Curator Interview: Locating Rural Modernism with Hope Wolf

It’s not everyday that the objects and oddities of home decor make up a blockbuster exhibition, but that’s what Dr. Hope Wolf achieved in curating Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion at Two Temple Place in 2017. As a lecturer in Modernism at Sussex, she co-directs the Centre for Modernist Studies with Helen Tyson. Working on both literary and visual modernism affords her an interdisciplinary perspective on modernist movements. This viewpoint culminated once more in ‘A Tale of Mother’s Bones: Grace Pailthorpe, Reuben Mednikoff and the Birth of Psychorealism’ at the De La Warr Pavilion, curated with Rosie Cooper, Martin Clark and Gina Buenfeld. This exhibition brought together the life the works of Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, two psychoanalytic and Surrealist makers, poets, artists, and life writers. With the show due to reopen at Camden Arts Centre in April of this year, and with Hope having been commissioned to turn the Sussex Modernism exhibition into a book, Jade French interviews her about curation, expanding the local, and the importance of ‘making’.

Could you say a little more about what caught your eye about Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff?

Working on the Sussex Modernism exhibition meant looking at art and culture with a limited location in mind, which meant I learned about makers I may not otherwise have known about. It’s in that digging around that I came across Grace Pailthorpe, as a footnote to researching other Surrealists. Both her and Mednikoff made a small appearance at the end of the Sussex Modernism show. But their story is so fascinating that I couldn’t help but explore them more. 

For the new exhibition, I want to make available to the public their hugely ambitious research project that they never fully published in their lifetimes. They developed a method of using art to explore their repressed memories, fears and fantasies, and ultimately hoped this method, if embraced by more people, could help to cure violence and oppression and prevent the spreading of what they called the ‘virus of hate’. Their project went on for decades, but it never quite came to fruition. Pailthorpe and Mednikoff had moved to Ninfield, East Sussex, at the end of their lives. That’s just a few miles away from the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill – where I curated the Pailthorpe and Mednikoff show earlier this year. The venue itself is an example of international style modernist architecture, made to provide the urban worker with a space of light and leisure, and the show brought two very different experimental styles of the 1930s together, and two attempts to use art for philanthropic purposes.

Exhibition Catalogue, edited by Hope Wolf with Rosie Cooper, Martin Clark & Gina Buenfeld.

That correlation is interesting between life, art and craft. What is the framework behind calling them ‘makers’ rather than ‘artists’? 

I really like the term ‘makers’ because it allows for a certain interdisciplinary or intermedia approach. A lot of the creative work I’m interested in is by people who work across different media and form. Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were painters, poets, life writers, and worked across genres like landscape, portrait and the abstract. Some of the most famous communities in Sussex also work across media, the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston being the best known. I am interested in how modernist communities in Sussex experimented not only with art but also with life – and craft objects tend to pertain to both. 

Does that suggest an artist isn’t one thing but many things?

In both the exhibitions, I think about how the practice of everyday life is something that is as worthy of analysis as fine art. There’s not a hierarchy in the minds of many of the makers I am interested in about which is more important. You can show that in an exhibition through how you display artworks and artefacts. Paintings can go in display cases, archival objects on walls. When we look in a vitrine, we are often expecting to look at documentary material, to find information or facts. When we look at walls we might expect to gaze in wonder. I like the idea of inverting that relationship and it makes sense with Pailthorpe and Mednikoff because everything they do is research.

With Sussex Modernism, I wanted a show that was full of fine artworks but also ephemera, furniture, craft objects, writing. There was music in the show as well. I wanted to show the way in which the ideas, especially the political ideas, translated across media but also impacted upon not only the way the which they made artwork but the way in which they lived.

The phrase ‘domestic experimentation’ caught my eye in one of the reviews of the exhibition. I wondered if you could expand a little on what this means for an artist?

It’s interesting how many types of ‘domestic’ there are, which can be seen in comparisons of the different artists’ houses in Sussex. The most famous example might be at Charleston, a place famous for its furniture and painted walls. It is helpful, I think, to compare that with Farley Farm, home of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, a sort of Surrealist version of Charleston. Then you might also think what was happening at West Dean, another Surrealist house, and the different houses of makers belonging to the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling – it goes on. There’s the craft at Charleston compared to Bentley Wood, the home Serge Chermayeff built for himself, which has a much sleeker style.

Original rare war-time issue of Country Life magazine for October 26th 1940.

Does the home reflect the artistic movement? 

You could think here about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: she describes how women express their creativity on the walls of their homes if they are not given an outlet in public galleries and other institutions. But with Charleston, it was not only Vanessa Bell who was decorating, but Duncan Grant and other members of the family too. It was a collaborative process.

One thing that strikes me about some of the modernist homes in Sussex is that you can really see the influences from overseas and Europe manifested on the walls. At Charleston, you see copies of European artists, and the house is full of non-Western artefacts too. Were they trying to create a non-British enclave in the middle of the Home Counties? Then you begin to think, how separate did they feel themselves to what was outside their door? What was the relationship between modernists and local landscapes and people. If you compare the homes in Sussex, you can see the different ideas modernists had about what a locale should be and how far an artist should engage with her immediate context, which shifts across time as well.

It’s almost having that space and freedom to live within your political affiliations, which might not even correspond to your actions outside of those walls? Are there any parallels to Morris’ Red House, any places where the mass produced might sit with those political ideals?

