Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light @ the National Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition in over a century of the painter who came to be known as ‘Spain’s Impressionist’, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.

The 58 works on show have been loaned from Spanish and private collections to present the most complete exhibition of his paintings outside Spain so this is a unique opportunity to see, enjoy and judge for yourself. (A third of the works are on loan from the Museo Sorolla, ‘one of Madrid’s most dazzling small museums, which occupies the house and garden Sorolla designed and built for his family’. So next time you’re in Madrid…)

Sewing the Sail (Cosiendo la vela), 1896

Almost immediately you can see why Sorolla is known as ‘the master of light’. Room two contains what is surely the most impressive painting here, Sewing the Sail, which is a miracle of evocation. You can feel the harsh Mediterranean sun, you can hear the distant susurration of the sea and the laughing chatter of the women as they work, you can smell the scents from the profusion of flowers in baskets and jars.

It is also a big painting, an enormous painting, which takes up most of one wall. You are immersed in the visual experience. Of all the paintings here this was the hardest to tear yourself away from.

But the exhibition brings together works in an impressive variety of genres, large and small. Sorolla was prolific, leaving at his death over a thousand paintings and several thousand drawings and sketches. The exhibition displays a selection of works including vivid seascapes and bather scenes, studies of architecture and formal gardens, many of the portraits from which he made a lucrative living, a whole room of social conscience paintings, and some of the images he prepared for a vast mural depicting Spanish regional customs and dress.

The Return from Fishing (La vuelta de la pesca), 1894

Room one – early works and wife

The first room includes an arresting self-portrait of a man determined to make his way in the world. There are portraits of Sorolla’s wife, Clotilde, as well as his daughters María and Elena, and son Joaquín, who became the Museo Sorolla’s first director.

Sorolla married Clotilde, the daughter of his first major patron, in 1888. She remained his favourite model and, in his many portraits, barely appears to age over the decades. The strong family connection resonates with the painting of a rose bush from Sorolla’s house which, legend has it, withered when the artist passed away and wilted away entirely when Clotilde died.

But the room is dominated by this expressive nude of his wife.

Female Nude (1902) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection. Photo Joaquín Cortés

Three things. 1. He is showing off his skill with oil paint. Look at the shimmer and the shadows and the numerous different shades of pink of the presumably silk sheet she is lying on. 2. He was consciously chanelling the Rokeby Venus, a masterpiece by probably the most eminent Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Sorolla set himself up as Velázquez’s modern heir and incarnation and, like Velázquez, cultivated a wide circle of rich aristocratic patrons until he reached the social pinnacle of being commissioned to paint a portrait of the Spanish king..

3. How very, very traditional it is. By 1902 the Impressionists had been at it for 30 years, and we had had a decade or more of post-Impressionism, Gauguin, van Gogh and so on and were teetering on the brink of the Fauves with their mad garish daubs of vibrant colour. Not in Sorolla’s world. One of the features of the early rooms is the number of international exhibitions Sorolla sent his work to, and the number of prizes he won, in Madrid, Paris, all over Europe. This is the height of late-Victorian Salon art. Sorolla represents everything modern painting set out to overthrow.

Room two – social conscience

Sorolla trained in Valencia and studied in Madrid and Rome. He first won an international reputation for major works tackling social subjects. The second room focuses on the 1890s, when Spain witnessed a period of social unrest as well as the final collapse of its overseas empire.

During this period Sorolla launched his career with a series of monumental canvases depicting the realities and hardships of Spanish life. His first great success was Another Marguerite! which depicted a woman arrested for murdering her child and won great acclaim when it was exhibited in Madrid in 1892.

From there, Sorolla set about gaining an international reputation by sending his pictures to exhibitions across Europe. While Sorolla largely moved away from socially engaged subjects after 1900, the pictures had a lasting impact on the next generation of Spanish painter.

And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (¡Y aún dicen que el pescado es caro!), 1894

Many of them are wonderful but they feel very old. A painting like this reminds me of the British artist Sir Luke Fildes who was painting grittily realistic depictions of working class life in the 1870s.

Room three – portraits

The third room shows how Sorolla positioned himself as the heir to the tradition of Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya, whose works he closely studied at the Prado in Madrid.

In his portraits, Sorolla often adopted their distinctive palette of blacks, greys and creams. He also sought to achieve the same psychological penetration and sense of human presence for which both painters were famous.

Lucrecia Arana and Her Son (Lucrecia Arana y su hijo), 1906

I wasn’t convinced. Like all his works I began to realise that they make a better effect the further back you stand. But I still found the three faces in this double portrait unsatisfactory. The boy’s face looks like the black eyed boys you seen in the countless kitsch paintings you can buy in sunny markets and harbours around the Mediterranean. The woman just looks flat and ugly, and the image of the painter at work in the mirror isn’t exactly inspiring.

Many of the portraits are large, portrait-shaped depictions of the grand and rich and naturally invite comparison with one of the most successful portrait painters in Europe at the time, the American John Singer Sargent who based himself in London. Here’s a characteristic Sargent joint portrait from the period.

Lady Adele Meyer and her children (1896) by John Singer Sargent

In my opinion the Sargent is better. It captures the expressions on all three faces with a kind of dainty realism, and the fabric of the woman’s dress, the son’s velvet suit and, above all, of the antique sofa she’s sitting on – all of these seem to me to be caught with a kind of shimmering accuracy which Sorolla can’t match.

Room four – the beach and sunlight

Room Four celebrates Sorolla’s love of sunlight and the sea. Having grown up by the coast in Valencia, Sorolla began after 1900 to create a substantial body of work, painted out of doors, documenting the mixture of leisure and work he witnessed on beaches close to Valencia and further down the coast at Jávea. These scenes proved hugely popular especially in the United States.

Running along the Beach, Valencia (1908) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias. Col. Pedro Masaveu

The audioguide is very thorough and comprehensive and includes several photos showing Sorolla at work on the beach, a) wearing an amazingly thick, heavy, conventional set of clothes (waistcoat, hat) in what must have been sweltering conditions b) with his canvas protected by a windbreak and the easel held down with an elaborate system of ropes and heavy stones.

In my opinion these paintings are wonderfully evocative but tread a fine line just this side of kitsch. On the one hand the use of colours in a painting like Boys on the beach is masterful – the commentary highlighted how he creates shadow out of colours, not using black, but looking at the composition as a whole I was struck by how he captures the many colours of sand, caused by the changing depths of sea water and light refracted through it.

Boys on the Beach (Chicos en la playa), 1909

But some of them topple into kitsch and once I’d though of Jack Vettriano’s immensely popular paintings of people on beaches, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I found it hard not to see the Athena Posters aspect of many of these beach works.

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Compared to the threatening new style of the Fauves or the Cubism which was just being invented by Picasso and Braques, yes, I can well imagine that American millionaires bought this kind of thing by the yard.

