Who were Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington and Bomberg? Was there a crisis? Were they brilliant? And why were they important enough to have a joint exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery? It would have been nice if this had been explained at the beginning of the exhibition instead of going straight into their biographical details about how they all started out at the Slade art school in London. Especially as only Nash and Spencer retained their renown into the 21st century, what made the whole group important?
The period in British art that this exhibition looks at is exciting, its a transition from traditional backwards looking art to more stylised, abstract, and futuristic art, responding to French post-modernism and other new ‘-isms’ while holding onto traditional values, with British industry, landscape and war as topics. The exhibition gives a taster of this period and the new British art that was being created.
The exhibition itself presents a powerful journey through these artists’ early art school years, the influence of the impressionists and cubism as it entered their work to different degrees and then the outbreak of World War I. It’s here that their work took on new dimensions and where the story I’m more familiar with kicks in as Nash and Nevinson in particular become famous and renowned as war artists.
The stories of these artists that the exhibition builds up then comes to a conclusion after the war as we learn of their differing fates, including how Nevinson went to New York and never reached great critical acclaim after the war and two of the six committed suicide. I found myself going back to the beginning of the exhibition and doing a quick recap over what I’d already seen as the stories unfolded.
It was interesting to learn about these six different, but loosely linked painters rather than focusing on just one or two. For instance, in room one we meet Dora Carrington and see her portrait drawn by a besotted Marks Gertler and his drawn by her; this view of two young art students drawing each other at school contrasts greatly with the images of war that disrupt these young lives and their ultimate fates after the war.
But the exhibition is difficult too, stories don’t hang together and I’m not sure I could explain succinctly why these artists are grouped together, but my closest guess is this – six artists who grew together in the same art school during a period of great change in British art, they were influential during this intense period to varying degrees leaving differing legacies. How’s that?
Until 22 September
Dulwich Picture Gallery