Sanctions and sanctimony

A gallery of Russian oligarchs. Wikimedia Commons
LAURA GASCOIGNE casts an eye on oligarchs and their arts

The Art Newspaper has published its annual museum attendance figures for 2021. The Louvre is top, 5% up on the year before, followed by the State Russian Museum at + 88%. Really? There are four Russian museums in the top ten: the Multimedia Art Museum at no 3 (+42%), the State Hermitage Museum at no 6 (+70%) and the State Tretyakov Gallery at no 9 (+77%). By comparison Tate Modern lags at no 16 (-19), the V&A at no 24 (-2) and the National Gallery at no 30 (-41).

There was a time when British visitor figures needed boosting to attract government funding. No longer. Now galleries hope desperation will loosen the purse strings: the message being sent out is HELP. So are we really supposed to believe that during a pandemic, with the international tourist industry in meltdown, Russian museums beat the British Museum (+4%) into 11th place?

No. No one is actually meant to believe these figures. Like the Ukrainian Nazi regime with its Jewish President and the Special Military Operation to remove it, they’re a pack of obvious lies. For the Kremlin, lying is official government policy. As our own government is discovering, lying works: if it doesn’t convince, it sows alarm and despondency. In fact, the less it convinces, the more alarm and despondency it sows, by loosening the population’s grip on reality.

However much we now gasp and stretch our eyes at the dreadful lies being told by Putin, we were happy to ignore the truth when it suited us. Western liberal democracies accepted arts sponsorship from Russian oligarchs without ever stopping to ask where the money came from. It’s not as if we didn’t know; we knew all along. It’s only now that we’re faced with the brutal reality of what an authoritarian kleptocracy means in practice that our cultural institutions are responding to Russia’s Special Military Operation with a Special Reverse Ferret Operation.

Western museums have rushed to ‘freeze’ relations with their Russian counterparts, at some cost to their exhibition programmes. It’s more than a case of the National Gallery’s being short of the odd Holy Family from the Hermitage for its Raphael show; the Ashmolean has had to put its summer exhibition ‘Russia! Icons and the Avant-Garde’ on indefinite hold and the National Railway and Science Museums have been forced to cancel their joint Trans-Siberian exhibition. The V&A has brazened it out and hung onto all the eggs in its Fabergé exhibition basket, two of which are on loan from the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg funded by sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Still, no British museum has so much egg on its face as the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which commissioned Putin to pen the foreword to its recent Morozov Collection show.

Now the art market is feeling the pinch. On 15 March, four days after Arts Council England introduced a moratorium on loans, the government banned exports to Russia of all high-end luxury goods including art and antiques. Russian collectors have been sent to Coventry where they can brush up on their knowledge of another English cathedral, hopefully without poisoning any of its parishioners. Like rats leaving a sinking superyacht, Sotheby’s announced that they were shutting up shop to Russian buyers. A spike in sales of high-end art to Russians was apparently recorded in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February as oligarchs rushed to put money into non-seizable assets they could squirrel away in secretive freeports of the sort our tax-paying chancellor is so keen to open on these shores. Fortunately for Sotheby’s, thanks to the use of intermediaries it’s almost impossible to find out whether buyers are Russian, unless they pay in roubles.

The big hit will be to museum sponsorship. Of the big four oligarchs sanctioned by our government, three have been heavily involved in cultural philanthropy and their beneficiaries are scrambling to dump them. On 1 March it was announced that Petr Aven, a long-term trustee of the Royal Academy and a leading donor to its Bacon exhibition, had ‘stepped down’ before being pushed down the Potemkin steps; with some sense of honour, the RA returned the money before painting out his credit at the exhibition entrance. Roman Abramovich’s name has also vanished, without recompense, from the supporters’ list outside the Holocaust Galleries he helped to fund at the Imperial War Museum and Viktor Vekselberg has forfeited his honorary membership of the Tate Foundation. His contribution to Tate Modern’s extension now consigned to history, it was out with the chisels to chip his name off the donors’ plaque.