Room five – studies for the mural

In 1911 Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a vast mural-like series of paintings entitled Vision of Spain.

As preparation Sorolla travelled extensively through Spain, documenting the country’s regional dress, occupations, and traditions. Local people, often provided by Sorolla with costumes and props, were depicted in situ in works which were painted between 1911 and 1919.

The exhibition includes four large-scale preparatory studies for Vision of Spain demonstrating the intensity with which the artist engaged in Spanish folk tradition. Sorolla also painted the landscapes in these regions which he then incorporated in the Hispanic Society paintings.

Bride from Lagartera (1912) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Three things:

1. The audioguide explains that, because the subjects were not professional models, they had to be painted quickly. The audioguide emphasises a) the terrific skill this required b) the way the paint was applied very quickly, often direct from the tube, in squiggles across the surface, and it’s true, if you get up close the pictures become almost abstract and, the guide suggests, exercises in pure painterliness.

2. They’re not very good, though, are they? They are not a patch on the huge realist works from the start of the exhibition, from the 1890s and, even allowing for the fact that they were rushed and are only preparatory works, still, the overall effect is negative.

3. Shame there weren’t more big colour photos of the finished mural. This does look very impressive but was only available as tiny black and white photos on the screen of the ipod-sized audioguide. Shame.

Room six – landscape and gardens

The sixth room of the exhibition is devoted to Sorolla’s views of landscapes and gardens. From a panoramic vista of the barren mountains of the Sierra Nevada glowing in evening light to the medieval towers of Burgos Cathedral under snow, Sorolla had a gift for finding the viewpoint to best communicate the atmosphere and character of a setting.

On several visits to the south, he recorded the country’s heritage in views of the gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada. None of these paintings pulled my daisy as much as the big realist works in room two or some of the sunlight beach scenes.

Reflections in a Fountain (Reflejos de una fuente), 1908

Room seven – family

The final room highlights Sorolla’s fascination with depicting his family in large canvases painted out of doors such as Strolling along the Seashore (1909) and The Siesta (1911).

These works are twenty years on from Another Marguerite! and And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! and Sewing the Sail, and in The Siesta in particular you can see him really exploring the possibilities of oil painting, but in a landscape saturated with light. The Impressionists often painted fog or snow, for the German Expressionists it was always stormy night-time, but for Sorolla – even when he is at his most experimental, verging on abstraction – it is always bright and dazzlingly sunny.

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Conclusion

In June 1920 Sorolla suffered a stroke in the middle of painting a portrait which paralysed him down one side, effectively ending his career, and died on the 10th August 1923.

The downstairs exhibition space at the National Gallery includes a comfy little cinema where they were showing a fifteen-minute documentary about Sorolla, complete with extensive explanations from the show’s curator, Christopher Riopelle.

From this we learn that he was given a state funeral, as befitted the official portraitist of the king and the royal family, and one of the last public painters working in the great European tradition, before Modernism swept all that way forever.

Having walked around it a couple of times and listened to the audioguide, I couldn’t help making continual comparisons to the social realist paintings of a Luke Fildes or the much finer portraits of Singer Sargent and, on the couple of occasions Sorolla does statuesque women in bathing suits, I was immediately reminded of the much more precise and lustrous paintings of the late-Victorian Olympians like Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

But… some of the large scale paintings, notably Sewing the Sail, are really stunning, eye-opening exercise in the overwhelming power of painting, and many of the details of the beach and sunlight paintings are wonderful – there’s a way he has of capturing the fading sunlight as it’s thrown across rocks which reminds you of all the Mediterranean holidays you’ve ever had.

And his use of colour, his juxtaposition of shades and hues to create subtle visual effects, is often dazzling. The more you look, the more absorbed you become. The curator claims that ‘No one before or since has painted Mediterranean sunlight like Sorolla’ and this may well be true.

Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection © Photo Laura Cohen

Videos

Review by Visiting London Guide

Curator’s introduction by Christopher Riopelle.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Harald Sohlberg

Harald Sohlberg (1869 to 1935) was one of Norway’s greatest painters. He is best known for works which evoke the wildness of the Nordic landscape, which show brooding scenery illuminated by midwinter light, and realistic depictions of the wood buildings of old Norwegian towns.

This is the first major UK exhibition of Sohlberg’s works, celebrating 150 years since the artist’s birth, and it reveals that there’s much more variety – in subject matter, treatment and quality – than a first glance would suggest.

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Biography

The exhibition proceeds in straightforward chronological order. Born in 1869 the eighth of 12 children, Sohlberg early wanted to be a painter but his father insisted he learn a craft and apprenticed him to a master scene painter and decorator, Wilhelm Krogh. When he went on the National College of Art and Design, where he developed his printmaking skills, it was also to discover the great art trends of the day, namely symbolism and nationalism.

Nordic mystery

For me, these are founding facts for understanding Sohlberg’s style, because all of the 100 or so works in the six rooms of the exhibition display a tension between two poles or ends of a spectrum. At one end is a series of works which explore light and colour and capture the peculiar twilight mood of Scandinavia, a half light in which moon and stars appear in still glimmering skies, and are seen through spectral pine forests.

Fisherman's Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Fisherman’s Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Many of this type of painting stylise shapes and outlines in order to reveal strange gloopy patterns in the natural world, reminiscent of the style of his close contemporary Edvard Munch (b.1863).

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

The mermaid pictures

Most immediately Munch-like are the heavily stylised depictions of mermaids which Sohlberg made obsessively throughout his career. The wall labels tell us that he made scores of drawings, sketches, prints and paintings all reworking the same basic image of a ‘mermaid’ emerging from water, sometimes by the light of the moon, sometimes by the light of a blood red sun.

It is striking how blurry, shapeless and ill-defined these mermaids often are. The subject and treatment seemed to me to be Sohlberg’s closest approach to capturing the ominousness of Symbolism, with its terror-stricken image of the femme fatale who comes to us in dreams and visions, a devouring harpy, the herald of the new age – a portentous figure.

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Life drawing and portraits

On the basis of the three variations on the mermaid subject in the first room I had drawn the conclusion that Sohlberg was poor at drawing people, which maybe helped to explain the predominance of people-less landscapes in his oeuvre.

But how wrong I was. The very next room is devoted to a profusion of drawings, sketches, drafts and prints which, among other things, show you that he was a portraitist and life artist of great skill and sensitivity.

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

These four portraits (apologies for my terrible photo) are works of tremendous draughtsmanship. The character and quirks of each of the four faces (one is a self portrait, at top right) are captured with a thoroughness and sweet lifelikeness which reminded me of Holbein.

Next to them is a series of drawings from life including one of a classical sculpture, a stunningly sensuous charcoal drawing of a female nude, and a set of sketches of a woman wearing a button-up coat, which are staggering in their skill and accuracy.

Homo absconditus

All of which makes it the more mysterious, or pointed, that so many of the finished oil paintings rigorously exclude human figures of any type, close up or even in the distance.

