This year marks the centenary of the London Group, an artists’ exhibiting society that set out to provide an avant-garde alternative to institutions like the Royal Academy. Charting its first 50 years, this excellent exhibition reveals how argument and discord marked the organization from the very start – not just in terms of its controversial shows, full of radical artistic statements that made critics splutter (and which now, of course, rank amongst the highest achievements of British modernism), but also in terms of the often bitter disagreements between the artists themselves.
The Group’s very foundation was weirdly schizophrenic – an alliance between the Camden Town group of painters, with their post-impressionist portraits and interiors, and the much more aggressively experimental Vorticists (think a British take on Cubism, with added violence and pizzazz). Fallings-out were inevitable, and members often exhibited only briefly with the Group as successive waves of often antagonistic movements rose to prominence.
Here you’ll see paintings from the 1920s by Duncan Grant and other members of the Bloomsbury set, with their rather nostalgic, genteel idea of what visual art should be, alongside early Surrealist experiments from same decade by the likes of Paul Nash. There’s pure abstraction from the 1930s and ’40s by the likes of Victor Pasmore versus the dowdy realism of Ruskin Spear’s ‘Winter’ street scene.
Although the show limits itself to only one work per artist, it’s remarkable how nuanced and informative the story it tells manages to be. Along the way there are masterpieces and famous names: from David Bomberg’s ‘Ghetto Theatre’ (1920), all dynamic angles and crowded colours, to LS Lowry’s pallid Northern cityscape ‘Burford Church’ (1948). But overall, it’s the sense of British art’s changing landscape, the tangled ferment of conflicting ideas and approaches, that’s most fascinating.