There’s a look you sometimes see in the eyes of people painted around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s an enquiring, intelligent look, sometimes pompous, the look of a person self-consciously trying to be Modern. It’s also an unknowing look, one that can’t see the horrors of the century to come. The wars, the trenches, the camps, the gulags they may end their lives in: they can see none of it. Like Patrick Hamilton on the eve of the blitz, you want to cry ‘God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us’.
This look appears on the faces of people in the paintings in the Ballet Russes room in the Royal Academy’s From Russia exhibition. Like the Tate’s Modern Painters show about the Camden Town group, it’s an extraordinarily conservative portrait of an extraordinarily radical period. If Virginia Woolf was wrong about human character changing in December 1910, revolt and revolution were waiting to change forever the circumstances of human existence, and literature lacks visual art’s capacity to imply the utter transformation of the phenomenal world
But the response of the wealthy Russian collectors and their artists to French avant-garde technique was to merely reflect the aesthetic: the challenge to life itself was lost in translation. Just so, the facile exoticism of Gaugin is revealed as no more than cultivated taste: portraits of nude Pacific Islanders lined the walls of Shchukin and Morosov’s mansions, all the better to shock you with. Gaugin appears again referenced in a salon painting at the beginning of the Camden town story: a reminder that modernity means sophistication.
Like Gissing, the Camden Town painters show a London recognisable in form, and even in poverty, though not in colour. Also like Gissing, conscience stands in for revolt against circumstances. The ‘socialist’ Harold Gilman plays Jiminy Cricket to Sickert’s grim carnival of the flesh, with patronising pictures of his housekeeper, brought brought right up to date Tate-style in the teaching notes (‘How would you describe Mrs Mounter’s expression? If she could speak what would she say?’ they ask, perfectly defining the colonial crime of exercising your imagination on the territory of other people’s lives.)
Even Wyndham Lewis’s bogus avant-gardism is missing from the Modern Painters show, but From Russia bizarrely finishes with a scale model of Tatlin’s Tower. Not only aesthetically distant from almost everything else in the show, the unrealised monument to the Third International and headquarters for the comintern is a building of the revolution, the revolution that chased parasites like Shchukin and Morosov into exile. It’s impossible to tell whether putting the tower here is a crushing irony or monumental inanity.
If the Bolsheviks terminated the Russian collectors (but kept their paintings) the death-knell of the Camden painters was the First World War. They could only respond by painting pierrots and a ward full of jolly moustached Tommies recovering from the fighting under patterned bedspreads. No ‘guttering, choking, drowning‘ going on here.
Curatorially, neither show pretends it represents a cutting edge: in particular, the Tate is at pains to point out that Sickert’s mob are an evolutionary dead end, far from ‘authentic modernism’. But both shows share a frozen moment before the onslaught of the twentieth century, a hesitation and rejection of the implications of modernity. Too late. God help all of us.