Restless art from time torn apart

A blockbuster exhibition at Norwich Castle looks at how pioneering artists rebuilt the world as it was being torn apart by and between two world wars. IAN COLLINS reports.

We live in restless times — with student protests and pending strikes over job and service cuts and the biggest drop in living standards for most of us since the 1930s.

Art is the universal language and it will be fascinating to see what creative voices make of present problems, though the babble will only find a coherent shape at some point in the future.

For the moment it is very enlightening to visit one of the most absorbing and significant exhibitions to be held at the Norwich Castle Museum in my lifetime.

Restless Times: Art in Britain 1914-45 looks at the development of modern art against the backdrop of the most tumultuous decades of the best/worst century in history.

The period in focus ranges from the outbreak of the First World War to the end of the Second World War via the shellshock of the 1920s and the Great Slump of the 1930s.

For all the terrible upheavals there were the most amazing advances and the irony is that in the depths of the Blitz Britons had never been healthier – nor, very probably, happier either.

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While immigration from all over the planet has hit unprecedented levels in the past three decades, the 32 years of this study saw Britain as a haven for displaced Europeans seeking both freedom of expression and simple survival.

Influencing and invigorating their contemporaries, these exiles prompted cultural exchanges which have sharp parallels with our still more diverse society of today.

We all know the Odeon chain of cinemas. But who recalls the dream of a Jewish �migr� and entrepreneur who set to work with the proud declaration Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation?

Curated by Museums Sheffield as part of the Great British Art Debate — and drawing works from the Tate, Sheffield, Tyne and Wear and private collections as well as from Norwich Castle, plus vintage news reels and reports and a number of new art commissions — the exhibition has an urban bias. The countryside is seen primarily as a place of escape for city dwellers who might also be conscripted into land work in extremis.

Among the most startling exhibits is the earliest — David Bomberg's In The Hold, of 1913-14. It's as if the world is being torn apart and exploding into a beautifully coloured abstract painting; destruction and construction going hand in hand.

For us this story possibly began with a camping holiday at Brandon in the summer of 1913, when painter members of the then-radical Bloomsbury Group – Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry – got to grips with some of the lessons they had learned from avant-garde art in France.

When war engulfed, Duncan (and Vanessa) tried to hide out at Wissett near Halesworth, where economist Maynard Keynes was called up to defend a pacifist painter finally summoned by jingoistic farmers on the Blything Tribunal. There was then a flight to less hostile Sussex.

A battle within Bloomsbury led to the breakaway Vorticist movement, where artists allied to Wyndham Lewis tried to address the world of surging technology – the drama and the violence - more directly.

One of the great pictures in this exhibition is William Roberts' The Cinema of 1920 – eight years too soon for the first of Oscar Deutsch's picture palaces. Revolution on the screen merges with chaos in the stalls in a huge diago-nal like a gun barrel or searchlight whose component human parts take the angular and jagged forms of shrapnel.

The Lewis portrait of writer Edith Sitwell – over which the artist agonised, apparently, for 13 years from 1923 – suggests a missile merging with an Art Deco icon.

Another image with astonishing momentum is Cyril Power's The Tube Station woodcut of 1932. He and Sybil Andrews hatched their revolutionary designs in Bury St Edmunds – their small whirlwind prints now fetching whopping prices.

During the First World War, Sybil worked as an oxyacetylene welder in an arms factory – a fiery labour pictured in a brilliant C.R.W. Nevinson print (note the rather chilling smile of pride in a foreground female worker released from domestic servitude).

War dominated this entire epoch and there is a terrible trajectory from Nevinson's 1916 painting Ypres After the First Bombardment to Clive Branson's 1940 Bombed Women and Searchlights.

The theme is perfectly captured with major works by Eric Kennington and the brothers Paul and John Nash – all of whom served as official war artists in both world wars.

Paul Nash, who developed a singular line in surrealism following early visits to the elusive and mystical North Norfolk painter Claughton Pellew-Harvey, carried the shadow of devastation through most of his wonderful work.

Here his exhibits include the gorgeous Shell guide book to Dorset – while big, bold, bright posters commissioned for the sides of Shell oil lorries from a range of artists give us some of the most hopeful visions of scenic inter-war Britain.

Most blissful of all is the 1918 painting of The Cornfield by Paul's younger brother, John. But this was his first non-war painting and those who remember the hellish scenes that went before may see a line of corn stooks amid golden stubble standing for a straggle of soldiers in no-man's-land.

I have barely scratched the surface of this awesome exhibition. Visit and revisit while you can to review the present in the light and darkness of the past.

n Restless Times: Art in Britain 1914-45 is at Norwich Castle until April 24, normal admission prices, 01603 493625,