Tag Archives: Salvador Dali

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – Two Temple Place

Sussex Modernism, Two Temple Place

What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.

This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.

With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.

Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.

Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’ [1919] which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.

But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.

Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.

Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.

The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.

As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Alice in Wonderland – British Library

Alice in Wonderland - British Library

Judi Dench played Alice Liddell in John Logan’s Peter and Alice in 2013 which explored what it meant to be saddled with a fictional creation for a lifetime. Alice of course was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, while Ben Whishaw played the tragic Peter Llewelyn Davies, the man who was once Peter Pan. These characters have become ingrained images of childhood, and while Alice Liddell had to live with her fictional alter-ego with all its expectations and pressures, as this new British Library exhibition shows our image of Alice has barely changed in 150 years, and illustrators who deviated from the prototype were criticised.

So, Alice, short, long probably blonde hair held back with an Alice band, blue dress, white apron – are you forming a picture in your mind? Chances are it’s the Disney-version of Alice or thereabouts, which itself was inspired by the original illustrator John Tenniel. Alice in Wonderland, a free exhibition on the first floor of the British Library which runs until April, explores where this image comes from and why, so many years later, this character continues to exert a hold over our imagination.

It begins with the least successful part of the exhibition, a summary of the story on giant wooden stands using the various illustrations since publication and a series of slightly distorted mirrors, but it’s not entirely clear whether these are meant to reflect the audience, or flip the accompanying illustration and get us to see Alice from different perspectives.  Maybe it’s both, but the mirrors aren’t quite warped enough to make a clear point and by the time you reach the eighth or ninth of these it’s become a bit repetitive.

But speed past this minor distraction and the British Library is on considerably firmer ground in its presentation of the books, prints and ephemera celebrating Carroll’s famous book. At the start, we learn about the story behind the story, how Lewis Carroll met the Liddell family and made up fantastical tales for their daughter Alice which he eventually committed to paper. In this section is the original handwritten manuscript with Carroll’s own illustrations which he later presented to Miss Liddell, as well as prints of the original Alice herself. Pretty quickly the story was published and John Tenniel was called upon to illustrate the text and in doing so created a long-lasting picture of Alice.

Heavily involved in the publication process, the exhibition includes Carroll’s diary recording the details of book binding, pricing and working with Tenniel on the illustrations. As we see here, these were clearly influenced by Carroll’s original concepts, but Tenniel expanded them and original woodblocks are on display showing the incredible detail of his work which is both formally Victorian while still perfectly representing the magical land of the story. There is also a darkness to them which may have passed you by as a child but the Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts and even in some scenes, Alice herself, look a bit sinister. But the overwhelming feeling when you see these pictures is just how familiar they are, totally reinforcing the British Library’s central argument that these character portraits have barely changed in 150 years.

Once the book was out of copyright and after Carroll’s death there was an explosion of alternative ‘Alices’ and the next section of the exhibition looks chronologically at these illustrations while gauging their relative success. As well as pure reprints which fascinatingly reimagined Alice for their times, there are also examples of how the characters have been used to satirise political or social issues of the past, including the behaviour of the British government in the 1930s faced by the threat of Hitler’s ambition. As well as a history of children’s literature, here these works also sit in a longer tradition of comic-like ridicule that goes back to Hogarth and the political cartoonists of the eighteenth-century.

By the time we reach the 1960s, the pictures become more absurdist and abstract, and while the characters still have that Tenniel look, there is clearly an attempt to break free of more conventional approaches, so the final part of the exhibition which looks at more subversive takes is full of brash colours and wacky interpretations. Interestingly, for children’s stories, in a lot of these images Alice and co never lose that sinister feel that Tenniel introduced so long ago, and whether you’re looking at Ralph Steadman’s version or Salvador Dali’s abstract vision it’s no cosy children’s tale.

Peppered throughout this interesting show are a number of additional exhibits that have been inspired by Carroll’s story including ornaments, video games that you can try out and merchandise from the Disney film which solidified our picture of Wonderland.  Added to this are animations, music and some newly commissioned articles which make a semi-interactive and comprehensive examination of this story’s influence.

This is a small exhibition in the main entrance and as it is free was quite crowded on a weekend afternoon. But if you can’t go during the week then give yourself plenty of time to get round it because bearing with the crowds will be worth it. As always with the Library, there is a lot to read with plenty of detailed signs explaining the artefacts as well as summarising each section as you move from the background to the original story, through mass circulation to reimagining and reinventing familiar characters. You’ll leave knowing not just how influential Carroll’s vision has been on children’s literature both through the text and his own illustrations that guided Tenniel, but also how this story has emerged from its pages to become a significant and un-waning cultural influence. More than anything you’ll understand why the image of Alice affected her inspiration, Alice Liddell, for the rest of her life and why we continue to find it fascinating today.

Alice in Wonderland is at the British Library until 17 April and entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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