Vol. 1 No. 4 · 6 December 1979

Peter Campbell looks at the Hayward Gallery Thirties show

1610 words

The Hayward Gallery has been inwardly transformed – at a reported cost of over £100,000 – to receive the Thirties exhibition, an enterprise on the largest scale, put together by a committee chaired by William Feaver. Modernist white walls mask the emphatic textures and shapes of the interior of the shell, so that Fifties Brutalism encloses Thirties Modern.

But what is displayed in the cases and on the walls is an attempt at total recall. A huge range of objects is thrown together – evidence for a multiplicity of lines of development. This openness emphasises the partiality of those who have told simple tales of the battle of Modernism with reaction, but in making a single exhibition of such disparate material the organisers have also managed to neutralise much of what they show. Buildings like those of Lubetkin or Wells Coates, for instance, were presented as solutions, not creations, and to suggest, as the exhibition must, that other conventions have equal validity undermines the fragile logic that supported their simplicities. A fragment of a Rex Whistler interior, displayed in an alcove, is like a stage set seen with the house-lights up, and embarrassingly flat. The show turns on their heads devices of juxtaposition common in the Thirties. The mixture of photographs and abstract shapes in posters, the surreal intrusion of a mirror into a landscape, or a tailor’s dummy on Brighton Pier, shocked the eye at the time. Here hanging Munnings and Ben Nicholson in the same gallery reduces the work of both to the status of evidence. In this sense the show is like an auctioneer’s gallery – with as common denominator the decade of creation instead of the hour of dispersal.

From the very beginning one has to try to avoid these cancellings-out. The huge, battered model of Lutyens’s unbuilt Catholic cathedral for Liverpool sits just inside the entrance. Like some grand English ode on a Latin theme, it has authority, richness of allusion, and complexity of form. Modern Movement Esperanto is a crisper, thinner utterance, a clear piping without overtones or reverberations – but also without rhetorical sleight-of-hand. One could say that the time has come to see the best in both styles. Both are, after all, now represented in schedules of listed buildings. And that the time has come honestly to enjoy the shine on the rump of a Munnings horse, the discretion of a Nicholson relief, the fresh-as-paint prettiness of a Susie Cooper teapot, the housewifely amateurishness of an Omega Workshops painted table, the wit of a Shell poster: to chuck exclusive theories overboard. The makers could not; perhaps historians now can. Fifty years should be about the time it takes for the intellectual scaffolding around art to decay, fall away, be dismantled. So what, in the context of this show, seems still to stand up without it?

The Thirties-Modern interior, in its fully developed form, does so very well. Contemporary photographs of the Lubetkin and Tecton High Point flats, and of William Lescaze buildings for the Darlington Hall Estate, are still wonderfully convincing. Attempts to make the same style work cheaply do not. Wells Coates’s Minimum Flat was all too easy to translate into something which offered a minimum life. Artist-designed fabrics on the whole do not stand up, artist-designed posters do, although the professional poster designer McKnight Kauffer did the best of the lot. By the Thirties the achievements of Arts and Crafts revivalism were petering out: Edward Johnston and Eric Gill look good, calligraphy after Johnston aimless, laboured and weak. Craft pottery and commercial pottery both stand up very well. Furniture, either in the Gimson tradition, of beautifully-finished joinery with neat carpentered detailing, as practised by Edward Barnsley, or as seen in the work of architect-designers or industrial designers like R.D. Russell, Serge Chermayeff and Betty Joel, looks desirable, although those who knew it when it was new, those who grew up with it, and those who delight in it now for its period flavour may find it so for different reasons. Not that rooms with Duncan Grant prints, curtains patterned in some variation of amoeba and dart or chevron and dot, and Isokon furniture, were very common: the section on photojournalism makes that clear. It sensibly concentrates on the work of a few photographers in particular, James Jarché, Edward Malindinc and Reuben Saidman, who worked for the picture papers that supplied Britain with a serial documentary self-portrait. Their work was often reproduced in the interlocking boxes and circles of composite picture pages, and the catalogue makes a rather heavy-handed comment on the nature of the editorial process by reproducing many of them with their original masking and cropping marks.