So much so that a chapter in the catalogue is titled ‘Homo absconditus’ i.e. absent humanity. Similarly the audioguide is at pains to emphasise the issue of absence in so many of his classic paintings.

Look at this rough-hewn road bumping towards the mountains in the distance behind which emanates a mysterious crepuscular glow. It is a man-made object, as are the telegraph poles lining it and yet… where have all the people gone?

Detailed draughtsmanship

Mention of the man-made brings me to the other pole of Sohlberg’s oeuvre: at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sohlberg’s people-less images of looming Nordic landscapes are his astonishingly detailed, draughtsmanlike depiction of buildings.

In fact this architectural approach is there, buried, in many of the landscapes. Even in these Sohlberg apparently didn’t begin painting until he had completely mapped out the motif in precise detail using graphite, pen and ink, in sketchbooks and drawings. (Many of these sketches are on show in the exhibition’s several display cases, alongside letters, maps and some contemporary photos of the locations he painted.)

Architectural accuracy

But the early and middle period of his work is threaded with astonishingly accurate paintings of buildings – of the kind of wood-framed houses which characterised the Norway of his time – which are done with fantastic graphic realism and attention to detail.

Thus, in the first room of the show there are several paintings of the view from a terrace or verandah of a wood-built building looking out over a fjord. The lake water and mountain on the other side are done with the rich colouring and sense of depth and mystery we are by now familiar with. What is striking is the highly detailed depiction of the wooden terrace, balustrading, walls and windows.

The exhibition includes an early example of this style which he never finished and so which allows us to see the immaculate grid of lines which Sohlberg had laid out across the canvas in order to create the image, and then the meticulous care with which he was painting in the fine detail, using the graph-paper-like grid to create a mathematically precise depiction of every element of the house – balcony, windows, eaves and all.

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

This love of the architectural detail came into its own when, in 1902, Sohlberg went to live in the 17th century copper-mining town of Røros up towards the Arctic Circle. Røros is today a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its heritage of evocative historic wooden buildings. A hundred years ago these were a subject perfect for Sohlberg in fine-draughtsman mode.

Street in Roros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Street in Røros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Later falling off

Not all of his works are good. A set of blue skyscapes and orange seascapes in the fourth and fifth rooms struck me as cheesy and badly executed. In fact I had the strong feeling that after about 1910 his paintings went off, meaning his best work comes from the 1890s and 1900s, a suspicion fuelled by the way the exhibition ends abruptly about 1914. Did he not paint during the First World War? Did he stop painting altogether? We are not told.

And my dislike of the later, bigger and more loosely executed works explains why I didn’t respond as I am supposed to, to Sohlberg’s single most famous work, the enormous painting titled Winter Night in the Mountains.

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Apparently this has been voted Norway’s most favourite painting which is, I think, an interesting insight into how that country sees itself. The work dominates the sixth and final room and is hung next to three or four other alternative paintings of the same view, plus various preparatory pencil works and sketches. Sohlberg worked at it repeatedly and produced scores of versions of this view in various media.

But unlike motifs which other famous painters of the period worked on again and again (Monet and his lily pond, Cézanne and Mont St Victoire) the multiple versions do not, I think, take you any closer to the subject matter nor display new and exciting insights into the art of painting, itself.

I don’t like it because:

  1. The mountains have been childishly simplified, rounded and cartooned, like a so-so illustration from a children’s book.
  2. The star shining in the cleft of the mountains is not eerily symbolic, but as obvious and trite as the star on ten thousand cheap Christmas cards.
  3. I like trees, some of my favourite artworks are depictions of trees – but the trees in the foreground of this painting are badly drawn.

This final room really brings out the point I made earlier, that there are two strings to Sohlberg’s bow, two basic styles of painting he made – one the symbolic landscape and the other the minutely-detailed building.

This duality is made clear in the sixth and final room where, alongside the Night in the Mountains, there is a series of sketches, drawings and paintings he made of the huge church which dominated the town of Røros then as it does now.

He sketched and painted the church again and again, particularly  the view from the churchyard looking onto the church, and then across the town and down to the river. I much preferred the architectural precision and detail of these images to the silly rounded mountains of the mountain pictures.

Night, Røros Curch (1903) by Harald Solhberg

Night, Røros Church (1903) by Harald Solhberg

It’s hard to compare this and the night mountain paintings, and believe that they’re by the same artist, the same mind and eye and technique, but they very much are.

Conclusion

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition. Not all of it is great but what is good, is very very good. It introduces you to what you could call the Medici print world of Solhlberg, to his best known paintings of Nordic landscapes and snow-covered streets – but it also includes his little known sketches and drawings, to create a really well-rounded portrait of Norway’s favourite painter.

My personal favourite was the set of preparatory sketches and then the large finished drawing he made of ‘the girl from Schafterløkken’, wow, awesome draughtsmanship which took my breath away – but which I can’t show you because it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere on the internet.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Family Britain: The Certainties of Place by David Kynaston (2009)

Two more massive ‘books’ contained in one hefty 700-page paperback describing Britain after the war, the first one – The Certainties of Place, under review here – covering the period 1951-5 in immense detail. The main historical events are:

  • The Festival of Britain (May – August 1951)
  • October 1951 the Conservatives just about win the general election, despite polling quarter of a million fewer votes than Labour
  • Death of George VI (6 February 1952) and accession of young Queen Elizabeth II
  • 3 October 1952 Britain explodes its first atom bomb (in Western Australia)
  • The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash on the morning of 8 October 1952 – 112 were killed and 340 injured – the worst peacetime rail crash in the United Kingdom
  • The North Sea flood on the night of Saturday 31 January / Sunday, 1 February
  • Rationing: tea came off the ration in October 1952 and sweets in February 1953, but sugar, butter, cooking fats, cheese, meat and eggs continued on the ration
  • 2 June 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
  • 27 July 1953 end of Korean War
  • 12 August 1953 Russia detonates its first hydrogen bomb

The book ends in January 1954, with a literary coincidence. On Monday 25 Lucky Jim, the comic novel which began the career of Kingsley Amis was published and that evening saw the BBC broadcast the brilliant play for voices Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who had in fact died two months earlier, on 9 November 1953.

Tumult of events and impressions

But reading Kynaston’s books is not to proceed logically through the key events of the period accompanied by political and economic and diplomatic analysis: it is to be plunged into the unceasing turbulent flow of day-to-day events, mixing the trivial with the serious, it’s to see the world from the point of view of a contemporary tabloid newspaper – the Mirror and the Express competing for the title of Britain’s best-selling newspaper – with the big political issues jostling for space with the winner of the Grand National and gossip about the stars of stage and radio – and above all, to read quotes from a thousand and one contemporary voices.

Without any preface or introduction, the text throws you straight into the hurly-burly of events, festooned with comments by an enormous casts of diarists, speech-makers, article-writers, commentators, eye-witnesses and so on.

