The early-mid century London art scene has always been of particular interest to me, given my love affair with the Bloomsbury Group and their circle as they fox-trotted across the literary, artistic, philosophical and intellectual worlds of the new millennia. The Omega Set, in particular and their liberal play with the decorative arts was especially freeing and, in that way, most inspiring to me as an Art History graduate.
On a track for the rip-roaring bright young things of 20th century England, I was duly drawn to a promising title by Lucy M Peterson: The Women Who Inspired London Art – The Avico Sisters and Other Models of the Early 20th Century. If, like myself, you’ve previously enjoyed The Danish Girl at the cinema or Life in Squares on television, you’ll be wanting to read this.
Any glimpse into this world, be it a contemporary advert, invitation, article or manifesto immediately brings this epoch to life. There was a certain manner to the media of the time that makes for compelling reading – the words that spring immediately to mind would be ‘exposé and risqué’… Long established traditions were being ultimately questioned and turned topsy turvy as the new spirited pushed the boundaries and splashed modernism across the canvas. what a time to be alive!
The Women Who Inspired London Art reads as an exhibition: Its glossy, colourful spreads, accompanied by well-researched text capture the excitement of a movement in a way that’s highly accessible. I was able to hear the voices and the debates as, through each chapter, we traversed the times, ideals, different scenes, war, bright lights and faces of the period. For anyone who hasn’t encountered modernism before, seen through this lens, the subject is fantastically readable.
Take Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for example, a painting that proved to be a shock to both the system and the culture. Bold, brash and entirely unapologetic, this 1907 canvas waved primitivism, sensuality and abstract thinking in the face of the academy. This was a radical departure from the traditional painting of Europe and boy, did it start a fire. Whilst initially, the painting was stowed in Picasso’s studio where friends, artists, dealers and collectors could appraise it more sympathetically, there was outrage. Not exhibited until 1916, the work at last received its revolutionary status in the early 1920s whereupon it sparked something of a movement. Matisse, Picasso and Les Fauves, these ‘Wild Men of Paris’ were the forefathers of an artistic revolution.
The models for Picasso’s insidiously controversial painting? Prostitutes. This very work was a touchstone for Lucy, who, in her scintillating study of early 20th century models’ grounds artistic insights in the story of those women ‘caught up in the tumultuous art scene’. We’re introduced to the wives and mistresses of London’s artistic players – in a work that’s concerned with identity, anecdote and the provocative stories behind the face of the muse.
True to this journey, the close of the book focuses on the Avico sisters, a
group of women, whose lives and contribution to modernism have long been hushed.
No longer a secretive history, Lucy uses family photos and oral histories from
a direct descendant to put them, quite rightly, in the spotlight. The
Women Who Inspired London Art is
provocative, enthralling and close to home. As an imperative, I’d urge you to
have this on your coffee table for after-dinner discussion!