It’s amazing how an 85 year old building can look so modern, so contemporary, so now yet of its time. Vast swathes of void, bold expanses of solid, and that epic bow window bulging seaward combine to form one forceful architectural statement. Architects Erich Mendelsohn + Serge Chermayeff won a design competition championed by the 9th Earl de la Warr, Bexhill-on-Sea’s Mayor in the 1930s. It was on engineer Felix Samuely’s advice that the frame was changed from concrete to become the first welded steel public building in Britain. Not only is the structure groundbreaking; so is the architecture. De La Warr Pavilion is one of the highlights of early International Modernism. Unsurprisingly, the building is Listed Grade I.
“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?
“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.”
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.