Thus at the top of page one it is Saturday 28 April 1951 and King George VI is presenting the F.A. Cup to the winners, Newcastle. Three days later, on Tuesday 1 May 1951 he is at Earls Court for the British Industries Fair. On Thursday 3 he is on the South Bank to open the new Royal Festival Hall and inaugurate the five-month-long Festival of Britain – ‘a patriotic prank’, according to the song Noel Coward wrote about it, ‘madly educative and very tiring’, according to Kenneth Williams (25).

What makes Kynastons’s books hugely enjoyable is the vast cavalcade of people, from kings to coal miners, via a jungle of ordinary housewives, newspaper columnists, industrialists, famous or yet-to-be-famous writers, actors, civil servants and politicians.

a) They are fascinating on their own account b) Kynaston deploys them not just to discuss the big issues of the day but quotes them on day to day trivia, the appearance of London, the menu at posh clubs, the ups and downs of rationing, the tribulations of shopping in the High Street. The breadth of witnesses, and the range of activities they describe, helps to make the reader feel that you really have experienced living in this era.

Labour exhausted, Conservatives win

Overall, the big impression which comes across is the way the Labour Party had run out of ideas by 1951, and how this contributed to their defeat in the October 1951 general election. (It is fascinating to learn that they only held an election that October because the king told Attlee he was going on a prolonged tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 and would prefer there to be an election while he was still in the country. Attlee duly obliged, and Labour lost. Thus are the fates of nations decided). (There is, by the by, absolutely nothing whatsoever about the Commonwealth or the British Empire: this is a book solely about the home front and domestic experiences of Britain.)

Labour were reduced to opposition in which they seem to waste a lot of energy squabbling between the ‘Bevanites’ on the left of the party, and the larger mainstream represented by Hugh Gaitskell. The bitter feud stemmed from the decision by Gaitskell, when Chancellor, to introduce charges for ‘teeth and spectacles’ in order to pay for Britain’s contribution to the Korean War (started June 1950).

The quiet Labour leader, Clement Attlee, now in his 70s, was mainly motivated to stay on by his determination to prevent Herbert Morrison becoming leader.

The most important political fact of the period was that the Conservatives accepted almost every element of the welfare state and even of the nationalised industries which they inherited from Labour.

Experts are quoted from the 1980s saying that this was a great lost opportunity for capitalism i.e. the Conservatives failed to privatise coal or steel or railways, and failed to adjust the tax system so as to reintroduce incentives and make British industry more competitive. To these critics, the 1950s Conservatives acquiesced in the stagnation which led to Britain’s long decline.

Rebuilding and new towns

What the Conservatives did do was live up to their manifesto promise of building 300,000 new houses a year, even if the houses were significantly reduced in size from Labour’s specifications (much to the growling disapproval of Nye Bevan), and to push ahead with the scheme for building twelve New Towns.

I grew up on the edge of one of these New Towns, Bracknell, which I and all my friends considered a soulless dump, so I was fascinated to read Kynaston’s extended passages about the massive housing crisis of post-war Britain and the endless squabbles of experts and architects who claimed to be able to solve it.

To some extent reading this book has changed my attitude as a result of reading the scores and scores of personal accounts Kynaston quotes of the people who moved out of one-room, condemned slums in places like Stepney and Poplar and were transported to two bedroom houses with things they’d never see before – like a bathroom, their own sink, an indoor toilet!

It’s true that almost immediately there were complaints that the new towns or estates lacked facilities, no pubs, not enough shops, were too far from town centres with not enough public transport, and so on. But it is a real education to see how these concerns were secondary to the genuine happiness brought to hundreds of thousands of families who finally escaped from hard-core slum conditions and, after years and years and years of living in squalor, to suddenly be living in clean, dry, properly plumbed palaces of their own.

At the higher level of town planners, architects and what Kynaston calls ‘activators’, he chronicles the ongoing fights between a) exponents of moving urban populations out to new towns versus rehousing them in new inner city accomodation b) the core architectural fight between hard-line modernist architects, lackeys of Le Corbusier’s modernism, and various forms of watered-down softer, more human modernism.

It is a highly diffused argument because different architects deployed different styles and solutions to a wide range of new buildings on sites all over the UK, from Plymouth to Glasgow: but it is one of the central and most fascinating themes of the Kynaston books, and inspires you to want to go and visit these sites.

Education

The other main issue the Conservatives (and all right-thinking social commentators and progressives) were tackling after the war was Education. The theme recurs again and again as Kynaston picks up manifesto pledges, speeches, or the publication of key policy documents to bring out the arguments of the day. Basically we watch two key things happen:

  1. despite the bleeding obvious fact that the public schools were (and are) the central engine of class division, privilege and inequality in British society, no political party came up with any serious proposals to abolish them or even tamper with their status (a pathetic ineffectiveness which, of course, lasts to the present day)
  2. instead the argument was all about the structure of the state education system and, in Kynaston’s three books so far, we watch the Labour party, and the teachers’ unions, move from broad support for grammar schools in 1944, to becoming evermore fervently against the 11-plus by the early 1950s

Kynaston uses his sociological approach to quote the impact of passing – or failing – the 11-plus exam (the one which decides whether you will go to a grammar school or a secondary modern school) on a wide variety of children from the time, from John Prescott to Glenda Jackson.

Passing obviously helped propel lots of boys and girls from ‘ordinary’ working class backgrounds on to successful careers. But Kynaston also quotes liberally from the experiences of those who failed, were crushed with humiliation and, in some cases, never forgave society.

The following list serves two purposes:

  1. To give a sense of the huge number of people the reader encounters and hears quoted in Kynaston’s collage-style of social history
  2. To really bring out how the commanding heights of politics, the economy, the arts and so on were overwhelmingly ruled by people who went to public school, with a smattering of people succeeding thanks to their grammar school opportunity, and then a rump of people who became successful in their fields despite attending neither public nor grammar schools and, often, being forced to leave school at 16, 15, 14 or 13 years of age.