It’s harder to write Russian money out of museum history when it’s sunk into bricks and mortar. Vekselberg’s 2016 support of Tate Modern’s extension, then called the Switch House, was not as generous as that of his mate from Moscow college days, Len Blavatnik, whose record-breaking £50m donation to the Tate turned the Switch House into the Blavatnik Building. Though not a Russian citizen – he holds US and UK citizenship (bought for a song in 2010) – Blavatnik is a person of interest. A Ukrainian Jew born in Odessa, he emigrated to America with his family in 1978 aged 21 but that didn’t stop him joining the feeding frenzy that followed the ‘opening up’ of the Russian economy in the 1990s. With Vekselberg as a partner, he laid the foundations of his global business empire by buying up state aluminium and oil companies. Last year he topped the Sunday Times Rich List for the second time with an estimated fortune of £23bn; he raked in an extra £7.2bn during the pandemic.

Blavatnik likes to splash the cash on cultural causes. He has donated to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the RA, funded a new Blavatnik Hall at the V&A, financed the Courtauld’s refurbished Blavatnik Fine Rooms and in February – just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine – underwritten new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries at the IWM due to open late next year. He was knighted for services to philanthropy in 2017 and in 2020 the Times described him as ‘Britain’s art philanthropist-in-chief’. But in the current mood of sanctimony, with sanctioned friends like Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska, his position is borderline. How long before the Blavatnik Building is switched back to the Switch House? Watch this space.

When our museums took money from the previous philanthropists-in-chief, the Sacklers, they could at least plead innocence of Oxycontin. It’s not so easy to plead innocence of the crimes perpetrated by Russia’s oligarchs on the Russian people. We all know where the kleptocrats’ money came from; in accepting funding from them, Western museums have been knowingly in receipt of stolen goods. Cabbage soup has been taken from the mouths of ordinary Russians so that museumgoers in rich democracies can enjoy blockbuster exhibitions and swan about in overextended galleries. For years our museum sector has been living beyond its means. Who will we turn to for subsidies next? The Saudis? The music changes, but it’s the same old dance with the devil. We can be sanctimonious after the event, but at some point our museums must face the fact that, in the matter of so-called cultural philanthropy, sanctimoney is the exception, dirty money the rule.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

How time flies – British Art Show 9

DAVID LEE attempts to take an interest in a forty-year old artistic institution

Not that it’s much fun remembering, but can it really have been more than 40 years ago that, like a new comet, the British Art Show (Arts Council prop.) first swam into our ken? It’s been coming back to haunt us every five years since, and now here it is again, ninth time round and laden as ever with empty promises and disappointment. Do we mind? No, not that much, for minding even mildly requires the taking of at least a little serious interest in the first place, which no one really does these days, and small wonder. I most certainly don’t – as the blank space in the index to Moping On – the Collected Works (rejection slip pending) amply testifies. I did see BAS8, or was it number 7, but, whichever, only out of convenient and idle curiosity. Remembering the faintest of anything in it is quite another matter: blur doesn’t come near it.

The pity is that it did seem quite a good idea, back in that Golden Age of Wislon, Sunny Jim and Dolly Scargill, oh, so long ago. It was the brainchild of one Frank Constantine, benign and enterprising director of the Sheffield City Art Galleries at the time – and in his youth, a seriously fast opening bowler, I believe, and a stylish middle-order batsman too: though I may be thinking of someone else – who, feeling that too little of the best and brightest of contemporary British art was ever to be seen north of Hampstead, persuaded the Arts Council to commission a major touring show, every so often, of just such stuff but one which – and this is the nub and very heart of the matter – would never, as it were, be seen in Town.

The guiding premise, as I remember, was that it should offer a generous if idiosyncratic overview of whatever of interest or merit, preferably both, had been produced within the previous two or three years, sought across the full field of current engagement in painting and sculpture and allied trades. Furthermore, there were two defining conditions attached: first, that the selection should be entrusted to a single selector; and second, that practical or logistical constraints apart, the choice was to remain a personally accountable judgement quite free of any policy or pressure on the Council’s part. Independence was the rubric, and, mirabile dictu, so it was: Amen to that, I hear you cry.

In the event, work by just over 100 artists was shown, from unabashed representation to abstraction at its most minimal and austere, with a leavening of conceptualism for good measure. There was of course the usual hullabaloo. ‘My child could do better than that, or would be severely punished if he didn’t’, of course, and ‘what a waste of good wood and canvas’. Sheffield’s steel mills closing down on a daily basis hardly helped. Even the Arts Council’s own General Secretary at the time –  a worthy Yorkshireman from Sheffield called Shaw, which explains a lot – after giving it the honour of a single sentence in his annual report, with due emphasis laid upon how much it had cost, a little later condemned out of hand an exhibition he had never seen.

