Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War, by David Boyd Haycock

Who today remembers Gilbert Cannan’s Mendel? Yet this novel about the life of a struggling painter caused quite a stir in 1916. Mark Gertler, on whom it was based, called it “a piece of cheap trash”, while Dora Carrington, his lover and fellow student at the Slade School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, hated its depiction of her. The moment Carrington arrived at the Slade in 1911 the art students Gertler, Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson all became rivals for her love (she eventually chose Gertler, then Lytton Strachey). Another student was the eccentric genius Stanley Spencer, and Boyd Haycock has great fun linking their complicated lives. The prewar years are fun too: Vorticists heckling Futurists, and Slade lecturer Roger Fry introducing unappreciative Londoners to Manet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. But the first world war changed everything, many of the Slade Gang becoming war artists, and the postwar years are sadder. Haycock writes with real brio and his account of the colourful lives of these erstwhile Slade students is engrossing.

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