The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Culture

In the second half of the nineteenth century there existed a number of trends in European continental painting — impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, which later, in the twentieth century, gave way to cubism, futurism and surrealism, and eventually to abstractionism. The foundation in 1885 of the New English Art Club and the Glasgow School (about the same time) was the first organized opposition against the banalities of academic painting. \The New English and the Glasgow programmes were return to naturalism and for this direction they were indebted to James Whistler (1834—1903) as a forerunner and to the impressionist movement across the Channel.

The New English Art Club became the centre of English impressionism,,and from the 1880s until World War I the history of British painting is marked by a slow and rather tentative absorption of impressionist principles of light and colour. Instead of trying to represent nature in its entirety the impressionists selected one element — light — to be treated as an independent and organic element of style. The leading representatives of the school were Walter Sickert (1860—1942), Augustus John (1878—1961), and younger English artists Spencer Gore (1878— 1914), Harold Gilman (1876—1919) and others, who founded the Camden Town Group in 1911. The works of the latter were fine examples of realism in opposition to the fashionable interiors of academic painting. Their subjects included workers, petty bourgeoisie, inhabitants of slums, portraits.

During World War II, when all contacts with continental Europe were severed, there was a notable increase in artistic vitality in Britain. ‘Modern’ artists were accepted, as they had never been before. Graham Sutherland (1903— 80), Paul Nash (1889-1946), Henry Moore (1898—1986) all did outstanding paintings or drawings, and achieved through their absorption of modern means of expression a dramatic vividness of imagery which rose far above mere documentary illustration. Since the war the development of painting in Britain has been diverse and is therefore difficult of definition. Some British painters have turned to abstraction, not always with too much conviction. Of the geometric abstraction painters Victor Pasmore (1908) and Ben Nicholson (1894) are the most eminent. Younger painters have worked in the expressionist phase of the abstract movement. At the opposite pole in post-war British painting there is a young group of social realists, led by Jack Smith and Edward Middleditch.

Like painting, the British sculpture of the twentieth century is very different from that of the previous century and, too, is greatly influenced by expressionism and surrealism. The new expressionist trend in sculpture is represented by Williams, Butler, Chadwick and Armitage. Among the British sculptors of the period Henry Moore stands out, both in quality and originality. Like other sculptors of his time Moore looked attentively at contemporary painters, in particular at Picasso, but he evolved sculpture that is more independent of contemporary painting than that of any British sculptor and more original. One of the central themes of his preoccupation was the reclining female and the mother and child.

Modern British artists and sculptors, as well as the old masters, both British and foreign, are being kept in the numerous art museums and private art collections.

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