ÉMIGRÉ ART IN BRITAIN


The book Insiders Outsiders tells the extraordinary story of the contribution made by refugee artists to British culture from the 1930s onwards, most of them fleeing from persecution in Germany and many of them Jewish. The BBC, publishing, music, cinema, art and architecture all benefited from their new perspectives.

Some names were obviously foreign – Freud, Kokoschka, Pevsner, Moholy-Nagy – some, like the BBC head of drama, Martin Esslin, sounded vaguely foreign and others, like Stephen Hearst, the controller of the BBC in the 1970s, didn’t, even though he was born in Budapest.

The central European contribution to the visual arts wasn’t widely appreciated and our slowness in taking to modernism is obscured by the prominence given to innovative work in art histories, which was often disliked at the time. The art schools were in thrall to the Arts and Crafts movement until the late 1940s. It it was only after Picasso’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1960, when he was almost eighty, that he came to be widely regarded in England as anything other than a charlatan. The British took their modernism with a large dash of water. Michael Saler has written a revealing account of how the modernism of Frank Pick’s London Transport was shot though with Ruskinian ideas: Saler called it medieval modernism. And Insiders Outsiders describes the strong opposition to the German Expressionism that émigré artists brought with them and the British preference for a softer French modernism rooted in Post-Impressionism.

Bloomsbury exerted a baneful influence. Vanessa Bell adopted the Post-Impressionist style in the 1910s and painted the same way for forty years. Artistic taste in England was shaped by post-WWI anti-German sentiment, which may be one of the reasons reason why British design was stuck for so long in Arts-and-Crafts mode. There was also, of course, the shade cast by William Morris. His followers were paralysed by admiration for him and they repeated themselves for decades. The design initiative passed from England to Germany, where the state-sponsored Bauhaus and Deutscher Werkbund accommodated to mass production in a way that was anathema to British designers.

The story in architecture, music and the other arts is somewhat different. Lucie Rie, an Austrian Jew, gained considerable respect in the small world of studio pottery, but Greta Marks, who tried to adapt her modernist ceramics to Stoke-on-Trent, had an unhappy career in Britain. Several of the artists in this book fell into obscurity and the influence of continental émigrés was hard-won in Britian.

DESIGN REGULATION

French Silk brocade from a costume, c.1735. It may be the work of French handloom weavers who settled in England. The design is almost certainly by the famous silk-designer from Lyon, Jean Revel. (Victoria and Albert Museum)


Pursuing that obsession of British design reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries, the inferiority of British design compared to that in continental Europe, I wondered whether it really was inferior or whether British manufacturers and their advocates simply had an inferiority complex. The idea that Britain lagged in design was a preoccupation of politicians, artists and critics, and to a much lesser extent of businessmen, and it was explored by parliamentary committees from the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures in 1835 to the Gorell Committee in 1931.

Much of the debate concerned consumer goods and the application of decoration. The modern concept of design as problem solving and product engineering was hardly developed. The concern of the reformers was the decorative arts and the potential contribution of the artist to manufacturing.

The 1835 Select Committee was set up under the chairmanship of William Ewart, MP “to inquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the Arts and of the Principles of Design among the People (especially the Manufacturing Population) of the Country”. The stimulus was the perceived inferiority of British goods in what was called the fancy trade and the inquiry concentrated on silk, printed cotton, shawls and ribbons, lace, porcelain, brass, and architectural mouldings.

The view of many of the witnesses was that British workmen produced work of good quality and that some of them had a native artistic talent but that they were uneducated in the principles of design and that, despite their best efforts, they could not be said to be designers. Employers were reluctant to go to the expense of employing trained artists because original designs were not protected by copyright law and anything new would be quickly stolen by competitors. On the continent, however, particularly in France, there was ample design education, subsidised by the state, and original designs were protected by copyright. Out of the Ewart Committee came the British schools of design, which developed into our modern art schools.

