Gill to abandon his initial design in favour of an – arguably – less eroticised one: this sculpture, a sensual female more redolent of an ancient Egyptian deity than the Virgin Mary, is the one that captures the visitor’s attention as soon as they enter. Gill’s risqué representation is evocative of the aesthetics of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, the focal point of the first part of the exhibition, and the way its members blended the religious and the erotic, blurring the boundaries between sacred and profane.
Gill’s statue also serves as a point of connection between the Guild and the Bloomsbury Group. The section devoted to the latter revolves around Duncan Grant’s Leda and the Duck chest, which playfully reconfigures the ancient myth of Leda and Zeus; in Grant’s reinterpretation, the highest of the Olympian gods becomes a duck in what can be interpreted as a reversal of the narrative of male violence and domination prevalent during the First World War when the chest was painted. The works of the Bloomsbury Group introduce the element of retreat and rebellion – or rather retreat as rebellion – the title of the exhibition alludes to. For Grant and his partner, Vanessa Bell, Sussex was meant to be a safe haven from the ghastly reality of war. Grant, a conscientious objector, refused to join in the war effort and did not enlist; however, the still lives painted by both him and Bell can be read as a political statement rather than escapism – in placing an emphasis on the primacy to the domestic sphere, they are a mark of defiance against the strained political reality of the time.
Duncan Grant (1885 - 1978) Venus and Adonis, c.1919 courtesy of Tate, London 2015 / DACS 2016
If Sussex could offer a retreat from war, it equally provided refuge from personal struggles. Following a scandalous divorce, Edward James found himself in West Dean, where he collaborated with Salvador Dali on Mae West lips sofa, which is on display in the subsequent section of the exhibition, its vibrant red looking strikingly out of place against the wooden Victorian staircase. This orchestrated disharmony, although implicit throughout, becomes quite literally pronounced on the top floor, where the exhibition turns into a multi-sensorial experience with the inclusion of sound, in a truly modernist fashion bringing together different media, such as literature and music. Dispersed Are We, a collaboration between Wolf and Caleb Madden, is a four channel sonic intervention combining music and poetry, as well as excerpts from the writings of the leading figures of the period. Coming from speakers situated in each of the four corners, the voices blend and clash discordantly, giving the visitor an impression of finding themselves in a busy café with the giants of modernism, trying to discern scraps of their conversations over the buzz.
David Jones (1895 - 1974), Madonna and Child in a Landscape, 1924, Trustees of the David Jones estate. Image courtesy of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
Disharmony is also a distinct theme in the next room, which features the first visions of landscape. Despite the idyllic appearances, closer inspection reveals Edward Wadsworth’s rendering of Sussex, in which the mechanical stuff of warfare blends eerily into the natural setting, to be profoundly unsettling. The ambiguous relationship between the modernists and Sussex is taken to the extreme in the works of Edward Burra, which are on display in the last room. Burra sardonically referred to the town of Rye as ‘ducky little TinkerBell towne – like an itsy bitsy morgue quayte dead’ and painted it accordingly, not unlike Wadsworth bringing the looming presence of machinery to the foreground. In this room, the least cohesive of them all, modernism shows the multiplicity of its faces. Wadsworth’s paintings neighbour designs for the murals of Berwick Church created by the Bloomsbury artists, and the lesser-known works of Hans Feibush.
John Piper (1903 - 1992), View of Chichester Cathedral from the Deanery, 1975, Pallant House Gallery (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) courtesy of The Piper Estate / DACS 2016
The other half of the room, exploring the themes of motherhood and settling in, revolves around Henry Moore’s sculpture Mother and Child, which mediates between Roland Penrose and Lee Miller: Penrose’s The Flight of Time has been suggested to reflect the harrowing effects that her work as a war reporter and her post-natal depression had on Miller; her photographs, on the other hand, may be seen as redolent of the uneasiness she felt about Sussex. Other artists displayed in the room include Grace Palithorpe and Reuben Mendikoff, who, under the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, used art as a medium to consider issues such as early childhood trauma, and Edith Rimmington whose photographs of the Sussex coast challenge the boundaries between dream and reality.
Although the exhibition covers a multitude of themes and artists, it does not make a pretence of exhausting the vast topic that is modernism; nevertheless, the unique glimpses into it that it offers are certain to capture the imagination of those well-acquainted with the movement and neophytes alike.
Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion runs between 28th January 2017 – 23rd April 2017 at Two Temple Place. Admission is free. Find out more here.