Sunday, 6 April 2008


Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group’ attracted some bad reviews when it opened in February. The line was that though Walter Sickert was undeniably good, most of the other work was undistinguished and that the only reason for putting on such a show was some kind of residual Littlebritainism. This is a gross simplification but it’s enough to reveal some basic premises that I don’t think really hold. Granted that Sickert is a singular case I nonetheless found many of the paintings by Spencer Gore (above), Harold Gilman, and others impressive and could name several for which I would happily make favourable aesthetic argument. The newspaper critics seemed to want more than this however. Their pieces reflected the old avantgardist philosophy that if it isn’t the first it needn’t have existed.

For a long time now I’ve been interested in what I call ‘provincial modernism’. I mean to use this as a neutral term, referring to the art of various countries at different moments in their histories when they were not perceived as ‘centres’, for example, the USA before the 1940s, Russia before 1910, Germany before 1907, Britain for most of the century, Canada and Australia and most other places for the whole modernist period. Once this is spelled out it’s apparent that the classic modernist discourse is (mostly) Eurocentric and has a great deal to do with imperial power of one sort or another. As an Australian I grew up with an art history that mightn’t mean a lot to someone born elsewhere though it was, and still is, my history. At the same time I felt the undeniable draw of the New American Poetry as evidenced in Donald Allen’s anthology and subsequent others. In the early 1970s I felt that New York and San Francisco were the centres of Anglophone poetic activity. Then, sometime in mid-decade, I felt this was no longer the case. Good poetry continued to come out of the States but, for me, it was no longer absolutely essential. I felt for a few years that there were no longer any ‘centres’, though, paradoxically, with the advent of the internet (decentred as it is in some respects) some of the old ideas were reviving. However, as the web expanded and the blogosphere became an undeniable world of itself, the process of decentring resumed. And if recent art history with its cyclic revivals has taught us anything it should be that the linear model of the early avant-garde is no longer of much use. In the world of popular culture some complain that the young should be out making totally new music instead of listening to (and borrowing from) the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. But as one perceptive critic noted, if a fourteen year old is exposed to, say a Small Faces track, it doesn’t necessarily register as a piece of rock history: it’s another new sonic experience. And to be honest, when I go to a gallery and see a work by Titian my initial reaction is towards something that’s there in front of me at that moment. I am aware of art history but the business of working out the strict order in which various artworks of that time (maybe any time) were done seems a useless exercise.

1 comment:

David Lumsden said...

A very good post. I like the deft summary of the "if it isn’t the first it needn’t have existed." position ... there is so much other activity in the margins that supports all the big name stuff. Alfred Kreymborg springs to mind. I've always had an interest in the more marginal characters, the one-hit wonders or those that never quite 'made it' ... Skipwith Cannell, Dorian Cooke ... it's a long roll of honour.