The historical myth of London during the 1930's

Chloë Théault

<1> When Michel de Certeau analysed the "writing of the history", he argued that historical discourses are linked to places, men, institutions, and societies.[1] In order to demonstrate that history is a cultural product, since it arises from a given culture, I will examine in this article the exhibition catalogues dealing with the British art of the 1930s. My focus will be the first such exhibition catalogues written during the 1960s and 1970s. This will allow me to analyse the emergence of a particular figure collectively created by these catalogues, which I call the "myth of artsitic London of the 1930s". I demonstrate that from the 1960's a historical "myth" has been constructed in relation to London -- and even more precisely, Hampstead -- during the 1930s. This is not an exhaustive study of the phenomena; my aim in this paper is to propose a series of keys to read these exhibition catalogues through a historical analysis using a semiological methodology.

A Definition of 'myth'

<2> The word "myth" comes from the Greek Muthos which is a story concerning what really happened, but the Greek word does not have exactly the same meaning as the modern word. The actual meaning of myth indeed associates, in the familiar sense, the idea of a fiction, an illusion, and, in the traditional sense, the notion of an exemplary model, of a sacred tradition. Myths have long been considered primary as a superstition, but Claude Lévi-Strauss demonstrated the absurdity of such a definition. He showed that myths obey a rigorous logic. According to Jean-Jacques Wunenburger, recent research has led to a re-evaluation of the notion of myth:

On one hand, the identity and legitimacy of myth has been recognized as a symbolic mode of apprehension of human experience; on the other hand, myth is no longer linked to traditional civilization, rather its polymorphism allows it to structure and to direct representations and actions even in societies with representations and rational standards.[2]

Accordingly, for this paper myth is defined as follows:

In its most extensive definition, myth appears in a traditional society as a history concerning actions and individuals whose recollection is considered as an exemplary model because the story is a bearer of truth and meaning for those who are there intermediaries .... In short, myth is at the same time a message and a medium, a corpus of histories to decipher and a narrative of social practice.[3]

As a 'corpus of histories to decipher and narrative social practice' myths may be considered as the interpretative matrix of present time. As Mircea Eliade observes, "myths elaborate a sacred history; they tell of an event that took place in the essential time, the fabulous time of beginnings".[4] In other words, myths explain how a reality came into existence, whether it is the total reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of it: an island, a species, human behaviour, or an institution. It is, therefore, always the story of a "creation": a myth is a narrative of how something was produced, how something has come into being. Mircea Eliade has argued that it is essential to have knowledge of such myths and to update such knowledge cyclically so that the myths become true again through every repetition. The actors in myths are made present they become our contemporaries. We do not live any more in a strict chronological time, but in an essential time constantly revalidated as the time when the event took place for the first time. This is the key difference between a simple anniversary and such cyclic celebration. Moreover, myth is a social practice since it passes through and constitutes a society. Wunenberger explains:

A myth is above all an anonymous history which circulates, from an age-old tradition, and which is sent to every addressee, present or future, who can listen to it .... Fundamentally impersonal, anonymous, the mythical story is received as a message without an author, to the third person, and is again told to any third party which is, in his turn, only a relay in the network of the bearers of the myth.[5]

<3> A question therefore arises: how does myth function today? According to Christian Ruby:

We notice the presence of "myths" and meta-stories. We also notice their renewal, at the dawn of the 21st century. In different ways, they support daily life (objects, references, agreed words) or give a specific dimension to the political life (nation, progress).[6]

Myth has its place in the contemporary world. Many authors indeed demonstrate its contemporaneousness. In the work of writers such as André Akoun, Dominique Wolton, Roland Barthes or Mircea Eliade, we find the suggestion that modern media produces myths. Here myth is characterized by its recurrence, but also by the way it gives answers and explanations to rumours, for example. The exhibition catalogues that are the subject to my analysis demonstrate such a process in relation to 1930s London. However, as a written rather than a oral medium the means whereby a myth is constructed is necessarily different from the traditional myth. Wunenberger has investigated myth in literate culture and concludes that a modern myth has to be written. A myth in the strict sense is not possible today, but some forms of renewed myths persist. These "renewed myths" find their expression not in an oral social practice but in a writing. What are, therefore, the mythical aspects that appear in the exhibition catalogues that present London of the 1930s? Several areas that point to the construction of a myth can be identified in relation to Hampstead.

