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Friday, 19 August 2016

Modern Gods: Religion and British Modernism

Great to see that The Hepworth Wakefield is holding a one-day conference, accompanying the exhibition Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt, that draws on recent research to demonstrate that many influential British modernists, working in a variety of mediums and styles, were motivated by spiritual ideals.

Scholarship on British Modernism has traditionally portrayed artists like Spencer and Eric Gill as religious eccentrics; stalwarts clinging to the fading spirituality of a pre-modern era. ‘Modern Gods: Religion and British Modernism’ will investigate the religious beliefs of a variety of British artists and critics who were active during Spencer’s lifetime in relation to their work.

Clive Bell described art as a point of access to ‘the God in everything’, while Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson were profoundly influenced by Christian Science (a faith that was of great importance to Spencer’s wife, Hilda Carline). Paul and Margaret Nash also practiced Christian Science, and Paul shared a Christian Science practitioner with Hepworth and Nicholson.

Perhaps the greatest champion of British modern art, Herbert Read, reflected at the end of his career: ‘All my life I have found more sustenance in the work of those who bear witness to the reality of a living God than in the work of those who deny God’.

Increasingly we are beginning to discover that, in many ways, British Modernism represents the natural outgrowth of Victorian spiritual idealism, rather than a radical reaction against it. This one-day conference, at which Dr Sarah Turner (Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre) and Dr Sam Rose (Lecturer at the University of St Andrews) will give the keynote addresses, aims to complicate oppositions between ‘modern’ and ‘non- modern’ art by examining the common threads of religious belief that ran throughout twentieth century aesthetic discourse.

Last year I reviewed still small voice: British biblical art in a secular age at The Wilson in Cheltenham which provided an exclusive opportunity to see major works by many of those influential 20th century British artists who will be discussed at this conference, including Stanley Spencer, Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth, Edward Burra and Graham Sutherland

That exhibition was based on the Ahmanson collection "which begins with the Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite styles of William Dobson and William Bell Scott, and continues, with Eric Gill as the bridge between Modernism and the earlier Arts and Crafts movement, through the inter-war period of the 1920s and 1930s, the Second World War, the post-war era, and the later 20th century, into the early 21st century. Its closest equivalent in the UK is the Methodist Art Collection, which, while broader in the range of artists collected, has less depth, particularly in the focus that the Ahmanson Collection has on the middle years of the 20th century, with its renewed interest in religious art." 

I suggested then that "if the Ahmanson and Methodist collections were exhibited together with a judicious choice of contemporary work, this would offer a relatively comprehensive review of modern British religious art."

My Airbrushed from Art History and Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage posts also document much that this conference will discuss as it explores the common threads of religious belief that ran throughout twentieth century aesthetic discourse.


Gungor - Upside Down.

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