Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to many Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.


Related links

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

Catherine Merridale’s book Lenin on the Train describes the journey by sealed train which Lenin and 30 or so of his Bolshevik supporters made across Germany, by boat across the Baltic to Sweden, across the border into Finland and then south to St Petersburg, in April 1917.

The whole thing was laid on and funded by the German High Command in the hope that returning this noted troublemaker to the febrile political atmosphere of wartime Russia, only a few weeks after the Tsar had been toppled in the February revolution, might lead to even worse political disarray, and that this might cause Russia to abandon the war altogether, thus allowing Germany to concentrate her forces in the West.

In the chapter titled ‘Gold’ Merridale speculates on just how extensive German support for the Bolsheviks in fact was. Was laying the train, passports, visas, food and so on just the beginning? Did the Germans also siphon money to the Bolsheviks to fund their party newspaper, Pravda, and their campaigning leaflets, to pay for meetings and venues?

The evidence is murky, but underlying the whole enquiry is a variation on the Great Man theory of history, namely: if only someone had stopped Lenin getting to Russia, if only he had been arrested at the Finland border (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity to do so) – then maybe the whole Russian Revolution, with the immense worlds of suffering it produced, would never have happened. Maybe it all came down to one man or, at the least, to one small political party – the Bolsheviks.

… versus the hunger for change

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is the massive coffee table book published to accompany last year’s enormous Royal Academy exhibition about the radical, world-changing new art and design which was inspired by the Russian Revolution.

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory. One man didn’t do all this.

At the very least the sheer scale and scope and dynamism of the new movements, which lasted for at least a decade (until Stalin suppressed them in favour of his bland, conventional ‘Socialist Realism’ in the early 1930s) show the enormous hunger for change and for radical, world-changing experimentation, among all the artists, poets, authors, film-makers, craftsmen and designers of 1910s Russia.

Maybe, possibly, the Bolsheviks might not have seized power in October 1917. But the existing unstable dual government couldn’t have continued – somebody would have seized power.

The fact that these outpourings of propaganda films and wallpaper and textiles and ceramics and architecture and completely new styles of graphics and design were welcomed, watched, read and distributed so widely, suggest the Russia as a whole was a society straining at the leash for an incredibly total transformation.

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation, in its bid to catch up with America and Germany.

Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have deployed them just as ruthlessly as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command funded the Bolsheviks, with its corollary, would the Bolsheviks have come to power without the aid of the German High Command – make for interesting reading, and lead to high-level, alternative history-style speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Russia would have undergone some kind of transformative social revolution.


Completely new visual styles

Here is just a tiny sample of the art which featured in the exhibition and which is included in the book. I could add a paragraph or so about each of them, but all of them can be looked up on google. I just want to convey the variety and the energy of the art of the period.

Constructivist art

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

Model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the famous 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Even if Lenin had never lived, and the Bolshevik party never existed, the complete and utter collapse of Russian society, with all its traditions, its religion, its class system, king and aristocracy, its system of land ownership and industrial production, would have triggered an immense social and cultural transformation, regardless.

Artists reflecting these changes would have fallen in line with the discoveries of the other European avant-gardes, in France and especially Germany,  themselves responding to the transforming impact of the new technologies of the day which were driving all Western societies – mass production of ceramics and fabrics, the new popularity of film and radio, the excitement of cars and fast trains – and everywhere the transforming impact of electricity with its ability to power lights in streets and public buildings, as well as driving a whole new world of consumer goods.

My argument is that Russia had reached the edge of collapse, and that seismic change would have happened no matter what the precise alignment of political parties in Russia. Or who the German High Command had funded.


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture @ Sir John Soane’s Museum

In the two-room exhibition space at Sir John Soane’s Museum is an interesting show about five key British architects who were central in the rise of the architectural style known as Postmodernism. This review consists of:

  1. An introduction to Sir John Soane’s Museum
  2. A brief explanation of Modernism and Postmodernism
  3. Notes on the exhibition

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is a little-known treasure trove of art, architecture and antiquities, in central London.

Just a few minutes’ walk from hectic Holborn tube station, down narrow back alleys, you arrive at big, leafy Lincoln’s Inn Fields and here, on the north side of the square, in the centre of a terrace of sober Georgian houses, is Sir John Soane’s Museum, with its surprisingly grand neo-classical facade.

Facade of Sir John Soane's Museum. Photo by John Bridges

Facade of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo by John Bridges

This unusual facade is because Soane was himself an architect in the neo-classical style, and a great collector of art and antiquaries. To quote from Wikipedia:

Soane (1753-1837) made his living as an architect in the neo-classical style and rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. His best-known work was the Bank of England (his work there is largely destroyed), a building which had a widespread effect on commercial architecture. He also designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery whose top-lit galleries were a major influence on subsequent art galleries and museums.

At one point Soane owned three adjoining houses in the square, numbers 12, 13 and 14. He spent much time remodelling the facade of number 13 (now the museum), experimenting with internal design and decoration in all three properties, and also experimenting with ways to hang and display his ever-growing collection of paintings, books and antiquities.