And so of course the Arts Council lost its nerve. A single selector? Goodness no, far too risky. From BAS2 it has always been a committee job, if only one of two or three. And since no self-respecting committee meets without an agenda, so by grandmother’s footsteps themes and policies, the more correct the better, crept in and for many years now the Arts Council’s cold hand has been firmly on the tiller. Which dire conclusion brings me back to how boring and correct in its self-congratulatory diversity it all now is.

BAS9, selected by Irene Aristizaval and Hammad Nasar, began its tour in Aberdeen last autumn, and, having lately closed at Wolverhampton, is now inflicting itself on Manchester before moving on to Plymouth for the coup de grâce. A brief account of its sojourn amongst the Wolverhamptonians may offer the ever-patient denizens of Manchester some idea of what they’re in for.

Irene, now Head of Curatorial and Public Practice at the BALTIC, Gateshead, was until lately Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary; while Hammad is Lead Curator at the Herbert Gallery, Coventry, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Foundation, and Principal Research Fellow at the University of the Arts (Central St Martin’s as was), London. You have been warned.

Notable amongst Irene’s recent group shows have been ‘Still I Rise – Feminism, Gender Resistance, and Photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era’. And Hammad is known, you may be intrigued to learn, ‘for collaborative, research-driven and exhibition-led inquiry’ so quite the Renaissance Man. His recent successes include ‘Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition and Structures of Meaning / Architectures of Perception’. There was also ‘Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archives of Practice’. And I’m sorry I missed his ‘Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space’. You get the picture, or perhaps not as the case may be.

Getting down to brass tacks – for which I believe the town was once renowned – Irene and Hammad said with one voice ‘how thrilled they were to present the second iteration (and how we love that ‘iteration’) of BAS9 in Wolverhampton’, where the focus was to be ‘on an intersectional approach to living with difference’. Their approach would ‘foreground (and here I find myself reaching by reflex for the red pen – Old Beaky would have reached for something else) the contemporary resonance of the Black Lives Matter protests with the historic context of Enoch Powell infamous (notorious?) and divisive “rivers of blood speech”.’ Oh dear: but on we go.

Taken over all, BAS9 ‘explores [of course it does] themes of healing, care and reparative history; tactics for togetherness; and imagining new futures,’ and I can’t wait for the mug of cocoa and a digestive biscuit afterwards, for which I’ve already chipped in my two and six. It ‘showcases [I shall run out of red ink soon] the multidisciplinary work of 47 artists, reflecting a precarious moment in British history, which has brought politics of identity and nation, concerns of social, racial and environmental justice, and questions of agency (??) to the centre of public consciousness.’ Yes, My Dears, so it does, and calm down, as the great Sir Michael might have said: for my part I would remind you this was once, and perhaps still is, supposed to be an art exhibition, not a public meeting in the Islington Oddfellows Hall. Where’s that cocoa, for goodness sake? But there’s no stopping yet.

In Wolverhampton, it seems, the focus was on ‘how we live with and give voice to difference, showcasing [Damn and blast: I’ve now stubbed the nib] only those 34 of the 47 whose work, steely eyed, forensically investigates identity from an intersectional perspective (ouch). By exploring, map and compass at the ready, coexisting identities such as class, [count to ten] ethnicity [slowly] gender [up to 20] and sexuality [now 30], works will be presented in critical dialogue with Wolverhampton’s cultural history shaped by the diverse populations that have arrived since the War.’ Of course they will: but I’m too old for all this. I it is who really must calm down.

This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

Images of Bacon

Francis Bacon, by Reginald Gray. Wikimedia Commons

After/Après Francis Bacon

Alexander Adams, Bristol: Golconda Fine Art Books, 2022, 60 pages, £10. English and French (French translation by Peggy Pancini)

LIAM GUILAR follows an influential artist’s flamboyant trajectory through verse

Some years ago, the Canadian critic, Hugh Kenner, in conversation with Charles Tomlinson, lamented the disappearance of the ‘documentary tradition’ in poetry. He was referring to poetry where the verse functions primarily as a carrier of information. He was not making the false distinction between form and content, but describing a type of poetry that could be read for information the way one would read a newspaper, text book or biography. In Kenner’s view, such poetry had all but disappeared by the mid-nineteenth century, to be replaced by the egocentric poetry of the Romantics, and the poetry emptied of significant content written by those who followed. Alexander Adams’ new book, his seventh, After/Après Francis Bacon, proves the book length documentary poem is still being produced, despite its unfashionable nature.