The Presentation of Hampstead

<4> Artistic life in London has been identified with several different quarters in London's history. London's first important cultural quarter was in the City but, by the 18th century, artists were moving away towards the fashionable West End attracted by the newly built Covent Garden Piazza and Leicester Square. There artists gained respectability and social recognition which helped to distinguish artists from artisans, and brought the profession a new dignity. Artists socialised together, collaborated on projects and practiced in their own private academies, thus expanding the audience and demand for art in London.

<5> In the 1760s the Strand became the focus for London's artists. Marylebone was a cultural centre from 1770 to 1850. The artists Benjamin West, Thomas Stothard, Augustus Egg, John Partridge, John Flaxman, John Russell, William P. Frith were, for example, established in this specific quarter. Then, in the mid 19th century, artists moved further from central London to the new leafy suburbs of Holland Park and Kensington. They purchased spacious plots and commissioned exotic studio-houses by celebrity architects, opening their studios to the public on 'Show Sundays' to some success. But artists who rejected such social climbing moved to Chelsea.

<6> By the early 20th century the growing tube and bus network meant that artists no longer had to live in close proximity. For example, the Camden Town Group painted everyday urban surroundings in Post-Impressionist colours, but only a few of their members actually lived in Camden. During the 1950's, Soho became an important cultural centre gaining notoriety as an exotic run-down area, offering hedonism and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. The East End emerged during the 1960s as another important artistic centre.

<7> One specific area of London was an important cultural centre during two periods, the 1830s and the 1930s: Hampstead. Hampstead from 1800 to 1835 was appreciated by several artists including John Constable (whose work includes paintings and drawings of Hampstead Heath) John Linnell, George Romney, Frederick W. Watts, and William Blake. The poets Shelley, Keats and Byron also lived nearby. Hampstead became known as "the northern heights of London". Separated from the city by fields, Hampstead was a place of impressive views, healthy, clean air and an escape from the squalor of London. It was attractive to artists and their families, but despite this, they could not give up a central London studio or move too far from their patrons and source of income. So Hampstead remained a weekend retreat for most of its artist residents during the nineteenth century. Hampstead appealed to artists in the 1930's for much the same reasons that had attracted artists in the 1830s: pleasant views, fresh air, and a sense of detachment from the hurly-burly of central London.

<8> Several locations in Hampstead were of particular significance: Lawn Road Flats, Willow Road and Downshire Hill. Lawn Road was an experiment in collective housing designed for left-wing intellectuals by the architect Wells Coates in 1934. The Isobar, a clubroom on the ground floor designed by the Bauhaus émigré Marcel Breuer was a favourite meeting place for many of the Hampstead group. Numbers 1 to 3 Willow Road were designed by the Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger (1902-1987) who had fled Europe in the 1930s and settled in Hampstead. Fred and Diana Ulhman were painters and art collectors who, in 1938, formed the Artists Refugee Committee that they ran from their home in Downshire Hill. The Committee helped many European artists escape from Nazi-dominated Europe and also provided practical and financial support on arrival in London. Oskar Kokoschka and John Heartfield among those they helped.

<9> Among the major artist who lived in Hampstead during the 1930's were Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Herbert Read, Henry Moore, and others. Barbara Hepworth was at the centre of the Hampstead group promoting a revolutionary approach to art. She lived in the Mall Studios from 1927 with her husband John Skeaping, then with second husband, Ben Nicholson. Ben Nicholson, regularly visiting Paris, brought continental developments in abstract art back to England, exploring the possibilities of geometric forms in abstract compositions. With Barbara Hepworth, Herbert Read and Naum Gabo, he produced the publications Unit One and Circle in a collective effort to establish the modern style in Britain. The prolific writer, lecturer and art critic Herbert Read moved into the Mall Studios, Hampstead in 1934, where he became close friends with his neighbours. Read's recognition of the importance of the Hampstead modernist artists placed their achievements in a world context and helped to gain them acceptance by the British public. Henry Moore and his Russian wife Irina moved into Parkhill Road in 1929, the first of the modernists to settle there. It was in Hampstead that Moore developed his unique sculptural style. The Moores remained in Hampstead until 1940 when bomb damage forced them to quit London for Herefordshire. Roland Penrose was a key figure in the small and active group of British surrealists. In 1936, the group met at his Hampstead home to organise the 'International Surrealist' exhibition held at the Burlington Gallery in London, an occasion famous for the appearance of Salvador Dali in a diving suit. Finally, Nevinson moved to Steele's Road studios in Hampstead in the 1920's.