But a hundred years later, almost as if nothing had happened, the Gorell Committee was making similar complaints about the inferiority of British design and it even quoted the the Ewart Committee. In the intervening years the argument had been influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and it was now being said that a major cause of poor design in Britain was the unhealthy separation of the arts from manufacturing that had come about as a result of the industrial revolution (a singularly unconvincing explanation, I think, since France, which was supposed to have higher standards than Britain, had also had an industrial revolution). The conclusions of Gorell were tamer than those of Ewart and it recommended little more than the promotion of exhibitions of good design, the ultimate outcome of which was the Council of Industrial Design.

If continental design was in truth superior to British, could it have been because on the continent there was a long history of state intervention in industry and of regulation of manufacturing standards? In France in particular (though also to a degree in Prussia and Saxony) there had been royal direction of luxury industries, and in France under the system of Jean-Baptiste Colbert there had been regulation of trades and professions, inspection of quality, materials and finishes. The details of Colbert’s regulations are staggering to the modern liberal sensibility. The following passage is a short extract from the fifty-six regulations for cloth and serge manufacture in Beauvais, drawn up in 1667 under Colbert’s influence:

“Wool for the warp to be dried in a specified fashion. Weaver to weave into the top of each piece of cloth the initial of the first name and the whole surname of the person to whom the cloth belongs. Weavers not to use damp and dry wool in the same woof, under penalty of a 6 livres fine. If a weaver makes a poor selvage, 5 sous fine. If a weaver leaves a piece of cloth dirty and mussy, 2 sous fine. Weavers must make over all small spots where the work was sloppy. One sou fine. Weavers to pay one sou fine for each shuttle hole. If a weaver makes the distance between the threads of the warp unequal, 6 deniers fine ; or, in bad cases, 2 sous. If the warp is not tight, 2 sous 6 deniers fine if a piece unevenly woven, 5 sous fine.”

Did this kind of quality control bring about French superiority in design? There are three reasons to doubt it.

First, economic historians think it was damaging to industry and tend to say that that Colbertism prevented competition, discouraged innovation and kept prices high. If that was the case it may not have encouraged good design.

Second, by the 1830s, at the time of the Ewart Committee, Colbertism had been dead forty years, having been swept away in its entirety by the French Revolution, and although there had been some return to regulation, the regulation that existed was nothing like what it had been under the ancien régime. The alleged superiority of French design in the early 19th century was therefore very unlikely to have been a product of any contemporary regulation and, if it existed, it must have been a consequence either of habits and structures surviving from an earlier time, or of something else. The explanations most often put to Ewart were the existence of a system of design education in France and the legal protection of intellectual property.

Third, Colbert’s system regulated workmanship and although it may have ensured that goods were made to a high standard, that was not the same thing as good design. Both design and workmanship are needed in superior articles of manufacture but it is possible for well-made things to be badly designed and vice-versa.

One of Ewart’s witnesses was Claude Guillotte, a French loom maker who had been instrumental in bringing the Jacquard loom to England. He was extremely well informed about silk weaving and the skills and abilities of silk workers. He agreed that French design was better than English and he attributed it to the fact that there were artists working in the French industry, particularly at that point in the Jacquard process, the so-called mise en carte or mapping, where the design was transferred to squared paper, in which the columns represented the warp of the fabric and the rows represented the weft, after which the map was translated into holes on a card that controlled the loom. As a result of this process, less skilled workers were able to make richly-figured silk of a kind that they would have previously been incapable of. According to Guillotte, the English were the equals of the French in the making of plain silks, and both countries were comparable in the manufacturing quality of their figured silks, but the French designs were better because in France the metteur en carte was an artist, whereas in England he was not.

MAJOLICA MANIA

After its showing at the Bard Graduate Centre Gallery, New York, and the Waters Art Museum, Baltimore, Majolica Mania has come home to Stoke-on-Trent. It’s now at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery until the end of January, the first major exhibition of majolica in nearly four decades. It examines the remarkable range of this exuberantly-modelled and brightly-glazed pottery, featuring objects from private collections in the United States, the Potteries Museum’s own collection and the Minton Archive.