Adams, an artist as well as a poet, takes as his subject the life of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).  The poems follow the trajectory of Bacon’s life, from his early years in Ireland, via his time in Paris and London, to his death in Madrid. There is a facing page French translation by Peggy Pancini.

The book’s twenty-one numbered but untitled sections read like stills from a documentary film. The sequence begins in Ireland, appropriately with colours:

Surrounded by duns, olives, sages,

grey browns of trampled paddocks

the alcohol blue flame of asphyxia

burns with all the vignetting of unconscious

darkening and diffusing the periphery. (p.4)

Moving to London in the blitz:

Down from the ruin [Sic] ramparts

men grey with dust pass bundles

and expressionlessly scrape up

former people with their shovels. (p.14)

To Tangiers:

Sweet mint tea on the terrace,

hashish smoke wafts over.

Sea is flat as a strip of paper.

Endless warmth, dry air.

Paint dries fast but ideas come slow. (p. 34)

The writing evokes place and time, and like any biography contains snippets of social history: Paris after the Occupation; London rebuilding after the war, later a lost world of dilly boys, when homosexuality was still illegal, and where, in the saloon bar of The Grapes, ‘where men commune’:

The only woman is Marie,

behind the counter, beehive hairdo,

artificial nails, counting shillings,

menthol cigarette at the

corner of painted lips. (pp. 47/48)

The artist’s development is sketched into this trajectory. From his first excitement at seeing Picasso in Paris, which ‘broke you out of Edwardian airs/-dainty portraits, potted ferns-/and shaped you modern’ to an early exhibition where the punters, faced with ‘ostrich bodied, Buchenwald cadavers’, walked out in disgust ‘glad to be out of/their unwholesome presence’. To fame, drink, drugs, and finally death in Madrid.

The danger inherent in a poetry where information is the focus is that the writing can read like notes for a story that hasn’t been written. Details accumulate, but without context or effect and the possibilities of rhythm and sound are sacrificed. Section ten begins:

Men bending, lifting a heavy weight

Paralytic child crawling

Mastiff walking slow

Woman throwing a stick, three quarter view (p.28)

and continues like for this for the rest of the section’s mostly unpunctuated seventeen lines. It could be an exhibition catalogue, a summary of works produced, or it could be a young artist noticing the world around him, or all three. As information it is confusing; as poetry it’s flat.

Adams usually avoids this trap. His clipped declarative style keeps the story moving and creates deft images. The blank canvas is

-a mute mirror to perfect order

refuting the composite imagery

that grows so richly elsewhere.

At night,  the canvas stands unchanging

like a locked door without a handle. (p.48)

The overall experience of reading After/Après Francis Bacon, is very similar to walking through a gallery hung with large pictures. Moving through them in their numbered sequence suggests they are related. However, the connections between the pictures are left unstated, and at times continuity and coherence are suggested solely by the fact that one picture follows the next.

It’s obvious that the Model Reader of this book knows as much about Francis Bacon as Adams does, and for that reader little will be obscure. Leaving aside the question whether the poems offer such a reader any new insight on Bacon’s life, what about the reader who knows nothing about Francis Bacon the artist?

It’s possible to enjoy the poems as poems. Adams provides enough information to suggest a biography. Relationships are hinted at. Names occur: Eric, Peter, George. However, there are sections where a lack of background knowledge makes the writing obscure.

Next day, the apartment was wrecked,

plaster gouged by chair leg at head height,

wine bottle dashed upon the tiles,

a canvas is rent open in a frayed V

lying on its side, cockeyed. (p.36)

Are we witnesses to a raucous drunken night or domestic abuse?

In passages like these, Adams makes no attempt to cater to the visitor to his exhibition who has strolled in out of curiosity. In section XV, if you don’t know who George was, then the seventeen lines listing some of George’s actions are just a list and the writing doesn’t make the list interesting.

George climbing a set of steps.

George cycling, double exposure

George seated on a stool

George seated on a chair, legs crossed (p.38)

However, even if, like me, a reader knew nothing about Francis Bacon before reading After/Après Francis Bacon, there is enough of his life in the poem and enough life in the poems to sustain and reward the reader’s attention. The writing, which is mostly vividly impressionistic, is guaranteed to make you want to know more about Bacon and his art.