The museum was created by an 1833 Act of Parliament which gifted Soane’s huge collections to the nation on the condition that they be displayed as they were during his lifetime, in the old-fashioned ‘cluttered’ style, with rows of paintings one above the other, and statuary and antiquities crammed higgledy-piggledy together.

In the past ten years the Soane Museum has undergone extensive renovation. But although the trustees have bought the house next door (number 14) and carried out extensive work to create a new Research Library, a room devoted to Soane’s huge collection of drawings (9,000) by the architect Robert Adam, an airy shop, offices and a temporary exhibition space – it is still the clutteredness of the hang which really makes an impression – small, tall, top-lit rooms and staircases absolutely crammed with busts, friezes, sculptures, antiquities and paintings all packed cheek by jowl.

Interior of Sir John Soane's Museum

The interior of Sir John Soane’s Museum

It’s this combination of intense clutteredness with the open and airy nature of some of the upstairs drawing rooms – and, of course, the value and interest of many of the objects, drawings and paintings – which gives Sir John Soane’s Museum its unique and magical atmosphere.

2. Modernism and Postodernism

Modernism

To understand Postmodernism, it helps to understand the modernism it was reacting against.

Modernism in literature, art and architecture from, say, the First World War through to some time in the 1970s, took it as axiomatic that there was one and just One, central avant-garde Movement and, if you were serious, you had to belong to It.

This avant-garde – in architecture in particular – was devoted to getting rid of all ornaments, all decorative features – which were condemned as bourgeois luxuries, fripperies, indulgences – and instead designing stark, angular buildings, which emphasised their harsh functionality.

The Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer Le Corbusier was the lead figure in the 1920s and 30s of the idea that a building is no more than ‘a machine for living in’.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Architects from the German Bauhaus pioneered designs which reduced buildings to the simplest possible shapes, cubes, square windows. Most were left wing if not active communists and saw themselves as building the architecture of a future society in which everyone was equal and lived in well-designed, functional units which could be mass produced and easily assembled.

After the Second World War the style became international. Not only decoration of any type, but even decorative materials were rejected in the name of the most simple, ‘honest’ building methods of the day.

When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, a number of its artists and architects fled abroad. The most famous exile was the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who became head of an architecture school in Chicago. Mies is largely credited with bringing to perfection the principles of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus in a series of soaring steel and glass skyscrapers in ‘the Windy City’.

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

Completely smooth facades made of industrial steel and plate glass are combined with often light and airy atriums or plazas to give a sense of drama, combining the thrusting power of the building with sometimes surprisingly graceful spaces.

He strove toward an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space. He called his buildings ‘skin and bones’ architecture. (Wikipedia)

An alternative variant of this Modernist style was the unrestrained use of concrete in low-rise buildings. During the 1960s this style became known as Brutalism, possibly a reference to Le Corbusier’s use of the French term béton brut, which means ‘raw concrete’ in French, but the term took off because it accurately described the unflinching, uncompromising, in-your-face look and feel of buildings which were made from slabs of raw concrete.

Prime examples are the Hayward Gallery or the Barbican Centre in London. Indeed, the newly-reopened Hayward Gallery shop stocks a surprising number of books celebrating Brutalism around the world. There’s even a book titled Brutal London with maps so you can go on a pilgrimage around the brutalist buildings of London. Harsh, slabby, heavy, undecorated.

The Barbican Centre, London

The Barbican Centre, London

It’s difficult to recapture at this distance in time, but Modernism was strongly flavoured by left-wing politics, with the notion that unnecessary ‘decoration’ was a sign of bourgeois, wealthy elitism, and that all right-minded architects were working for a better world, a new socialist, communist, egalitarian world, whose buildings must be characterised by clarity and simplicity and ‘honesty’ to their materials.

Instead of bourgeois mystification, statues of lions or generals, ornate facades and so on, Modernist buildings should emphasise their functionality – the vast frontages of identical windows in Mies skyscrapers, or the open-to-the-elements staircases, walkways and balconies in Brutalist buildings.

Result: Countless 1960s high-rise blocks of flats. New towns. Ring roads. Shopping centres. Square, featureless, concrete slabs.

Postmodernism

But as is the way with all fashions, people – that is the architects themselves – eventually got fed up with all this plainness, brutality and po-faced, anti-bourgeois rhetoric.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Modernist mindset began to crumble. New architects questioned the need for everything to be grey and joyless, and also the need for there to be only One Dominating Aesthetic, approved by a jury of like-minded straightlaced colleagues.

Why shouldn’t buildings have decorative features? Why did they all have to be made of slate-grey concrete? And why must there only be One Style? Given the possibilities of modern engineering and the wealth of new materials – why not hundreds of styles – why not a different style for every building?

Postmodernist architecture started in America and is often linked with the name of architect Robert Venturi who published a deliberately controversial book Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, which suggested that architects could learn something from the tacky, commercial shops, drive-ins, Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonalds buildings, the big signs and flashing neon, along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Venturi and others began building deliberately garish, playful new buildings in a range of materials.

