Maclean reveals the idiosyncrasies, vanities and ordinary awfulness of her subjects. Mondrian, for example, a usually austere figure – with his dark suit and small round glasses, his studio painted white with red squares like one of his canvases, and his strict diet, keeping starch and protein separate – is seen here scribbling the words “mince pie” at the top of his diet manual. He liked to go to nightclubs in London, but was a bad dancer; Miriam Gabo used to dread her turn with him.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about the modernist masterpiece that became known as the Isokon Building. It was the brainchild of engineer Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly, who wanted to build a block of flats in Hampstead which would provide semi-communal living. They enlisted the help of the dashing architect Wells Coates to build it; predictably, Molly soon started an affair with him. The pure white building, with a shape rather reminiscent of an ocean liner, had external walls made of concrete, a material which had never been used in housing in Britain before.
At its worst, 30s Hampstead was a tepid version of its European inspirations, a bit mimsy and mithering, its disputes and debates somewhat petty. I wish that Maclean’s book did more to change that perception, but she doesn’t give much direction or insight to her material, which therefore reads as a succession of anecdotes. Some are fabulous, others are not (“Irina remembered making jam and being swarmed by wasps”). Which is a shame: at the very least this was an exceptional bunch of people, who deserve a more illuminating treatment than they get here.
I loved these little details, in which the Hampstead set flare beautifully into life. The Sunday afternoon salons at which they dined on macaroni cheese and stewed apples; Naum Gabo lending Mondrian a pair of slippers; Hepworth despairing of her studio being a “jumble of children… rock sculptures and washing”; Gropius’s wife, Ise, walking about in a black rayon cape; that the floor of Ede’s living room “shone like the back of an old fiddle”; that Moore had a habit of collecting twigs, stones, bones and shells which he left lying about his flat for his imagination to curl around – all of this is far more nourishing than those dusty sections of the book that dissect manifestos or who hung which picture at which exhibition.
Maclean’s real interest is in the art rather than the artists, the working life rather than the private one. As an introduction to 1930s modernism, Circles and Squares is terrific; as a biography it is — for want of a better word — a tad abstract. The human cost of these restructured lives is swept under the boldly coloured carpet. Nicholson was not in fact a lovely pebble but a complex man who left his first wife and children without, apparently, a second thought when he hooked up with Hepworth. Read, meanwhile, disappeared from his life in Edinburgh “without a trace”.
This book is full of entertaining snapshots: the poor penguins of London Zoo suffering bacterial “bumblefoot” caused by cutting their feet on the concrete ramps of the modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin; the photograph taken by Moholy- Nagy of “Eton caviar” — banana, ice, cream and wafers; the breaking of a democratic beer bottle instead of bourgeois champagne against the Isokon building to mark its opening in July 1934; the poet Dylan Thomas serving “boiled string” tea to visitors at the International Surrealist Exhibition and asking if they took it weak or strong; Paul Nash writing to his lover, Eileen Agar, calling her his starfish and longing to taste the brine of her “cool wet mouth just once again”.
Maclean is the perfect biographer — self-effacing, non-judgmental, unobtrusive. She writes in a clipped, efficient style, curiously of the period, and handles well the vast array of characters and events. Rather than inferring or assuming, she quotes her biographical subjects directly. This approach gives particularly stark voice to the sheer waste of talented, educated women stuck looking after children and running households while their art-school contemporaries — husbands and lovers — take centre stage.
Circles and Squares is an enjoyable book, though it will probably be most enjoyable to those who already know a fair bit about the period. It is rather short on spirited advocacy and is unlikely to win over many converts to the art of the Hampstead modernists, especially among readers, British and otherwise, who are still repelled by herbivores. With the main text running to fewer than 250 pages, many of them filled with photographs, it is a good deal too short to convey much of an impression of the personalities involved. But it does evoke a sense of an era in which it was bliss to be alive, and in love, and bursting with creativity and the possibilities of making life and art in new ways.
This is a splendid subject, as ready for satire as academic analysis, but there are some problems with Caroline Maclean’s new book of very long paragraphs. First, she launches into ‘Ben (Nicholson), Barbara (Hepworth, his second wife) and Winifred (his neglected first wife)’ without really explaining why we should be interested in the first place. Second, her project has been rather upstaged by last year’s Bauhaus centenary books, notably those of Fiona MacCarthy and Alan Powers, who have already treated this subject well. And indeed, in 2012 Charles Darwent’sMondrian in London told us perhaps even more than we wanted to know about this episode. Circles and Squares is impressively researched, but, like many art historians, Maclean is reluctant to sacrifice abundant material to tell a good story. Data is not the same as information.