<10> These artists were joined by numerous refugee artists escaping from Nazi Germany and subsequently the war in Europe. The commitment of Hampstead artists to abstract art was therefore strengthened in the mid-1930s with the arrival of Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, and Làszló Moholy Nagy. Refugees also included Sigmund Freud (his house is now the Freud Museum), and other practitioners of psychoanalysis centred round the Hampstead Clinic. That Hampstead was notable for it's artistic community in the 1930s is unquestionable, but how have contemporary art historians represented this community? For this we need to turn to the exhibition catalogues.

Between gods and heroes

<11> J.P Hodin, discussing Herbert Read in Hampstead in the Thirties (1974) writes,

Read, who published The Meaning of Art in 1931 and Art Now in 1933 - both elemental works for a new approach to creativity - became its Patroclus.

Patroclus was Achilles' most loyal friend who accompanied him to the Trojan War. To call Herbert Read the "Patroclus" of the 1930s implies that the artists had begun a "Trojan War" to acquire legitimacy and recognition from the public. It is also a way to register the history of London in the lineage of mythology, and to give to Herbert Read a mythological aspect as a precursor because the death of Patroclus announces the death of Hector and Achilles.

<12> Drawing upon a different mythological metaphor Art in One Year: 1935 (1977) discusses the work of Nicholson and Hepworth emphasising the use of "white" to "give concentrated expression to the vital role of light in art". This also suggests a mythological aspect, since the "vital role of the light" implicitly refers to the Bible ("let there be light"). Furthermore, whiteness gives an impression of purity.

<13> In British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40 (1962), Herbert Read discusses Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Cecil Stephenson, Paul Nash, etc. as follows:

In this decade there emerged, out of the slumbering provincialism that had characterized British art for nearly a century, no less than four artists of international status, and these artists, all of them happily still alive, have maintained their widely acknowledged rank in a world that has become increasingly competitive. Indeed, one might say that all these artists have lost, not only their provinciality but even their nationality, for one would not now describe either Moore or Sutherland as 'typically British'. (5)

The theme of the nationality is recurrent. By insisting on the British character of the artists, Herbert Read implicitly refers to a caesura between London and the rest of the world. Furthermore, the exhibition contains the following works of art: 6 works by Eileen Agar, 5 by John Armstrong, 6 by Winifred Dacre, 4 by Merlyn Evans, 6 by Naum Gabo, 3 by Ashley Havinden, 20 by Barbara Hepworth (among which 4 drawings), 5 by Tristram Hillier, 4 by Charles Howard, 5 by Arthur Jackson, 6 by Roy de Maistre, 6 by Piet Mondrian, 21 by Henry Moore (among which 4 drawings), 4 by Alastair Morton, 12 by Paul Nash, 16 by Ben Nicholson, 10 by John Piper, 3 by Victor Reinganum, 10 by Ceri Richards, 6 by Cecil Stephenson, 6 by John Tunnard, 7 by Edward Wadsworth. In total, 171 works have been exhibited. We note that some artists are more represented than others: Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson.

<14> The same thing can be found in the exhibition catalogue British Abstraction of the 1930s (1988), in which Lisa Guild emphasizes on the habitual actors of art history:

The intention of this exhibition is twofold: it aims to recapture the spirit of British Abstract art of the 1930s; equally it reassesses the work of Dismorr, Havinden, Howard, McWilliam, Morton, Stephenson and Winifred Nicholson alongside that of Hepworth, Moore, Ben Nicholson and Piper.

In Hampstead in the Thirties, a Committed Decade (1974), we find the same artists: Nash, Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Wells Coates, Colin Lucas, Herbert Read -- "Read was perhaps the leading link figure of the decade" writes Michael Collins in the Preface. The exhibition catalogue British Art and the Modern Movement, 1930-40 (1962) also builds a mythology of the 1930s by putting the accent on some specific artists, who all belong to the abstract art movement: Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash. This emphasis in the introductory chapters is all the more remarkable since the catalogue aims at being an exhaustive panorama of the 1930s. The exhibition deals with vorticism and the "Seven and Five Period"; a society founded in 1920 by Wood, Nicholson, Dacre; the post-cubists and Moore, Hepworth, Nicholson; abstract art and Nicholson, Hepworth, John Piper; the magazine Axis edited by Myfanwy Piper; surrealism and Moore; "Constructive art" and Nicholson and Hepworth; "Neo-Romanticism" and Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Palmer; and, with the "Euston Road School".

