Saturday 16 July 2016


(You guessed it, another art exhibition reviewed after it closes!)

Modern Art In A Modern World

Let's start the way the show does, with the 1951 Festival of Britain. Which showcased important sculptors, among them Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein. (All mentioned in past posts.) But that was only the half of it. It was possibly the closest we Brits came to the Year Zero moment in art, as experienced in Russia after the revolution of 1917.

That might sound not stretched so much as fanciful, akin to saying the nearest thing we had to the Tatlin tower was the Blackpool illuminations. Yet the comparison is there. Art didn't just become intertwined with politics, which implies two separate elements working closely together. Instead there was more of a fusion, the disaffected bohemian replaced by the cultural worker and social engineer. And if we never got quite that far, this was our closest shot.

The War years had disrupted traditional class divisions. But it was with the immediate post-war era that those changes became cemented, that it became clear things weren't going to slip back into the way they were. (The documentary 'Spirit of '45' recounts this in a more-or-less accurate way.) To generalise we could say that society came to be seen as an association of people, so it should be run by those people and for their benefit as much as possible. (An idea which now seems to us blindingly obvious and hopelessly impossible.)

And the Festival of Britain was the point where those changes became manifest in art and design. As I said after the recent Barbara Hepworth show, “living in a newly invented world, they needed a newly invented art to go with it.” The show describes it as “a new art which celebrated the general public, the hopes and ambitions of a new era”.

And while Modernism had once seemed entirely foreign, a continental import as strange and indigestible as their food, large sections of the public took to this new art. Hugh Casson, Director of Architecture at the Festival, commented “we did not see why the exhibition should be either highbrow or lowbrow. We believe in concertina brows”. Prior to the Festival, a 1948 open-air exhibition of sculpture in Battersea, it's poster listing the artists alphabetically in bold Modernist type, allowed punters to touch the works and was popular enough for there to be six follow-ups. (The last in 1966.) There were two touring exhibitions of Contemporary British Sculpture, in '57 and '58.

Modernism had set itself the task of making art direct and accessible again, works you didn't need a degree in Classics to decode. And the response to its efforts was almost invariably “I don't get it”, “what is this weird stuff?” or “I'm calling the police”. Here artists were producing art for “the people” which was actually appreciated by people. Which is pretty remarkable in itself.

And the open-air busting the bounds of the conventional gallery setting shouldn't be underestimated as a factor. Sculpture was being transformed the same time as re-sited, the two went hand in hand. “If sculpture is nowadays the Cinderella of the arts”, said David Sylvester that year, “the Festival of Britain has provided her with glass slippers, a carriage and six white horses.”

Two examples should hopefully convey this (both above). The photograph of the Constructivist-looking 'Skylon' (by Powell and Moya), shows it pointing straight upwards from the South Bank. An elegant exclamation mark, feet in the world of now, head raised boldly to the stars. It's unclear whether it's sculpture, architecture or science fiction prop. While Peter Lazlo Peri's 'Sunbathers', hung on a wall near the entrance to the Festival, is snapped with heads peering down on it's figures. They're both invigorating images, suggesting new perspectives ahead. And in both cases the work gets much of it's impact from it's environment, from where it's situated.

If we're going to bust the myth of individual artistic genius and insist artworks can only be part of their surrounding society, then that must include the system of patronage which allows their creation. Change the way they're paid for and you change the works. And as the Illustrated London News points out, as quoted in the exhibition, “the Government today has perforce become the big patron of the arts; in the past rich individuals, princes and the church fulfilled this function.” (8/7/67) Notably, it was in 1946 that the Arts Council was created. (By John Maynard Keynes, no less.)

To quote again from my Hepworth review: “...the new taste for public projects proved both a context and a market for large, site-specific sculpture. Once a hospital might have hung in it's lobby a broad oil of its generous benefactor, for the rest of us to walk respectfully beneath. The creation of institutions such as the NHS allowed for sculpture to celebrate the doctor or surgeon, or perhaps just the idealised human form.... like the NHS, Hepworth sees art as playing a public role.”

It's true those patrons could also be corporate. Hepworth's 'Winged Figure' 1957, above) adorned the side of John Lewis' in Oxford Street, Geoffrey Clarke's 'The Spirit of Electricity' (1958/61) the Thorn Electrical Industries building and Dorothy Anna's now gone 'Expanding Universe' the Bank of England. However, as they conformed to the same overall aesthetic, the message they gave was that the corporations could also be benevolent and public-spirited. After all, they funded art the way a public body would. In each example the sculpture is outside the building, part of public space, not in a central lobby.

