Book review: Circles and Square: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists
PUBLISHED: 13:14 01 June 2020 | UPDATED: 13:14 01 June 2020
An enjoyable account of the lives and loves of the bohemian artists who gathered in NW3 in the 1930s ignores the broader political context of that seismic decade
Circles and Square: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists
Hampstead in the l930s was an exciting place to be, especially where the visual arts were concerned; and Caroline Maclean’s new book vividly evokes that sense of aesthetic adventure born of close personal interaction between like-minded individuals. While the personal relationship between Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth takes centre stage, the story she tells features a host of other figures, many of them - but by no means all - now familiar names in the canon of modern British art. Among them are Winifred Nicholson (Ben’s first wife) and Jack Skeaping (Hepworth’s first husband), Henry and Irina Moore, Paul Nash and Eileen Agar, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, Herbert and Ludo Read, Wells Coates, Jack and Molly Pritchard, William and Nancy Coldstream, to name just a few. Enmeshed with the latter are international luminaries such as Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer. Writers such as Louis MacNeice, Geoffrey Grigson and W.H. Auden also make an appearance. And although Hampstead is the location where all these lives intersect, the links to Paris, Berlin, New York and even Cornwall are crucial.
You may also want to watch:
Circles and Squares certainly makes for an enjoyable and absorbing read, largely for its often amusing and intimate domestic anecdotes. Indeed, so many of these are of an amorous nature that, especially in a book with such grainy black and white illustrations, the subtitle of the volume might well have read the ‘Lives and Loves’ rather than the ‘Lives and Art…’
What is missing, however, is a sense of the wider political climate of the 1930s, in which the need to combat the rise of fascism in Europe profoundly affected even an abstract artist like Hepworth, and compelled her in 1938-9 to create a maquette for an (unrealised) Monument to the Spanish Civil War. That this was destroyed during the Second World War is a stark reminder of the cataclysm to come. Similarly, Moore was moved in 1939 to produce his first lithograph, entitled Spanish Prisoner, to raise money for the (by then doomed) Republican cause. Significantly, neither project is mentioned in the book.
Politics don’t of course go entirely ignored but seem almost an afterthought and unworthy of detailed attention. Thus, the most directly political passages sit awkwardly in the middle of a chapter devoted to ‘The Moores in Parkhill Road’, when they surely deserve a whole chapter to themselves. Indeed, given the structuring of the book according to key geographical locations, a chapter devoted to the activities that took place at number 47 Downshire Hill (just a stone’s throw from Penrose at number 21 and Margaret Gardiner and J.D.Bernal at number 35) is conspicuously absent. From the late 1930s, this was the home of German-Jewish lawyer turned artist Fred Uhlman and his British-born wife Diana, in which not only the Artists’ Refugee Committee and the Free German League of Culture were born, but also in which John Heartfield, left-wing pioneer of political photomontage, was given refuge for several years. Mention of the latter is also a reminder that the ‘circles and squares’ form of abstraction espoused by Nicholson and Hepworth was by no means the only kind of avant-garde art that came to these shores as result of Hitler’s repressive and ultimately murderous anti-modernist cultural policies.
Bizarrely, there is barely a reference to Hitler and the Nazis or to their primary victims, the Jews, in the entire book. (Almost comically, the only reference to the Führer – on page 240 – is not to Adolf Hitler but to William Coldstream!) The reasons for even non-Jews such as Gropius needing to leave Germany also go unmentioned. A passing reference on page 194, for example, to “Constructivism, that had been outlawed in Germany and Russia” seems woefully inadequate. Only in the very last paragraph of the book - surely far too late - does the author seem to take on board the import of Read’s retrospective claim that “‘the displacement due to the rise of the Nazis’ created ‘a continual stream of foreign artists passing through London’. They came to Hampstead and Belsize Park because we ‘had prepared the way for them’”.
In sum, this failure to provide a broader political, cultural and emotional context for the activities of the protagonists in this new publication means that even the most amusing and revealing of anecdotes seems rather inconsequential. For all that the book is fluently written, rich in entertaining and sometimes piquant detail and easy to enjoy on a superficial level, too much remains unsaid and unexplored to make it a truly satisfying read.
Monica Bohm-Duchen was the initiator and creative director of the year-long, nationwide Insiders/Outsiders Festival www.insidersoutsidersfestival.org, which celebrated the contribution of refugees from Nazi Europe to British culture.
The companion volume (https://www.lundhumphries.com/products/113882) includes an essay on Hampstead.
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ham&High. Click the link in the orange box above for details.