Impressions of continental art

28th February 2008 at 00:00

MODERN ART IN BRITAIN 1910-1914 Barbican Art Gallery London EC1. Michael Clarke sees how British painters felt about Europe

Although this exhibition aims to reveal the influence on British artists of major shows of continental avant-garde painting and sculpture (from "Manet and the Post-lmpressionists" staged in 1910 by Roger Fry to Frank Rutter's 1913 "Post-Impressionists and Futurists") it does not attempt to reconstruct these momentous events. That would be impossible, anyway. What it does instead is assemble British responses to the continental art that inspired it.

This, inevitably, reduces the impact. The absence here of seminal pictures such as Gauguin's "Vision after the Sermon" and Matisse's "The Red Studio", made all the more keen by their appearance in such minor paintings as Spencer Gore's "Gauguins and Connoisseurs at the Stafford Gallery" and Fry's "The Matisse Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition", is not only regrettable but possibly misleading. particularly so when the room registering Matisse's influence is dependent upon two very subdued canvases painted several years after these by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Nevertheless, whatever reservations one may have about either the intention or realisation of this exhibition, it is both a rewarding and enlightening experience. Placing Cezanne next to Fry, Gauguin next to Getler, Van Gogh next to Harold Gilman and Charles Ginner, and Picasso next to Wyndham Lewis and Gaudier Brzeska is revealing, even if the British suffer in all these confrontations. But when the continental artists are represented by less than their best work as are Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, then David Bomberg and C R W Nevinson can appear their equals. With minor painters like Friesz and Andre Lhote, the gap closes further.

Without exception, the subject matter in all cases is traditional, with portraits, still-lifes, interiors and landscapes dominating. What distinguishes most of the work is the varying interpretation and this is the underpinning theme of the day-long workshops for GCSE and A-level students led by a team that includes professional artists and, unusually, one who is teacher-trained. Exploring organic and geometric structures as well as differences in scale, tone and colours, they combine the security of a familiar starting point with the encouragement to extend formal vocabulary.

The workshops for primary and secondary teachers are also practically based, following much the same pattern as those for students, but with consideration given to how the exhibition and the issues it raises might be used to generate activities back in school. Experienced in conjunction with the Education Department's private view, teachers might very easily identify a whole term's programme, perhaps inspired by Ginner's and Gore's mural designs for the Cave of the Golden Calf night club.

Until May 26. For further information, telephone 0171 382 7105

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