This book covers the period 1878-2000, offering thought-provoking commentary on some 120 years of experiences in modernity, and begins with the famous court case after John Ruskin accused James Whistler of “throwing a pot of paint in his face public”. But Michael Bird doesn’t limit his perspective to one artist or cause per chapter. Part of the deep appeal of his writing is the range of references across literature and art, bringing in key historical events where appropriate. It does a superb job of connecting and skillfully invoking context, always seeking to illuminate the bigger picture. And he sews a fitting quote through the text, returning again and again to certain sources for added effect, Henry James and Walter Sickert being just two.
Bird arranges his material with elegance and eloquence in a very visual writing that nicely balances the interplay of ideas. There is an accurate and memorable description of a painting by Gwen John, for example; and here it is on Art Nouveau:
“Its defining characteristics—seen in building facades and teapots, high fashion, and cheap costume jewelry—were sinuous lines and clearly defined forms, with a top note of erotic daydreaming, in which curves and movements young female bodies and growing plants echoed each other. in a sort of mutual visual ventriloquism.
The ostensible subject of its fifth chapter is “Manet and the Post-Impressionists”, referring to the two exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 which changed the face of modern British art, organized by Roger Fry. Bird helpfully puts Fry in context as a former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York buying images in Europe. This gave him a taste for the “power of influence”, hence his new career as an exhibition organizer. But Bird doesn’t let the story stop there, pointing out that the supposedly groundbreaking art shown in Fry’s exhibits was already outdated, and Marinetti’s futurism was much more current. To which are added the threatening activities for the art of the suffragettes. Bird has the gift of making the reader witness to these debates. His crisp phrases live in the mind and imagination.
He is good on the disappointment of war, when a whole dream of modernity – the belief in machines – was crushed in the trenches of the First World War. He writes evocatively about so many artists that it’s hard to cite specific examples, but I particularly liked what he says about Frank Auerbach and David Bomberg, Henry Moore and art becoming international cultural property , and Eduardo Paolozzi and the “Geometry of Fear”. sculptors. He understands the appeal of popular culture and brilliantly analyzes the original It’s tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, which gives its title to his book. Subsequently, he details the new relationship between art and the mass media.
Unfortunately, after the 1960s, art became less and less interesting, more political and more involved in marketing and commerce. Bird points to the intriguing parallel between the country’s shift from manufacturing to services and the direction of art from “the manufacturing of productivist objects to the conceptual trading floor of pure ideas.” The message had become more important than the making, and while these developments may be too close to be seen objectively, it seems the art has gone astray. Is it any wonder that the Tate Modern looks more like a playground than an art gallery?
It’s not so much art history as the history of artists: the inner story of how artistic creation is “a powerful and open form of participation in the life of your time”, as Bird says. The text is thankfully free of mockery and footnotes, and references are kept to a minimum in the final material to which they belong. Bird writes beautifully, researches extensively, and thinks creatively around his subject. He brings familiar things to life through his descriptions – “the dark passion of his body language” on the Burghers of Calais in Westminster, or nature, in the murals of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, “likeable as paper painted”.
With so much to pull together and coordinate, it would be remarkable if there were no errors of fact or emphasis. Lilian Somerville studied at the Slade in 1922-6, not in the 1930s, and “Cool Britannia” was coined not by Stryker McGuire but by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in 1967. Calling Edward Marsh a “literary editor is perhaps less helpful than explaining that he was an important patron and collector of art. And there’s a reference to the “invisible bird song” that got me thinking. But these are very minor cavils and I only include them so they can be taken into account when It’s tomorrow is reprinted, which I am sure will be. It’s a brilliant book, by far the best insight into a period I’ve read in years. I just wish it had a better cover design.