5 August 2013

'A Crisis of Brilliance' at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

When an exhibition gets good reviews from professional art critics, even I start to wonder why I bother with my tuppenceworth. So if you want to stop reading here about Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-1922 (its very full title) and instead find out what Brian Sewell or Andrew Lambirth had to say about it, I really won’t mind.

So what can I add? Having read the book and seen the exhibition, I can opine that if one was of interest, the other will be too. The book, David Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance Five Young British Artists and the Great War, came out in 2010. His five were Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark
Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington; the exhibition which Haycock has now curated includes David Bomberg as well. The notion of this group engendering a “crisis of brilliance” came from Henry Tonks, teacher and professor at the Slade from 1892 to 1930 (apart from war service), who had first applied it to a previous generation of his students there in the 1890s which had included Augustus and Gwen John and Percy Wyndham Lewis. Both his crises were the existence of a superfluity of talent in particular cohorts of students whereas Haycock’s crisis reveals itself as the one inflicted by the First World War on the six contemporaries in the Dulwich exhibition.

In the catalogue Haycock provides a very helpful description of the sequence of art exhibitions and of the groups of artists which were being formed in the years just before the War. The most important of the former were the 1910 Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition and the 1912 Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, both organised by Roger Fry. It was the latter show which Tonks advised his students, all about 20 at the time, to avoid – what could have been more guaranteed to ensure their attendance? In1912 London was also introduced to Italian Futurism which would lead to the appearance of Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism movement just a few months before the War began.

Although visitors encounter Bomberg’s In the Hold (1913-14) (above) juxtaposed with Dulwich’s old masters before entering, the exhibition adopts a chronological approach and starts with works showing the initial impact of exposure to modernism and futurism on a group of students originally preoccupied with early Renaissance Italian art (John Currie’s Some Later Primitives and Madame Tiscaron (1912) below).

Examples are Stanley Spencer’s Apple Gatherers 1912-13 and Paul Nash’s Apple Pickers (1914), both regarded as being influenced by Gauguin (below left and right) and Gertler’s The Fruit Sorters in the exhibition poster.

Subsequently the show makes clear how this exposure to modernism conditioned the group’s artistic response to the dislocations and innovations (eg Nevinson’s Futurist Spiral Descent 1916 left) of the First World War and the consequences for their work in the years after 1918. Two major works which were not made available to the exhibition were Gertler’s masterpiece, Merry-Go-Round (1916), which is a highlight of Tate Britain’s recent rehang, and Nash’s The Menin Road (1919) which is owned by the currently closed Imperial War Museum (below left and right). Hopefully the First World War centenary programme the UK government is running from 2014 to 2018 will include a major exhibition of art from the period to put the work of the Dulwich six in a wider context.

Does the Dulwich show work? On the whole exhibitions concentrate on one artist in retrospect or bring together artists who, if only for a period, embraced a similar artistic philosophy, be it Pre-Raphaelite or Bauhaus. Haycock’s book impressed by skilful intertwining of the biographies of his five subjects, but inevitably it is a different proposition for an exhibition to provide six retrospectives in parallel. The individuals concerned had the War in common, but had different experiences with varying effects on their art. Their lives would come to disparate ends, some distinguished, some tragic. Anyone interested in 20th century English art will find the Dulwich exhibition rewarding, but Haycock’s book or the exhibition catalogue are likely to prove very helpful in providing wider context to the works on display. Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-1922 closes on 22 September.


Bomberg taught in one of London South Bank University ‘s predecessor organisations and its Borough Road Gallery is now providing opportunities to see his work.

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