There was an attempt by many modernists to make their decorative items available to others – I’m thinking here of the productions of the Omega Workshops and Eric Ravilious’ ceramics, for instance. At the same time, they were still making interventions on the walls of their own homes, and in churches too, which are not easily transferable. You get the sense they can’t stop making, they create and experiment on any surface they can get their hands on. They’re creating worlds for themselves. Victoria Rosner thinks about the home as a laboratory for modernist making, which is a provocative and useful idea. It becomes a place where you can test out ideas.

What happens in the transference of bringing those domestic items into the gallery space? 

To some extent, if you look at a domestic item in a museum house, it remains a domestic item. You see it as an object of use and function. In the gallery, it depends how you curate, but it can definitely encourage a different kind of seeing. Svetlana Albam’s Museum As a Way of Seeing and Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on Resonance and Wonder, were texts in my mind as I was installing Duncan Grant’s ‘Leda and the Duck’ box in Two Temple Place. When you see it in Charleston it’s up against a wall so you can’t see every side and it remains, I think, a linen box. At Two Temple Place, I put it on a plinth under perspex, which immediately makes it an object to be looked at carefully and scrutinised. I also put it alongside fine art works like his ‘Venus and Adonis’, which meant that audiences may have looked closer at it and asked questions about whether they could appreciate it as an artwork.

That, in itself, poses a challenge in some ways. Because it’s an object for use it shows signs of wear and tear. I’m really interested in that. The objects I’m often drawn to are ones that show the traces of the people who used them and how they were used. Objects which are damaged in some way – why are they broken? I am interested in the stories that can be told about an object. This can be tricky for some audiences because some will want a perfectly preserved blockbuster work but because I’m interested in the life of the object then I might choose something that is perhaps not so highly prized. 

Exhibition catalogue, Sussex Modernism: Retreat & Rebellion by Hope Wolf.

Were there any objects in the show that surprised visitors?

It’s interesting seeing what people are drawn to – and I have found social media a helpful resource for getting a sense of how people responded to the show. It’s not a perfect system of evidence, especially as visitors were told not to take photos. But it’s great for research to see what visitors who did take photos photographed. I think a lot of people came because they were interested in Bloomsbury or Surrealism, or some of the Ditchling artists. But hopefully the show introduced them to makers they had not heard of before, or helped to recontexualise the better-known names. Perhaps it helped them to think about why one set of modernists are really well known and another set are relatively disregarded.

I gave certain makers and networks more coverage than they usually get. Eric Ravilious is having a moment but there’s been less on Peggy Angus, who was within his network  (or he was within hers). So, it was great to give her a bit more space in the show. Similarly with Lee Miller, I enjoyed drawing attention to her Sussex experience. People would know and value her earlier photography and artistic work as a model but her late work has often been overlooked, with the Farley Farm pictures seen more as documentary. It’s about giving that kind of work more attention.

The Mae West lips sofa became quite a focal point of the Sussex Modernism exhibition – any thought on why that particular piece of furniture struck such a chord with the audience?

It’s a very well-known object that people might have seen before, or seen copied and mass produced, but they might have been surprised to learn that it was made for a rural Sussex context – for the home of Edward James. Secondly, the juxtaposition between the sofa and the venue was, I think, rather arresting. Two Temple Place is a fascinating 19th Century venue, a kind of dream house (like West Dean, like Farley Farm…) in its way. William Waldorf Astor’s literary fantasies are carved into the wood of the building. It’s interesting to see how femininity is represented, with lots of chaste female figures. It’s then quite jarring to put the lips of a sex symbol in that venue.

Does looking at the local produce a microcosm of modernism and the movements it’s associated with? 

I am really interested in the assumptions and mythologies that are attached to the word ‘local’. Once you look microcosmically, even myopically, at a place, you begin to see that there are many connections with the wider world. Modernists are really attuned to that. Edward Burra is  very sensitive to this, when he is looking around the quaint village of Rye and thinking about commodities and global capitalism. What I would say is that the project makes you look a bit closer at the near at hand. It’s not the case that if one travels around Sussex one meets one type of person – both then and now. I was trying to show how important the emigre was to the arts in the region and how much of the built environment is made by emigre artists. I would say the local and global intersect to such an extent that the categories begin to dissolve. 

Exhibition view, Lower Gallery, Sussex Modernism.

How do the paradigms of place, countryside and privileging the city play out in the work you look at? 

I’m interested in how different artists constructed an idea of their context in order to create or preserve their own identities. If a maker wants to present themselves as cutting edge then they might well present the countryside as backwards, to amplify their own contrary energies. Some modernists in Sussex did do that but not all. Sussex can be ambivalently presented or idealised, and to some extent their attitudes to place depend on what their political ideas were. Sussex is not one thing, and the artwork produces ideas of the region. 

I think the Sussex Modernism exhibition enabled me to think about not only the way city and country are mythologised but also other dichotomies. London and the provinces, early and late modernism, art and craft all play a part. There’s something about Sussex Modernism feeling like an oxymoronic title which allowed me to explore how certain oppositions are constructed. The danger with the project is that you also have to try not to reproduce those myths and oppositions yourself. I’m thinking about this kind of problem as I develop the Sussex Modernism exhibition into a book. I will be interested in what I am able to convey in written form that I could not easily present through curation – and vice-versa. 

Interview by Jade French

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