In Britain, in 1977 critic and architect Charles Jencks wrote The Language of Postmodern Architecture, a book which brought together examples of a wide range of fanciful and colourful buildings being designed by American architects. The book popularised the term ‘Postmodernism’ to a wider audience, and ultimately led to it spreading out to other disciplines in the humanities.

So postmodernism was a conscious revolt against the Modernist architectural orthodoxy which many felt had become stifling and dull. The new young architects thought that new buildings:

  • should reintroduce historical references and quotes from other periods
  • should reference and echo their surroundings, instead of being concrete boxes plonked down willy-nilly
  • should use a variety of materials instead of just concrete (Brutalism) or steel and glass (Internationalism)
  • should use colours – shock horror – yes the whole rainbow of colours, not just slate grey
  • should be funny, witty, ironic and provocative

Suddenly there was no longer One Dominant Orthodox Movement, but the potential for everyone to break free and do their own things.

3. Five postmodernist British architects

This exhibition brings together a range of drawings, sketches, plans, designs, models and images, as well as full-scale replicas, of iconic works by five of the British architects most associated with Postmodernist architecture. The drawings and models are displayed in large wall cabinets and in table-based display cases.

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

The five architects are:

  • Terry Farrell
  • John Outram
  • Jeremy Dixon
  • James Stirling
  • CZWG

Terry Farrell (b.1938)

Farrell is sometimes taken as the pioneer of the new look in Britain. The wall labels explain that postmodernism was, among other things, an end of the utopian, left-wing beliefs of Modernism. Instead of trying to bring about a brave new egalitarian world through buildings, Farrell was one of a number of architects who looked back beyond the concrete wastelands of Modernism, with a view to reconnecting to older styles and, well, having fun.

Why not reference the old architectural motifs of classicism and so on, but done in a new way, with a 1980s aesthetic, the age of shoulder pads and big hairdos, with bright colours and ornamentation?

One of the earliest of the new wave buildings was the TVam headquarters, built next to Camden Lock. It includes unnecessarily bright colours, references a range of older elements, and emphasises its frivolous decorative features. Why not?

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

In terms of cultural references, there were elements of an Egyptian ziggurat (look at the skyline at the back of this photo) and a Japanese tea garden tucked away at the back. The front of the building sported a modernist metal variation on a traditional archway, complete with massive keystone – but made not of stone but of brightly coloured tubular piping. The whole facade curves gently following the curve of the road it stands on, and is end-stopped by huge cutouts of the letters T V a m. And all done in bright brash colours, unafraid of the grey Style Police.

Traditional Modernists hated it and really hated the set of 11 fibre glass rooftop eggcups dotted along the top of the building. Breakfast TV – hard-boiled eggs – geddit? One of them is in the exhibition!

Critics thought it was all tacky, vulgar, superficial and – worst epithet of all – bourgeois!

One of the eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

One of the fibreglass eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

Farrell went on to design what is now one of London’s iconic buildings, the new SIS or MI6 building at Vauxhall on the south bank of the River Thames.

Initially it was just going to be another speculative block of offices, it was only some way into the process that he learned the government was interested in buying it. The exhibition includes a fascinating series of preparatory sketches and drawings. Farrell starts from the premise that a number of other London riverfront buildings make big, grand stylistic statements (for example, Somerset House) and then the drawings show him playing with different combinations of cubes and bulges and curved sections, working towards the stepped faced we see today. It’s really interesting to see architectural ‘creativity’ at work.

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

The exhibition includes models of the building which help you examine the ziggurat-style, stepped detail of the finished building close up, along with one case devoted to the Dr Who, Tardis-style blue entrance doors on the side of the building. The closer you look, the weirder it all gets.

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

John Outram (b.1934)

Outram emerges as the philosopher and visionary of the group. He built the New House, Wadhurst Park (pictured in the show) but it is the models and big plans of some of his unbuilt projects which really dominate. Here is a large colour drawing for a building planned for 200 Victoria Street in London.

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Mad, isn’t it? A long, long way from concrete slabs, in fact it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing the extravagant use of colour and decoration. Most outrageous are the coloured statues of mermaids on the roof, and what appears to be a windmill design off to the top right. The surface seems to be as encrusted with coloured tiling and decorations as an Anglo-Catholic Victorian Church.

And I was tickled to learn that Outram claimed to have invented an entirely new ‘order’ of column, the Robot Order. Anyone interested in columns knows that the ancient Greeks pioneered three ‘orders’ of column – the plain Dorian, the Ionian with a scroll at the top, and the Corinthian which has a capital covered in carved acanthus leaves – which were copied all across Europe from the Renaissance up to the present day.

In his plan you can see that Outram’s ‘robot order’ is characterised by its squat massiveness (the columns actually contain all the building’s services), but most of all by the way that each column is topped off by a massive pair of turbines, spoofing the Doric order. A good example of the jokey, ha-ha, ironic, insider wittiness which Postmodernist architects now felt free to display in their buildings.

