Before Vorticism

Domestic Art before Vorticism

Art in Britain had been in the doldrums for many years. Victorian taste stifled innovation, so artistic development in Britain was non-existent. Queen Victoria’s long reign from 1837 to 1901 gave this period of British history a very unadventurous artistic history. These years were mainly characterized by massive industrial growth; art was not given much importance. Design was about disguise: the Houses of Parliament, by Pugin, looks like something from the fifteenth century, but it was from the 1850′s. The big cast-iron edifices put up everywhere at that time (Kew gardens, Crystal Palace, a vast number of bridges) all had decoration added where not strictly necessary. Just look at the gaudy, kitsch Tower Bridge. It looks mediaeval but it was finished in 1894. Decoration was the master, art was its servant.

One had to look abroad for proper contemporary art. The best of British from the Victorian times has to be the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but their use of a brighter palette and freer use of the brush was seen as decadent and shocking to many, even though Ruskin, the eminent Victorian critic, gave them his support. Their brushwork and style were seen as a continental import. But there was an arrogance at large in the public mind that distrusted such influences. Britain was the ‘Workshop of the World’ at this time. What could continental fashions offer Britain? A large slice of Victorian taste involved distrust of ‘foreign’ influences and a love of the traditional.

Sickert’s Ennui of 1914, typical of the uninteresting output from these years. Even the title (the French word for boredom) sums up the crisis in British art at this time.

The main artists of the day were John Singer Sargeant, Walter Sickert and Whistler. Although the latter was influenced by the Impressionists (though let’s face it, from thirty years previous) the output of all three were conservative, and unimaginative. However, cracks in the old order were appearing throughout King Edward’s reign (1901-1910). His relaxed attitude to life permeated society and the Victorian era was soon eclipsed by new ideas, and new, slightly more exotic tastes from across the Channel.

The Post-Impressionists

In the years leading up to 1914, British pictorial art was increasingly subjected to new influences from across the English Channel. French art had itself recently undergone a massive revolution. The four most important post-impressionists, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Derain and Gaugin had started painting in new and exciting ways that acted as the foundations for the revolution in modern art which took place in the course of the twentieth century. Other French artists like Picasso, Bracque and Matisse strengthened the ranks of the post-impressionists, by which label they became known. Their new vision of the world became impossible to ignore.

Seurat’s La Grand Jatte of 1884-86.

Post-impressionism had come to Britain in the Edwardian years, in the form of the First and second Post-Impressionist Exhibitions. There was great popular interest in their art, and British artists immediately took up the challenge. Of course, some British (or at least Anglo-American) artists had already studied French art in its natural context, in Paris. Lewis had already spend much time in Paris, where he had met a young Picasso, and quite possibly had seen Picasso’s seminal 1907 work, Les Demoisselles d’Avignon. This work had been reworked several times, while Picasso refined his new modernist style in painting.

Les Demoisselles d'Avignon by Picasso
Picasso’s Les Demoisselles d’Avignon of 1907.

Although the Demoisselles was never exhibited in Britain, it was an undoubted influence on many artists working in Paris at this time. Picasso himself was soon after engaged in defining Cubism with Georges Bracque, and the fruits of their labour appeared in 1912 in Paris. Once again, little true Cubism was seen in Britain, but its influences were greatest when the Futurists started utilising some of Cubism’s concepts in their work.

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