Harmonious Harrumphing

It’s only a fifteen-minute bus ride on the P4 from Brixton tube station to get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery but it feels more like some kind of time-travelling Tardis ride back about fifty years or more. And as anyone who opts to take the slightly bumpy and circuitous route will soon discover, it’s a journey that shifts location far away from the chaotic clamour and ultra-high speed vibrancy of modern day inner-city life, landing back down in a leafy green world of genteel quiescence and the slightly forced etiquettical polite good manners indicative of happy middle-class families all determinedly out enjoying their peaceful afternoon of educational rest and recreation. At least, that’s what it felt like to me. And so it is that within the space of just a couple of short South London miles the sights and sounds switch away from buskers, beggars, sirens and street slang to a place where the noise levels seldom rise above an occasional avian chirrup or the harmonious harrumphing, clinking cups and soft munching sounds that emanate from the pensioner parties that always seem to fill up the Gallery’s charming little restaurant.

Frankly, these days I’m not sure that I feel entirely comfortable in either setting. Definitely no longer young enough to find the Brixton buzz as energising, exhilarating and invigorating as I once did, when I actually lived in the place, but still not quite sufficiently senior, or maybe mature enough, to wish to share a scone and sip a dish of Earl Grey tea with members of that other particularly privileged demographic. Oh well, enough of pondering the quasi-Marxian examination of social stratigraphy and class differentiality – and I think I’ll pass on the dining diversions as well – and, instead, check straight on into the actual Gallery building and the main exhibition space contained therein. And I always seem to be very pleasantly surprised when I revisit this location as for some reason, during the intervening periods of absence, I always seem to manage to forget just what a really rather good selection of paintings they have in the nine or ten rooms that constitute the displays of the permanent collection.

One of my favourites is the large Titian that hangs in the entrance hallway. It’s one of those classic classical scenes where a lovely nubile Venus is gamely trying to cling on to a pretty disinterested Adonis who appears to be determined to go off hunting with his hounds rather than hang around for a post-coital chat with his goddess girlfriend. According to the accompanying label, the painting is, in fact, categorised as School of Titian and the only bits of brushwork that the master himself actually completed were on one of the lover’s arms and a couple of his dogs. But I have to confess that to my amateur eye it all looks pretty skilfully put together and just as nicely painted as anything in the National Gallery.

Anyway, before getting too sidetracked with touring around all the other old masters, I’d better get back on track and take a look at the temporary show that’s been put together to fill up the corridor of rooms that run along the back of the main Gallery. There’s not a lot of space here and things are always a bit cramped (the Gallery really does seem to be always very successful in attracting large numbers of locals and quite a few tourist visitors like myself) but the displays here can usually be relied upon to cover interesting and slightly off-beat subjects and be organised with a level of curatorship just a bit above the average. And today’s showing, Cutting Edge, is no exception, although its sub-title, Modernist British Printmaking, is perhaps just a little bit misleading. I suppose I was sort of expecting a kind of survey show covering some of the various different styles and techniques that emerged and evolved during the past century whereas, in fact, the great bulk of the show is very much focussed on a thorough examination of one small (and previously utterly unknown to me) area of art historical practice. Essentially, the exhibition is a comprehensive investigation of the output of works from the staff and students of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art from the 1920s and ’30s and, in particular, the very specific style of small art deco lino cuts that they chose as their favoured means of production throughout this period.

By way of a brief scene setting introduction, the show starts off with a small selection of printworks by artists of the earlier, pre-First World War, generation. So, there are a handful of etchings and lithographs by Nash, Nevinson, Bomberg (see above) and Wadsworth that show their interest in Vorticism, the Futurist spin-off that celebrated the new machine age and all things noisy, speedy, modern and dangerous. There are some powerful figurative and abstracted images here and it would have been good to see a wider selection although, presumably, the curators must have quickly realised that to do so would have risked overshadowing everything else in the show. Consequently, there’s a bit of a chronological leap forward from the daring radicalism and experimentation of the exhibition’s opening salvo to the less forceful and less confrontational stance taken by the Grosvenor artists under the tutelage of their influential head teacher Claude Flight.

Of course, it’s not unsurprising that the new horrible industrialised reality that characterised the war to end wars caused artists to rethink their initial unquestioning embrace of the excitement of mechanical modernity. Nor that the post-First World War generation would prefer to find subject matter for their art that tuned away from the harsher social realities that had concerned their predecessors. So, while the fashion for acknowledging the societal changes that accompanied the new modern life was still very evident, the choice of expression was much more directed by a desire to soften the edges and promote a more decorative, ornamental and enthusiastically positive vision of a happy futuristic future. At least, that seems to be the overall stylistic thread that permeates most of the work in the exhibition. The result is a lot of very attractive prints to look at but, from a critical stance, the problem with producing this kind of generally more optimistic art is that it’s all oyster and no grit, losing much of the potential power of art that can emerge from the tension of strife or the narratives of calamity, threat, anger or other deadly sins. It’s all a bit too much Dulwich and not enough Brixton.

So, while the exhibition here undoubtedly contains a fine parade of very neatly staged sequences captured in varying degrees of abstracted stylisation, the subject matter concentrates on an odd mix of scenes that vary between forced excitement and parochial mundanity. It makes for a bit of a curious contrast between all manner of whizzy flapper imagery and the more detailed documentation of some of the less exciting activities of daily life. So the range of subjects under investigation ranges from orchestras and jazz bands, ice skaters and rugger players to commuters on the bus and strap-hanging tube travellers, crowds caught in a rain shower and workers fixing the wires on telegraph poles.

Almost equally notable are the exhibition’s absences. There are no portraits or individuals, only crowds and groups; and no still lifes, only occasional landscapes and many more frequent city street scenes. I’m not sure whether this may be due to the limitations of the lino-cut medium, to which the Grosvenor group was apparently so fiercely wedded, or maybe reflects some of the theoretical socialistic preferences of Flight who led the group. I suppose with the great benefit of hindsight maybe it’s even possible to make a case that the artists somehow knew that they were recording fleeting sights from a world on the cusp – that a time of even greater turmoil was just round the corner – and that a sense of foreboding hides just behind the facade of false normality. But I’m not so sure.

The show ends with a small series of advertisements for days out at the races or suggestions of a visit to see the tennis at Wimbledon, and it’s here that the streamlined graphic qualities of all the previous attempts at reaching fine art status finds its perfect utilitarian format. For some reason the addition of a framing device of tightly choreographed typography helps to bring everything into perfect alignment and the elements that went into making so many reasonably attractive prints are suddenly transformed into the posters that are the design classics that seem to accurately define the age.

Overall, I suppose the show is a fairly entertaining and interesting examination of a small footnote of art history and I’m not sure I’d particularly recommend anyone to make the effort to go out of their way to see it. Except that, as mentioned earlier, it does give the excuse to take another look at the permanent collection. At which point I’m left with only just enough space to reel off a list of some of the more famous names of the artists whose works line the walls, starting with the British selection that runs from Hogarth (above) and Gainsborough (below) to Reynolds and Constable. Followed by the honorary Brits like Van Dyck and Rubens. And onto the best of the Continentals that include Veronese, Rembrandt, Canaletto and especially Poussin (further below), who gets a whole room to himself.

There really are some very good works amongst this lot and, fully refreshed after a day out at this charming location, I feel ready to get back on the Tardis bus to take the reverse journey back to the real world of contemporary Brixton and then on to the joys of travelling through the tunnels of the Victoria line.

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