REVIEW | Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel – Courtauld Gallery, London

Vorticism is one of those movements that, in my experience, very rarely receives public attention. In fact, the only major figures who probably come up more often than others is Wyndham Lewis, the short-lived movement’s co-founder, and perhaps David Bomberg.

The Courtauld’s exhibition on Helen Saunders’ drawings and watercolours, one of only two female members in the movement, is fascinating. She appears to have started working in the avant-garde abstract style before moving towards a more post-Impressionist aesthetic inspired by artists like Cezanne.

As someone whose taste for semi-abstraction is admittedly quite narrow, several watercolours from Saunders’ Vorticist period grabbed my attention.

One striking piece of a bending figure – perhaps a malevolent puppeteer – was trimmed into an irregular heptagon by the artist herself, compressing the pictorial space to draw our eyes further to the figure’s arching form.

In another, Cabaret, a pair of anthropomorphic double basses perform against a backdrop of bright spotlights (bare paper), with a conductor on the left-hand side.

Finally, I admire the way little figures form a leading line towards the face of a ‘giant’ in Vorticist Composition, Yellow and Green (formerly Gulliver in Lilliput). Saunders use of colour contrasts and negative spaces delightfully (and dizzyingly) guides your eyes across the picture plane, each time noticing more and more brush hairs sticking to the surface.

These were part of a major gift in 2016 to the Courtauld by Saunders’ descendant Brigid Peppin, which resulted in the largest public collection of her work.

To add to this, the fruit of the Courtauld’s Painting Pairs project led to Saunders believed-to-be lost painting Atlantic City to be discovered underneath Wyndham Lewis’ Praxitella (Leeds Art Gallery), which can be seen upstairs in a display of its own.

Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel runs until 29 January at the Courtauld Gallery, London, https://courtauld.ac.uk/

A Modern Masterpiece Uncovered: Wyndham Lewis, Helen Saunders and Praxitella runs until 12 February 2023

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