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The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground.

The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground. By Michael T. Saler. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xiii, 242. $39.95.)

This relatively slim, but packed, text explores some difficult terrain--the route by which the romantic and very English nineteenth-century arts and crafts traditions of Ruskin and Morris came to influence, and indeed, merge with, interwar modernism in London. It considers, in particular, how in the mechanized, prosaic world of the London transport system the principle of art-in-everyday-life was brought to a kind of realization. This book, a well-written text full of irony and dry wit, is based on a sophisticated and well-researched appreciation of the period, recent criticism, a broad historical context, and, especially, the biographies of those involved. Michael T. Saler manages to give his "Medieval Modernists" importance and centrality, focusing especially on Frank Pick, that product--both visionary and down-to-earth--of northern nonconformity, who was a businessman, a Morrisian industrial design advocate, managing director of the London Underground, and patron of young modernist artists. In less skilled hands, someone as odd as Pick (or Herbert Read) might have seemed merely eccentric, anachronistic, and obsessive.

Saler locates his study with other recent attempts to read modernism, a movement usually seen as self-consciously international by definition, in a specifically national and regional context. In this, he is certainly successful, though the question arises as to whether this illuminates modernism or merely confirms a stubborn English provinciality. The author is strongest in revealing the perhaps unique tenacity of the Ruskinian tradition in England, at least among a particular broad element of the intelligentsia. In his preface, Saler claims that he will argue that "the reception and assimilation of modern art" in England "owed as much to the romantic medievalism of Ruskin and Morris as it did to the formalism of Fry and Bell" (vii). This might suggest that he intends to examine the impact the visual arts had on the English public (a very difficult task), when, in fact, what he is really interested in are the discursive shifts in the language of art and design criticism. By "public rhetoric," he apparently means, not popular reaction, but the discourse of the art critics and institutional mandarins.

This book offers a sophisticated engagement with these figures, well above the level of the memoirs and recollections common to the field of art-figure biography. Saler is concerned to relate ideas to social background and also to explore the developing institutional framework of English modernism. The Design and Industries Association is central to his argument; it was (he claims) the primary agency by which the medievalist-modernism aesthetic was disseminated after the First World War. Yet, one could argue that the Ruskinian/Morrisian ideas upon which that aesthetic was based were already so widely available that the DIA was hardly necessary to break down the distinction between "fine" and "applied" art. Saler's treatment of Pick and the Council for Art and Industry is also an important contribution that is well handled, and he is especially good at negotiating the departmental rivalries between the CAI and the Board of Education.

This book will be of interest to social and intellectual historians of the arts in interwar Britain and in the institutional promotion of the arts. It is an important contribution.

H.L. Malchow Tufts University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Malchow, H.L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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