When Britain Went Metaphysical

Wyndham Lewis, "The Cubist Museum"

A one-room show at the Huntington, “Blast! Modernist Painting” provides context for three new painting acquisitions by Duncan Grant, David Bomberg, and Mark Gertler. These move the Huntington collection, which previously stopped at Turner, into the early 20th century. “Blast!” adds nine paintings from an unidentified private collection, among them a (Madame) Cézanneseque Portrait of Vanessa Bell (The Red Hat) by Duncan Grant and works by Gwen John, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, and others. The current rotation of British drawings is also modern and includes many of the same artists.


The exhibition title invokes Wyndham Lewis’ short-lived journal Blast (above, not in the show). Lewis was a poetry slam/typographic genius who originated Britain’s first native form of abstraction, Vorticism. For a few years the Vorticists stood at the forefront of abstraction and modern typography. The first World War changed everything. Thereafter Lewis fell under the spell of Giorgio de Chirico‘s metaphysical painting. British art in general skewed figurative (even into the late 20th-century epoch of the Getty’s “London Calling”). At the Huntington, Lewis’ 1937 painting The Cubist Museum (top of post) paints the pre-war avant garde, and its audience, as faintly ridiculous.

Edward Wadsworth was another Vorticist who aged into a milder magic realism. Tomorrow Morning/Marine Perspective, dated “1929-44″ is one of a  group of maritime still-lifes that amps up de Chirico’s games with perspective. Is the lure large, or is everything else small?

Edward Wadsworth, "Tomorrow Morning"

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