What is majolica? It is earthenware with a moulded surface decorated with areas of transparent, coloured, lead-based glaze. Minton, it’s inventor, at first called it Palissy Ware, in reference to its source of inspiration in the 16th-century ceramics of Bernard Palissy, but because the company at the same time exhibited imitations of Italian tin-glazed maiolica, there arose some confusion and the name majolica came to be attached to this type of ceramics. Both types – tin-glazed maiolica and lead-glazed majolica – reflected Victorian historicism and the contemporary fascination with French and Italian Renaissance ceramics.

First introduced at the Great Exhibition in 1851, majolica became so popular that it was copied in quantity by manufacturers other than Minton. Wedgwood made it about ten years later and the other potteries included William Brownfield and Sons, George Jones, John Adams and Son, Joseph Holdcroft and Wardle and Co.

The stylistic and technical innovations were largely the work of one man, Léon Arnoux, a French potter and ceramic chemist who came to England to escape the 1848 revolution and went on to become Minton’s art director. Several French artists were attracted to Minton by the excellent salaries on offer and the prospect of greater political stability in England. By the 1870s Minton valued Arnoux so highly that they were paying him the fabulous sum of £1,200 p.a.

Majolica lent itself to extravagance in which function was decidedly second to appearance and it was particularly suited to display, even when applied to objects ostensibly designed for use. It had obvious architectural applications in tiles and panels with coloured relief modelling, and Herbert Minton’s association with Henry Cole provided the opportunity for majolica reliefs to be used in the rapidly expanding South Kensington Museum. It was widely applied to commercial buildings and domestic interiors. The well-preserved building below is The Crown pub in Belfast.

In the decades before the American Civil War about half the pottery exported from Stoke-on-Trent went to Amercia and by the 1870s many American manufacturers were making majolica jugs, spittoons, tea sets and other tableware, often copying best-selling English models. There had been a flow of British potters to the USA since the 1840s in search of a better life and they were able to apply their expertise to the American industry. US manufacturers included Griffen, Smith & Hill (below), Chesapeake Pottery, New York City Pottery, Morley & Co., The Eureka Pottery Co., Arsenal Pottery, Edwin Bennett Pottery Company, and Peekskill Pottery Works.

By the 1870s the popularity of majolica was beginning to wane in Britain, hastened by a growing awareness of the toxicity of the lead glaze. By the end of the century there was widespread public and political concern about lead poisoning and a search began for a safe substitute. Although the potters benefited from the increased attention being paid to their health, lead substitutes like borax failed to impart the same brilliancy to the majolica glaze.

WAGNER AND DANCE

After reading my post on Ballet Royal de la Nuit, Ken Ward, who for many years was editor of the international Bruckner Journal, corrected my assertion that dance isn’t part of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. He pointed out the Tanz der Lehrbuben in Die Meistersinger and the bit of dancing in the Flying Dutchman, and he said that the Rhine maidens, the Valkyries and the Flower Maidens often dance, though not on Wagner’s instructions. He pointed me in the direction of Thomas Grey’s paper in Musicology and Dance, which observed that Wagner – as I suspected – explicitly rejected the traditions of French dance.

“Wagner’s feelings towards dance were double-edged. On the one hand, the composer acknowledged the importance of movement and gesture in the creation of his ideal artwork. Indeed, Wagner sought to play up the two, emphasizing the role of the erotic, sexualized body onstage. On the other hand, Wagner liked to ridicule contemporary ballet. But, to Wagner, ballet’s problematic status did not relate to its explicitly bodily and human aspects. Instead, it was the genre’s association with an institutional context – ballet as produced and consumed at the Paris Opéra – that troubled the composer.”

“LA NOTTE”

We watched Antonioni’s 1961 film La Notte the other evening, never having seen it before. It explores the familiar themes of the period — alienation, boredom, meaningless relationships, non-communication, infidelity, the emptiness of bourgeois life — which it conveys in a dialogue of sententious non-sequiturs. If today we think Antonioni’s script, written with Ennio Flaiano and Tonino Guerra, takes itself a bit too seriously and says not very much, his direction and Gianni di Venanzoni’s superlative black and white cinematography are of a very high order indeed and the film is worth watching for those things alone.

Each scene is meticulously arranged, showing the influence of the art of the time, and that abstract perfection, along with the static camera and way the characters carry their elegant clothes, convey a fitting coldness.