Moreover, art wasn't just in sculpture parks or adorning central London headquarters – sometimes it would even come to you. Whereas today Councils aren't given enough money for even the most basic amenities, back then they had a budget for public art. The exhibition focuses on Harlow as one of the many post-war new towns, begun in 1947 and designed to be “a Modernist Florence”. No less than sixty-five sculptures were sited there.

As an example of the post-war focus on planning, its Chief Architect Fred Gillard refers to it as being “like a motor car or a sewing machine”, as a component of parts. Once towns just grew, the only question being whether they did so freely or within controls and limits. Now they were to be planned from scratch, with art included as one of the amenities. Urban planning and an interest in social space go hand in hand. Without this, every building is a separate unit, and the spaces inbetween somewhat like the spaces between words in a sentence - necessary but unimportant.

The role of artist, architect and engineer often overlapped. William Mitchell's wall for the Lea Valley Water Company, in 1964, (above) was made through 'faircrete', a combination of concrete and modeller's clay. This innovation allowed sculptural reliefs to be created in modular form, the better to cover large areas. They were advertised, rather wonderfully, as “sculpture by the yard”. Like the combination of 'artistic' and 'industrial' materials, the result looks modern and traditional at the same time, recalling Nazcal symbols or cave art.

Of course once you start to ask what went into those plans or how those roles overlapped, divisions started to appear. One view was that “the architecture was the art”, that to add a statue to it post-hoc was to suggest it was previously incomplete. The 'This Is Tomorrow' exhibition of 1956 quoted architect James Stirling: “why clutter our buildings with pieces of sculpture when the architect can make his medium so exciting that the need for sculpture can be done away with?” (Something which could easily have been said by a Soviet Constructivist.)

While sculptor Franta Belsky took a less utopian tack: “There's a need for art in today's towns. The economics of production force up dehumanised, machine-made boxes.” Here we need art as a salve. Like that beer after work, it's something which makes daily life bearable.

There was something genuinely egalitarian in this new world of planning, but at the same time something paternalistic which tipped into condescention. And it's art did not escape this. Photos repeatedly show a child looking up at an oversize sculpture (see above), suggesting a parachute drop of high culture in the low spaces. No-one involved would have thought of this as propaganda art. Yet part of the project was putting it in the path of impressionable minds in order to impress them. The public needed educating and improving, and sculpture was a less laboursome method than broadcasting Elgar from loudspeakers to housing estates.

Which was perhaps inevitable. The post-war consensus hadn't eliminated the class system, so much as brokered a kind of truce. Which left the few still deciding things for the many, just with an added obligation to consider their welfare. Inevitably this opened the door to expertise, and to bureaucracy.

Back to Angst

But the artist as social engineer couldn't last forever, and soon the disaffected bohemians were back. How could it be otherwise? If the next generation of artists were to continue with the universalised public art of Moore and Hepworth they would merely have been imitative of them. And Modernism simply wasn't built that way.

Rather, it existed in perpetual opposition to the orthodox and accepted. The Russian Futurist Manifesto had been titled 'A Slap In the Face of Public Taste' and spoke of the poets' right to “an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time”. You knocked the art of the generation before off its comfortable plinths, and in upsetting it you sought to upset everyone around it. That was just how it worked.

And besides if those post-war gains had been delivered, didn't that just expose how timid they really were? They weren't the 'socialism' they were so often labelled, so much as a more mitigated version of capitalism. Most people still left their domestic units in the morning to take their allotted place at the production line or in their work cubicle, perhaps now passing a modernist sculpture on the way. It art wasn't arresting, if it just blended into this bland world, then what was the point of that? The post-war consensus was at once too inadequate and too naturalised, simultaneously taken for granted and stultifying.

And it was this which took us into a strange paradox. For all of my adult life political battles have largely been defensive, about keeping for example the NHS in the face of pro-market “reforms”. Which was, and remains, completely the correct thing to do. But even as we fight those fights we shouldn't forget that the post-war consensus was first challenged from our side. It was never what we really wanted. Just what we could get.

Given all this, the surprising thing isn't that art goes back to expressing angst and alienation. The surprising thing is that, so comprehensive had the institutions become towards creating publicly funded art, that this new wine simply pours into the old bottles. The most private art came to appear in the most public settings. Many of the artists connected to what became known as the Geometry of Fear group, (sometimes 'pylon art') such as Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick, had first been exhibited in the Festival of Britain.

