Realism: the forgotten stepchild of the early 20th century

When abstract art became a worldwide phenomenon, great realist painters were marginalized and forgotten.

Hiking, 1936, James Walker Tucker, Laing Art Gallery

In the great pile of mail I collected yesterday were two packages. One contained a copy of Pictures, Painters and You by Ray Bethers. This belonged to the father of a friend.

The other was a catalog for True to Life: British Realist Paintings in the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve written about two of its artists before: Sir Stanley Spencer and Meredith Frampton.
Realism was a world-wide trend in the beginning of the 20th century. There were realists among the American Modernist movement—the Ashcan School, Georgia O’Keeffe and Rockwell Kent all come to mind. In Canada, the Group of Sevenwere turning out powerful, popular landscapes. And in Britain, a generation of fine painters were producing a lively, detailed record of the interwar period.
Dorette, 1932, Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, courtesy National Gallery, London
The term “realism” is a wide net. It can include symbolismmagical realism, social realism, objects pared down to their absolute minimum, or the finicky detail of trompe-l’Ĺ“il. All found their expression during the interwar years, but each nation had its own preoccupations.
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Dorette was a young model at the Royal Academy who went on to be his lover and ultimately his wife. With her portrait, Brockhurst was developing a style he would use with great success later in his career: adapting Renaissance technique to depict the hard-edged beauty of contemporary womanhood. Note the wispy background.
In fact, the British interwar artists were refuting trends in modern art. Their work runs a gamut of styles, but is united by careful drawing, meticulous craftsmanship, and controlled brushwork. They explicitly rejected expressionism and impressionism.
Elsie, 1929, Hilda Carline, courtesy Tate Museum
The show includes work by Hilda Carline, Stanley Spencer’s long-suffering wife. Her marriage was characterized by Alfred Hickling as “the most bizarre domestic soap opera in the history of British art.” That just understates her suffering. Elsie was the Spencers’ maid. Carline’s portrait of her shows just how much of her own talent was subsumed into her husband’s naĂŻve drama.
The Conscientious Objector, 1917, is almost certainly a self-portrait by David Jagger. A hundred years on, we have little concept of the opprobrium heaped on “conchies” in Britain during the Great War; Jagger’s own brother referred to him as “that great hulking lout in his mother’s shop.”
The Conscientious Objector, 1917, David Jagger, courtesy Birmingham Mail
The paintings do not ignore the tensions of interwar Britain. James McIntosh Patrick’s A City Garden, Dundee is a portrait of his own home, purchased for a song because of its proximity to the Tay Bridge, which might be a bombing target. His wife and daughter are in the garden, hanging out washing. Meanwhile, in the corner there’s an air-raid shelter being built. This was a British reality, and it is one we Americans can only ponder from the outside.
A City Garden, 1940, James McIntosh Patrick, courtesy Dundee City Council
Still, it is the pictures of everyday life that I like best. Hiking, by James Walker Tucker, shows three independent, fresh-faced Girl Guides calmly considering their immediate plans. It’s part of the British mania for rambling and a lovely, un-self-conscious feminist statement at the same time.
With the second World War, abstract art escaped from New York and became a worldwide phenomenon. On both continents, great realist painters were marginalized and forgotten. It’s a pity, because so many of them were stunning virtuosos.
There will be no Monday Morning Art School on New Year’s Day. Have a blessed, restful, refreshing holiday, and I’ll see you again in the New Year!