The early 20th century
A time of intense social change that transformed British art
Between 1900 and 1920 artists such as Walter Sickert, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell transformed the British art world.
At the turn of the century, painting styles were elegant and restrained. They were perhaps best exemplified by the refined portraits that reflected the aristocratic aspirations of the British Empire.
As the decade progressed this quintessential Edwardian style became outmoded. In 1905 the painter Walter Sickert waged an attack on the genteel portraiture he referred to as ‘wriggle and chiffon’ paintings. He was inspired by the uncompromising realism of the French painter Edgar Degas. He soon became known for his own pictures featuring nude models in shabby tenements.
This spirit of change enthused a younger generation. The Bloomsbury Group was formed of a circle of visionary visual artists and literary figures. It included the writers Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, the critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry and the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Each rejected the conservative tastes of the previous generation in their pursuit of cultural and sexual freedom.
Bell and Grant were inspired by modern painting emerging from France. In particular they were captivated by the bold colours of Henri Matisse and the Cubist works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. In 1910 Roger Fry brought these artists to Britain. His ground-breaking exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ was famously dubbed the “Art-Quake” by Woolf.
On or about December 1910, human character changed.
Virginia Woolf on ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.
The arrival of Italian Futurism in Britain in 1912 sent shockwaves through the art world. It called for a revolution and encouraged British artists to sweep away ‘stale’ value systems. They were particularly interested in speed, movement and the excitement of modern life. Artists such as Gino Severini and Umberto Boccioni tried to capture these in painting and sculpture.
We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed.
Just before the outbreak of war in 1914, Wyndham Lewis and a group of his followers put forward a manifesto for a British movement built upon the same anti-establishment rhetoric as Futurism. However, the brutality of the First World War, many artists sought solace in tradition – a movement described as the ‘return to order’.