The sharpness of Ruskin Spear

Ruskin Spear (1911-1990), Patients waiting outside a first aid post in a factory. Wikimedia Commons

Humankind: Ruskin Spear

Tanya Harrod, Studies in Art, The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing and Thames & Hudson, 2022, £35

PHILIP WARD-JACKSON remembers an unpretentious but greatly gifted artist

‘This is not a full-scale biography’ apologizes Harrod, lamenting the dearth of diaries and letters left by her subject, but it is the closest approximation to one that you are likely to get for some time. A huge array of oral and other forms of testimony is deployed to formidable effect and a man who was derided in his final years by some of the movers and shakers of the art-world as a populist and a tabloid pet, stands revealed as a brilliant painterly recorder of the London scene. As a portraitist he was ready to accept sedate formal commissions, but was perhaps happiest capturing his subjects in action, as in his Poet Laureate Afloat of 1974, depicting John Betjeman as a boater-wearing oarsman, or his Brightly Shone the Moon that Night, in which Ted Heath conducting Christmas Carols becomes a cosmic event.

Some of us had known that this book was impending. Its appearance was finally announced by the author herself in a puff which appeared in the Spectator of 22 January under the amusing title ‘Bring me my Spear.’ Like the apology already quoted, this puff seemed to hint at an unwarranted diffidence. Only the baffled response to requests for it from some major London bookshops, happy to fill their windows with the latest products of the inexhaustible Francis Bacon industry, testified to the need for such self-promotion.

It was the Spectator editors who came up with that snippet from Jerusalem. After initially thinking it clever, on further thought it began to look like a misnomer. There is a distinct lack of ‘pleasant pastures’ and ‘mountains green’ in Spear’s world, and none of that mystic pantheism which drew contemporary neo-romantics to William Blake and Samuel Palmer. His world is resolutely urban, including seaside breaks.

Spear was born in Hammersmith in 1911, son of a coach painter and a one-time domestic servant. He was affected by polio in early life, which left him with a weakened left leg, but didn’t deter him from painting at the easel without the mahlstick, an article of faith where he was concerned. Only action painters and chimpanzees mucked about on the floor. He studied at Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts and at the Royal College. In fact Hammersmith and the Royal College, where he was later to teach, are the backdrop to the greater part of his creative activity. 

Spear achieved a degree of public recognition during the 1950s, mainly through his exhibits at the R.A. Summer Show. His son Roger Ruskin Spear, who played in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was one of the people who made London swing. The musical talent was passed down, Spear having been a skilled jazz pianist, but the father’s view of London has a distinctly post-war look. In some details representing London buses, posters, pub brasswork and flowers, and most appositely in the case of one small pub canary who makes multiple appearances, the colours sing out from an overall tonality which is sombre to the point of despondency. The beauty resides in the ways in which the paint is put on, and the variety of Spear’s brush marks is staggering. When it comes to the draughtsmanship, or, as was increasingly the case, drawing in paint, Spear alternates between a strict perspectival rendering of his subjects reminiscent of contemporary Euston Road painters, and a freer, illustrational, at times caricatural style. The latter is much in evidence in the portrayal of his signature cast of seasoned bar-flies of both sexes, street hucksters and assorted Hammersmith denizens.

Harrod gives us more of a look at the pre-War period than an earlier biographer, the painter and writer Mervyn Levy, whose small monograph on Spear appeared in 1986, four years before the subject’s death in 1990. Work as a war artist, carried out in defiance of his own pacifism, seems to have brought Spear out of a domestic shell, most of his earlier work having been centred on the family home. These early figure subjects indicate an awareness of the work of the French intimistes, Bonnard and Vuillard. Not a much travelled man (foreign jaunts seem to have been limited to a Mediterranean stag cruise before marriage, and a trip to Russia in 1957, accompanying the exhibition ‘Looking at People’ to the Pushkin Museum), Spear’s knowledge of the impressionist and post-impressionist scene would have benefited from his apprenticeship at the Royal College with William Rothenstein, who had rubbed shoulders with Degas and Lautrec. All of this rather calls in question the assumption of early commentators that Spear epitomised the Englishness of English art.