Jeremy Dixon (b.1939)

Dixon is represented by the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden, which took from 1989 to 2000. There are a number of plans plus two wooden models of the piazza and one of the Opera House itself, with one wall pulled away to give a cutaway, inside view.

Reading about the evolution of Covent Garden the scheme reminds you of probably the most distinguishing feature of architecture as an ‘art’, which is how mightily collaborative it is, and how very restricted by site, location and environment.

I can paint a painting, write a sonnet, take a photograph more or less anywhere. But most architects are hemmed in a) by the space where the building is to go b) by an extraordinarily complicated web of planning regulations and restrictions. And all of that before c) you get to the self-imposed limitations of fashion, what’s in, what’s new etc.

A lot of people stuck their oar into the Covent Garden redevelopment, from the City of Westminster, through the GLC and the government. Only a decade earlier there had been moves to demolish the entire square and build some nice brutalist flats over it. By the time Dixon became involved in the 1980s it was clear that the existing structures were going to be preserved, but how should they be fronted, completed and styled?

Dixon decided the facades would be allowed to change to reflect their immediate surroundings. Thus a new arcade was created at the north-east of the piazza – where it abuts the Opera House – in order to echo, but not copy, the central arcade designed by Inigo Jones back in the 1630s.

Modern but… echoing the old. Certainly not outfacing it with a vast steel skyscraper nor shaming it with Barbican-style bunkers.

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

James Stirling (1926-1992)

A similar problem confronted James Stirling when he was commissioned to design a building for 1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England. Six huge plans are on display here for the first time (on the far wall in this photo), showing how Stirling sought to ‘relate’ his design to nearby buildings designed by Edward Lutyens and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table. Photo by Gareth Gardner

CZWG

The firm CZWG is named after four students who studied architecture together in the 1960s – Nicholas Campbell, Rex Wilkinson, Roger Zogolovitch and Piers Gough. Next to Farrell, these guys seem to have come up with the most playful designs.

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

The display case devoted to this building, at China Wharf, contains old photos showing the state of the often derelict Victorian warehouses surrounding the site, and makes the case that the structure ‘echoes and reflects’ its surroundings. Maybe. But, the casual viewer might point out, it also has a dirty great big red concrete stuck onto the front.

The wall label says:

The orange concrete facade echoes adjacent warehouse frontages, whilst making reference to Baroque and Art Nouveau design – all to create a new architectural identity for Docklands.

My Dad told me never to trust anyone who says ‘whilst’.

Another CZWG building facing on the Thames is Cascades. This building had a display case devoted to it which was arguably the most interesting in the exhibition because, alongside contemporary photos and ephemera (for example, an invitation to the opening party), were extracts from magazines and newspapers which were virulently critical of this building and of the Postmodern trend it represented.

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades was one of the first new-look builds in Canary Wharf, a twenty-story tower which, to quote the wall label:

emerges at its base through references to Victorian warehouses and the ocean liner aesthetic, before reaching a summit that would not appear out of place in Hong Kong… The sloping side gives the building a dynamic shape absent from a more conventional tower, while allowing the penthouse apartments along that side to have south-facing balconies open to the sky…. Cascades showed how high-rise living could be popular and glamorous.

With its sloping side, its tonal variation from dark to light brown, with its semi-circular bulges dotted along the facade, the many round ‘porthole’ windows and the three white ocean liner style piped vents, it couldn’t be further from the grey concrete brutalism of a 1970s tower block.

What’s fascinating is the highly critical article shown alongside the plans, written by architect Stephen Gardiner (1924-2007). Gardiner warms up by making general criticisms of Postmodern architecture, raging against its ‘jazzy vulgarity’, the way it screams out like a TV commercial, is full of cheap dodges and flashy effects, is ‘B-movie architecture’. Then he lets fly at Cascades in particular, finding it:

a grotesque and shapeless 20-story tower block on the Isle of Dogs… a horrifying result of the deregulation of aesthetic controls… an example of visual chaos… a crazy jumble of so-called architectural references … and a heap of different materials… These architects appear to regard a city as a private gallery for their brand of pop-art buildings. But it isn’t: their appearance affects us all, particularly when exposed on the river front. Whatever the situation architects have a very special responsibility to the public…

Go Stevie, go. This article is more or less the only thing in the exhibition which really expresses why the new Postmodernist style was so controversial and on what grounds its critics attacked it.

But all good things come to an end. In 1987 an essay was published in Art in America magazine titled Late Postmodernism: The End of Style? By the late 1980s the first fine careless flush of anti-establishment defiance was played out. Postmodernist buildings continued to be built into the 1990s but younger architects tried to forge new lines of development moving beyond its jokiness and irony.

