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  • Revisiting London at the Start of the Great War
  • Mark D. Larabee
Michael J. K. Walsh , ed. London, Modernism, and 1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xx + 294 pp. $85.00

The season of retrospectives on World War I is sure to begin soon. Readers of London, Modernism, and 1914 will be well equipped to survey the artistic, literary, cultural, and historical forces converging on modernism on the cusp of the war. This admirably conceived collection of ten essays centers on 1914 as an extraordinary year—not only [End Page 247] because of the war's outbreak, but also because of the unprecedented "cultural dynamism" in Britain during the months leading up to August 4. Michael J. K. Walsh bases this book on the claimed inadequacy of conventional understandings of that date as an indelible dividing line in the arts; for Walsh, an examination of London in 1914 is absolutely essential to seeing clearly the relationship between war and modernism. As he argues, London was then "a nexus of communication in a world network of cultural relations." It was also the site of ongoing, often heated, public debates about the future of art carried out in newspapers and popular journals. "Art mattered," not just as "a highbrow affair," and thus the stakes in that moment of transition seemed very high indeed. The war forced a comprehensive reevaluation of art, as we know. The consequently shifting configurations of artistic and literary aims, collaboration, production, and reception come under study on multiple levels in this book to highly illuminating effect, making it an indispensable resource for students and researchers.

Given the complexity of artistic movements and associations then, to say nothing of theoretically vexed conjunctions of the verbal and visual, London, Modernism, and 1914 quite sensibly aims not to provide a review of all of English art, culture, and society even just in 1914 alone, let alone throughout the war years. Instead, it offers what Walsh bills as "a tightening of the aperture" in order to visualize what is nevertheless an ambitiously composed image. Walsh's stated list of concerns includes relations between different generations of Britons, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, Englishness and Prussianism, conservative and avant-garde impulses, history and progress, man and machine, and violence and pacifism, as well as the roles played by spiritualism, orientalism, and Jewish and female artists. That list seems initially to belie the possibility of such an aperture-tightening, but in fact the book succeeds in implicitly making connections, even if the editor does not emphasize them. Because we can see the contributions fitting together in several productive ways, and because this book consequently offers a great deal more than the sum of its parts, instead of considering the chapters in the order they appear I will organize them by proposing a series of potential conversations, one related to another or to others.

Several of the chapters, as one might expect, focus on art exhibitions. Jonathan Shirland's essay on Walter Sickert sees that painter's well-publicized confrontation with other artists in 1914 as the key to understanding his timely transformation from a "maverick" (even part-German) artist, keen on "exterminating" rival avant-garde groups, to [End Page 248] a celebrated English painter of military themes. Andrew Causey examines the varying appearance of Jacob Epstein's Rock Drill as constructed and exhibited, finding in these transformations evidence of rising public anxiety about human-machine relations. Sarah MacDougall narrates the formation and dissolution of the "Whitechapel Boys," those East End Jewish artists whose work posed a brief alternative to that of West End Bloomsbury and Vorticist groups. While Shirland and Causey closely examine individual works and artists, MacDougall provides an equally detailed study of a larger movement, and Dominika Buchowska provides the widest look of all: a thoroughly compiled survey of contemporary reactions to art exhibitions. Taken together, these chapters offer an instructive window not only on the heterogeneity and flux in the art world at the beginning of the war, but also on the crucial role played by three-way interactions among artists, critics, and audiences, including artists' evolving efforts at self-definition and recreation. (At the same time, Causey, for one, usefully signals...


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pp. 247-252
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