Another of the book’s strengths is its situating of Spear in the various social and artistic circles, with which he interacted over the course of a lifetime. Some of these are new and unfamiliar. There is fascinating documentation, for example, concerning early patronage by the well-connected Essex dilettante, Jack Brunner Gold, who organised an exhibition of Spear’s flower paintings in his home, Little Codham Hall in 1935. The combination of Spear’s portrait of the man in country-gentleman pose, and the teasingly de haut en bas quotes from Gold’s letters vividly summon up an all too familiar picture of the connoisseur attempting to shape a young protégé. Then there is the colourful network of relationships, sometimes friendly and symbiotic, at others thorny, with fellow-teachers and students at the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975. Spear taught such luminaries of the next generation as Peter Blake, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Ron Kitaj. Alongside the happy memories of some, are those of students who remembered Spear as a bullying bastard. A painting by Spear entitled Young Contemporary, which caricaturally represented one of his students sitting looking confused in front of one of his own action paintings, does seem to infringe pedagogical proprieties. On the other hand Spear’s debunking of art-world pretensions must have come as a relief to many outsiders who felt bamboozled by colour field abstracts and piles of bricks.

The panjandrums of the art world do not take kindly to seeing their hot air balloons deflated. Spear had in 1952 and 1954 depicted public bemusement when confronted by works of modern sculpture by Henry Moore and Reg Butler. Other pictures made plain his sentiments with regard to minimalist and painterly forms of abstraction, leading the future director of the Tate, Sir Alan Bowness, to classify his work as ‘vulgar’. In 1984 came what looked like a particularly brutal act of critical cancellation, when Spear was omitted by Richard Morphet, self-appointed high-priest of post-modern figuration, from his Tate exhibition, ‘The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art’. Tanya Harrod suggests that Spear’s work was excluded because it gave so little indication of struggle. A lifetime of painting and observation had enabled him to achieve a rare degree of articulacy and pleasurable virtuosity, in which he could express his likes and dislikes with regard to the world around him. There is perhaps one thing that needs clearing up here. Was Spear in fact excluded, or, alive and kicking as he then was, did he decline to have his works shown with that rag-bag of figure painters, even though it included some of his own closest friends and ex-pupils?

This is a most attractive book, whose illustrations and text both call for and repay the closest attention.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

Modernism seen now

RICHARD GERSTL (1883–1908), Self-Portrait in front of a Stove, 1907. Oil on canvas on board. Neue Galerie New York

Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940

Renée Price (ed.), Prestel/Neue Galerie, 2021, 656pp, $75/£55

ALEXANDER ADAMS is transported to a thrilling time of artistic experimentation

The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection. One by Olaf Peters discusses Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (1892), which became (posthumously) his most influential book. We should not see those opposed to degeneracy solely as representatives of traditionalism. Many critics of decadence were liberals, who took a progressive view of society. As a social Darwinist, Nordau saw degeneracy as an aspect of evolution, which would lead to the atrophying and extinction of those urban populations which succumbed to its lure, driven by circumstance and genetics towards behaviour that would not sustain reproduction of healthy individuals. He cited art as a symptom of the degeneration of culture and genetic stock.

Nordau imagined a dramatic result as the consequence of this evolutionary process for art. In his view, art would cease to exist, since those who support it would have to make room for an increasingly rational humanity for whom art would no longer be a relevant form of expression. For Nordau, art would become an atavism, and only women and children – the more intensely emotional members of the population – would still pursue it. He favoured science over art, which he judged to be an irrational symptom of psychological illness. It had to yield to the advancing process of rationalisation.[i]

Another essay by Peters discusses the splintering of arts organisations in Germany and Austria in the Jugendstil/Secession period, as artists sought to gain more control over the selection, exhibition, publication and sale of their art works. A proliferation of artists groups ran alongside the desire to distance the avant-garde from state- and royalty-sanctioned bodies, academies and established professional organisations. Opposing approaches to ornamentation within Modernism are exemplified by architect Adolf Loos (anti-ornamentation) and Gustav Klimt (pro-ornamentation). This shows that there were very different aesthetic criteria supported by members of the avant-garde, just as we find contrary strands within reactionary and traditionalist camps. The influence of collector Karl Ernst Osthaus is appraised (his collection of Expressionist art is housed at a dedicated museum in Hagen, Westphalia).

