Celebrating a century of modern British artists
It was the day after the American election and the day looked so bleak that HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths decided to go to the Jerwood Gallery and see something uplifting: Century: 100 Modern British Artists. It was not so much the British-ness of the exhibition, more the fact that artists had looked, considered, and created something new, interesting and sustainable. Lauris wanted to see something that had intelligence and talent; honesty in an uncertain world.
This is an interesting exhibition of over 100 art works from over 100 years from the Jerwood and Ingram collections. There are sculptures, landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, nudes, sea, boats, surrealism, collages and abstracts, still life, pop art and social observation from well-known British artists. It is good to see women artists, so often side-lined, represented with works by Dames Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, Laura Knight and Mary Fedden; Eileen Agar, Rose Wylie, Dora Carrington and Dod Procter.
There are themes to the various rooms which, sadly, I didn’t discover until later, because it was explained in the exhibition leaflet rather than each room. Or, at least, I didn’t see any explanations. There is Place and Mood, Aspects of the Figure, Experiment, Shape and Vessel and Wonderland. The show points up the eccentric, creative English character – whatever that is and whatever it will be in the future.
How to review an exhibition so diverse and wide-ranging? I remembered Phil Jupitus, on the radio, explaining to an art-shy fellow comedian how he viewed art; she didn’t know how to approach exhibitions and was gobsmacked that Jupitus would sometimes stand in front of one picture for over half an hour. He explained how he simply walks through an exhibition, looks to right and left and then at the end he considers which ones have made the most impact and goes back and really studies those few.
It’s not a bad method.
I loved the sculptures; not normally in evidence in the Jerwood Gallery, it was great to see wonderfully solid, fully realised, modern and classical sculpture. I’ve always loved Frink’s work: her sturdy, grounded dogs, horses and figures. This figure, tall and black, could be construed as sinister but I was captivated by its elegant grace – striding optimistically into the future. Created for Salisbury Cathedral, The Very Reverend Sydney Evans said at the time: “The figure symbolises, for her, human dignity and creativity over militarism and totalitarianism, disregard of human dignity and rights.” Well, that says it all.
On this day of all days it would have been easy to be drawn into the negative and gloomy. Certainly many of the pictures are quite dark in colour and in tone, but I steered myself as much as possible to the colourful, sensitive art. Some sculptures are heavy, yet tender and fragile. Paintings and drawings are beautifully executed, some gritty, others tender and playful.
Two reflective portraits by Dod Parker, women lost in reverie; quiet portraits allowing the person to be who she is. Ruskin Spear’s Portrait of Mother, an intimate rounded figure is well observed and loved, truthfully painted in her familiar habitat, at home – her hands in her lap, crossed over her apron. A lyrical painting of A Woman Playing a Piano by Winifred Nicholson, hands appear to be moving over the keys; a mist surrounds her as if conveying either the liveliness or the meditative effect of the music.
Maternity by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is a sensitive sculpture portraying a mother and child entwined. And then there is the robust painting of social observation by Edward Burra, Seamen Ashore, Greenock, strong with expressive body language.
There were two I particularly loved: a David Hockney, My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean. A poignant piece, probably created on his first trip to New York in 1961, with ‘DH’ on top of a skyscraper looking towards a figure on the other side of the ocean. Could it be separation from a lover or from himself, as he physically and emotionally moves away from England.
The other is a little gem, the smallest painting in the exhibition, by Dora Carrington: A Tree on a Horse. The Tree is a portrait of Iris Tree who apparently had a scandalous reputation and modelled for many different artists. Carrington has painted her in silver and reds on a frisky horse – a crusader, a colourful, independent figure set on her own, singular journey.
The exhibition felt like something to cling on to in a changing world. This is art that has longevity; it has survived fashion and subsisted over decades. It was refreshing to find an honesty in artists painting what they loved and what they believed in. It confirmed my belief in humanity.
Century: 100 Modern British Artists is on at the Jerwood Gallery, Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings Old Town, TN34 3DW until 8 January 2017. Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 5pm Check website for Christmas opening times.
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