Thoughts

I suppose architecture can be considered and assessed in three ways:

  1. As plans and designs and drawings and concepts I warm to straight lines and geometric patterns, and also to dinky scale models of buildings with tiny little figures walking by, so I often find architectural designs and models entrancing. That said, insofar as they are drawings, they all look a bit samey, drawn in the same kind of technical way on the same kind of paper with the same kind of formal conventions.
  2. It’s only when they’re built that architects’ plans come alive and can then be considered in two ways.
    1. If you live or work in one – does it work? What’s it like? Does it have the conveniences promised? Or is it badly designed and thought-through, as so many ‘city in the sky’ council flats and tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s were.
    2. What’s it like to walk past? What impact does it have on those who don’t live or work in it, but whose built environment it contributes to? What contribution does it make to the skyline and cityscape?

I am no expert, I am just an averagely educated Londoner, but I think there are now so many buildings like Cascades – the Thames from Battersea to Westminster, and from the City down to Docklands is so lined with quirky jokey blocks of luxury apartments, take the stepped ziggurats and the tower block that bends backwards at Battersea Reach – that most people just accept it as the style of our times.

Battersea Reach, London

Battersea Reach, London

I don’t really like any of it. Today I walked through the Covent Garden piazza on the way to Sir John Soane’s Museum and all I can think is that a) it’s a blessing that the bastard planners of the 1970s didn’t knock it down and replace it with concrete flats b) it does the job of being a Tourist Trap, a place where tourists are funneled and blunder around buying over-priced coffee and gewgaws.

But I don’t really like the Royal Opera rebuild or the North arcade. I rather think I dislike it for seeming hollow and… somehow fake.

And I happened to walk through the little atrium of 1 Poultry a month or so ago and it seemed dark and noisily polluted from the two City roads which hem it in. Some kind of rebuilding work was going on, there were pipes across the floor, drilling, entrances to some tacky chain shops like Accessorise or H&M. Horror.

Whenever I’ve been past the TVam building in Camden it’s always seemed to me poky, tacky, narrow, low and constricted. It makes me feel choked and cramped. It is not a happy building.

I don’t think I’ve consciously seen the China Wharf building but there are now so many extraordinary designs of buildings dotted all over the Isle of Dogs that it’s just one more in the wacky show.

Buildings for faceless overlords

My impression is that nobody can stop it now. Quirky, funny, witty, ironic, call it what you will – knowing, arch, self-referential etc, Postmodern architecture is where we are, is the modern look.

The Thames is now lined with ranks of po-mo apartment blocks which come from the same lineage as Cascades.

I appreciate that more recent buildings which have hit the headlines such as the Shard and the Gherkin are not Postmodern in style. If you look it up you discover that the Shard and the Gherkin are examples of ‘neo-Futurism’. Neverthetheless, it feels that the way was paved for this generation of jokey, quirky, steel-and-glass monsters, by the jokey, quirky innovators of Postmodernism.

The net result of all this is the widely shared feeling that modern architecture is commissioned, given planning permission, designed and built by a faceless élite, by our lords and masters, by nameless faceless people who don’t seem to be accountable to anyone except their billionaire oil sheikh or Russian oligarch sponsors – to Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra who owns the Gherkin or to the Qatari Royal Family who own the Shard.

Modern architecture in this vein is the plaything and fantasy of an international cosmopolitan élite which has nothing to do any more with the concerns and tastes of the powerless populations which they tower over.

Which is why I always laugh out loud whenever I see architects writing about ‘social responsibility’ or ‘working with the community’. Ha! As if. Which is why I always think of the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as ‘the Room of Shame’. Most architecture doesn’t have anything to do with ‘ordinary people’. Maybe it never did.

Postmodernism is a lot better than the concrete misanthropy which preceded it. In terms of architectural history, it opened the floodgates to an enormous diversity of modern buildings whose designers feel free to play and experiment with a wide range of designs, ornamentation, features and materials.

But I don’t think there are any po-mo buildings that I actually like. And in my mind, anyway, the big hair and padded shoulders of TVam associate it with the end of the post-war social democratic consensus and the rise of loads-of-money capitalism, the Thatcherism and Blairism of the 1980s and 90s, which led directly to the steel-and-glass artefacts of the age of terror, the age of relentlessly growing inequality, and the age of a hyper-articulate, cosmopolitan art and architectural élite pandering to the wishes of the international super-rich – the age in which we now find ourselves.

Conclusion

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture is a small but really interesting exhibition. It was useful to be reminded of the names of the architects behind the MI6 building, or 1 Poultry, to be shown that this was Stirling, that was Farrell, and to be introduced to the unbuilt extravaganzas of John Outram.

It was fun.

And, like all good exhibitions, it sets you thinking about its subject – about architecture and the modern built environment, determined to read up more on a subject which, although it affects all of us – the buildings we live and work in and walk by every day – is given surprisingly little coverage in any of the media.

And it’s FREE. Check it out.


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The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


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Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short by John Willett (1984)

This is a large format Thames and Hudson paperback (27 cm by 23 cm) which is designed to foreground large black and white historic photos and images rather than text.

