London: “Sussex Modernism” @ Two Temple Place

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Despite trying to stay relatively well-informed about the London museum scene (or as well-informed as I can be without having to leave my house much or actually socialise with people), I only first discovered Two Temple Place last year, when they were hosting an exhibition about Ancient Egypt (the only time the building is open to the public is when they have an exhibition on, which happens from late January-April each year).  I really enjoyed both the house and the exhibit, giving it a lofty 4/5, so I was eager to visit this year when they re-opened with a new exhibit, even though this year’s exhibit, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” didn’t sound particularly to my taste.

img_20170222_143451088To reiterate from last year, Two Temple Place was built by super-rich American William Waldorf Astor in 1895, and the building is really rather fabulous (tycoons back then did gaudy right).  Fortunately, we got a few good shots of the interior last year when photography was allowed, as we weren’t permitted to take pictures of the exhibit this year due to copyright issues (most (all?) of the pieces here were on loan from various galleries around Sussex, including Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa, which we saw at the Brighton Museum last year), so I’ll be reusing a few of those old shots in this post (although the metal cow sculpture photo is new; I don’t think the sculpture was even there last time).

DSC00622As always though, Two Temple Place is free, and they let us borrow a guidebook to walk around with again too, which is a much appreciated touch.  They do always seem to have nice, enthusiastic volunteers.  Since I didn’t need to do as much oohing and aahing over the house this year (having gotten that out of my system last year), I was kind of hoping the exhibit would have some impressive art to marvel at instead (but knowing how I feel about most modern art, I didn’t hold out much hope, which was probably a good thing. Saved myself disappointment in the end).

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Going into the exhibit, I knew next to nothing about Sussex modernism, so I was ready to learn! Unfortunately, as you’ll see, I didn’t really end up finding out enough to make sense out of the movement. But one of the things I did learn was that there was an artist called Eric Gill who moved out to Ditchling in the early 1900s, and he attracted a small community of fellow artists/protegees, including David Jones and Ethel Mairet.  However, Eric Gill was not a terribly sympathetic figure; to be blunt, he was straight-up disgusting. He not only had incestuous “relationships” with his daughters and sisters, but apparently had sex with his dog as well.  And that was really all about Eric Gill that I needed to know…clearly I am never going to be a fan.

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But as far as the rest of the Sussex modernists go, there didn’t seem to be that much biographical information provided, or if there was, it wasn’t memorable enough to stick with me (it probably didn’t help that I had never heard of any of the main artists featured here).  There was a bizarre, but amusing story included as an intro to the exhibit, about the poet Ezra Pound, and some of his artistic friends.  Apparently, they decided to throw a dinner party for some elderly artist that they admired (who also lived in Sussex), so they served him a whole roasted peacock, and presented him with a coffer they’d made with a naked woman carved on one of the sides. The elderly artist was evidently quite uncomfortable with this, and always kept the side with the woman on it turned towards the wall when he displayed the coffer (I would have been far more uncomfortable with the roasted peacock than the nude on the coffer, personally).  My issue with this anecdote (and most of the rest of the exhibit) was that it was never adequately explained who the artist was (they provided his name, which I’ve forgotten, but I have no idea what he was famous for), and other than it being a story about what happens when old and new artistic movements clash, and taking place in Sussex, I didn’t really understand what it had to do with the rest of the exhibition, since Ezra Pound wasn’t mentioned again.  Basically, the whole exhibit left me in a state of general confusion, because nothing was explained quite thoroughly enough, and I left feeling that I still didn’t really know what the defining traits of the Sussex modernists were (and not being able to take photos didn’t help, since I couldn’t review the pictures later to see if I’d missed some vital bit of information).

DSC00604Which is not to say that everything was so crazily modernist that I couldn’t tell what the pieces were meant to be, or anything (the exhibit contained various works of art produced by the modernists; mainly paintings, but some sculpture as well).  I just don’t think I always picked up on the meanings behind them, or what the ethos was of the Sussex modernists.  Some of the artists were atheists, yet they seemed to produce mainly religious art commissioned by several local churches. Eric Gill made a lot of nudes, and used his teenage daughters as models, which is really creepy when you know about his sexual proclivities. Some of the artists focused on their experiences in the First and Second World Wars, and produced sort of dystopian stuff, or art about the invasion of modernisation in the countryside. I understand that artists can produce different styles of art and still be part of a community, but it felt more like the art had been selected simply because all of the artists had spent some time in Sussex, not because they were actually all friends, or even contemporaries, or part of the same artistic movement. As for the art itself, it mostly wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did enjoy some of it, most notably a ceramic cat, a beautiful little bright blue painting (print?) depicting the night sky, and a photograph of Henry Moore hugging his sculpture Mother and Child (well, one of his sculptures with that name anyway, since he appears to have used it about 50 times for different pieces. I mean, if you can take the time to chisel out a damn sculpture, surely you can put in the effort to think of a unique name whilst you’re doing it). There was also a strange surrealist video playing in one of the rooms that intrigued me; the end of the film featured a lobster bursting from the menu of a fancy restaurant.