Public school

Politicians

  • Clement Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford)
  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Westminster and New College, Oxford)
  • Anthony Blunt (Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Guy Burgess (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Austen Butler (Marlborough and Cambridge)
  • Winston Churchill (Harrow then Royal Military College, Sandhurst)
  • Kim Cobbold (Governor of the Bank of England 49-61, Eton and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Stafford Cripps (Winchester College and University College London)
  • Anthony Crosland (Highbury and Oxford)
  • Richard Crossman (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Hugh Dalton (Eton and Cambridge)
  • Sir Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Michael Foot (Leighton Park School Reading and Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Sir David Maxwell Fyfe ( George Watson’s College and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Hugh Gaitskell (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Gerald Kaufman (Leeds Grammar School [private] and Queen’s College, Oxford)
  • Harold Macmillan (Eton)
  • Harold Nicholson (Wellington and Oxford)
  • Sir John Nott-Bower (Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tonbridge School then the Indian Police Service)
  • Kim Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Enoch Powell (King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • John Profumo (Harrow and Oxford)
  • Shirley Williams (St Paul’s Girls’ School and Somerville College, Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Lindsay Anderson (film director, Saint Ronan’s School and Cheltenham College then Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Diana Athill (memoirist, Runton Hill School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • John Betjeman (poet, Marlborough and Oxford)
  • Cecil Beaton (photographer, Harrow and Cambridge)
  • John Berger (art critic, St Edward’s School, Oxford and Chelsea School of Art)
  • Michael Billington (theatre critic, Warwick School and Oxford)
  • Raymond Chandler (novelist, Dulwich College, then journalism)
  • Bruce Chatwin (travel writer, Marlborough)
  • Dr Alex Comfort (popular science author, Highgate School, Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Davenport-Hynes (historian, St Paul’s and Selwyn College, Cambridge)
  • Robin Day (BBC interviewer, Bembridge and Oxford)
  • Richard Dimbleby (Mill Hill School then the Richmond and Twickenham Times)
  • Richard Eyre (theatre director, Sherborne School and Peterhouse Cambridge)
  • Ian Fleming (novelist, Eton and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst)
  • John Fowles (novelist, Bedford School and Oxford)
  • Michael Frayn (novelist, Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge)
  • Alan Garner (novelist, Manchester Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Graham Greene (novelist, Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Joyce Grenfell (Francis Holland School and Mlle Ozanne’s finishing school in Paris)
  • Alec Guinness (actor, Fettes College)
  • Frank Richards (writer for popular comics, Thorn House School in Ealing then freelance writing)
  • Christopher Hill (Marxist historian, St Peter’s School, York and Balliol College, University of Oxford)
  • David Hockney (artist, Bradford Grammar School [private], Bradford College of Art, Royal College of Art)
  • Ludovic Kennedy (BBC, Eton then Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Gavin Lambert (film critic, Cheltenham College and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Humphrey Lyttelton (Eton, Grenadier Guards, Camberwell Art College)
  • David Kynaston (historian, Wellington College and New College, Oxford)
  • Kingsley Martin (editor of New StatesmanMill Hill School and Magdalene College, Cambridge)
  • Frances Partridge (Bloomsbury writer, Bedales School and Newnham College, Cambridge)
  • Raymond Postgate (founder of Good Food Guide, St John’s College, Oxford)
  • V.S. Pritchett (novelist, Alleyn’s School, and Dulwich College)
  • Barbara Pym (novelist, Queen’s Park School Oswestry and Oxford)
  • William Rees-Mogg (editor of The Times 1967-81, Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Richard Rogers (architect, St Johns School, Leatherhead then the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London)
  • Anthony Sampson (social analyst, Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Raphael Samuel (Marxist historian, Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Maggie Smith (actress, Oxford High School, then the Oxford Playhouse)
  • David Storey (novelist, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield then Slade School of Fine Art)
  • AJP Taylor (left wing historian, Bootham School in York then Oriel College, Oxford)
  • E.P. Thompson (Marxist historian, Kingswood School Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Alan Turing (computer pioneer, Sherborne and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Kenneth Tynan (theatre critic, King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Chad Varah (founder of Samaritans, Worksop College [private] Nottinghamshire then Keble College, Oxford)
  • Angus Wilson (novelist, Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford)
  • Colin St John Wilson (architect of the British Library, Felsted School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Laurence Olivier (actor, prep school and choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street)

Grammar school

Politicians

  • Barbara Castle (Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and and St Hugh’s College, Oxford)
  • Roy Jenkins (Abersychan County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Margaret Thatcher (Grantham Girls’ School and Oxford)
  • Harold Wilson (Royds Hall Grammar School and Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Paul Bailey (novelist, Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School For Boys, Battersea and the Central School of Speech and Drama)
  • Joan Bakewell (BBC, Stockport High School for Girls and Cambridge)
  • Stan Barstow (novelist, Ossett Grammar School then an engineering firm)
  • Alan Bennett (playwright, Leeds Modern School and Exeter College, Oxford)
  • Michael Caine (actor, Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, left at 16 to become a runner for a film company)
  • David Cannadine (historian, King Edward VI Five Ways School and Clare College, Cambridge)
  • Noel Coward (dance academy)
  • Terence Davies (film director, left school at 16 to work as a shipping office clerk)
  • A.L. Halsey (sociologist, Kettering Grammar School then London School of Economics)
  • Sheila Hancock (actress, Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)
  • Tony Harrison (poet, Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University)
  • Noddy Holder (musician, Walsall Grammar school until it closed, then T. P. Riley Comprehensive School)
  • Ted Hughes (poet, Mexborough Grammar School and Pembroke College, Cambridge)
  • Lynda Lee-Potter (columnist, Leigh Girls’ Grammar School and Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Roy Porter (historian, Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell then Christ’s College, Cambridge)
  • Terence Stamp (actor, Plaistow County Grammar School then advertising)
  • John Sutherland (English professor, University of Leicester)
  • Dylan Thomas (poet, Swansea Grammar School)
  • Dame Sybil Thorndike (actress, Rochester Grammar School for Girls then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Philip Toynbee (communist writer, Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Colin Welland (actor, Newton-le-Willows Grammar School then Goldsmiths College)
  • Kenneth Williams (actor, Lyulph Stanley Boys’ Central Council School)
  • Raymond Williams (Marxist social critic, King Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny and Trinity College, Cambridge)

Secondary modern / left school early

  • Alice Bacon (Labour MP in favour of comprehensive schools, Normanton Girls’ High School and Stockwell Teachers’ Training College)
  • Raymond Baxter (BBC presenter, Ilford County High School, expelled after being caught smoking)
  • Aneurin Bevan (major figure in the Labour Party, left school at 13)
  • Jim Callaghan (Labour Prime Minister 1976-79, Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, left school at 17)
  • Ossie Clarke (fashion designer, Beamont Secondary Technical School then Regional College of Art in Manchester)
  • Hugh Cudlipp (Howard Gardens High School for boys, left at 14)
  • Ian Jack (Dunfermline High School, left to become a journalist)
  • Clive Jenkins (left school at 14, Port Talbot County Boys’ School)
  • Stanley Matthews (cricketer, left school at 14 to play football)
  • Herbert Morrison (St Andrew’s Church of England School, left at 14 to become an errand boy)
  • Joe Orton (playwright, Clark’s College in Leicester)
  • John Osborne (playwright, Belmont College, expelled aged 16)
  • John Prescott (failed 11 plus, Grange Secondary Modern School and Hull University)
  • Alan Sillitoe (novelist, left school at 14)

Sociology

There are definitely more sociologists quoted in this book than in the previous two, especially in the very long central section devoted to class, which seems to have been the central obsession of sociologists in that era. Kynaston quotes what seems to be hundreds but is probably only scores of sociologists who produced a flood of reports throughout the 1940s and 50s, as they went off to live with miners or dockers or housewives, produced in-depth studies of the social attitudes of East End slums, the industrial north, towns in Wales or Scotland, and so on and so on.

