One hundred years ago this month, the RBSA staged The Modern Movement in Art exhibition.
It was a bold step… not least because modernism was viewed with general suspicion, and abstraction was considered the extreme.
The RBSA today is a forward-thinking venue showcasing contemporary art and craft in the city, with regular Open exhibitions to encourage new talent and fresh ideas.
There’s also a major exhibition on William Gear, a post-war pioneer of abstraction, coming up in November.
In the early 1900s The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists was housed behind a grand portico, occupying a distinctly nineteenth century space.
It was felt, certainly in London circles, that Birmingham was in no position to engage with progressive art movements, and that RBSA exhibitions were dominated by the work of amateurs and traditionalists.
Nevertheless, in July 1917 Arthur Gaskin, a prominent member of the RBSA Council, invited the progressive critic Roger Fry to curate a modernist exhibition for Birmingham.
The Modern Movement in Art featured works by Gaudier Brzeska, Duncan Grant, Maurice Vlaminck and others.
Reviews were unfavourable. The exhibition was described in local coverage as ‘unbelievable squalor’ and RBSA member and teacher Edward Samuel Harper declared it had been ‘received with undisguised incredulity.’
A Modern Art Timeline
Modern art movements were only gradually accepted in the UK.
- As far back as Turner, experimentations with light and atmosphere revealed the formative stages of abstraction.
- Whistler developed notions of fusing art with music in works like Nocturne in Black and Gold and The Falling Rocket – heavily criticised by art critic John Ruskin at the time.
- Cezanne took things further, breaking down the established rules of composition, and set the scene for Cubism.
- While Picasso and Braque established Cubism on the Continent, and Futurism emerged in Italy, there was little appetite for abstraction in the public at large.
Rothko may have been moved to tears by Matisse, and Kandinsky enlightened by Monet, but beyond art circles, there appeared to be little connection with new or experimental techniques.
Suprematism, Cubism, Vorticism, Surrealism and other “isms” were often greeted with amusement, incomprehension or open hostility by the public and many professional artists.
RBSA art historian Brendan Flynn explains: “Artists like Bomberg, Nevinson and Gaudier Brzeska had been experimenting in semi abstraction before the First World War, and it was accepted only within a small group of Modernist sympathisers.
“The spirit of experimentation and the interest in modern European art waned in the aftermath of the conflict. It began to revive in the early 1930s with artists like Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson forming Unit One – a small avant-garde group devoted to exploring new ideas in painting and sculpture.
“There was only a limited market for modern art in the UK, so dealers were obviously reluctant to support it. In many cases the only audience for it was other artists.”
Part of the backlash was also due to Victorian and Edwardian academic values: teachers within art schools were reluctant to let go of the foundations of their profession – based firmly on representational drawing, the laws of perspective and respect for historical tradition.
But resistance grew among artists, both to the institutions exhibiting art, and to municipal art education, and many felt the Birmingham scene was too inward looking.
In 1925, the Ruskin Galleries opened in Chamberlain Square – offering a new outlet for progressive art and craft in the city.
A London commentator declared: “When Birmingham seemed hopeless and the modernists felt like exiles in a desert, a miracle happened…”
It closed with the onset of war in 1939, and the RBSA once again became the main art exhibition space in Birmingham due to the temporary closure of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
An art debate held in the same year at the Chapman Galleries in Broad Street only served to widen the gulf between traditionalists and modernists.
Brendan Flynn added: “Not all RBSA members were opposed to modernist ideas but the Society, as a democratic organisation, reflected the attitudes of the majority of the membership.
“It would be safe to say that the membership in general was suspicious of, or actively opposed to, modernist ideas.”
The ensuing emergence of Rothko, Klee and Pollock presented further challenges to public taste and the art world in general.
It was 1954 before the first abstract picture by Anthony Twentyman was accepted for display by the RBSA selection committee.
But the Society today includes many members who work in an abstract idiom in painting, sculpture and print-making.
Make sure you catch two major exhibitions with a focus on abstraction this autumn:
- Equivalent 8 combines contemporary abstract and semi-abstract paintings, drawings and sculpture.
- Colour and Form: William Gear (1915-1997) celebrates the work of a post-war pioneer of abstraction.
Louise Palfreyman, WMMD blogger-in-residence
Brendan Flynn, ‘Abstract Art at the RBSA’ April 2015