by Sue Hubbard
In the autumn of 1997 the Royal Academy of Art mounted Sensation, an exhibition of artists promoted by Charles Saatchi that included Damien Hirst, Michael Landy and Marcus Harvey's notorious painting of Myra Hindley. As the title of the exhibition suggested its aim was to shock. Many might be forgiven for thinking that such an act of épater les bourgeois was something new on the British art scene. But a fascinating exhibition, Uproar! at the Ben Uri Gallery, which marks the centenary of the London Group, an artists' exhibiting society set up at the beginning of the 20thcentury to provide a radical alternative to the staid intellectualism of institutions such as Royal Academy, (rather ironic given its later involvement with Sensation) shows that rocking the Establishment boat is nothing new.
Charting The London Group's first 50 years, the show reveals its complex history, its arguments, schisms and ideological discords. The choice of name signalled inclusivity, rather than the neighbourhood parochialism of the Fitzroy Street Group, The Camden Town Group and the Bloomsbury Group. Created at a time of exceptional turmoil in the British art world it brought together painters influenced by European Cubism and Futurism, and survived the early resignation of its founding fathers, the Danish-French artist, Lucien Pissarro, then living in London, and Walter Sickert, to continue to this day. From the onset the group's radicalism enraged many diehard critics. The Connoisseur snottily complained that in the work of Epstein and others ‘the artistic tendencies of the most advanced school of modern art are leading us back to the primitive instincts of the savage.' That many of the artists then panned now rank among the pantheon of British modernist greats might give some critics pause for thought.
From the start uproar raged both inside and outside the Group. There was press hostility to the ultra-modernists, rivalry between the Group and other exhibiting societies such as the New English Art Club, not to mention the warfare between Camden Townites and Wyndham Lewis's Vortecists, between the Surrealists and realists, as well as differing political attitudes exemplified by Mark Gertler's anti-war stance and Wyndham Lewis's bellicose right-wing posturing.