The central social fact of the era was that about 70% of the British population belonged to the manual working class. And therefore, for me, the obvious political question was and is: why did this country, which was 70% ‘working class’, vote for Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964? What did Labour do wrong, in order to lose the votes of what should – on paper – have been its natural constituency?

This central question is nowhere asked or answered. Instead I found myself being frequently distracted by the extreme obviousness of some of the sociologists’ conclusions. Lengthy fieldwork and detailed statistical analysis result in conclusions like such as the working class are marked off from the ‘middle class’ by:

  • lower income
  • by taking wages rather than a salary
  • their jobs are often precarious
  • they are more likely to belong to trade unions
  • have distinctive accents
  • wear distinctive types of clothes (e.g. the cloth cap)
  • have poorer education
  • have distinct manners and linguistic usages (for example calling the mid-day meal dinner instead of lunch)

Other revelations include that the children of working class parents did less well at school than children of middle-class parents, and were less likely to pass the 11-plus, that rugby league is a northern working class sport compared with the middle-class sport of rugby union, that cricket was mostly a middle and upper middle class interest while football was followed obsessively by the proles, that the proles read the News of the World and the People rather than the Times and Telegraph.

As to the great British institution of the pub, in the words of the Truman’s website:

Saloon bars were sit-down affairs for the middle class, carpets on the floor, cushions on the seats and slightly more expensive drinks. You were served at the table and expected to dress smart for the occasion. You would also pay a premium on the drinks for this and usually there would be some entertainment be it singing, dancing, drama or comedy. You would generally be served bitter and in half pints.

Public bars, or tap rooms, remained for the working class. Bare wooden floorboards with sawdust on the floor, hard bench seats and cheap beer were on offer. You didn’t have to change out of your work wear so this was generally were the working class would go for after work and drink in pints, generally of mild.

Altogether this central section about class in all its forms takes some 150 pages of this 350-page book – it is a seriously extended analysis or overview of class in early 1950s Britain drawing on a multitude of studies and surveys (it’s almost alarming to see how very, very many studies were carried out by academic sociologists during this period, alongside the regular Mass-Observation surveys, plus ad hoc commercial surveys by Gallup and a number of less well-known pollsters).

And yet almost nothing from this vast body of work comes as a surprise: Most kids in grammar schools were upper-middle or middle class i.e. it’s a myth to say grammar schools help the working and lower working classes. IQ tests can be fixed by intensive coaching. The working classes liked football. The most popular hobbies (by a long way) were gardening for men, and knitting for women. Pubs were a place of comforting familiarity, where you would find familiar friends and familiar drinks and familiar conversations in familiar surroundings.

Compared to all the effort put into these studies, there is remarkably little that comes out of them.

Some of the sociologists mentioned or discussed in the text

  • Kenneth Allsop reported on Ebbw Vale
  • Michael Banton, author of numerous studies of race and ethnic relations
  • LSE sociologist Norman Birnbaum, criticising positive interpretations of the Coronation
  • Betting in Britain 1951 report by The Social Survey
  • Maurice Broady, sociologist who studied Coronation Day street parties (p.305)
  • Joanna Bourke, socialist feminist historian
  • Katherine Box, author of a 1946 study of cinema-going
  • British Institute of Public Opinion survey
  • Professor of cultural history, Robert Colls, author of When We Lived In Communities
  • Coal is our Life sociologial study of Featherstone in Yorkshire by Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter
  • Mark Clapson, historian of suburbia and Milton Keynes
  • David Glass author of Social Mobility in Britain (1954)
  • Geoffrey Gorer 1950-51 People survey of what class people saw themselves as belonging to
  • historian Richard Holt writing about football
  • 1949 Hulton Survey on smoking
  • Roy Lewis and Angus Maude authors of The English Middle Classes (1949)
  • F.M. Martin’s 1952 survey of parental attitudes to education in Hertfordshire
  • Mass-Observation 1949 survey, The Press and Its Readers
  • Mass-Observation survey 1947-8 on drinking habits
  • Mass-Observation survey 1951 on drunkenness in Cardiff, Nottingham, Leicester and Salford
  • Peter Townsend, social researcher (p.118)
  • Margaret Stacy studied Banbury (p.136)
  • T.H. Pear author of English Social Differences (1955)
  • Hilde Himmelweit study of four grammar schools in London
  • Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy (1957) which reminisces about working class Hunslet
  • sociologist Madeline Kerr’s five-year study The People of Ship Street in Liverpool (1958)
  • Tony Mason, football historian
  • Leo Kuper vox pops from Houghton in Coventry
  • John Barron Mays’ study of inner-city Liverpool in the early 1950s
  • Ross McKibbin author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1955
  • Gavin Mellor research into football crowds in the north-west 1946-62
  • Peter Miskell’s study of the cimema in Wales
  • John Mogey, author of a study of the Jolly Waterman pub in St Ebbe’s, a suburb of Oxford
  • Alison Ravetz, author if a study of the model Quarry Hill estate in Leeds
  • Doris Rich authored a study of working men’s clubs in Coseley
  • James Robb, author of a study of Bethnal Green in the late 1940s
  • Elizabeth Robert conducted extensive interviews in north-west England into education (p.161)
  • Robert Roberts, author of The Classic Slum (1971) about Salford either side of the war
  • Rowntree and Lavers, author of the study English Life and Leisure
  • Alice Russell, historian of occupational welfare
  • sociologist Mike Savage (pp.148, 159)
  • American sociologist Edward Shils
  • Brian Simon, communist teacher then at Leicester University
  • Eliot Slater and Moya Woodside interviewed 200 servicemen just as the war ended about education
  • 1953 report on Southamptons’s housing estates
  • Peter Stead, author of a study of Barry in south Wales
  • Avram Taylor, historian of working class credit
  • Philip Vernon, professor of Educational Psychology at London University’s Institute of Education
  • John Walton, historian of Blackpool landladies
  • Michael Young, author of Is This the Classless Society (1951) among many others
  • Ferdynand Zweig, wide-ranging sociological investigator of the post war years

As far as I could see all of these studies were focused on the working class, their hobbies, activities, beliefs and attitudes – as well as an extended consideration of what ‘community’ meant to them. This latter was meant to help the town planners who agonised so much about trying to create new ‘communities’ in the new estates and the new towns, and so on – but two things are glaringly absent from the list of topics.

One is sex. Not one of the researchers mentioned above appears to have made any enquiries into the sex lives of their subjects. Given our modern (2019) obsession with sex and bodies, it is a startling omission which, in itself, speaks volumes about the constrained, conservative and essentially private character of the time.

(There are several mentions of homosexuality, brought into the public domain by several high-profile prosecutions of gays for soliciting in public toilets, which prompted a) righteous indignation from the right-wing press but b) soul searching among liberal politicians and some of the regular diarists Kynaston features, along the lines of: why should people be prosecuted by the law for the way God made them?)