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Like last year, the exhibit was both in the ground floor gallery, and all the upstairs rooms, but I don’t think it took anywhere near as long to look at, because the descriptions simply weren’t as detailed (or as interesting, to me anyway) as the ones last year.  I have to say, if I hadn’t visited last spring and saw all the neato Egyptian stuff, I don’t know if I’d be particularly impressed with Two Temple Place after this.  I mean, the house is still gorgeous, but the exhibit was nowhere near as good as last year’s.  As it stands though, I know what they can do, so I am still planning on visiting next year’s exhibit, whatever that may be.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this year’s exhibition was terrible or anything, it just wasn’t really my kind of art, and there was also an odd lack of continuity within the exhibit itself (and that disjointedness has carried through to this post, since I think I’ve failed at making it completely coherent). Maybe even the curators weren’t too sure how to tie all these artists together outside of Sussex, or they just assumed that anyone coming to see it would already have some background knowledge on the Sussex modernists that I clearly lack. For a free exhibit though, I think it’s probably alright if you like that style of art (though please, no one ask me any questions about what exactly that style is, because I still can’t tell you!), and worth a visit just to get a look at the interior, if you haven’t seen it before. 2.5/5.

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10 comments

  1. Hurray! I’m happy to see beautiful Two Temple Place again – so many delightful details. I’d love to see those column figures up close. But that Eric Gill? He can go whistle up a rope. SO gross. I’m okay with the cow though – it’s pretty cute 🙂

  2. It’s always amazing how artists’ perversions are tolerated and brushed off as eccentricities. Eric Gill’s work should not be displayed anywhere.

    1. Eric Gill was undoubtedly a terrible human being, but while I respect your opinion, I’m not sure if I agree that his work shouldn’t be displayed anywhere. I definitely don’t think he should be lauded, but I also don’t believe in whitewashing history. He was a founding member of this community, so I don’t really see how they could have discussed it in any kind of historically accurate way without referencing him (I suppose they could have not had an exhibition on the Sussex modernists at all, but I don’t think it’s fair for people who weren’t aware of his crimes (which weren’t made public until 1989) or didn’t even know him personally to be tarred with the same brush). Even though I didn’t think there was enough background information in most of the exhibit, they definitely didn’t gloss over Eric Gill’s perversions, nor did they include more of his art than was necessary to illustrate his style. But it is definitely problematic, and I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer when discussing historical figures who have done monstrous things.

      1. Sorry if I sounded shrill. I can see your point. I just couldn’t help comparing it to a recent exhibition in Prague for mentally ill criminals. One of the “artists” was a pedophile. Not famous, nor the leader of any movement. I thought it disgusting to give this person any exposure. I heard about it from a friend who went, so I’m glad that I didn’t spend my time or money going to see it myself.

      2. You didn’t sound shrill! And I can understand where you’re coming from, especially with the Prague exhibition, which raises entirely different topics of debate. I guess it’s the difference between art, which is subjective, and history, which should be objective, though that’s much harder to do in practice than theory! We have the choice to decide what is art in the here and now, whereas history is already written (though always up for interpretation).

  3. I remember your post from last year – the house seems definitely worth visiting, though I don’t know what Sussex Modernism is either. I had heard of Eric Gill, and his unsavoury life, and rather wish I hadn’t. But I agree we shouldn’t censor the past – as long as we make sure the bad bits aren’t glossed over.

    1. I do feel out of my depth whenever I do a post about art…I know what I like, but I’m certainly no art historian! But I do know where I stand on history generally, and I am firmly against censoring it. I mean, FDR is my favourite president, but I still can’t forget Japanese internment camps and his administration’s refusal to accept more Jewish refugees during WWII, even though those things taint his presidency, and it would be easier to gloss over them. (Not to make this all about the Roosevelts, but Eleanor is probably a safer bet, because I think she did genuinely try her best to follow her conscience, even when it wasn’t politically expedient to do so.)

      1. Yes, I like Eleanor – some great rules to live by such as no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

        No-one is perfect and everyone is of their time. Maybe FDR did the best he could for his time. Mind you, I’d take him like a shot in our time in preference for what we have both in the US & UK right now.

      2. Oh absolutely! I even got a badge that says “I want Roosevelt again” when I was at FDR’s museum and library a few years ago. I’ve read a fair bit about FDR, and I think his main problem was that he was too much of a politician, and was sometimes willing to go along with things that went against his morals if it was the “will of the people” (I also think he let Joseph P Kennedy have too much influence, he was a real shit of a man). He’d be an entirely different president in this day and age (not least because if he was born later in history, he wouldn’t have had polio, which was what helped make him more compassionate, and less aloof), but I have to believe he’d still be a much, much better choice than Trump (and ER would be better yet!), since he actually did have a moral compass, and you know, critical thinking skills. Basic things you would expect a president to have.

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