<15> The same idea appears in the catalogue Unit One: Spirit of the Thirties (London, 1984): the group Unit One had their headquarters in the Mayor Gallery and numbered among their members the architect Wells Coates, the painters Edward Wasdworth, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Tristram Hillier, Edward Burra, John Bigge and John Armstrong, and two sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, as well as a theorist, Herbert Read. The exhibition Circle: Constructive art in Britain 1934-1940 (Cambridge, 1982) also emphasizes the abstract artists: Nicholson, Gabo, Circle, Unit One, Axis. Finally, we find the same artists in Aspects of Abstract Art in England 1935-1942 (London, 1972): Unit One, Axis, 7 and 5 abstract group, Circle. This emphasis gives the artists -- Nicholson, Moore and Hepworth -- a mythical aspect, because the version of the history represented by these exhibition catalogues repeatedly gives them the same prominence.


<16> To share a focus on the same city, London, is symbolic in itself. All the exhibition catalogues I've analysed focus on London. To properly understand the consequences of the prominence given to London, we must go back to Mircea Eliade. Eliade suggests that the city of symbolically a metonymy of the nation, it is the centre, it symbolizes the cosmogony. For example, the exhibition Le Temps menaçant. Années 30 en Europe (Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris) demonstrates that the French catalogues emphasise the role of Paris just as the British catalogues insist on London. Serra, in Le Temps menaçant. Années 30 en Europe, writes that "during the Thirties, Paris ... becomes the main, and unique scene of artistic life": the "scene" here evokes the cène, implying perhaps that Paris is the place of the last meal of the Christ. Moreover, Serra evokes the "cultural centres", Paris and New York, whereas Fauchereau defines Paris as an "artistic capital". By reading the catalogue of the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, it therefore appears that Europe, and in particular Paris, would have been the receptacle of the sacred.

<17> This clearly shows that exhibition catalogues are by custom centred on a city -- Paris or London for example. However, I would argue that the tendency to organize art-historical discourse around particular places is a particular and pronounced characteristic of British catalogues and exhibitions. For example, the exhibition Creative Quarters, The Art World in London on 1700-2000 (London, 2001) is organized around a multiplicity of districts of London. Among all these areas, Hampstead is given a particular significance. The exhibition catalogues analysed for this study place a similar emphasis on Hampstead, which points to the mythic quality of this particular discourse.

The insistence on a district: Hampstead

<18> The strong focus on Hampstead is obvious in Circle: Constructive art in Britain 1934-1940 (Cambridge, 1982), or in Aspects of Abstract Art in England 1935-1942 (London, 1972). The exhibition catalogue Hampstead in the Thirties, a Committed Decade (London, 1974), also insists on the importance of Hampstead in the following extract:

No other London Borough, however, deserves such a history more than Hampstead, and this for two main reasons. The first is that no other Borough in London can make a better claim as the cradle of the modern movement in English art; the second that no other London Borough can pride itself upon such an influx of top brains in science and the arts.[7]

Jeanette Jackson writes later in the same exhibition catalogue:

During the past ten years, while organising such diverse exhibitions as The Artist at Work, De Stijl and The aesthetic movement, I came to realise how frequently the Hampstead area was appearing in our catalogue references. I began to think that in Hampstead during the Thirties had lived a group of creative people whose influence on art, letters and science in this country was as yet unacknowledged. Here I thought was a period which in fact out-Bloomsbury'd Bloomsbury.

These two extracts highlight one of the points I am going to develop: Hampstead, or, more widely, London, had the function of an asylum for refugees, as well as being an important district for London's artists. I would argue that this emphasis on Hampstead in the exhibition catalogues signifies that geographic space during the 1930s was determined by two poles: Hampstead and the rest of the world, which can be generally defined as "non-Hampstead". Mircea Eliade, in Le Sacré et le Profane, demonstrates the importance of such an opposition between two types of spaces, the sacred space -- "the only one that is real, that really exists"[8] -- and the non-sacred space -- "the formless area which surrounds it".[9] Eliade argues that space is not homogeneous, and within this space appears a "central axis of any future orientation".[10]

<19> Hampstead is therefore a kind of fixed point, a central axis of the modernity of British art. The exhibition catalogues therefore build a geography of art history in the 1930s. There is the world, a vast non-sacred space, then there is London, a sacred space, and, finally, Hampstead, at the core of the sacred space. Several houses, such as Nicholson's, Moore's, and others, have the function of several centres of the sacred, because there is no contradiction, as Mircea Eliade shows, in the multiplicity of centres of the sacred. Moreover, Mircea Eliade demonstrates that the identification of this sacred space is necessary for the creation, the symbolic creation, of British art which, having suffered for a long time from the supposed superiority of French art attracted recognition from the 1950's.