Secondly, why just the working class? OK, so they made up some 70% of the population, but why are there no studies about the behaviour and belief systems of, say, architects and town planners? Kynaston quotes critics pointing out what a small, inbred world of self-congratulatory back-scratchers this was – but there appears to be no study of their educational backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices – or of any other middle-class milieu.

And this goes even more for the upper classes. What about all those cabinet ministers who went to Eton and Harrow and Westminster? Did no one do a sociological study of private schools, or of the Westminster village or of the posh London clubs? Apparently not. Why not?

And this tells you something, maybe, about sociology as a discipline: that it consists of generally left-wing, middle-class intellectuals and academics making forays into working class territory, expeditions into working class lives as if the working class were remote tribes in deepest New Guinea. The rhetoric of adventure and exploration which accompanies some of the studies is quite comic, if you read it in this way. As is the way they then report back their findings in prestigious journals and articles and books and win prizes for their bravery as if they’ve just come back from climbing Everest, instead of spending a couple of weeks in Middlesborough chatting to miners.

It’s only right at the end of the 150 or so pages of non-stop sociological analysis of ‘the working classes’ that you finally get some sociologists conceding that they are not the solid communities of socialist heroes of the revolution that so many of these left wingers wanted them to be: that in fact, many ‘working class’ communities were riven by jealousies, petty feuds and a crushing sense of snobbery. Umpteen housewives are quoted as saying that so-and-so thought she was ‘too good’ for the rest of us, was hoity-toity, told her children not to play with our kids etc. other mums told researchers they instructed their children not to play with the rough types from down the road.

People turned out to be acutely aware of even slight differences of behaviour or speech and drew divisive conclusions accordingly. The myth of one homogenous ‘working class’ with common interest turns out to be just that, a myth. THis goes some way to answering my question about why 70% of the population did not all vote for the workers’ party, far from it.

Above all, what comes over very strongly in the voices of ordinary people, is the wish to be left alone, to live and let live, and for privacy – to be allowed to live in what Geoffrey Gorer summed up as ‘distant cordiality’ with their neighbours.

‘You don’t get any privacy in flats,’ declared Mrs Essex from number 7 Battersea Church Road  (p.339).

Contrary to the ‘urbanists’, like Michael Young, who wanted to help working class communities remain in their city centres, large numbers of the ‘working classes’ were about to find themselves forced (by the ‘dispersionists’, the generation of high-minded, left-wing planners and architects who Kynaston quotes so extensively and devastatingly, p.340) to move into windy new estates miles from anywhere with no shops or even schools. Those that did remain near their old communities found themselves forced into high-rise blocks of flats with paper-thin walls and ‘shared facilities’ next to new ‘community centres’ which nobody wanted and nobody used and were quickly vandalised. It is a bleak picture.

Love/hate

Lindsay Anderson (b.1923) was ‘a British feature film, theatre and documentary director, film critic, and leading light of the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave’ (Wikipedia).

But in Kynaston’s opinion, Anderson’s 10-minute film O Dreamland, shot in the Margate amusement park of the same name, ‘marked the start of a new, increasingly high-profile phase in the long, difficult, love-hate relationship of the left-leaning cultural elite with the poor old working class, just going about its business and thinking its own private, inscrutable thoughts (p.220).

Here it is, disapproval and condescension dripping from every frame.

Lady authors

For some reason women authors seem more prominent in the era than male authors. It was easy to compile a list of names which recurred and whose works I really ought to make an effort to familiarise myself with.

  • Jean Rhys b.1890 (private school and RADA)
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 (home schooled by her father, a house-master at Harrow School)
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 (private school and art school)
  • Catherine Cookson b.1906 (left school at 14 to take a job as a laundress at a workhouse)
  • Barbara Pym b.1913 (private school and Oxford)
  • Doris Lessing b.1919 (private school till she left home at 15)
  • Lorna Sage b.1943 (grammar school and Durham)
  • Sue Townshend b.1946 (secondary modern South Wigston High School, left school at 14)

Links

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.


Related links

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.


Related links

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017

Took the kids to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This is the 7th or 8th Summer show I’ve been to, so I know the form: of 12,000 or so works submitted by professionals and amateurs alike, some 1,200 are selected and hung in rooms arranged by different curators, picking out or choosing different themes, often with distinct wall colours to give each room a specific character.

There’s always a room devoted to architecture (the ‘room of shame’ as I call it) and one of Big Sculptures. This year there were also two room showing videos, one showing Phantom Rhapsody by Sarah Pucill and The Invisible Voice by Julie Born Schwartz. I have myself produced and directed a number of videos, and then series edited several hundred TV programmes. It never ceases to surprise me how ‘art’ videos have such low production values and use so little of the digital technology which is available. Having watched the showreels of hundreds of directors applying for TV jobs, which consist of scores of inventive clips, impactful short films, novel combinations of music and action, I’m always struck by the way art videos are so often deeply conservative and unimaginative.

And then there’s always work by the familiar Royal Academicians like Michael Craig-Martin, the Matisse-like cut-outs by Gillian Ayres, the saucy cartoonish self-portraits of Anthony Green (e.g. The Pink Lounge), evocative etchings of the Highlands and Islands by Norman Ackroyd, or the scrawny nudes by Tracey Emin – although this year Ms Emin supplied a set of smallish neon sentences spelling out phrases like ‘I Did Not Say I Can Never Love You I Said I Could Never Love You’ and ‘Never Again!’ and ‘And I Said I Love You!’. This last one can be seen through the archway in the photo below, a pink neon sentence hanging from the wall and yours for just £84,000.

View of the Wohl Central Hall featuring Petrol Cargo by Romuald Hazoume and Very Nice Ride by Paola Pivi

View of the Wohl Central Hall featuring Petrol Cargo by Romuald Hazoume and Very Nice Ride (a rotating bicycle wheel studded with peacock feathers attached to the wall) by Paola Pivi (£13,000)

Petrol Cargo is based on the scooters laden with jugs and vessels used to smuggle petrol across borders in West Africa – possibly more a piece of ethnography than art, but hey…

View of Room II featuring Untitled (Violin) by Michael Craig-Martin

View of Room II featuring Untitled (Violin) by Michael Craig-Martin RA (£120,000)

Although you can take a few minutes to read the wall label in each room which gives the ostensible aim and guiding principles the selectors used to make their selection, these would be impossible to guess from the works alone which, in each room, present much the same kind of cluttered random feel.

