Twentieth century modernism did not arrive in Britain fully formed and ready to go. Nor did it show up in kit-form, with a set of how-to instructions. Like most artistic movements, modernism needed to evolve, be nurtured, recognised, and championed.
In The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain (Unicorn, £25), James Scott chronicles the ways in which artists, patrons, scientists, and writers interacted during the early 1930s, World War II, and the following decade, to achieve this end. And how women played a pivotal role.
While often focusing on small, incidental events and conversations, Scott describes the seminal exhibitions, publications, relationships that propelled modern art to the fore in Britain. Great patrons and specialists, such as Helen Sutherland and Margaret Gardiner, cut through the gloom of world war, helping modern artists (including Ben Nicholson, David Jones, and Barbara Hepworth) by purchasing their work, providing them with studio accommodation, or simply paying their monthly bills. Innovative group exhibitions such as Nicolete Gray’s ‘Abstract and Concrete’ introduced modernism to a wider public. While specialist publication Axis – founded by Myfanwy Piper – documented the melting-pot of new ideas that crossed geographical and political lines.
This is as much a book about relationships, both public and private, as art. Whether congenial, fervent, burnt-out, or emerging from still warm embers, Scott follows the arch of each interaction with unflinching clarity. Sometimes we are party to intimate couplings, open marriages, affairs that refuse to lie dormant. And yet salacious details are notably omitted, and judgement is suspended in the calm, matter-of-fact prose.
Much of this new art needed a place to be exhibited and sold. New commercial art galleries emerged in London, often founded by women. Erica Brausen, Helen Lessore, and Annely Juda became key figures in the London art world, exhibiting young, unknown artists such as Francis Bacon, John Bratby, and Gillian Ayres, whose careers would flourish in the post-war years.
Numerous artworks were bought by women collectors, and many would later be donated to public collections. This book contains an impressive array of illustrations depicting major works from the period and, while the current location of each piece can be gleaned from the picture credits at the back of the book, the caption below each image could also have carried this information – to make clear the unique treasures that these pioneering individuals passed on to us.
In a nuanced account of how the art world shifted ground during the war years, there are no tight boundaries drawn around modern art. Figuration sits comfortably alongside abstraction, and Scott shows his understanding of an artist’s creative process, when describing Piet Mondrian’s pared-down studio space. This line of enquiry could have been continued with other artists, taking us closer to the engine room in terms of practicalities and concepts. To learn more about Hepworth’s gargantuan casting process could help illuminate the scale of her ambition and resourcefulness. How did she, and others, achieve their practical goals? The nuts and bolts of studio life laid bare. Casting, carving and assemblage – none of which, as Scott has shown, was bound by gender – could form the basis for a further exploration of this bountiful period in British art.