After a short 10-page introduction, almost the whole book consists of assemblies of original images from the avant-garde of the Weimar culture, with only a small amount of accompanying commentary. It is a visual history. Just to recap the main events, the period falls roughly into three parts:

  1. 1918-1923 Post-war economic and social chaos
  2. 1924-1929 Peace and stability
  3. 1929-1933 Wall Street crash prompts more economic and social chaos, leading to the appointment of Hitler chancellor in January 1933, at which point the republic ends

The three periods of the Weimar Republic

1. The First World War ended in November 1918. The Kaiser abdicated to be replaced by a civilian government. The two commanding generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg made sure that this civilian government signed the peace, thus allowing them forever afterwards to blame civilians for stabbing the army in the back. In the same month there were coups in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere to try and set up revolutionary councils and soldiers and workers, which is how the Bolshevik revolution started.

For the next three or four years the Communist International in Moscow held out high hopes that Germany would fall to communism and trigger a Europe-wide revolution. In the event all these insurrections were put down by Freikorps or locally organised militia. Right from the start the left-liberal government had to rely on the army to keep it in power, and this was to prove a fatal weakness.

In March 1920 some of the Freikorps tried to overthrow the Berlin government and the army did nothing; it was only a general strike and popular armed resistance which restored the government. In 1922 Freikorps elements murdered Walter Rathenau, the Republic’s Foreign Secretary who had negotiated a trade treaty with the USSR and was Jewish. This led to outbreaks of anti-republican and communist agitation in the streets.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, announced in summer 1919, caused great resentment. It blamed Germany entirely for the war, seized over 10% of Germany’s territory in the east (given to Poland) and west (Alsace-Lorraine returned to France), took away all Germany’s colonies and imposed a punishing reparations bill. In 1922 failure to keep up repayments led the French to send in troops to reoccupy the Ruhr industrial area.

The government replied by ordering a go-slow by German workers. This undermined an already weak economy and exacerbated inflation. Mid- and late-1923 saw the famous hyperinflation where a loaf of bread ended up costing a billion marks, where people carried bank notes around in wheelbarrows and eventually stopped using money at all. In November Hitler and his infant Nazi Party tried to mount a coup against the Bavarian government, in Munich, which was quickly quelled by the authorities.

2. The Americans drew up a plan devised by Charles G. Dawes to give Germany huge loans which it could use to invest in industry. Higher taxes from increased industrial productivity could be used to pay off the French (and the French could then pay off the huge war debts they’d run up with the Americans). The deal was finalised in the autumn of 1924.

The point is that as a result of the stabilisation of the currency and the confidence given to business by the certainty of American investment, the entire country underwent a great feeling of relief. Street fighting disappeared, strikes and industrial unrest diminished, the government could proceed with coherent economic policies. Leaders of the Soviet Union reluctantly abandoned the dream they’d been nurturing since 1919 that Germany would fall to communism. There were political ups and downs over the next five years but economic stability and increasing employment meant that extremist parties on both sides (Nazis, communists) lost support.

3. In October 1929 there was the Wall Street Crash. American banks withdrew all their loans in order to stay solvent and that included the loans to Germany. The German economy crashed, companies large and small went bust, and there was a phenomenal growth in unemployment. The effect was to revive the social unrest of the post-war period, to polarise political opinion and to encourage extremist parties to opt for street violence.

In the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. Hitler ran for President against the incumbent Hindenburg in March 1932, polling 30% in the first round and 37% in the second against Hindenburg’s 49% and 53%. By now the Nazi paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung, had 400,000 members and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones.

At the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis polled 37%, becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. The Nazis and Communists between them had won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system and neither would join or support any ministry, forming a majority government became impossible. The result was weak ministries forced to rule by decree.

During the second half of 1932 there was much behind the scenes manoeuvring. Chancellor von Papen, his successor Kurt von Schleicher and the nationalist press magnate Alfred Hugenberg, spent December and January in political intrigues that eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler as Reich Chancellor, at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers – which he did on 30 January 1933. Hitler was Chancellor of Germany but still restricted by democratic forms.

The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day he persuaded the Reich’s President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties. On 23 March, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave the cabinet the right to enact laws without the consent of parliament, in effect giving Hitler dictatorial powers.

Now possessing virtually absolute power, the Nazis established totalitarian control – they abolished labour unions, all other political parties and imprisoned their political opponents at the first, largely improvised concentration camps. The Nazi regime had begun.

The three periods of Weimar arts

1. The Expressionist years 1918-23

Before the war German art was dominated by Expressionism. This had two key elements: it was an art of personal expression; and this personal expression was influenced by current ideas about the spirit, about a great spiritual awakening, about a new world of art and culture about to be born etc, as a glance at the writings of Kandinsky or Franz Marc make clear. Paradoxically this highly personal view of the world could easily tip over into grand paranoia, fear, a sense of brooding catastrophe, anxiety, terror etc.

Unsurprisingly, it is these elements of the grotesque and nightmarish which artists felt and expressed during and immediately after the Great War. Thus the works made by artists like George Grosz or Bertolt Brecht in 1919 to 1923 can loosely be called Expressionist. Similarly the immediate post-war years in film were the high point of Expressionism, with horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) famous for their jagged Expressionist sets.

