20th Century and Contemporary, Modern History, Performing Arts

Pacifist Art and Margaret Morris Take Us Above the Battlefield

Inevitably, twentieth-century pacifism, specifically the hippie movement of the 60s, conjures images of flowers, peace signs, and tye-dye. But in Above the Battlefield: Modernism and the Peace Movement in Britain, 1900-1918, Grace Brockington argues that one of the greatest peace movements of the last century occurred at its beginning. Several clubs, societies, and groups emerged during the first decade of the 1900s focused on art and learning. They were similar to Victorian-era lyceums, but the members of these circles also espoused pacifism. Through visual art, theater and dance performances, and writing, the anti-war artists developed what Brockington calls “pacifist modernism.” A cultural revolt, it added new layers to modernism, which is often  better known for its violent aspects.

One such group was the Chelsea artists, based in Chelsea, London around Margaret Morris’s theater. Morris was one of the first major proponents and creators of modern dance in England. Although she trained classically as a ballet dancer, her personal version of teenage rebellion was to invent her own style of modern dance, working with “natural, expressive movement.” After meeting Raymond Duncan, the brother of American modern dancer Isadora Duncan, Morris also began to incorporate Duncan’s interpretation of ancient Greek dance. Later in her life, she opened a modern dance school for girls, creating a syllabus that incorporated everything from breathing techniques to new dance styles.



While in London, Morris opened a theatre in Chelsea “to compensate for London’s lack of café culture,” attracting pacifist artists. The Margaret Morris Club, a politically defiant set, worked from the theatre in 1914. Regular visitors to the club included many of London’s leading avant-garde figures, including Edward Wadsworth and Jacob Epstein. The theatre provided a venue, advertising, and formal meetings for the Chelsea artists, they continued to work outside the group as well. They invented new forms of artistic expression, including “dance poetry,” while Morris herself developed a system of dance notation. While Morris claimed in her memoirs that she did not allow political discussion in her club, other club members’ accounts suggest a “politically charged atmosphere.” The artists openly resisted the reactionary sentiment in their environment as the events of the Great War unfolded. Most importantly, the group proved that British art and experimentalism did not fade during the war.


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