The various displays and fairs including applied art, decorative art and diorama/installations accelerated the acceptance of Modernism into daily life, as well as high culture. The influence of the Arts & Crafts movement paved the way for patrons and creators. Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1903 and flourished as a company that produced high-quality, expensive furnishings, clothing and housewares until 1914. The advent of war severely impaired WW’s output. Limited by material and manpower shortages, and the unwillingness of the affluent to invest in luxuries during a period of upheaval, business slowed dramatically. It was revived in the inter-war period but never regained its pre-eminence, closing in 1932. WW is remembered now often in terms of the contribution of female creators and for the influence of female customers, who generally made decisions regarding the decoration of family homes. Interestingly, no less than Adolf Loos gave a lecture called “Das Wiener Weh: Die Wiener Werkstätte” (“The Viennese Woe: Wiener Werkstätte”) in 1927, condemning the decline of WW. The turn to super-luxury goods was attributed to the women who dominated the management and product design of WW in the post-1914 era.

JOSEPH URBAN (1872-1933). Mantelpiece clock for Paul Hopfner Restaurant, 1906. Private collection

The excellent collection of WW in the museum’s collection – surely the best collection outside Vienna – includes works by leading lights of the company. The extensiveness of the Vienna design scene is amply represented by a series of striking designs of silverware, glassware, furniture, clocks, jewellery and ceramics by Dagobert Peche, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, (Belgian) Henry van de Velde and others. The designs range from the refreshingly simple and starkly unornamented to the ostentatiously impractical. Hoffmann’s cutlery services go beyond function into objets d’art. Geometrical patterns, plain checks, straight lines and elongated or square proportions are constants. Lines that echo Art Nouveau are found mainly in early, pre-war pieces. There is a silver coffer given by Klimt to the young Alma Schindler (later Mahler), when he was courting the young beauty in 1902. Another gift from Klimt is a necklace given to Emilie Flöge the following year. Both were made by Moser. Vintage photographs of other pieces in the collection show the furniture in trade shows or the homes of the original owners.  

One photograph shows the star of the museum’s collection, Klimt’s gilded Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The painting was displayed at an exhibition of art and crafts in Mannheim in 1907, and appears to show the painting before the artist made minor modifications to it. The painting is once again displayed flanked by stone statues of kneeling youths made by George Minne, as it was in that Mannheim display. (There is a useful essay on Minne and the Germanic sculptors as precursors to the individualism of Schiele and Kokoschka’s art.) The Neue Galerie has a fine collection of Klimt drawings from all periods of the artist’s output. The square landscapes of Klimt are revolutionary. Not only is the square format (developed by Klimt in the 1890s) anti-traditional, Klimt’s flatness and decorative treatment of foliage was a radical departure from convention. Park at Kammer Castle (1909) is a typical late landscape, disorienting through the presentation of dappled surfaces that only minimally model trees, grass and water; sky is reduced to a few patches at the edges of the picture.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918), Park at Kammer Castle, 1909. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder
and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder

The rise of Expressionism is understandable as a reaction against the emphasis on style over substance present in the Secession. The preoccupation with distinctive visual branding – something that reached a high pitch with the opening of WW – and the targeting of the super-affluent by artists (who supposedly disdained the status-conscious administrators and participants of established salons and academies) became anathema to ambitious young artists. The prevarication of the Secession between serving the wealthy and wanting to change the lives of everyday people left little space for the emergence of the exceptional individual – the much-discussed Übermensch of Nietzsche – and the man of heroic will. What was the role of the genius under Secession? Neither designing clothing for rich heiresses nor chairs for factory refectories seemed the calling of the true artist. The development of Art Nouveau in Germany and Austria was just one manifestation with a relentless drive towards Modernist ways of living.

This development was flanked by the Lebensreform (life reform) movement, which along with the housing colony and garden city movement, the land reform movement, vegetarianism, the naturopathy movement, and the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) or nudist movement, was aimed less at the sphere of aesthetics than at everyday lifestyle. Taken together, they formulated a fundamental critique of the scarcely controllable consequences of the rapid industrialization of the German Empire in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.[ii]

In the face of the deracinating effect of modern urban life – identified by nascent social science and criminology – and the increasing artificiality and superficiality of Secession, young artists who formed the Expressionists sought authenticity and rawness. They were inspired by Edvard Munch, whose 1892 exhibition in Berlin was closed as an affront to the professionalism of the artists’ organisation that staged the exhibition. The artists association Brücke (“bridge”) was founded on 7 June 1905 in Dresden, comprising Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It later included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. The artists (some of them architecture students) were committed to make an art free of pretension and artifice. Their idols included Munch, Gauguin, Dostoevsky, Freud, Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and Nietzsche. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that exponents of Expressionism later found points of commonality with National Socialism. The admiration was reciprocated by some senior Nazis. However, it was the supporters of traditionalism among the Nazis who won out, consigning Expressionism to the category of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) when it came to the selection of official art styles after 1933.  

