Retreat and Rebellion
“It’s a virtue of the venue,” affirms Dr Hope Wolf. “There should be friction between an exhibition and its setting.” A lecturer at the University of Sussex, Dr Wolf is the curator of a major London exhibition on Sussex Modernism. It explores two questions. Why were radical artists and writers drawn to rural Sussex in the first half of the 20th century? Why was their artistic innovation accompanied by domestic, sexual and political experimentation?
That venue. Now owned by The Bulldog Trust, Two Temple Place is an extraordinary neo Gothic mansion nestling next to Victoria Embankment. Its tip to toe carvings and coloured glass form quite a backdrop to, say, the De La Warr Pavilion architectural model. “It’s mostly a contrast but sometimes there’s less than you think,” she points out. “The Victorian emphasis on arts and crafts is a connection that runs through to Eric Gill’s work.” What a brilliant juxtaposition in the staircase hall though: three musketeers atop newels gazing down on Salvador Dalí’s Mae West Lips Sofa!
“Designed by John Loughborough Pearson to satisfy William Waldorf Astor’s fantasies, Two Temple Place is something of a dream house. But his vision is demure when compared with the explicitly sexual imagery on display.” The curator acknowledges this tension in her choice of first exhibit. It’s a marble mini coffer decorated with an eroticised nude and filled with poems by the likes of Ezra Pound. In 1914 he and five other young poets presented to the Sussex writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, whom Ezra called “the last of the great Victorians”. The admiration wasn’t mutual. “Wilfrid was a traditionalist. He hated the artwork and poems,” says Dr Wolf. “He kept the coffer but positioned it facing a wall to hide the nude.”
Retreat and Rebellion is a multimedia exhibition. While Dr Wolf lectures on British Modernist Literature and is a Director of the Centre for Modernist Studies, she has a background in history. “The University of Sussex takes a multidisciplinary approach to learning. This exhibition was a chance to include literature and music as well as art. There’s lots of media in the upstairs gallery but all the artists – Serge Chermayeff, László Moholy-Nagy, Henry Moore, John Piper and Eric Ravilious – actually knew each other.”
Those questions. This exhibition argues that a rural retreat provided an escape from the metropolis to explore alternative living. It illustrates how the regional setting both amplified the artists’ and writers’ contrary energies and facilitated their attempts to live and represent the world differently.