Above the Battlefield
Above the Battlefield
British Modernism and the Peace Movement, 1900-1918
Yale University Press 244pp £35
ISBN 978 03001 51954
During the First World War the artistic establishment divided into combatants and non-combatants. While Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were battling through mud and John Nash was painting the desecration in the trenches, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry were decorating the exquisite interiors of Bell and Grant’s home in the Sussex countryside. Grant and Fry were conscientious objectors who saw themselves as fighting, albeit obliquely, for peace. Wyndham Lewis disparagingly imagined them ‘doing work of National importance down in some downy English county … pruning trees, planting gooseberry bushes and haymaking, doubtless in large sunbonnets’. Subsequent critics have tended to share Lewis’ view, dismissing or apologising for the blinkered aestheticism of Bloomsbury artists during this period. In Above the Battlefield Grace Brockington makes a passionate case for re-evaluating this strand of ‘pacifist modernism’, insisting that ‘art for art’s sake’ can offer a valid form of anti-war protest.
Brockington aims to put peace back into the cultural picture as an alternative both to the violent modernism of Wyndham Lewis and to the more propagandist anti-war art. She is concerned with two groups: the Bloomsbury artists based in Sussex and those clustered in Chelsea around the modernist dancer Margaret Morris. Few of the artists in question made art that responded directly to war. However all were campaigning for peace, with Clive Bell going so far as to claim in 1916 that German occupation would make no difference to the lives of most Englishmen.
For both groups art could triumph over war because it is an international language. There is fascinating detail here about efforts by writers and artists to expose the British public to the European point of view. Roger Fry made available photographs and magazines from Europe through his Omega Workshops, while the Bloomsbury-affiliated philosopher C.K. Ogden juxtaposed opinions from the British and German press in the Cambridge Magazine.
Brockington’s claim is that this political agenda is evident in even the most innocuous art produced by members of both groups. It is an agenda that affirms civilisation, friendship, individualism and internationalism and condemns barbarity, nationhood and insularity. The chief strength of the book is in its dazzling readings of individual works of art in the light of this claim. In a strong section on Vanessa Bell, Brockington sees Bell’s depiction of three women talking in A Conversation as celebrating friendship as the cornerstone of peaceful civilisation.
Taken to an extreme these ideas can seem irresponsible. In 1939 E.M. Forster attempted to apply Bloomsbury values to a world on the brink of a very different war. Insisting on the superiority of personal relations to national ones, he stated that: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ There is a self-indulgence here that casts a retrospective shadow over the ‘pacifist modernism’ of the previous war.
Above the Battlefield is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book, which presents a compelling argument for reconsidering the lesser-known work of both groups. It is clear that they had a political agenda. What remains less clear is whether this agenda is cogent enough to make their work a valid form of anti-war protest: whether transcendence and redemption can really save us from barbarity. The Chelsea artist Maxwell Armfeld saw his wartime illustrations as ‘a beautiful offering on the altar of Peace’. This could be taken as the epitaph for the movement.
Lara Feigel is the author of Literature, Cinema, Politics 1930-1945 (Edinburgh University Press, 2010).
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