Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sussex in the City

The common assumption is that modernism belongs to the city: as a form and a concept, it is popularly thought that modernist art, writing and ideas are essentially a reflection of the urban experience. There are dissidents, however: in The Country and the City, the Welsh cultural academic Raymond Williams rejected the opposition of the country as a pastoral idyll and the city as the heart of modernity. For Williams, the divide was a myth and there was an inextricable link between the two; he considered modernism a single tradition expressing a sense of common experience.

A new exhibition in London, in a neo-Gothic mansion by the Thames, would seem to support this idea of a link between the country and the city. Focusing on the extraordinary concentration of artists and writers in Sussex in the early 20th century, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion challenges the idea of the countryside as an Eden and, instead, presents an area that inspired the experimental and the unconventional.

Created by the Bulldog Trust and curated by Dr Hope Wolf of the University of Sussex, the exhibition contains works from the historical Sussex homes of artists such as Bloomsbury Group painters and designers Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant at Charleston, and the surrealist art and photography of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly. Also featured is modernist art from the collections of Sussex galleries such as the Jerwood in Hastings and the Towner in Eastbourne, and museums at Ditchling and Brighton.

Many of the artists held and shared socialist beliefs and some saw Sussex as a retreat where they could rebel against traditional domesticity by living communally or alternatively. Sculptor Eric Gill was part of a Catholic community at Ditchling Common and his alternate lifestyle tested the boundaries of most people’s idea of common decency. What truly united the artists, though, was the pursuit of innovation and the production of work that challenged traditional ideas about the countryside in the modern age.

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place, Victoria Embankment, London WC2R 3BD until 23rd April 2017. Admission is free.

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