VISUAL ARTS Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914 Barbican Centre London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The theme of the Barbican Art Gallery's spring show "Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914" is the series of exhibitions of modern European art that were held in London in the four years immediately before the advent of the First World War. The two strands of the exhibition, the European pictures shown in London and the reaction by British artists who saw them, are neatly interwoven through eight roughly chronological rooms. Their combined aim, as the catalogue puts it, is "to contribute to the understanding of the ideas and excitements that shaped the formation of taste and the development of modernism in Britain".

It is a terrific idea for an exhibition which in other, better-subsidised hands would have been an excuse to gather the key works of the 20th century under one roof for one of the grandest shows of recent times. Instead, the European selection is humble and the focus firmly on Britain. My initial instinct was that this was an opportunity missed, but taken as an exhibition of British painting with a few foreign pointers it is all the better for its modesty. The smaller and sometimes surprising talents of Sickert, Gilman and Gore would have been eclipsed by too many show-stoppers from Van Gogh, Picasso or Cezanne.

That said, it is a shame that two or three other paintings couldn't have been squeezed in. They have borrowed a great Gauguin from the National Galleries of Scotland, but arguably it's the wrong one. If they had included The Vision After the Sermon (also in the collection of National Galleries of Scotland) it could have been hung next to Spencer Gore's delightful record of Gauguins and Connoisseurs at the Stafford Gallery which shows it being admired on its first visit to London in 1911. Likewise, the little view of The Matisse Room at the Second Post Impressionist Exhibition (attributed to Roger Fry, but probably by Vanessa Bell) borrowed from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris shows the incredible depth of the 1912 exhibition but highlights the lack of a great Matisse in the Barbican's 1997 selection.

The oddest omissions are British ones. Where, for example, is Stanley Spencer, whose Apple Gatherers (in the Tate Gallery) is the most complete assimilation of Gauguin by any English artist at the time? Or CRW Nevinson? Acknowledged in the excellent catalogue as the maker of the first British Futurist painting, the only Englishman to be fully absorbed into a modern European movement, but shown in the exhibition by a single work that pre- dates his Futurist tendencies.

These gaps aside, there are some great pictures here and some very pleasing combinations. Roger Fry is shown under the influence of Cezanne, where he looks at ease, and Derain, where he does not; Epstein looks at home next to Modigliani; as does Wyndham Lewis with Picasso; Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell are more confident with Matisse than Kandinsky (their tentative experiments with collage and abstraction don't quite come off) and Harold Gilman successfully blends his admiration for Van Gogh's colour with that for Vuillard's intimism.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition, well worth the visit to London EC2 and the pounds 4.50 ticket price, which also admits to a beautiful display of work by the potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper in the Barbican's lower gallery.

To 26 May (0171-382 7105)