As Britain continued to expand as an empire at the beginning of the 20th century, the Edwardian Era–or the reign of King Edward VII–saw art undergo dramatic changes. Edward was partly responsible for a surge in popularity of the art of Continental Europe as a result of his many travels. Meanwhile the age of the Titanic, a time of glorious voyages and glamourous machines, captured the imagination of the Futurists and their British counterparts the Vorticists, who created fragmented and dynamic paintings and sculptures, expressing the movement and energy of the modern world. Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, with its windswept suggestion of speed, inspired British artists like Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and David Bomberg to produce their own dynamic works. And other mediums like cinema and photography further encouraged artists to try to capture and visualise the essence of movement.
But this celebration of speed and machine power came to a quick close as the First World War erupted in the autumn of 1914. Emblematic of its time is Sir Jacob Epstein's Torso in Metal from "The Rock Drill", a shockingly futuristic figure cast in heavy bronze, its long warlike head peering out from an armoured body balanced upon a massive pneumatic rock drill. But the mechanised violence that accompanied the outbreak of WWI gave Epstein cause to rethink his sculpture, and so he removed the brutal lower half and presented only the torso. Once towering and powerful, the cut-off figure became a different kind of symbol, a victim of the violence of modern life.
David Bomberg's 1914 painting The Mud Bath is similarly uncanny–its jagged Futuristic figures are meant to represent visitors to an east London steam bath, but its title and broken forms can't help but evoke the scramble of trench warfare that constituted much of the war. Bomberg's painting also speaks strongly to the artist's Jewish identity, as the traditional steam bath (or schvitz) is a communal and spiritual element of Jewish life. Other artists like Mark Gertler and Leon Kossoff also painted images that evoked Jewish life and identity as seen from a migrant's perspective.
David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914, oil paint on canvas, 154 x 224 cm (Tate)
This and the many other works of art made in Britain during WWI, even the images of revelry and everyday life, were inflected with the melancholy that descended over the country during the war. As the conflict came to an end in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, debates between the radical avant-garde and the art establishment came to the fore, as modern artists tried to pave the way forward for art in the wake of tragedy.
In the years between the two World Wars, the debates raged around the appropriate response art should have to war–and to the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Each artist had his or her own response to this imperative. This time saw the creation of art in a variety of styles, from intentionally naive and nostalgic painting to pure abstraction–but what linked them together was a shared belief in the life-affirming qualities of art, despite it all.
Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930, oil paint on canvas, unconfirmed: 45 x 55 cm (Tate)
Christopher Wood's Zebra and Parachute from 1930 took a surrealist approach to capturing the spirit of the time, creating an incongruous image by placing a zebra in a slick modernist construction. His painting shows the hopeful and even playful attitude of art in the years between the wars, using both zebra and building as symbols of the new and exotic, of things yet to come. But the tiny figure in the background hangs limp and lifeless from its parachute and gives the painting an eerie sense of foreboding.
This, of course, was just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, before destruction was unleashed upon Europe and the world yet again. Radical artists like Piet Mondrian and Naum Gabo fled Nazi persecution and political unrest on the continent and settled in London, bringing with them modernist principles of art and design and strengthening links with the avant-garde in Britain. Art made in the 1940s, in Britain and around the world, once again found itself up against the questions it had faced only a few decades earlier. Does culture have the power for good, and how do we move forward, both in art and life? British artists responded with art that presented visions of pessimism, optimism, devastation and utopian ideals, statements of brutality and kindness, all of which were different answers to the same questions. They pushed the boundaries of their materials and craft. And they planted the seed for a new, post-war art for the coming decades.