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Clean lines and dirty habits: the Modernists of 1930s Hampstead

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists Caroline Maclean

Bloomsbury,, pp.290, 25

With its distinctive hilly site and unusually coherent architecture (significantly, most of it domestic rather than civic), Hampstead has always had a singular character. But it is as much a state of mind as an address. Although two of England’s greatest native artists, Keats and Constable, made it their home, over the past three centuries Hampstead has notably attracted waves of exotics: French, Spanish and Jewish. These immigrants, struggling with heavy baggage labelled ‘high culture’, have had a huge influence on the neighbourhood. Perhaps the geography and townscape — a miniature city on a hill defined by secret places, alleyways and architectural surprises, a defensible space both in terms of protection and psychology — had a special appeal to the refugee mentality. And following the French, Spanish and Jewish came another wave of exotics: the Modernists in the mid-1930s. This was Susan Sontag’s ‘improvised, self-elected class’, defined not by race or nationality but by values that insisted that art and life should be integrated. And high-concept adultery was by no means excluded: it was a culture of clean lines and dirty habits. At the time it seemed radical, important and inevitable, but, with perspective, the Modernist adventure appears instead as a very peculiar episode in the history of taste.

Outstanding among Hampstead’s new arrivals were Piet Mondrian (Dutch), Walter Gropius (German) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian). At Ben Nicholson’s suggestion, Mondrian moved into modest digs at 60 Parkhill Road in 1938, a street where Henry Moore — ‘lumpy’ according to J.B. Priestley — had lived since 1929. If Mondrian sometimes seems the most extreme and ultramontane of abstract artists (he followed a diet based on carrots), it is pleasant to note that his building was also occupied by a suburban contingent including a retired nurse, a stationer, a typist and a policeman whose wife was the landlady.

One of the big influences on Mondrian in his Hampstead period was seeing Disney’s Snow White at the Haverstock Hill Odeon. He identified with one of the cartoon dwarves and signed some of his correspondence ‘Sleepy’. Meanwhile, he turned his tiny flat into a blinding monochrome Neo-Plasticist manifesto, telling Nicholson in broken English ‘the whiting has very well succeeded’.

A hard-up Gropius, grateful to leave a hostile Berlin, had arrived in London in 1934 followed by his Bauhaus colleague, Moholy-Nagy, three years later. Gropius soon made himself at home with Hampstead’s Isokon set, a crowd Sontag would have quickly recognised. Isokon was the superb building, an experiment in community living, designed by Wells Coates, a Canadian.

Its dramatic white concrete profile made a statement in red-brick Frognal. In Isokon’s community bar, Philip Harben, later a pioneering telly chef, predicted the authenticity fads of the River Café with a menu including ‘anchovies from Collioure’.

This is a splendid subject, as ready for satire as academic analysis, but there are some problems with Caroline Maclean’s new book of very long paragraphs. First, she launches into ‘Ben (Nicholson), Barbara (Hepworth, his second wife) and Winifred (his neglected first wife)’ without really explaining why we should be interested in the first place. Second, her project has been rather upstaged by last year’s Bauhaus centenary books, notably those of Fiona MacCarthy and Alan Powers, who have already treated this subject well. And indeed, in 2012 Charles Darwent’sMondrian in London told us perhaps even more than we wanted to know about this episode. Circles and Squares is impressively researched, but, like many art historians, Maclean is reluctant to sacrifice abundant material to tell a good story. Data is not the same as information.

Mondrian, Gropius and Moholy did not linger long in London. Gropius disliked the unsavoury food and ‘bony women’. They all experienced Nikolaus Pevsner’s angst, which he described as ‘no cure for an English Sunday afternoon’. Moholy made a coruscating impression in London, bringing Bauhaus design principles to the advertising trade, hanging real aeroplanes in the central space of Simpson’s on Piccadilly (now Waterstone’s). But, truth be told, he couldn’t wait to up sticks and go to America. Mondrian, having long since eliminated green from his palette, soon found Hampstead had ‘too many trees’.

Modernism in these islands is a fascinating subject. Such was its early persuasive power that even the patrician Kenneth Clark had bought an early Mondrian, though he later felt that abstraction had failed to realise its original aesthetic promise. But Maclean leaves me unclear whether her subject is big or small, of lasting relevance or temporary curiosity.

Still, the reception given by the English fascinates — in odd territory, somewhere between obsequious and patronising. I will not call them ‘provincial pastiche’, but the native artists were not quite first-rate in the company of their visitors. And Paul Nash’s 1,000-word letter to the Times establishing Unit One as a native Bauhaus has a slightly gruesome, try-hard, wince-making quality.

I would like to have read more about Modernism’s small triumphs and larger failures, but Maclean’s ‘Hampstead’ subtitle is limiting. Salvador Dali was also a presence in the 1930s, but that was in the West End and Sussex. And English surrealism was in Cornwall. A lot of the hanky-panky was out-of-town too.

Hampstead’s remnants of Modernism now look most odd. The Isokon building was camouflaged in dun during the Blitz, everyone apparently unaware that Hitler thought brown ‘a very German colour’. It fell into dreadful disrepair until it was rescued in 2003. Meanwhile, Mondrian’s flat on Parkhill Road now carries, rather elegiacally, an English Heritage Blue Plaque.

Circles and Squares is surely the last word on this subject and that is not intended to be faint praise. It reminds me of a Ben Nicholson composition: painstaking, serious, perhaps also a bit genteel and respectful. But then, this is Hampstead.

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