Staged at the Grafton Galleries in London, the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1910 and the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition two years later were both curated by Roger Fry, who played a key role in shaping the path of art during the early 20th century in England. Fry actively supported and led the Bloomsbury group artists, and his two exhibitions on Post-Impressionism not only brought prominent works from Europe to Britain, but also helped form a trajectory in the public’s mind between artists like Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh, and Picasso and Matisse. In the latter of the two exhibitions, works by contemporary British artists were to be included beside these European paintings. Many critics found it difficult to deal with the idea that Impressionism was even by this stage an old-fashioned movement, and one that had already been surpassed by new artistic styles. Words used to describe the exhibition included ‘horror,’ ‘madness,’ ‘infection,’ ‘sickness of the soul,’ ‘anarchy’ and ‘evil’. However, many forward-thinking proponents of modern art dismissed this reaction as an unfortunate display British ignorance of the latest developments in art on the continent, and a reluctance to progress. These two exhibitions organised by Fry were crucial in accelerating the level of experimentation in British art, and in creating a public that was receptive to these new forms.
Organised by the British Surrealist Group, which included Henry Moore, David Gascoyne, Roland Penrose and Emmy Bridgwater, the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 was held at the New Burlington Galleries, and brought a collection of renowned European works together with those by British artists. Over 390 paintings, sculptures and objects by 68 artists were chosen, including works by Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and Henry Moore which were exhibited alongside those of their contemporaries Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico and Marcel Duchamp. The exhibition marked Surrealism’s explosion onto the British art scene, and showed the interests common to artists with surrealist inclinations across Europe. Not only did it give the British public the opportunity to view works from the great Surrealists, it also put the artists on show, many of who gave lectures and talks. Perhaps the most memorable was Dalí’s talk, delivered while wearing a deep-sea diver’s suit, especially given he had to be cut free after beginning to suffocate.
Curated by Bryan Robertson at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in August 1956, this exhibition’s innovative approach brought together collaborative works by a variety of architects, painters, sculptors and other artists in a space where they were able to install their pieces in unorthodox and inventive ways. The exhibitors, most of whom were either aligned with the ICA Independent Group or the Constructivists, worked together in 12 separate groups to form their own responses to what contemporary art meant to them. This is Tomorrow was significant in the way in which it both influenced and foreshadowed the course of the British Pop Art, bringing to light issues that were to become central notions in the movement. As the architectural critic Reyner Banham commented in his 1979 documentary: ‘This is modern art to entertain people, modern art as a game people will want to play.’ The collaborative process, the playful and audience-involving manner of display and the notion of creating an environment inside the art gallery characterised the groundbreaking nature of this show. Its influence can still be felt today both in art and art museum curatorship.
No other 20th century exhibition in Britain caused quite a media sensation quite like the Royal Academy’s aptly named show Sensation. Opened in September 1997, it generated conflict and public furore from the outset. Featuring works drawn solely from Charles Saatchi’s collection of contemporary art, many queried why such a renowned gallery as the Royal Academy would contribute to increasing the price and the validity of the works on display by generating increased public interest. More shocking still was the inclusion of provocative works, mostly from the Young British Artists, or YBAs. Sensation challenged and toyed with the boundaries of what it was acceptable to represent in art, and the manner in which these ideas could be presented. The inclusion of images of the Virgin Mary and the murderer Myra Hindley, as well as controversial sculptures by the Chapman brothers, generated varied responses from the public: pickets, protest groups and even acts of vandalism being attempted on the building and artworks. There was strong opposition from within the Royal Academy too; three Academicians – Michael Sandle, Craigie Aitchison and Gillian Ayres – resigned in protest.
Curated by Penelope Curtis (now director of Tate Britain), Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy was an attempt to acknowledge a British renaissance in the art form. Being presented with a vast range of works by more than 120 sculptors allowed visitors to sample an eclectic range. Most artists were represented by a single sculpture – a point that some critics sited as a weakness of the exhibition, but the show was nevertheless a huge success in terms of generating interest and awareness. Influences were also brought to the fore through the inclusion of non-western sculpture that had been studied by important figures including Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. In addition, parallels were drawn between contemporary artists on an international scale, with works by Jeff Koons juxtaposed with those by Damien Hirst. The result saw British artists placed on an equal footing with prominent sculptors from around the world.