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Extreme emotion was exacerbated by disillusionment with the failure of the 1918 revolution by many of the artists involved in it such as Piscator, Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, George Grosz. For the next few years their Expressionism was given extra bite by savagely satirical disillusionment, by the realisation that the SPD’s socialism was only skin deep and that the army would always step in to crush any revolt, any rebellion, any revolutionary forces. Hence the talismanic meaning, for years to come, of the murder in the streets by thuggish Freikorps of the two heroes of the Spartacist or communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919.

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

The Bauhaus, a kind of bellwether for all these developments, was in its Expressionist phase. Although the director was Walter Gropius, the introductory course and much of the tone was set by the eccentric Johannes Itten, a believer in mystical Eastern religions, who imposed vegetarianism and breathing exercises on his students.

2. The high point – New Objectivity 1924-29

Around 1924, as the economy and political situation stabilised, the Expressionist wave in the arts was exhausted. Instead this is the golden era of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. The term was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub as the title of an art exhibition staged in 1925 in Mannheim to showcase artists working in the new spirit, namely Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. At the Bauhaus, the spiritualist Ittens was sacked and replaced by the tough-minded Hungarian émigré and polymath László Moholy-Nagy. Willett hesitates over the translation of Sachlichkeit – his 1978 book on the period prefers to translate it as ‘objectivity’. Here he suggests it means ‘matter-of-factness’ (p.81). It represented a completely new mood and approach. Hard edges and technology. Design for the machine age.

  • Instead of self-involvement – objectivity, interest in the social world, the masses.
  • Instead of art promoting the artist – artists sought collaboration, both among themselves (thus Grosz’s collaborations with John Heartfield on photomontages) and with the public (in the new forms of agit-prop or street theatre, often performed in factories and workplaces and calling for audience participation). From among hundreds of examples, Piscator’s 1929 production of A Merchant of Berlin had a set designed by Moholy-Nagy and music by Eisler.
The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

  • Instead of vague romantic idealism – hard-headed practical engagement with the problems of the age. Hence a slew of movements with ‘time’ in the name Zeitoper, Zeitstück.
  • Instead of the ‘demented’ Expressionism of Caligari – the purposeful social criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Or, as the pioneering stage director Erwin Piscator said, in 1929:

In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

This is the period Willett loves. This is the heart of his enthusiasm. This is the moment Willett claims that artists, designers, architects, theatre and film directors in the Soviet Union and in Weimar Germany converged in a period of hyper-experimentalism, making massive breakthroughs in adapting their respective media to the demands and possibilities of the machine age. New media called for new ideas and the creation of photojournalism, documentary cinema, broadcasting, radio, and gramophone records. El Lissitsky and Rodchenko devised new styles of graphic design, magazine and poster layout. Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) rejected the crazy fairy tale sets of Expressionism, and instead used thrilling new technical techniques like montage, shock close-ups, setting the camera at high angles to the action and so on to tell an entirely realistic, in fact brutally graphic tale of revolutionary insurrection.

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Crucial to Willett’s view is that there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilisation between the avant-garde in Russia and in Germany, though that idea is explored much more in The New Sobriety – this book focuses exclusively on the German side of the equation.

In 1925 the Weimar government withdrew funding from the first Bauhaus, which accordingly moved to Dessau, into purpose-built modernist buildings designed by Gropius. The buildings remain classics of modernism to this day, and the new, industrially-focused school dispensed with the arty farty flummery of the Itten years and began designing all kinds of practical fixtures and fittings which would suit the modern, stripped-back architectural style. From this period date the famous tubular steel and leather chairs, along with sets of tables, chairs for factory canteens and so on. Practical, sober, industrial.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

It is during these years that Willett feels the collective effort of creative people in all media took modernism to ‘a new level’ (a phrase he uses several times) and stood on the brink of creating an entirely new civilisation. Willett’s passion convinces you with an almost science fiction feeling that a completely new society was trembling on the brink of appearing.

This explains his contempt for the workaday, wishy-washy, luxury goods associated with Art Deco in France. For Willett French culture sold out, compromised and abandoned the quest for a truly new world. This was because the economic and social structure of French society (as of British society) had remained unchanged by the war so that aristocrats kept on buying Lalique jewellery and holidaying on the cote d’azur decorated by tame artists like Dufy or Derain. French culture was both a) more centralised in Paris only and b) still reliant on the patronage of the rich.

By contrast German society was turned upside down by the war and the intense political upheavals of the post-war. An important factor was the way the last aristocratic principalities became fully part of the German nation, often turning over art galleries, schools, theatres and opera houses to the new state. The (generally socialist) regional governments took over funding for the arts from aristocrats and often lent a sympathetic ear to avant-garde experiments.

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

While French designers created Art Deco ink stands adorned with scantily clad nymphs, Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus designed a completely new typography for the German language, rejecting all capital letters and serif styles, as well as designing the famous leather chair. Gropius and colleagues designed entirely new style of council estates for workers at Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy oversaw his students’ new designs for lamps and chairs and tables, while the Bauhaus wallpaper department devised coolly objective, undecorative wallpaper designs which still sell to this day.