London as an Asylum for Refugees

<20> The exhibition catalogues represent London of the 1930s as a refuge for those who emigrated from Germany and Austria. This can clearly be seen in the catalogues Art in One Year: 1935 (London, 1977) and London in the Thirties (London, 1973). The latter observes, "London frequently welcomed foreign musicians" (13). Naum Gabo, Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Gropius, Berthold Lubetkin, Eric Mendelsohn, Mondrian are some examples of these refugees. The cover of the catalogue Art in Britain 1930-1940 - Centred around Axis Circle Unit One (London, 1965) features the names of the following artists : Eileen Agar, John Armstrong, Winifred Dacre, Merlyn Evans, Naum Gabo, Ashley Havinden, Barbara Hepworth, Tristram Hillier, Charles Howard, Arthur Jackson, Roy de Maistre, Piet Mondrian, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, John Piper, Victor Reinganum, Ceri Richards, Cecil Stephenson, John Tunnard, Edward Wadsworth. These are artists who were resident in England, not English artists. It signifies that London was an artistic centre that was known throughout Europe. This identification of London and specifically Hampstead is also present in the exposition Hampstead in the Thirties, a Committed Decade (London, 1974). Jeanette Jackson's article in this exhibition catalogue also insists on this idea:

The two main propositions I put to my researchers were the vitalising effect on our creative activities of the influx of refugees, and the importance of the almost universal political commitment to the Left.

The exhibition focused on specific refugees, including Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Mendelsohn and Naum Gabo who would later live the United States before finally settling in Israel. Jeanette Jackson suggests that most of the refugees came to Hampstead because the headquarters of the Free German League and the Artists' Refugee Committee were established at 47 Downshire Hill.

<21> Nevertheless the exhibition catalogue Unit One: Spirit of the Thirties (London, 1984) insists on the isolation of London's artists, as Herbert Read writes:

It is a further indication of British isolationism that to begin with there was little contact between the avant-garde English artists and the refugees in spite of 1934 being the year when Walter Gropius and several of his Bauhaus artists like Moholy Nagy arrived from Germany. There were exceptions. Naum Gabo soon became part of the London art world and in due course Mondrian was befriended by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hapworth and lived near them. But I never heard any suggestion of broadening Unit One to include refugees from the Continent.

Therefore, the description of London as a centre of refuge can be seen as a part of the construction of a myth that constructs an idea of London as a reassuring place. All these points -- the insistence on London, on Hampstead, on the role of London as an asylum for refugees -- participate in the construction of the image of London as a centre for European art.

The symbolism of the centre

<22> To develop the idea of London as a centre, I will now concentrate on the words and sentences that assert this notion. A close semiological study reveals the importance of this lexical field. For example, in Unit One: Spirit of the Thirties (London, 1984), J.P. Hodin writes:

London appeared a vital international centre of modern art and architecture.

The use of the words "vital" and "centre" construct a symbolism of the centre. The same idea can be found in John Hayes's foreword to London in the Thirties (London, 1973), which defines London as a "focal point" (3). As we have already noted, Mircea Eliade points to the significance of the symbolism of the centre -- the centre of the world is the only real place "where the sacred shows itself in the space, the reality comes to light".[11]

<23> We find the same lexical field dealing with the centre in Art in One Year: 1935 (London, 1977):

In 1935 Britain was at the beginning of a short period as perhaps the most hopeful centre for new creation in abstract art in Europe.

The same idea can be found in British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40 (Cardiff, 1962) where Jasia Reichardt writes:

For a short period in the 1930s London became an international art centre. (10)

Finally, Alice Prochaska writes in London in the Thirties (London, 1973) of London as 'the Capital City'. Furthermore, the lexical fields of some exhibition catalogues show that the 1930s were characterised by tensions. The catalogue Art in One Year: 1935 (London, 1977) focused on the group Unit 1, notes:

A group of nine artists (and two architects) representing various points along the spectrum between the extremes of abstraction and Surrealism, which was formed in 1933 with the aim of 'concentrating... forces within a community generally hostile to new tendencies in art'.

