Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Art Free
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Sussex might seem a strange place to be a hotbed of the avant-garde, but this show makes a reasonable case for the Arts & Crafts movement gradually morphing into international modernism in the first half of the twentieth century on the South Downs. More importantly, though, it’s in Two Temple Place, William Astor’s barmy neo-gothic mansion on the Embankment. If you’ve never visited it, you should. If you have, you’ll want to go back.

So, why Sussex? Well, basically because it was (and still is, obvs) picturesque and easy to get to from London. Most of the artists featured here came from, or frequently went to, the capital. A lot of them had money and social position and time. They were, in other words, posh. Being posh, their relationship to their adopted rural surroundings was ambiguous: kind of reverential and ignorant at the same time. Locals reportedly treated them with suspicion. I don’t blame them: I treat the likes of the Bloomsbury Group with suspicion too.

The first room is largely devoted to Eric Gill. The designer and sculptor was a proper radical, with a cultlike private life that really put the sex in Sussex: he screwed his sisters, daughters and pets (think about that next time you use his typeface Gill Sans). Among his quasi-religious designs here are – bizarrely – two garden rollers, their stone drums carved and inscribed. They’re the opposite of Duchamp’s readymades: humble utilitarian objects treated with the reverence of classical sculpture. They’re extraordinarily silly and patronising, so – unlike Duchamp’s readymades – do actually elicit an emotional response, even if it’s just scorn.

But Gill really set the scene. The following five decades saw artists, architects and designers wash up in Sussex, from Serge Chermayeff, architect of the iconic De La Warr Pavilion, to Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell of the Bloomsbury crew, to Henry Moore; even American photographer and surrealist muse Lee Miller. Their respective works create a fascinating, if bitty, show. Threaded through it all is a profound unease – about little England parochialism, about the tritely decorative versus the epic and mythical, about the obvious signs of a looming war, and then an almost-as-troubling looming peace. Above all, there is an anxiety that still exists: can privilege ever create great, challenging art? The evidence here says probably not, but they clearly had fun trying.

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