There is a multitude of modernist artists being shown currently in London. Both Henry Moore and Paul Nash, two of the most prolific 20th century British artists, are enjoying major retrospectives at the Dulwich picture gallery and Tate Britain respectively. Tate Britain’s contemporary counterpart Tate Modern is also revisiting the modernist era, with Arshile Gorky and a major exhibition of Theo Van Doesburg and the early avant-garde.
Armenian born Arshile Gorky’s work is being celebrated by Tate Modern in a solo show, dedicated to his work from the 1920s up until his untimely death in 1948. A pioneer of surrealism and then abstract expressionism, Gorky was once praised by the infamous critic Clement Greenburg as “among the very few contemporary American painters whose work is of more than national importance”. His career started tentatively with still lives that ostentatiously mimicked the work of Cezanne and Picasso, and the exhibition follows his artistic development ranging from his earthy coloured smooth paintings – typical of the 1920s period – through to a freer more biomorphic abstraction. His paint becomes steadily thicker, more encrusted, which rendered the canvases too heavy for his 19 year old wife to lift. Next come the haunting self-portraits with his mother, that can be seen to serve as a memorial to the genocide that occurred in 1915 Armenia, as a result of which his mother starved to death.
The exhibition chronologically showcases Moore’s most experimental works
The exhibition closes with his last works, extremely personal pieces with kaleidoscope chromatic structures. My personal favourite works are the sketched drawings created in Virginia. In 1948, he suffered a number of significant blows, including breaking his neck rendering him unable to paint, before he tragically took his life.
Moore’s retrospective is being held deep at the heart of Tate Britain, in the Linbury galleries. Rather than the Moore of parks and public squares, Curator Chris Stevens aims to present a different side to the celebrated sculptor. The exhibition chronologically showcases Moore’s most radical and experimental works across several themed rooms. In the Mother and Child room, painted according to the curator in ‘blood’ purple, Stevens explores an altogether different kind of mother from the benign mothers of his family groups and reflected in his reclining figures. Moore’s mothers, seen in this new light, appear almost agressive, physically holding their children at arms length.
In a view of sculpture, Henry Moore praised the modern development of communication for “removing the Greek spectacles from the eyes of the modern sculptor”, helping him to realise the significance of shape and to “recognise again the importance of material”. In our era of mass communication, it is perhaps Tate we should thank for the revaluation of these modernist works and chance of hindsight which has allowed them once again to be recognised for the unequivocal masterpieces they truly are. A visit to one of these shows is essential for a strong foundation in the eternally important and the unforgettable in modernist art.