Numbers game

Is it perverse to publish a quasi-footnote to a post that’s half-written, unsatisfactory and may indeed never survive to enjoy the thrill of online publication? Probably so, but I’m not about to let that stop me.

In the course of writing about the marvellous Evelyn Dunbar (who? yes, that’s exactly the point) I started trying — not for any very good reason other than as a distraction from what I was supposed to be doing, although frankly picking up the dry cleaning or doing some ironing might have been more constructive — to compile a list of the ten greatest British artists of the twentieth century.

By ‘of the twentieth century’ I mean artists who produced the bulk of their work during that century. By ‘British’ I mean artists who produced the bulk of their work while living in the United Kingdom. By ‘artist’ I mean anyone who produced visual art, although due to the fact that my ignorance of sculpture transcends even my ignorance of painting, drawing or graphic art, sculptors are likely to be disadvantaged here. And by ‘great’, I mean — well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

In any event, here’s the list I compiled, in no order at all:

1. Sir William Nicholson
2. Walter Sickert
3. David Bomberg
4. William Orpen
5. Paul Nash
6. Ben Nicholson
7. Eric Ravilious
8. Francis Bacon
9. Graham Sutherland
10. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, John Minton, Keith Vaughan, or, ahem, Evelyn Dunbar. (I’m changing my mind on this last one minute by minute, hence this representative sample of runners and riders.)

Errors and omissions: I am squeamish about including J. S. Sargent, if only because he fits no more neatly into the twentieth century than he does within the definition of ‘British’ above. Barbara Hepworth and Antony Caro are perhaps also ill-treated, for reasons described above. Henry Moore is not ill-treated — just moderately over-hyped elsewhere. Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin and their fellow Constructivists are, on the other hand, slightly unfairly neglected, if only because I don’t know enough about their work. And — probably my fault more than his — I’ve just never ‘got’ Patrick Heron.

And then there’s the question of influence. Wyndham Lewis was an unpleasant man who was, briefly, very influential, while Peter Blake is by all accounts a very nice man whose work has been persistently influential. Neither of those achievements constitutes, to my mind anyway, greatness. Auerbach’s achievement, although important and often beautiful, is perhaps best regarded as a footnote to Bomberg’s. Victor Passmore seems to me to have done what had already been done elsewhere, no better than anyone else was doing it. Ditto Roger Hilton. And as for Lucian Freud, I persist in regarding him as a flawed artist, fatally limited as much in skill as in ambition, whose work has lived up neither to its early potential, nor to its subsequent art-critical apotheosis.

It is easy to see why this list might be condemned as woefully biased towards the earlier half of the century, insufficiently forward-looking, excessively representational and indeed sporadically neo-romantic in its inclinations. To which I can only reply, ‘guilty as charged’, I guess.

So, over to you, the legion of desperate undergraduates, mostly harmless stalkers, online pals and countless inscrutable silent lurkers who visit this site. How, if at all, would you alter this list? Or is it perfect already?

And finally, needless to say, lists of this sort are, almost without exception, coat-trailing nonsense of the most self-indulgent, intellectually irresponsible sort. But, well, I’m not going to let that stop me, either.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Numbers game

  1. I’d take out boring, pseudy Ben Nicholson & confusing (ie I don’t get it) Bomberg and insert Edward Burra and Wyndham Lewis. And I’d definitely have Eric Kennington over pretty but dull Minton, and the luscious Munnings (reactionary that I am) over the dire, ugly Keith Vaughan any day. Oh and bugger art historical ‘importance’ (ie who paved the way for Tracey and the sunlit, modern uplands we now inhabit) – leave that to Serota and his cosy cabal of croneys and phoneys.

  2. Genuine thanks for the comment, Andrew. Having succumbed to the lure of coat-trailing for its own outrageous sake, I admit to having been rather disappointed at the lack of resulting outrage, e.g. from passing Freudians. What I did not anticipate, of course, was being outflanked on, as it were, the traditionalist right!

    Of course you’ve got a strong point about Munnings. Actually, I’d forgotten him for all of the five or so giddy minutes it took to put this list together. Why had I forgotten him? The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that I mostly ever see his work, piece by piece and often very poorly presented, in auction houses. Back in 2001, though, I saw this, and I can remember coming out into Bond Street, astonished by how underrated and indeed, in some sense, misunderstood Munnings remains. ‘Luscious’ is a very apt word. He was also, as I’m sure you know, an extremely effective and capable war artist. In other words, I should have included him.

    As for Eric Kennington, you’ve obviously also got a point. I suppose I’d plead a variant version of my complaint about Munnings. How is one supposed to judge Kennington’s paintings and drawings — to come to a conclusion about his range, consistency and personal charisma — when it’s almost impossible to see more than two or three works at the same time? In the past few months, though, he’s started to seem much more important to me. But until someone simplifies my life by organising an excellent retrospective complete with catalogue etc, the jury may well remain out for some time.

    Meanwhile I’m standing by Ben Nicholson, at least for the moment. Boring? Well, yes, as complaints go, that’s not an unrecognisable one. And sometimes he’s a bit ‘theoretical’ at the expense of creating anything that looks good, which might be construed as a major flaw. At the same time, though, I’m drawn to that frail, somewhat hesitant, ethereal line that’s there even in his constructions, to the pallor that’s sometimes almost interesting — to what seems to me to be an authentic, very heartfelt attempt to find accomodations between modernism and the English pastoral tradition.

    Next, Keith Vaughan — yes, his work is often ugly. Fair comment. But I do find some of his wartime, more obviously neo-romantic drawings very attractive — inky, turbulent, ominous — and somehow what attracts me there carries through into some (not all) of the paintings, even, well, ‘ugly’ ones.

    As for David Bomberg, he’s definitely staying — you’d have had more success trying to get me to nudge Sutherland off the list! Yes, Bomberg has almost no connection to the English visual tradition that preceded him; his work is often ‘ugly’; his work is wildly uneven. All that might conceivably count against him. Against that, though, I’d set a fantastically strong line, eye-opening and emotive use of colour, exciting ways of describing space, compositions that ‘work’ more the longer one lives with them, and — sometimes, although not always — an almost overwhelming sense of personal engagement, not just visual or intellectual but physical and spiritual as well, with whatever he’s painting. So, err, perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree there?

    Finally — if only because your comment seems to have generated a reply considerably longer than the original post! — let’s think about Wyndham Lewis for a moment. My reason for leaving him out has a lot to do with this, for which I wrote about 10,000 words of review text before abandoning it. Anyway, this is the exact converse of the Munnings argument — seeing a lot of Lewis’ work in one place (albeit all portraits) led me to see him as more technically maladroit, more emotionally stilted, more limited and more theory-bound than had ever been the case before. A few magical pencil drawings apart, there was nothing in that exhibition that broadcast any kind of real enthusiasm for making marks on paper or canvas. I was left with the strong impression that Lewis came up with good ideas, and used a degree of graphic facility to execute them, but that his heart really wasn’t in the making — that he was, in other words, a polemicist who sometimes issued forth his polemics on paper or canvas, as a change from words or indeed nonverbal venom. Nothing wrong with any of that, either, except that for me, anyway, it cured me of the notion that Lewis, whatever his significance, was a relatively weak and limited artist. But again, we’ll probably have to agree to disagree on that one.

    The main point, though, Andrew — although I’m delighted that someone finally rose to the bait here, I’m particularly delighted that you’ve been able to contribute here, since — as other readers may or may not realise — your knowledge of this topic, and indeed your passion regarding it, is the sort of thing to which the rest of us can only aspire.