If Modernism is a jungle, how do you navigate a path through its thickets? Some explorers — Peter Gay and Christopher Butler among them — have been fool-hardy enough to attempt an overall map, identifying factors common to a half century of music, art and literature. But the borders remain disputed and light cast on one area only leaves another consigned to the shadows.
Philip Hook, however, has been less ambitious, confining himself to one patch of special interest: the painting and sculpture of the decade preceding the first world war. Although this may sound like familiar territory, it’s widely regarded, in Hook’s words, as ‘quite possibly the most important in post-Renaissance art history’, and thus always worth revisiting — particularly when one’s guide is someone as erudite and amusing as this former bigwig at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, familiar to many from his urbane appearances on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
Even if he’s limited himself chronologically (the Gauguin and Van Gogh exhibitions of 1905 being the starting point), he’s still given himself plenty of subsidiary ‘isms’ to chew on here — ‘Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Rayonism, Vorticism, plus the breaching of the final frontier of Abstraction in 1913’— a list that embraces Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Kandinsky, Klimt and Munch, ranging geographically from Moscow to London, with Paris as the focus.
What (just about) unites these figures as modernists, according to Hook, is a belief in ‘the primacy of instinct’, which relates to a fascination with the primitive and a trust in the unconscious, as well as a general susceptibility to anarchic violence and alcoholic or narcotic intoxication. Unsurprisingly, none of them emerges as sympathetic or well-balanced: they treated women atrociously, quarrelled viciously with their friends and, despite their bohemian insouciance, had double standards when it came to money.