It is hard to imagine a less likely location for an exhibition about Modernism in Britain than Two Temple Place, an ornate Neo-Gothic mansion beside the River Thames.
The contrast between this setting, with its overbearing interior, full of wood panelling and stained glass, and the sleek forms of the 120 artworks featured in Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – the sixth “winter exhibition” organised at its headquarters by charitable foundation the Bulldog Trust – is at best a distraction, and at worst a horrible clash.
To give her credit, the show’s curator, Hope Wolf, a lecturer in Modernist literature at the University of Sussex, acknowledges this at the outset. The first object we see is a beautiful marble coffer made by the brilliant sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died, tragically young, in the trenches of the First World War.
Decorated with a supple naked nymph, seen on her side as though gliding effortlessly through water, it once contained a selection of poems presented to the writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt – “the last of the great Victorians”, in the words of the poet Ezra Pound, who organised an evening in his honour at a Sussex country house with décor like that of Two Temple Place.
The thing is, Victorian taste and Modernism were as remote from one another as the north and south poles – as Blunt’s reaction demonstrated. After dining on peacock, he dismissed the poems as “word puzzles”, and turned the coffer’s sexy carving against the wall.
Still, aside from the mismatch between venue and subject, here is a stimulating topic for a show. Due, in part, to its proximity to both London and the continent, from which fragrant and intoxicating avant-garde ideas were wafting across the Channel, Sussex attracted many important pioneers of Modernism in this country, especially between the wars.
The first gallery outlines the well-known stories of Eric Gill in Ditchling and the ramshackle arcadia nurtured by the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston Farmhouse, near Firle.
Next, in the shadow of Two Temple Place’s grand staircase, we learn about the homosexual collector Edward James, who, with the help of Salvador Dali, fashioned a fantastical Surrealist interior at Monkton House. Most famously, he and Dali collaborated on the voluptuous Mae West Lips Sofa (1938), which, with its squishy bulges of pink felt, is an outré totem of camp excess.
Upstairs, the exhibition continues with a section about Bexhill, where the Modernist De La Warr Pavilion was constructed – to the consternation of some residents – in 1935.
We also hear about the home of Surrealist Roland Penrose and his American photographer wife Lee Miller at Farley Farm, near Muddles Green, which was graced by lots of illustrious guests, including Picasso. The great watercolourist Edward Burra, meanwhile, never strayed permanently from the “little TinkerBell towne [sic]”, as he put it, of Rye, where he grew up.
The point of exhibitions organised by the Bulldog Trust is to support regional museums, and this one has been mounted in collaboration with nine of them. By cherry-picking “highlights” from Charleston, the Jerwood and Pallant House Galleries, and elsewhere, however, the show risks feeling like a series of glossy pamphlets issued on behalf of these organisations by the county’s tourist board.
At points, too, it is undermined by a preference for narrative and verbal argument at the expense of visual quality. Penrose’s paintings are given too much prominence. A weak work by Graham Sutherland does him no favours. The Surrealist paintings of Grace Pailthorpe are irredeemably terrible.
I was especially sad for Vanessa Bell, who is poorly served. Aside from some energetic photographs, the works by her selected for this show, including an often-praised late self-portrait that, for me, is hugely overrated, present her at her worst. Fortunately, Dulwich Picture Gallery will soon offer her a chance to shine.
That said, there are enough satisfying works of art – by Burra, Gill, Duncan Grant, and Edward Wadsworth – to keep things interesting. And, in an important sense, the exhibition is a success – because it whets the appetite sufficiently to make a trip to Sussex seem like a very good idea.