<24> The vocabulary of struggle or fight is prominent here: "aim", "concentrating", "force", "hostile". It implicitly conveys the idea of tension. A similar tension can also be read in the dichotomy of the lexical fields in the exhibition London in the Thirties (London, 1973): the positive lexical field includes -- "wealth", "the nation's health", "enthusiastic", "confidence", "powerful", "promised", "sophisticated", "high hopes", "confident", "expanding", "boast", "wealthy"; and the negative lexical field -- "evils of the Depression", "slums", "hopeless poverty", "disturbing", "struggles", "fearsome", "struck terror", "redoubtable", "destroyed", "deaths", "likely destruction", "exhaustion", "bitter poverty", "nightmarish fears", "self-deception", "threats", "war", "Depression", "bleak", "problems", "difficulties", "distressed", "hunger", "miserable", "plight", "doldrums". Indeed, the catalogue is based on this dichotomy, as the foreword points out.

<25> Therefore the exhibition is based on a tension between positive and negative signifiers. This tension even appears in the ambiguity of certain terms such as "sprawling", used by John Hayes (3): the word associates a negative meaning --"sprawling", or "tentacular" can characterize a city which suffocates through its suburbs -- and a positive meaning ("tentacular" can also characterize a powerful town). Moreover, while the lexical field of the force concerns mainly the state, the lexical field of weakness focuses on psychology. It even appears in the choice of some expressions: "terror of inflation" (the terror is of psychological order), "abject poverty" (the abjection is psychological too). These adjectives serve to give to the expressions -- which concern facts, states (the inflation, the poverty) -- a psychological dimension.

<26> This dichotomous tension can even be found in the illustrations of the catalogue London in the Thirties (London, 1973). On page 4 two photographs are put side by side: a photograph of the Bank of England, symbol of the City, of the financial -- and symbolic -- power of London, and a photograph of the Jarrow Marchers.

These tensions could then represent a creative chaos, as Mircea Eliade understands it: the creative chaos appears in the core of the sacred. London is, therefore, represented as the matrix of artistic creation.

London as the matrix of artistic creation

<26> In this section I will also adopt a semiological approach in order to identify the role of London as the centre for artistic creation. The exhibition catalogue London in the Thirties (London, 1973) constructs a personification of London. This point is revealed by a semiological analysis. Indeed, the lexical field dealing with the body and the person here is important: "the physical appearance of London", "the complex aspirations and attitudes of mind", "London grows", "sprawling", "powerful", "it faced" (from "to face"), "exhaustion", "the age", "confident", "dominated", "boast", "distressed", "London .… its wealth", "the nation's health", and "the Capital City" - "capital" deriving from "head". London becomes a person, an actor in history. Moreover, Michael Collins writes, in Hampstead in the Thirties, a Committed Decade (London, 1974):

No area is, of course, hermetically sealed, least of all Hampstead. Rather, it seems to have been a microcosm for much that was new and vital in Europe. (4)

The word "microcosm" refers to a mythological conception of Hampstead. Hampstead is here akin to a small universe from which later creations have arisen. We can find the same idea in Michael Collins's Preface to this text where he suggests "Hampstead in the 1930's was an area of intense creative activity" (2). The same idea can be identified in Sir James Richards forward to the catalogue Unit One: Spirit of the Thirties (London, 1984):

By geographical chance... a kind of nucleus existed in Hampstead where Herbert Read, the guru of the group, lives in the 1930s in on eof the Mall studios at the end of Parkhill Road.

The use of the word "nucleus" again suggests a creation lexicon. The same idea appears when Mark Glazebrook writes:

If a meteor is a small mass of matter from celestial space rendered luminous by collision with earth's atmosphere, then Unit One may be pictured as a small group of artists and architects rendered luminous by collision with the Baldwin era.

Glazebrook compares the group Unit One to a meteor that again constructs an image stressing the intense creative burst in 1930s London and thereby the city's centrality in near cosmic terminology. In the same exhibition catalogue, J.P. Hodin writes:

The publication Unit One which appeared in 1934 must be regarded as a collective effort to establish a modern style in England. It was the first attempt to bring under one roof the aims of architecture and art. Soon after its publication, this group broke up, separating ... into two vital streams - Surrealism and Non-Figurative Constructive art.