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

While Paris was staging the arch neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Les Six, politically committed German composers like Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were working with communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to write songs for a new kind of play designed to convey powerful communist propaganda messages, and these were staged in an entirely new style by the revolutionary director Erwin Piscator, using bare, undressed sets, with the lights exposed and projecting onto bare walls relevant bits of movie footage or headlines or facts and figures and graphs showing the economic situation. The composer Paul Hindemith became associated with the notion of Gebrauchmusik i.e. music that was socially useful and Eisler took this to mean propaganda music, marching songs and the like, which could be widely disseminated among Germany’s many community music groups.

Not all these innovations worked or were very popular, but it was an explosion of talent experimenting in all directions. As Willett emphasises, many of their innovations are still used today – stark, exposed, non-naturalistic sets in the theatre – street theatre – abrupt cuts and high angles in experimental film – and a lot of the language of architecture and design developed by the Bauhaus architects went onto become a truly International Style which dominated the 20th century.

In 1925:

  • the Bauhaus moved to Dessau
  • Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush)
  • Ernst May is given the opportunity to deploy socialist architecture in a grand rehousing scheme begun by Frankfurt council
  • in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit
  • Bertolt Brecht moves to Berlin
  • December, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzek has its premiere
  • elementare typographie, was an influential supplement of Typographic Notes, the journal of the Educational Association of German Book Printers in Leipzig. The supplement was laid out by Jan Tschichold using innovative principles he’d picked up on a visit to the Bauhaus and included contributions from Bauhaus staff such as Bayer, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy and so on
elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

3. The final crisis 1929-33

All of which was cut short by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Throughout 1930 the Germany economy went into a tailspin and unemployment climbed out of control. During these three years of mounting crisis, 1930, 31 and 32, many of the artists he’s discussed reached new heights of commitment, especially Brecht who produced a series of his most stingingly anti-capitalist works.

But Willett shows how a reaction had already set in in Russia where, from about 1928, the chilly winds of Stalin’s influence began to blow through the arts. The suicide of the famous communist poet Mayakovsky in 1930 is often heralded as a tipping point. In 1932 the official doctrine of Socialist Realism was proclaimed and experimentation in the arts came to a grinding halt, to be replaced by kitsch paintings of happy smiling workers and the beaming features of the Great Leader, Stalin.

For completely different reasons a similar chilling came over the avant-garde in Germany. In 1930 nationalists took control of the state government in Thuringia and secured the resignation of the Bauhaus’s overtly communist director Hannes Meyer (who had replaced Gropius in 1928). Meyer quit and went to Russia, taking with him a dozen or so of the most politically committed students. He was replaced by the noted architect Mies van der Rohe, who was given the job of depoliticising the Bauhaus, especially the radical students. He did his best but the Bauhaus was on the list of institutions the Nazis considered enemy, and in 1933 they secured its final closure.

Summary

This is a visually powerful portfolio to support Willett’s thesis that a new fully modernist civilisation trembled on the brink of realisation in the uniquely innovative and experimental artistic culture of the Weimar Republic. This is more accessible and makes its points more viscerally than the often very clotted New Objectivity book, but probably both should be read together, not least to make sense of the Soviet connection which is omitted here but explored in numbing detail in the other book.

In passing I noticed that there’s no humour whatsoever in this book. Nothing for children, no book illustrations or cartoons. A handful of political cartoons radiating bitter cynicism but, basically, not a laugh in sight.

The other absence is sex. In the popular view Weimar is associated with the ‘decadence’ of the Berlin cabaret, with openly lesbian and gay bars and vaudevilles. Willett is having none of it. His Weimar is a puritan republic of high-minded artists, designers and architects devoted to bringing into being a better world, a fairer world, a workers’ world. There is a one-page spread about a volume of short stories whose cover showed a man groping a fully dressed woman but this is included solely to tell the story of how it was censored by the Weimar authorities. Sex is a bourgeois indulgence which undermines the dedication of the committed worker and intellectual.

Once you start pondering this absence, you realise there is little or nothing in either of Willett’s books about fashion, haircuts, dresses, about style and accessories, about new types of car and motoring accessories (gloves, goggles, helmets), about cartoons, popular novels, detective stories (this was the decade of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers). He mentions jazz, of course, but only as it inspired painters and German composers to include it as a theme in their serious works about social justice – not as a thing to relax and enjoy

Only by looking at other books about the same period and reading about the explosion of pastimes and leisure activities, of ways to have fun, does it dawn on you how very intense, very urban, very cerebral and very narrow Willett’s view is. His dream of a ‘new civilisation’ is just that, a dream.

Which also makes you realise how thin and brittle this layer of hyper-inventiveness in the arts turned out to be, how little it had spread, how little it had influenced or changed the minds or lives of the vast majority of the German population. When the crunch came, they followed Hitler, and acquiesced in the burning of the books, the banning of the plays, and the ridiculing of ‘degenerate art’.


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The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


Related links

Related reviews

Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


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Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


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