The balletic scene towards the end, where Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Moreau and Monica Vitti revolve slowly round one another, each dressed in black and silhouetted against a white wall, epitomises the film.

STRAWBERRY HILL

One of my favourite guides is Visitor’s London, written by Harold F. Hutchinson for London Transport in the 1950s and reprinted many times. My edition is from 1968. The line illustrations include this one of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill by Gareth Adamson. Hutchinson’s practical prose is elegant enough to be enjoyable for its own sake and although the guide is old, it’s still useful because it covers all of London’s important attractions. When it was written, this little Gothic confection wasn’t open to the public “but permission to see this architectural enterprise is always given to the serious student.” It’s still owned by St Mary’s University (once a Catholic teacher training college) but it was refurbished in 2015 following a very long period of neglect remarkable for such a historically important building. Although not a serious student, I visited the other day.

Its odd arrangement of rooms, many of them impossibly small, is explained by the fact that Walpole intended Strawberry Hill as a place to display the collection to which he devoted his life and which was broken up in 1842. The trustees are attempting to trace and reassemble it, and as he recorded his possessions at length the contents of Strawberry Hill are known and there’s a well-illustrated publication by Silvia Davoli, Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill.

BALLET ROYAL DE LA NUIT

I don’t usually write about theatre arts, but the realisation of Ballet Royal de la Nuit by Sebastian Daucé and Ensemble Correspondences at Théâtre de Caen (2017) which I’ve just seen is so original and spine-tingling that I thought I might say something about it.

The Ballet Royal de la Nuit was a vast theatrical event mounted in 1653 at the Louvre for the young Louis XIV and his court under the direction of his first minister Mazarin. It was performed throughout the night and lasted about twelve hours. It was intended not just as an entertainment but as a demonstration of the king’s power and of French cultural superiority, and although it was ostensibly for the royal court was performed before the ambassadors of every European kingdom. France had come though the convulsions of the Fronde, Mazarin had returned from the exile to which the Fronde had condemned him and Louis demonstrated his elevation by dancing the part of the Sun, who rose in splendour at the climax of the performance. The memorable presentation of The Sun King was was spoken of throughout Europe for the rest of the century.

In this ballet de la cour song, dance, music, costume and theatrical performance are deliciously combined in a total work of art. (Romantics might need to be reminded that Wagner didn’t include dance in his cut-down version of the Gesamtkunstwerk.) It was performed only once. Despite its fame and splendour, the record of it is fragmentary. There are pictures of the costumes but there isn’t even a complete record of the music, let alone choreography. Sebastian Daucé and his colleagues spent three years reconstructing it.

And so the Ensemble Correspondences performance has had to be conjectural, and it is not possible to see the Ballet Royal as it was once performed and performed once only. But what has been achieved is breathtaking and succeeds in conveying the spirit of Baroque in a 21st-century interpretation that is beautiful, inventive and bizarre. Song dance and circus are combined to make a thing of the present as much a record of the past (period instruments, of course). There are three CDs and a DVD.

THE SOUP GIRLS AND THE VAN GOGH


The two girls who threw soup at Sunflowers in the National Gallery certainly got publicity for ‘Just Stop Oil’ but not much support. Good causes often lose sympathy when they turn to vandalism or civil disobedience. In the 1960s the Ban The Bomb movement had sizable support but it declined after the anti-bomb campaigners started sitting down on airport runways.

There were some good jokes about the National Gallery demo: Are ‘Just Stop Oil’ advocates of gouache? Why didn’t they use Campbell’s soup? But their serious point, that life is more important than art, doesn’t stand up for long.

The demo illustrated the Politician’s Syllogism: Something urgent needs to be done. Throwing soup at a Van Gogh is doing something urgent. Therefore throwing soup at a Van Gogh needs to be done.

There’s no dichotomy between art and life. Art is as old as life and life without art isn’t worth living. The Altamira cave paintings are 36,000 years old. I think that’s why there’s been such a pushback against this demo.

As to the soup girls, they lacked the courage of their convictions, unlike Vladimir Umanets, who vandalised a Rothko in 2012. They chose a painting covered in glass because unlike him they didn’t want to go to jail.