Now that we’re firmly established in the Twenty-First Century, its predecessor has become the subject of history and one to be evaluated from that perspective. What was once achingly hip, original, never seen before, ground-breaking, can be seen as part of an organic development as groups coalesce then fracture, movements build and hand their legacies on to those who inherit them as well as those who reject them in their entirety.
This is the story, told almost as an adventure, of how art and society developed in what the blurb tells us was an unprecedented pace of change (I think we could discuss that). It is certainly true that two World Wars and scientific development that took us from primitive motor cars to super-computers left a world unrecognisable from either of its bookends.
To view a whole century, especially one as dynamic as Michael Bird presents it, is a formidable task and one which requires careful marshalling of material and thesis. To do that in less than 400 pages presents plenty of opportunities not just for pitfalls, but spectacular pratfalls. To read it is almost to go to the circus just to see the wire-walker hit the arena floor and gasp as they manage not to.
The title, neatly, is taken from a Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition of 1956. It’s a significant date, because the country is just emerging from post-war austerity and youthful talent, while it may remember the war, was not an active participant. The mood of the times was optimistic. It was time to rebuild, but also to find new ways and approaches, we were in a hurry, time was of the essence and the old could be – and frequently was – discarded.
But there was also a foundation. The early years of the century had seen a change of regime. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria had gone into mourning and the whole country had to follow; life was stifled. Then, just as the century turned, Edward VII ascended the throne and the lights were turned on. And, yes, I am going to say that, in the words of Edward Grey, they were turned off again thirteen years later. From 1920 to 1939, there was another renaissance as art and architecture rejected ornamentation and simplification became the order of the day. Much of that movement, as well as many of its proponents, did not survive the next war and before you know it, another batch of young British artists (they weren’t YBAs yet) had come onto the scene. And it was a scene, this was art that shouted, demonstrated and told its parents they didn’t have a clue. The parents, as parents do, looked on with a mixture of bemusement and toleration – well, mostly.
This is not a book peppered with illustrations, and there’s hardly any colour, but that doesn’t detract one jot from its appeal. This is a story that unrolls the narrative of a whole century and Michael conjures up in words all the pictures you’ll need. It’s a heck of a journey.
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