Modern Life & Modern Subjects

British Art in the Early Twentieth Century

Lisa Tickner

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In May 1914 the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London opened its exhibition of “Twentieth-Century Art.” The catalogue identified four main strands in modern painting but included a fifth group of Jewish artists, hung in the “Small Gallery.” In this illuminating book art historian Lisa Tickner takes a fresh look at the work of artists from each of these strands. In a series of innovative case studies, combining analysis with substantial new research, she examines the artists’ radical approaches to the process of painting and their resources in the defining conditions of modern life.

Tickner discusses Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Murder and L’Affaire de Camden Town in the context of tabloid crime. Augustus John’s Lyric Fantasy is seen as rooted in, but also as qualifying, the Edwardian fascination with gypsies and tramping while memorializing John’s dead wife, Ida. The studies for Wyndham Lewis’s lost Kermesse are connected to popular dance and to his sense of the "wild body." Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach is related to the emergence of the beach as a social and psychic space and to childhood summers in St. Ives drawn on by her sister, Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse. And David Bomberg’s In the Hold, along with Mark Gertler’s Jewish Family, is shown to emerge from contemporary debates surrounding Jewish art and the possibility of a secular, urban, Yiddish culture. In an extended Afterword, Tickner considers the interplay between modernism and modernity in British art before 1914.

Lisa Tickner is professor of art history at Middlesex University, London, and author of The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–1914.

“Beautifully illustrated and accessible despite its depth of knowledge, this is art history vividly alive.”—Financial Times

Modern Life & Modern Subjects is one of the best books about modern art—about modern art in England, of all places—ever written. On every page there is a grand fact, a sane judgement, a choice of verb or adjective which changes the lie of the land. Talking early on about Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series, Lisa Tickner agrees that ‘Paintings grow out of other paintings, out of the promise or failure of certain moves, as well as out of the social compost.’ No book I know holds the difficult balance implied here with such care, and with such deep regard for the local texture of the paintings and histories it deals with. Those of us still puzzling over David Bomberg, Vanessa Bell and Wyndham Lewis—and who can think the feeling of bafflement at English modernism’s tone and substance will ever go away?—will now resort to Modern Life & Modern Subjects as our first and surest guide.”—T.J. Clark


“An elegant, highly intelligent and always lucid analysis of how early twentieth-century British modernism was rooted, almost despite itself, in its wider social and cultural matrix.”—Linda Colley


ISBN: 9780300083507
Publication Date: June 10, 2000
Co-publisher: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
336 pages, x
120 b/w + 30 color illus.
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