What the photographs show is often more rumpled, old-fashioned, and, above all, more various, than the artefacts in the exhibition would lead you to expect. Herring girls and chorus girls, racing men and unemployed ship-builders, don’t look like subscribers to any of the Thirties dreams. One photograph, however, of a rally of ramblers, striding twenty abreast along the Downs, the White Horse of Westbury behind them, look to be Penguin buyers, New Left Book Club members, BBC listeners, to a man. Perhaps for people like them, everything in this exhibition would make sense. They could live in a suburban semi with round-cornered bays and a tiled roof – but believe the future lay with blocks of workers’ flats; accept that a new world should be built, while taking only tentative steps towards transforming their own environment. There are sections of this exhibition which show where their radio programmes were broadcast from, what comic books their children (no doubt secretly) read, what cars they drove, what cinemas they queued at,

The omnivorousness of the show serves painting least well. Sickert’s Edward VIII – painted from a photograph – establishes forward connections with made-image users of the last twenty years and backward ones with Degas. It stands free of, and is uncompromised by, what is around it.

Paintings by Coldstream and the other Euston Road painters seem dim because the mannerisms that went with their attempt to achieve objectivity of Vermeer-like intensity demand some degree of isolation if they are to be properly read. The little oblique dabs of paint and subdued tonality which characterise their pictures seem like the slurring of speech someone might use to hide an accent, not a device to generalise form and emphasise exact spatial intervals. One has to struggle to see that this was a sustained attempt to give figurative painting seriousness and weight. As it is, Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of Stephen Spender upstages a row of portraits by Lamb, Coldstream and John because of its linear clarity and bite, and a Matthew Smith holds your eye by force of juicy paint and saturated colour alone.

Yet thin paint in the work of Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash is part of an Englishness (or rather of two sorts of Englishness) which, even in the context of this kind of show, asserts its right to attention. By substituting bland English skies, and colour and tone not far from those of the English watercolour tradition, for the desert noon or lamplit midnight of Continental Surrealism, Nash absorbed the real strangenesses of English landscape into his pictures – standing stones, hanging woods and ancient earthworks. Later, the new strangeness of vapour trails, crashed bombers and bombed houses was to give him and other English Surrealists just those juxtapositions of inside and out, of oddly assorted objects and empty perspectives, which they had been, often rather too laboriously, inventing.

Stanley Spencer, on the other hand, who invented nothing, and set visions and allegories in his own place of Cookham, used the same thin paint (though brighter) to different ends. Every neat stroke of the brush is a denial of any connection (except perhaps a negative one) between the strength of the vision and the nature of the gesture. In the end, it is the individualists, like Spencer and Burra, not the internationalists, one wants to see more of. A serious reassessment of the relative standing of architects in the Thirties seems possible: it is no longer thought absurd to assert that Lutyens was the greatest English architect of our century, if not the one before. In painting, there is no equivalent. One looks here at the twilight melancholy of Algernon Newton’s London nocturnes, the plastic Cotswold rurality of J.W. Tucker’s ‘Hiking’, its girl map-readers as healthy as the lass in the Horlicks ad, and decides that ‘Great Academy pictures of the Thirties’ is a lollipop of an exhibition one can do without.

Much that is laboriously established here could be understood better by a reading of Evelyn Waugh. The catalogue quotes the description of Poppet Green’s paintings from Put out more flags (‘Eighty years ago her subjects would have been knights in armour, ladies in wimples and distress; fifty years ago “nocturnes”; twenty years ago pierrots and willow trees; now in 1939 they were bodiless heads, green horses, violet grass, seaweed, shells and fungi, neatly executed, conventionally arranged in the manner of Dali’). And think of Charles Ryder’s decorations at Brideshead: ‘There was another painted room, outside under pillars – modern work but, if you ask me, the prettiest in the place; it was the signal office and they made absolute hay of it; rather a shame.’ So those doubtless Rex Whistlerian decorations did not survive the war.

One thinks of other casualties, like the whiteness of the plaster walls of Modern Movement houses, and the hope that posters by painters would sell as well as posters by huxters; and of survivors like paperback books, industrial design and the hand-made pot.

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