The Edwardians Exhibition

Posted by jerry on April 4th, 2004 — Posted in History, Journal

Yes the Edwardians have come to town – an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. It is quite a varied exhibition, including paintings, clothing, and furniture. What was special about this period just prior to the first world war? I’m guessing it is two things:

Firstly, there was an emerging new aesthetic – impressionism was around since the 1880s – and paintings were taking on a new light. Part of this might be ascribed to new paint technologies – paint tubes allowed painting from nature, and watercolours were very portable. But the Victorian period appears to have been quite conservative and resistant to the new aesthetic. When Britain’s Queen Victoria died in 1901 it was like a new birth for the new century, and there was a much more rapid uptake of new ideas in the sciences as well as the arts. The invention of photography meant that painting had to find a new role or be relagated to the dinosaurs. So the sense that painting could capture something more than a photograph was pursued with a passion. Hence much of the exhibition is taken up with portraits of various kinds.

The emergence of Japan on the Western developed world’s stage provided an exoticism that stimulated the Edwardian arts – there are many painted fans in the exhibition and some portraits of Japanese superstars, including the best known of the Geishas. In the decorative arts lacquer work was strongly in vogue, and there was a Japanese influence in the ‘arts and crafts’ movement.

Secondly, and related to the first is a new scientific approach to health – it was considered healthy to spend time on the beach in the fresh air. This was the time of several social experiments with improving working conditions so that workers would be more productive and would be fitter to take on the responsibilities of arms at the peak of the British empire. So there are images of people at the beach, bathing or generally pursuiing healthy outdoor exercise. There are also images of locals who made good as colonial administrators – new wealth and all that. Alongside this was also a sense in which Victorian prudery was being challenged, and the number of nudes attests to a new relationship with the body.

Finally, there are hints of a pre-figuring of later styles of futurism and social realism as seen in the work of Eric Kennington (1888-1960) whose 1914 painting “The costermongers” with its vibrant colours and a flat perspective could have been painted in the 1930s or even the 1960s. And the vibrant geometrics in the Ballet Russes costumes also points the way to the later work of the Bauhaus, such as Kandinsky and Klee.

Overall, this was a good exhibition – well worth taking a look if you happen to be in Canberra 😉

The Costermongers
“The Costermongers” – Eric Kennington

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