"Modern Art in Britain" is a singularly well-judged exhibition, a credit to the Barbican Art Gallery on its 15th birthday, and a triumph for Anna Greutzner Robins, whose catalogue-cum-book (Merrell Holberton, pounds 19.95) immediately becomes the definitive account of the ways that British artists responded to the European avant-garde in the period between 1910 and 1914.
Robins has selected paintings from four significant exhibitions held in London in those years. Then she has added British paintings that were affected by their example, while the catalogue describes the circumstances of the exhibitions and the critical response. This is therefore not an adventurous show, because it is a reconstruction. But it is deft. All the exhibits are telling and some of them are of very high quality. And while an often- told lesson is that British artists lagged behind innovations made elsewhere, the story of our own painting and sculpture does have its brightness. The rediscovery of neglected canvasses reminds us of something often forgotten: what excitement there was - fun too - in becoming a modern artist. You could do things in pictures that no one in England had dreamt of doing before. That kind of opportunity was simply not available to writers of the period, who turn up on the fringes of Robins's narrative, yet have little fresh to say about literary art.
As for the foreign loans: Robins has sought out pictures that now belong to galleries in Toronto, Budapest, Helsinki, St Petersburg and other places. So while many of the continental master pictures are familiar, others are not. Matisse's The Inattentive Reader of course belongs to the Tate, but it has an especial effect in its present company. There's an interesting wall of Gauguins, a majestic Cezanne landscape, Van Gogh's very late reworking of a Delacroix, an early cubist Picasso, Delaunay's orphist masterpiece The Cardiff Football Team, a beautiful Derain of 1912 - which is a windowscape but as grave as a cathedral - and other works by Marchand, Mar- quet, Friesz, Severini, Vlaminck and Vuillard.
These paintings alone would make it essential to visit the Barbican. Many people will be glad to enjoy them, rather than to brood over the serious theme of the show - which is the reception of such modern art in Britain. It's a depressing story, told by Robins at some length. Inevitably, its emphasis is on Roger Fry. He organised the epochal and controversial exhibition called "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" held at London's Grafton Gallery in 1910. He followed this show with the "Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition" also at the Grafton two years later. As we know, the effect was dramatic. Modern art was denounced, compared with the work of children or lunatics. And yet, in the long run (or even the short run), Fry's conviction that his artists were masters was accepted by all.
He is still rather a mysterious figure. Every few years, someone turns up with another attempt to demonstrate that Fry was himself a considerable artist. I fear that he was not. Many painters of middling ability are inspired by feeling for their times and by the example of greater contemporaries. Obviously Fry had this advantage. He was clever, knew what was going on in Paris, and had met Matisse and Picasso. But Fry's own painting suffers from an indefinable but still unmistakable lack of inner, personal inspiration. It's as though he had been painting from a guide book to the modern movement.
This said, one can appreciate his feeling that it is better to paint than not to paint. Fry is better when his paintings are least laboured; and at the Barbican there are occasional hints that he was able to seek pleasure rather than settle down to industry. I quite like his Summer in the Garden of 1911, though the occasion could have been helped by drinks and flowers, and less stitching.
Fry as an artist is easier to explain than Fry as a critic. Robins does not consider why he retreated from the modern movement. Was it because he was so disappointed by philistine reactions to his exhibitions? Or because of the Great War? I merely note that he did not trouble to keep up with Matisse and that his monograph on the French artist is a slight thing. Did Fry understand Cubism? I doubt it. His best-known book is Vision and Design (1920), a selection of 20 years of writing about art. Its description of modern painting is perfunctory, nowhere near as good as the essays on Beardsley and Claude.
It may have been that modern French painting was too modern for Fry (who was a Victorian, born 1866) to cope with. At the Barbican, the successful painters are those with more insouciant attitudes than Fry's. Vanessa Bell - who should have been more light-hearted and reckless of Fry's opinions about "significant form" than she was - presents some of the most touching and individual paintings in the exhibition. Their gaucheness is the result of spontaneous honesty: charm comes into them as an accidental quality. Unlike many English (and especially Scottish) artists who studied Parisian painting, Bell could keep her touch light. People like her husband Clive Bell and Fry were always around her with their theories and puffing pipes. She was none the less the first self-taught English woman artist within the modern tradition.
I believe that the interior view of The Matisse Room at the Second Post- Impressionist Exhibition should be reattributed to Bell and not given to Fry, as is traditional. The panel has her touch more than Fry's, and is free of his solemnity and tendency to worry. At the Barbican, amongst other documentary material, are original exhibition catalogues with watercolour sketches of the French paintings (anonymous, perhaps by Bell) and Spencer Gore's Gauguin and Connoisseurs at the Stafford Gallery, a view of the 1911 show devoted to Gauguin and Cezanne. Gore's picture, with its anti- atmospheric red colours, is obviously indebted to Gauguin himself. There's a slight trace of Sickert, but here's Gore as a modern artist rather than a Camden-Towner.
Gore is one of the best British artists in the show. The disappointments are Augustus John and the Scottish painter JD Fergusson. Fry was right to say that he and other members of the Rhythm group, who included Jessica Dismorr, SJ Peploe and Anne Estelle Rice, were "turgid" artists, despite being sophisticated and acquainted with Paris studios. They are at the Barbican because they belong to exhibiting history in pre-1914 London.
When leaving the exhibition, don't overlook the four tall panels by Natalia Gontcharova, awkwardly hung over the stairwell by the exit. Modern London had an interest in Russian culture - soon to be lost in the turmoil of world war and revolution.
"Modern Art in Britain": Barbican Art Gallery, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to 26 May.
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