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Monday, October 3, 2011

Mostly being modern and romantic

I have discovered this week, just as I am closing the back cover on Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns, that she has now published another book – this time on Virginia Woolf. It is better to come to something a little late than not at all. Romantic Moderns is a book which I have had for yonks, but which I have enjoyed eating slowly and out-of-order. It is as broad as it is long, and being a history of the English imagination in the 1930s and 1940s, it is given to such staggered consumption.

The central thesis is that the English were not, as previously believed, excluded from modernism. The orthodox view is that artistically and imaginatively, the English were and are a pastorally minded lot, a nation of romantics whose art is figurative and whose literature is linear. The struggles of artistic abstraction and surrealism to take off here are often called as witnesses to this phenomenon.

For what it is worth, I have never thought that it is quite right. There isn’t a line with modernists on one side and traditionalists on the other. What Harris does is examine this issue from all sorts of angles including art, literature, food, church and village. She says again and again that English artists and writers of this period were modernists whose explorations borrowed from and were informed by the more traditional past. They were not making the world afresh; their modernism had to do with re-interpretation.

She focuses on a group of well-chosen “Romantic Moderns” who individually and collectively illustrate her point – such as John Piper, Virginia Woolf and Bill Brandt. The passage in which she talks about the paintings in Berwick Church by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell is excellent and took me right back to that wonderful church (discussed on this blog back in January).

It would be an impossible task to catalogue all of the “Romantic Moderns” of the period, but one of the best things about this book is that it feels like it is the tip of the iceberg.

The discussion of the ungodly Bloomsbury bunch using a church for a gallery, and being used themselves as the organs of religious expression put me in mind of Rupert Lee, an artist of the same period (and a friend of Bell and Grant), who has featured on this blog before. Lee, who was 10 years the president of the avant-garde London Group of Artists, and who was at the forefront of British surrealism, also produced religious art, which I discovered myself at St Mary the Less in Cambridge and at the nearby Foxton Parish Church. He was not religious himself, but this art formed a part of his cultural world. His modernism was complex and there was more than one colour in his pallet.

The same can be said of the English writer, Barbara Comyns whose writing borrows from the pastoral and the traditional but seems to write it afresh with a different eye and a different voice. Her writing has been called English magical realism, by which I think is meant that it is not full blown magical realism, but it feels magic all the same.

I particularly thought of Comyns when reading Harris’ chapter on village life. Almost all of Comyns’ adult life was lived in cities, but her writing was heavily influenced by her childhood in the Warwickshire village of Bidford-on-Avon. She focuses on village life to an extent which was common amongst writers and artists of the period, and she plainly felt that it was not an unviable mode of living, killed off by modernism. That having been said, she was not a proselytiser. Much of her work, especially the recently re-published Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead emphasises that the smallest communities can be the cruellest.

The division between the city and the country, the modern world and the old one was not and is not straight forward, and long may it continue.

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