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International Influences on Modern British art
[ Essay )
We are proud of our collection of Modern British art. But we also have a remarkable number of works by artists from beyond these shores.
You might ask yourself, if we’re a Modern British art gallery, why on earth do we also collect works by, well, non-British artists?
The answer is that no man – or artist for that matter – is an island. Artists have always travelled and sought out new experiences and inspirations. Throughout history, different cities and places have become the focus of the art world. At the turn of the 19th century, that place was Paris.
The chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries artists across the world flocked to Paris. Art movements such as Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism came thick and fast. The results of these diverse movements were exhibited in the many salons and expositions that sprang up, including Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants.
This explosion of new ideas in art, literature, politics and culture is often referred to as Modernism. Artists, writers and philosophers all sought to create work that better reflected modern society. In the case of artists, this meant using new imagery, materials and techniques.
British artists were not immune to the pull of modernism, or its beating heart in Paris. Walter Sickert, Ben Nicholson, Jessica Dismorr, Eileen Agar and many more made the trip across the Channel to discover new, bold innovations in art. The ‘art-quake’ caused by this time reverberated across time and space. Even artists such as Ivon Hitchens who spent most of his life in Britain, felt its influence.
Read on to discover some of the European artists who had a profound impact on British art.
Edgar Degas [French, 1834 – 1917)
When you think of Edgar Degas, the first thing that comes to mind is probably his portraits of dancers. He was a master of capturing the human body in motion – particularly the female body. However, his mastery of form and line were also evident in his depictions of more sedate activities – in this case, of a woman combing her hair.
Degas’ nude portraits of women instead depicted ordinary women engaged in mundane domestic scenes – quite at odds with the idealised depictions of the body found in classical art. They often hinted at illicit sexual activity and were quite shocking to contemporary audiences.
In Britain, portraiture had tended to be refined, reflecting the aspirations of the upper classes and aristocracy. Some artists began to reject these conventions, including Walter Sickert (1860-1942). For these artists, the chance to take a look at what was happening beyond the English Channel was irresistible.
In 1883, Sickert travelled to Paris and met Degas. The two became friends and Sickert began to follow Degas’ technique of painting in the studio, using preparatory drawings and his memory to compose his pictures. Like Degas, he also began portraying contemporary scenes set in music halls and cafes, as well as domestic interiors and nudes, such as Jack Ashore (1912-13).
Paul Cézanne [French, 1839 –1906)
Cézanne is known as the “Father of Modern Art” – and for good reason! His unique method of building form with colour helped to influence the art of Cubists, Fauves and generations of avant-garde painters.
The lithograph is a reworking of the celebrated picture ‘Baigneurs au repos’. He was fascinated by the human figure and so returned to the subject of bathers over and over again.
Duncan Grant (1885-1978), like most of the Bloomsbury Group, was inspired by European innovations in art. In Bathers by the Pond (c.1920-21), Cézanne’s influence can be seen in the subject matter. Interestingly, Cézanne painted male bathers as a result of his shyness around female models, whereas Grant painted male models in order to create homoerotic fantasies. Grant was born only seven months before an act was passed in Parliament that criminalised all male homosexual sex in England, so the scenes that he painted would have been quite scandalous to contemporary society. In fact, Grant’s work still has the power to cause shockwaves, as a recent discovery of his drawings has shown!
Édouard Vuillard [French, 1868 –1940)
Vuillard was a prominent member of the Nabis, a group of young French artists who believed that art was a synthesis of metaphors and symbols created by the artist, rather than a straightforward depiction of nature.
Vuillard is best known for his paintings of domestic scenes, often with intricately patterned wallpaper and fabrics. These were not realistic portraits but an attempt to evoke a feeling or sensation of memory. His work flattens space, often blending his subjects into colours and patterns.
The influence of Vuillard on the artist Harold Gilman (1876-1919) was so strong that he was known as ‘the Vuillard of London’! He was a member of the Camden Town Group along with Walter Sickert, creating works that combined their gritty subject matter with the style and vitality of European painters, such as Vuillard and Vincent van Gogh.
In the work below, Tea in the Bedsitter (1916), you can see the influence of Vuillard’s colour palette, not to mention his interest in interiors – particularly highly patterned wallpapers!
Henri Matisse [French, 1869 – 1954)
Along with Picasso (who we’ll get to in a moment), Matisse is one of the artists who best defines the revolution in the visionary arts at the start of the 20th century. His work is known for its intense colours and fluid draughtsmanship.
Together with André Derain (1880-1954), he was a leader of les Fauves (French for ‘the wild beasts’), a group of artists who prioritised painterly techniques and strong colour over the realistic values emphasised by the Impressionists. Their works expressed strong emotions with a wild use of colour, often totally disregarding the subject’s natural colours.
The lithograph below, L’Escargot (The Snail) (1954), uses a spiralling arrangement of brightly coloured pieces of paper to suggest the form of a snail. He claimed, “I have attained a form filtered to its essentials”.
While Ivon Hitchens’ (1893-1979) work was rooted in the English landscape, he was also inspired by the Fauves. In his 1955 Hitchens monograph, Patrick Heron notes the influence of both Fauvism and Cubism on the painter:
Hitchens’s sensuousness, his control of colour-resonance and his almost calligraphic, unfailingly rhythmic manipulation of pigment all stem direct from the Fauves. His spatial grammar, on the other hand – the fact that he conceives of forms in space in terms of a system of flat screens of colour lying one behind another – this is purely Cubist in origin.
This influence is perhaps most keenly felt in Hitchens’ early landscapes and still lifes. His interest in colour and handling of space in his depictions of interiors can all be traced back to the work of Matisse.
Pablo Picasso [Spanish, 1881–1973)
Need we introduce him? Along with Georges Braque, Picasso pioneered Cubism, in which the artist uses multiple viewpoints in order to represent the subject in greater context. It is one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century.
More artists than we can count have been influenced in some way by Picasso, including Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Eileen Agar.
Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) first encountered Picasso’s work in the early 1920s in Paris, and by the 1930s he had developed his own distinctive Cubist compositions. He used techniques such as decorative patterning (multi-coloured spots, lines and diamond shapes), intersecting forms to create a flattened pictorial space and a flowing, incised line.
5 Circles (1934) was originally printed for a portfolio that included work by Picasso. Nicholson was the only British artist to be represented, demonstrating how highly he was regarded in Europe as part of the modernist movement.
One of Picasso’s most iconic pieces is Guernica (1937), a visceral anti-war painting made in response to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The English painter Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) said that he learned from Guernica that “by a kind of paraphrase of appearances things could be made to look more vital and real”.
During the 1930s he began transforming forms of tree branches and thorns into figurative pieces, creating tortured and anxious works well-suited to a world descending into war and violence. He continued using these forms into the 1940s, including in his ‘Thorn Heads’ series, initially inspired by a commission from Walter Hussey to paint the Crucifixion.
Eileen Agar (1899-1991) is widely recognised for her contribution to British Surrealism, but she was also strongly influenced by Cubism. She met Picasso in 1928 and the dynamic play of chequerboard patterns and human profiles in this self-portrait is comparable to his latest works.