Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group, 1913-1963, Ben Uri Museum, London – review

Stretching beyond London’s Euston Road and Bloomsbury as far as St Ives in Cornwall, the “London Group” encompassed so many artistic communities, spanning so many decades, that it is almost meaningless as a historical definition.

But never mind: Ben Uri’s commemoration of the gathering of radical artists, formed in November 1913 and given its name by Jacob Epstein, affords a wonderful opportunity to consider the Englishness of English modernism across half a century, as demonstrated in 50 works by 50 artists – from Sickert, Lowry and Moore to futurist C.R.W. Nevinson, the now forgotten London social realist Ruskin Spear, and a young Leon Kossoff.

Ben Uri calls itself a museum of “art, identity and migration”, and certainly the immigrant impulse in directing the British avant-garde is a dominant theme here. In sculpture, cubism and primitivism came via Epstein – “Flenite Relief” is compressed, formal, totemic, elemental – and Gaudier-Brzeska (“Bird Swallowing a Fish”, originally cast in gunmetal, presages the combatants paralysed in the deadly struggle of the first world war). In painting, the Whitechapel Boys, mostly born in the UK to eastern European parents, particularly responded to early innovative trends: David Bomberg’s “Ghetto Theatre”, with its stunning vertiginous perspective, and Mark Gertler’s bizarre “Creation of Eve”, where a bearded God yanks up the erring Eve by her long tresses, are highlights. Ukrainian-born Jacob Kramer brings a New Objectivity frankness to his depiction of a cadaver in “The Anatomy Lesson” (1928); Weimar painter Hans Feibusch’s “Narcissus” (1946) is a compelling example of late expressionism.

English art is often one of compromise, reluctant to take formal experimentation to extremes, thus missing greatness. English surrealism is tamer than its European counterpart; English abstraction hedges its bets – English Fauve Matthew Smith (the lovely “Fitzroy Street Nude” on a pink ground) is less outrageous than Matisse. But pluralism, negotiation, adaptation are also intriguing strategies, intelligently explored in this historically evocative, closely packed account.

Until March 2, benuri.org.uk

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