The term "vital streams" can here refer to a mythological conception of the creation of the world. The group Unit One carried within itself the germs of life, which will later give birth to other creations. This semiological analysis therefore important points to how the exhibition catalogues implicitly construct an image of London as a central matrix of artistic creation. This point if fundamental since it points to the reasons for the creation of this myth of London during the 1930s.

The myth of London of in the 1930s

<27> Why does London as an artistic centre in the 1930s constitute a myth of British art history? What is the function of this myth? The traditional definition of myth elaborates in a symbolic way important questions raised by the origin of the Earth, society, Nature, and power. Herbert Read writes in British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40 (Cardiff, 1962):

There may be a profound lesson to be learned from this chapter of art history: for not the least significant forces in the history of art are social and even intimate; schools and academies, publications and exhibitions are no substitute for the spontaneous enthusiasm that is generated when an arbitrary chance brings together in one place spirits with the same ideals and aspirations. (5)

The 1930s therefore bear a lesson for later years; they can answer contemporary questioning. Furthermore, the myth, still in its traditional definition, answers the desire to know and understand previous history. The myth of London of the 1930s is therefore a way access the origins of British modern art.

<28> In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue British Art and the Modern Movement, 1930-40, the accent is put on the 1930s as a period of training for artists. We can read in Alan Bowness's introduction to this catalogue that the 1930s were "a period of considerable achievement" but this period obtained only a "very little recognition" (5). This desire for recognition can indeed be read in the exhibition catalogues I've analysed. For example, Jeremy Lewinson's foreword to Circle, Constructive Art in Britain 1934-1940 (Cambridge, 1982) suggests that,

Circle appears to have aimed at highlighting the British contribution to the European abstract movement and at setting it within a wider European context. It marks an increased confidence on the part of British artists and architects and a desire for international recognition.

In particular, English artists tried to obtain recognition faced with the crushing fame of French artists. During the 1930s, French painting received dominant attention. This preponderance of French artists is obvious when looking at some British artistic magazines and newspapers of the period. Whether it is in Illustrated Monthly Review, Apollo, The Burlington Magazine, Artwork, The Connoisseur, Art notes, Art Review, Art and Industry, Commercial Art and Industry, Modern Sacred Art, or in The Artist, Art and Reason, The World of Art Illustrated, Art Trade Journal, The Art Weekly, Walker's Monthly, Art and Antiques, The New English Weekly, French artists clearly dominate the magazines.[12] But a change emerged during the 1930s after the death of Roger Fry in 1934, and in Clive Bell's support for modern painting.

In 1935 he [Clive Bell] predicted that 'the next phase of English painting -- indeed it is already present -- will be the exploitation of the national heritage by artists whose sensibility has been tempered by the discipline of Cézanne and the abstract painters'.

<29> During the Thirties, therefore, British artists sought a greater recognition from the public, challenging French artists who still dominated the artistic scene. The exhibition catalogue Aspects of Abstract Art in England 1935-1942 (London, 1972) points to the rivalry between Paris and London, which testifies to a will to revalue a period unfairly neglected. This idea appears in Alexander Postan's introduction to the catalogue Aspects of Abstract Art in England 1935-1942:

The contribution made by British artists to the international abstract movement has, with one or two notable exceptions, been ignored in the recent scramble to deify the Russian and European 'non-objective' painters .... This small exhibition is an attempt to redress the balance of opinion.

<30> The myth of London in the 1930s is therefore a way to put an accent on the foundation of what would be the British post-war art. Indeed, from the 1950's, British art begins to attract attention on the world artistic scene, notably with Francis Bacon. Therefore, even if this analysis can be contested in many ways, it enables us to see how the writing of the exhibition catalogues constructs an idea or myth of artistic London in the Thirties that reflects this post war success.


