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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 158-159
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Michael T. Saler, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 242 pp.
John Ruskin and William Morris are remembered as the Spartans of a cultural Thermopylae, defenders of individual autonomy against the irresistible force of modernization. In Saler's hands, the story becomes more complex, if less dramatic. [End Page 158] Ruskin and Morris had followers who outlived them by half a century: lived, that is, in a world where unbending opposition to industry had lost even its quixotic appeal. From c. 1900 to the Second World War, these "medieval modernists" (the phrase goes back to 1931, but its use to denote a specific movement is Saler's) struggled to "democratize art and aestheticize civilization"—not by resisting modernization, but by guiding it. They envisioned a society in which technicians would play the artistic role that artisans had once played, and mass production would be a path to universal education in good design.
Saler's exemplary "medieval modernist" is Frank Pick (1878-1941), a social and artistic visionary with a genius for getting things done. While still in his twenties, he established himself as an executive with London Transport and set to work creating the London of his dreams, at once a futuristic city and a vast medieval village (with public transportation as its lifeblood). Pick's real achievement, now almost forgotten, was the London Underground as an aesthetic entity. Virtually the whole system, from stations and office buildings to benches and posters, came to reflect his unthreatening idea of modernism: the "fitness for purpose" that he hoped would humanize industrial design, and, by extension, the industrialized world.
What makes The Avant-Garde in Interwar England an exciting book, though not an easy one, is the variety of issues on which Pick's career sheds light, or which shed light on it. (Who now remembers the bitter division between formalists and functionalists, let alone its relation to the cultural split between southern and northern England?) Crucially, Saler uses Pick to show us the provincial face of modernism. Pick sought a cozy, insular modernism for a cozy, insular England. In rejecting the aggressive individualism that now seems the essence of twentieth-century art, he also rejected its internationalism and most of its imaginative range. His vision was noble and workable, but blinkered; and its limitations caught up with him late in life. The surrealist exhibition of 1936 made him confront, for the first time, the willfulness of the movement in which he had played such a conservative role. Unable to handle the revelation, he despaired of his goals and renounced modernism.
Rarely has a progressive thinker and doer been so neatly, so personally, undone by his own culture, as though the gods had singled him out for a lesson. Pick's work as a patron of design survived, but so did the irony of embracing the "wrong" modernism. Seventy years on, buildings and decorations that were meant to be medievalizing and Ruskinian look unimaginative, bureaucratic, almost fascist. They are part of the problem! Do we see it this way because we have lost touch with the conservative strain in modernism? Or has time revealed the truth, that the "medieval modernists," for all their good intentions, were simply not good enough artists to express their ideals in lasting form?
James Trilling, an independent scholar of Byzantine and medieval art, is the author of Grotesques and Arabesques.