View of Room II showing Volute IV by Paul de Monchaux (£36,000) and Full House by Sean Scully (NFS)

View of Room II showing Volute IV by Paul de Monchaux (The bronze sculpture on the floor – £36,000) and Full House by Sean Scully RA (the big painting – Not For Sale)

My kids quickly devised a game called Find The Most Expensive Work in The Room, though this didn’t stop us just liking things we liked, such as Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev, bottom left and heavily channeling Paul Klee -and Frederick Cuming’s slightly disturbing Children’s Playground, Sicily. These were in Room I which was absolutely crammed with works stacked next to each other. It’s an interesting effect. This is  how the Victorians displayed their pictures without the enormous reverent white spaces we’re used to in normal exhibitions. It tends to make you make much quicker, more sweeping judgments: Yes, No, No, Yes.

Room I featuring Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev (botton left - £6,000) and Children's Playground, Sicilty by Frederick Cuming (bottom right - £7,200)

Room I featuring Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev (botton left – £6,000) and Children’s Playground, Sicily by Frederick Cuming (bottom right – £7,200)

Sometimes works catch your eye. Or the arrangement of works. So, simply having two works by Bill Jacklin RA next to each other more than doubled their impact – though both have a hint of the Jack Vettrianos about them.

Hub I (£55,000) and Umbrella Crossing IV (£35,000) by Bill Jacklin

Hub I (£55,000) and Umbrella Crossing IV (£35,000) by Bill Jacklin

Room V is dominated by Natural Pearl, a sculpture in steel by Nigel Hall RA. On the wall, at the top, to the right of the doorway, you can see two of the bright, attractive decorative works in the style of Matisse’s cut-outs by Gillian Ayres RA. These come in signed editions of 30 at £4,700 a pop.

Room V featuring Natural Pearl by Nigel Hall (£189,600)

Room V featuring Natural Pearl by Nigel Hall (£189,600)

The woman on the right in the photo is above is holding a flute of champagne. because in the centre of the largest room is a bar serving champagne among other intoxicating drinks at Royal Ascot prices. So there were lots of white middle-class people sipping champagne and considering post-colonial works such as Inheritance by British artist Zak Ové, noted for ‘his documentation of and anthropological interest in diasporic and African history’.

Inheritance by Zak Ové (£21,600)

Inheritance by Zak Ové (£21,600)

Next to this pillar are two works by Mozambique artist Gonçalo Mabunda, both called Untitled throne and made out of decommissioned weapons used during Mozambique’s civil war in which over a million people died. They’re clearly related to the famous Throne of Weapons in the British Museum made by Cristóvão Estavão Canhavato as part of the same project titled ‘Transforming Guns into Hoes’, part funded by European charities.

One chair costs £14,400 and one costs £15,000 – the kids suggested that one costs more because some of the ammo is still live – and that the only way to find out which one is to sit on them both and see which one blows up! Nothing in Art, I explained patiently to my son, is that exciting or dangerous. When curators describe a work of art as ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’ they don’t, in fact, mean it.

Untitled thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda (£14,400 and £15,000)

Untitled thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda (£14,400 and £15,000)

In a corner of room VI were this set of figurines a little over a foot tall, each with an individual name (Taigen, Monika etc) by Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki and retailing at an impressive £24,000. My son calculated you could buy 480 Action Men for that price.

Taigen, Monika, Larry, Dasha, Rosie, Kadeem and Kyrone by Tomoaki Suzuki (£24,000)

Taigen, Monika, Larry, Dasha, Rosie, Kadeem and Kyrone by Tomoaki Suzuki (£24,000 each)

Amid so many so-so abstract paintings, I was attracted to sculptures of the human form. This one-off mannequin, a ‘unique fibre-glass sculpture, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, bespoke hand-coloured globe and steel baseplate’ is by Yinka Shonibure RA and titled Venus de Medici. (Hanging on the wall to the left is Métamorphose de Papillon by Abdoulaye Konaté – £35,000)

Venus de Medici by Yinka Shonibare RA (£162,000)

Venus de Medici by Yinka Shonibare RA (£162,000)

Looking into it now, after my visit, I notice that this room, Room VI, was curated by Yinka Shonibare and was probably my favourite, with half a dozen big striking sculptures.

Mūgogo - The Crossing By Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (£17,500)

Mūgogo – The Crossing by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (£17,500)

When there are lots of paintings, of wildly different styles and aims, hanging cheek by jowl, it’s difficult to sort out your responses to them, or to really pay attention to each one. You tend to be attracted at a quick glance by the colour, the design, the subject conveyed (whether it’s a figurative work), and so on.

For example, the semi-abstract works on the right are probably the better pieces, but by this stage the visitor is over 750 works into the exhibition (!) so the rather exhausted eye tends to be drawn to the easier-to-process figurative images on the left.

Corner of Room VII

Corner of Room VII

In the above photo, the image of the door open into a room is Postern by Suzanne Moxhay (£895), to its right is Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (After Piranesi) by Emily Allchurch; on the right wall are Of by Elizabeth Magill (£10,000) and Baroda – Tree Of Art by Katsutoshi Yuasa (£2,500).

Room IX is dominated by a vast work by Gilbert & George, the latest in their huge stained-glass-window style works divided into panels and generally depicting crude and vulgar subjects – I am still reeling from the similarly huge works depicting turds and piss, such as Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit (1996) which I saw at Tate a few years ago. The example here was relatively restrained Beard Speak, made up of panels containing the text of adverts stuck up in phone boxes – from the days when there used to be phone boxes.

Beard Speak by Gilbert & George

Beard Speak by Gilbert & George

I preferred two sculptures by women artists: Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500): my daughter told me how much work it must have been to colour and then sew together all these sequins, beads and so on.

Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500)

Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500)

And, nearby, a wonderful sculpture of an old sailing ship made from fake and real pearl necklaces, bracelets and tiaras, Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560) maybe a reference to the gold and precious stones so often transported across the seas in the high period of piracy in the 17th century.

Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560)

Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560)

I was intrigued enough by this to search the internet for an explanation of the name.

Luckily the final room, the Lecture Room, felt much airier and spacious, a big room with a manageable 20 works, including Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer (NFS), Painting For B by Secundino Hernández (NFS) and two bright abstract works by Fiona Rae RA, She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds (NFS) and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune (NFS).

View of the Lecture Room including, from left to right, Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer, Painting For B by Secundino Hernández, and She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune by Fiona Rae RA

View of the Lecture Room including, from left to right, Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer, Painting For B by Secundino Hernández, and She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune by Fiona Rae RA. The sculpture is Bumps In The Road by Huma Bhabha

Better online?

So many ways of seeing and being and expressing and depicting – quite bewildering. It is worth commenting that it is in many ways more satisfying to view works via the online search portal.

Seeing works online, in isolation, helps you to:

a) notice them at all among the scrum and hubbub of the packed walls displays
b) dwell on their merits

It’s beyond the energy of most gallery visitors to pay close attention to over 1,000 art works. There are 48 just in this photo below, and it shows less than half of one room.

It dawns on me that it may be a good idea to spend some time scrolling through the works online, deciding what you like, and only then visit the exhibition to see them in the flesh…

Lots of pictures

An awful lot of pictures


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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