[1] L'écriture de l'histoire, Paris, Gallimard, 1975, p. 36. [^]

[2] Translation by the author of the following extract: 'D'une part, le mythe s'est vu reconnaître une identité et une légitimité incontestables comme mode symbolique d'appréhension de l'expérience humaine; d'autre part, il n'est plus réservé au seul mode de pensée archaïque, à la civilisation traditionnelle, mais son polymorphisme lui permet de structurer et d'orienter représentations et actions même dans les sociétés à représentations et normes rationnelles', in 'Mytho-phorie: formes et transformations du mythe', Religiologiques, No. 10, automne 1994, p. 49-70. [^]

[3] Translation by the author of the following extract: 'Dans sa définition la plus extensive, le mythe se présente, dans une société traditionnelle, comme une histoire, portant sur des actions et des personnages, dont la remémoration, plus ou moins ritualisée, a valeur d'exemplarité, parce que le récit est porteur de vérité et de valeur pour ceux qui en sont les médiateurs. Un mythe est donc un récit, pas nécessairement religieux dans son contenu, doté d'une structure et d'une fonction, d'une substance symbolique et d'une valeur pragmatique: d'un côté, il se présente comme une mise en scène, comme un scénario particulier (mythe de...), qui agence des événements déterminés (Aristote définit le muthos comme mimesis); de l'autre, il est, avant tout, destiné à être récité, raconté à d'autres, et répété par d'autres porte-parole encore. Bref, le mythe est à la fois un message et un médium, un corpus d'histoires à décrypter et une pratique sociale narrative', op. cit. [^]

[4] Aspects du mythe, Paris, Gallimard, 1963, p. 16. [^]

[5] Translation by the author of the following extract: 'Pendant des millénaires, le mythe a été un certain mode de construction intellectuelle... Mais, dans notre civilisation, à une époque qui se situe vers le XVIIè, avec le début de la pensée scientifique -- Bacon, Descartes et quelques autres -- le mythe est mort ou, à tout le moins, il a passé à l'arrière-plan comme type de construction intellectuelle', in La voix compte plus que la parole, La quinzaine littéraire, 1er Août 1978. [^]

[6] Translation by the author of the following extract: 'Des "myths" et des méta-récits, nous en constatons la présence. Nous en constatons aussi le renouvellement, à l'aube du XXIº siècle. À des titres divers, ils soutiennent la vie quotidienne (objets, références, mots convenus) ou donnent de l'ampleur à la vie politique (nation, progrès). Peut-on les répertorier ? Les interpréter ? Les combattre ? En tout cas, il faut montrer que le recours aux " mythes " - et nous prenons le terme en un sens particulier - n'est pas le fait d'une faiblesse intellectuelle, que l'on pourrait éradiquer par un apprentissage ou par la substitution de la vérité scientifique " in " Des mythologies quotidiennes aux méta-récits : Mythologies du XXIº siècle', Conference AFIS-IDF, 10 May 2001. [^]

[7] J.P. Holdin, 'A Study of the cultural history of Hampstead in the Thirtis', in Hampstead in the Thirties, a committed decade, exhibition catalogue, London Museum, 1974-75 page 5 to 7 [^]

[8] Le Sacré et le Profane, Paris, Gallimard, 1965 (1957), p. 25. [^]

[9] op. cit. [^]

[10] Translation by the author of the following extract: 'Pour l'homme religieux, l'espace n'est pas homogène; il présente des ruptures, des cassures. ... C'est la rupture opérée dans l'espace qui permet la constitution du monde, car c'est elle qui découvre le "point fixe", l'axe central de toute orientation future', op. cit. [^]

[11] Translation by the author of the following extract: 'Là où le sacré se manifeste dans l'espace, le réel se dévoile', Le Sacré et le Profane, Paris, Gallimard, 1965 (1957), p. 60. [^]

[12] Jane Beckett, 'Circle: the theory and the patronage of constructive art in the thirties', Circle: Constructive Art in Britain 1934-1940 (Cambridge, 1982), p. 15. [^]

The Catalogues

British art and the modern movement 1930-40, Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Cardiff, 1962

Art in Britain 1930-1940 - Centred around Axis Circle Unit One, Marlborough Gallery, London, 1965

Aspects of Abstract Art in England 1935-42, Alexander Postan Fine Art, London, 1972

London in the Thirties, Museum of London, London, 1973

Hampstead in the Thirties, a committed decade, Museum of London, London, 1974

Young writers of the Thirties, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1976

Art in one year: 1935, Tate Gallery, London, 1977

Circle: Constructive art in Britain 1934-1940, Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge, 1982

Unit One: spirit of the thirties, Mayor Gallery, London, 1984

British Abstraction of the 1930s, Albermarle Gallery, London, 1988

A Different World : Emigré Architecture in Britain, 1928-1958, RIBA Heinz Gallery, London, 1995 Art & Power, Hayward Gallery, London, 1995