Michael Neyland's bleakly existential 'City' looks something like the Tzar's wedding cake image, balanced on the shoulders of workers, but instead of a neat hierarchy a series of interchangeable cells in various stages of dissaray – tower block as existential prison. It's one of the unlikeliest contenders for public art by some margin, but at that time that was where the funding lay so that's what it became. (Alas I couldn't find an image of this on-line.)

But of course the new wine would explode the old bottles eventually. And by the late Sixties the post-war consensus was already straining. The poster for the 1968 'New British Sculpture' exhibition in Bristol (above) played on this, using a black-and-white photo of cops examining a bright yellow abstract sculpture, like a corpse at a crime scene. A proposed City Sculpture Project in 1972, found the participating artists “made challenging objects”, which came to be much criticised and even vandalised. 

The meeting of minds between Modernist artist and the people at large had become a headbutt all over again, and they soon retired to their opposite corners. William Turnbull was to comment “the problem with public sculpture is with the public – not the sculpture”. Warren Mitchell noted “the phone literally stopped ringing with British commissions in 1974.”

Modernist Heritage?

The show talks about this art's “value as part of our post-war heritage”, and ends with boards displaying works both already lost and under threat. Indeed, curated by Heritage England, this is the show's raison d'etre. Trevor Tennant's 'New Horizons' wall relief was added to the bright open-plan lobby of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 1963. Yet a telling photo in the exhibition shows how it came to be almost entirely obscured by a vending machine. Aren't they right? Shouldn't we try to push back that vending machine?

Yet after the Festival of Britain, the Skylon and many of the other works, having performed their function, were simply melted down. It recalls Owen Hatherley's fine polemic 'Militant Modernism', “a defence of Modernism against its defenders... it attempts to reclaim a revolutionary modernism against its absorption into the heritage industry and the aesthetics of the luxury flat”.

Once people had faith in the future, had invested themselves in the notion that by working together we could make something better than the present. Now, in the blackest of ironies, all we can do is feel nostalgic for that. Can we really preserve a modernist public sculpture, the way we would a Tudor cottage?

With Lynn Chadwick's 'Trigon' (1961) we see a cast of the sculpture itself look resplendent in the gallery. But seen in situ, in a photo of Harlow Broadwark, it sits sadly and anonymously between a McDonalds and a 99p store. (The photo above isn't from the show, but is similar.) Compare that to a photo of it in it's heyday (also above). Then picture the proverbial Japanese soldier on his remote island, not knowing the war is over. Now imagine him transplanted to downtown Tokyo, surrounded by the signs of multinationals, but still with no idea the war is over.

One video (from 1955) shows a contemporary reaction to Belsky's 'The Lesson', newly erected on a housing estate. Though the work itself is representational and unchallenging, the reaction is almost entirely negative. (Most insisting the money could have been spent on more vital things, though it would be interesting to have that unpicked further.)

While another features a recent campaign in Tower Hamlets to prevent the sale of Moore's 'Draped Seated Woman', (above) nicknamed “Old Flo” by locals. Bob and Roberta Smith's sign painting 'I Tried To Save Old Flo' (2013) quotes a local: “if we sell it we might as well sell ourselves”. And of course that's just what is happening. To come across a public sculpture in the street and see only a saleable commodity on the art market, that's neoliberalism in a nutshell. And yet, while the work was saved, it was moved to a sculpture park while the housing estate it was originally placed in was demolished. Do we count that as a victory?

The two videos aren't about the same artwork in the same location. Yet couldn't they be? Couldn't locals have originally objected to the imposition of an interloper in their midst, who over time become familiar and finally over-familiar? Which fits the changing way politicians like Tony Benn came to be viewed over the same time period, passing from dangerous extremist to valiant stalwart. Increased respect was simply a sign of decreased effectiveness. The art existing in a physical context matched the way it fitted a political context, it was part of a new world being built. To retain just the art is to retain only a token, an exotic memory of an era so far away it's almost a fairy tale. We don't want to save the works. We want to rekindle the era that created them.

The benefits of getting past heritage thinking are clear enough. We've become conditioned to see art as some tension between individual self-expression on the one hand, and commodification and marketability on the other. You want to make art that is you, yet you also need it to sell. This era of public art, however limited it may have been in practice, makes it clear that those things aren't in opposition at all - but merely two heads on the same hydra. Both need lopping off if art, or for that matter society, is ever going to flourish. 

Yet even when we see examples in front of us it can be hard for us to think our way back to that. If it's hard for that soldier, standing like a sentry in the shopping centre to perceive the war is over it can be as hard for us to remember what it was like when it raged.

Gallery goers were able to pin up their thoughts at the end. I'll let the last words go to one of them...

Coming soon! A non-out-of-date exhibition review... no, honest...

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