Brücke was dissolved in Berlin in 1913. Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) functioned as a Munich-based avant-garde group from 1911 to 1914. The Great War shattered the utopian aspirations of these artists; in some cases, the artists were killed in combat. We find in the Neue Galerie collection the proto-abstraction of Franz Marc and the cross-over art of Vasily Kandinsky of the 1910-3, which blends symbolism and abstraction. Blaue Reiter is discussed in the light of theosophy and spiritualism, which would become a lesser-considered strand of art teaching in the Bauhaus, particularly under Johannes Itten. An essay assesses the responses of artists to the Great War. These varied greatly, ranging from absolute pacifism to militaristic chauvinism. The post-war art of George Grosz and Otto Dix blends fierce satire with a seeming appetite for degradation; the impact of their work comes from that combination, which betrays a crucial ambiguity. As more perceptive critics of the time noted, an artist could not lavish so much care and time on art that was wholly condemnatory.      

EGON SCHIELE (1890–1918), Stein on the Danube, Seen from the South (Large), 1913. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder. Photo: Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

Austrian Expressionism – in its best in Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl, all of whom are represented by good examples – are marked by their engagement with the psychology of the subject rather than meditations on urban life or the condition of primitive man. There are few extant paintings by Gerstl, because Gerstl destroyed most of his paintings and drawings before committing suicide. The Neue Galerie owns four canvases by Gerstl, two of which (a self-portrait and a portrait of a seated man) are very fine pieces. We should mourn the loss of an artist, at the age of 25, capable of such work. The multiple nails in the coffin of German Expressionism were the advent of Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit and the scientific abstraction of the Bauhaus. Dada and photo-montage is represented in less depth than other movements in the collection.

It is instructive to compare WW designs with those of the Bauhaus, founded in Germany in 1919. Bauhaus extended the line of stark Modernism but without the influence of Art Nouveau, substituting the influence of strong unmodulated colour forms found in De Stijl abstract art. Bauhaus sacrificed functionality for style sometimes. The seats are often cruelly uncompromising for the human anatomy. Although the director Walter Gropius sought to fuse architecture, fine art and applied art – including clothing – in a manner that would be harmonious and pleasing, the Bauhaus never managed to balance its stated aims. The subsequent director, Hannes Meyer, deliberately steered the Bauhaus towards a more overtly socialist end, citing “the needs of the people rather than the requirements of luxury”. Meyer later moved to the USSR to teach, putting his socialist views into practice. 

There are chapters covering Expressionist cinema, photo-montage, Klee teaching at the Bauhaus, the decline of artistic freedom in Germany and persecution of artists under the Nazis. This last includes the story of Felix Nussbaum, which is becoming better known over recent decades. Nussbaum was an artist of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who was imprisoned in France as an enemy alien in 1939. He later left the camp and went into hiding in Brussels, but he was ultimately captured by the occupying Germans and sent to a death camp. His wartime art portrays the artist in the French camp and gives an idea of what Jewish artists might have painted in the concentration camps, had they had access to materials.  

The collection is wonderful but incomplete. Without the work of some traditionalist, National Socialist and Communist artists, we get an uneven view of art of Germany and Austria from 1890 to 1940, even of Modernism. Art of National Socialism and (pre-war) Communism were reactions against Jugendstil and Weimar-era Modernism. The Neue Galerie is a private collection and therefore subject only to the taste of the owner, who determines what is part of his conception of this history, but the story of Germanic Modernism cannot be properly understood without the inclusion of art that has hitherto been dismissed, seemingly without due aesthetic and historical consideration.     

Preconceptions surface in the catalogue essays, mainly to do with the politics of today being applied to a period now a century past. The translation of völkisch as “racist-populist” is not accurate; it means “of the people or kinfolk”. Affinity for the company or culture of one’s own race does not necessarily imply sentiments of racial superiority, contrary to the translator’s assertion. Berating of individuals for sexism (as found in the essays by Janis Staggs) is unhelpful. The history of the operation and circumstances of WW and Bauhaus do have a sex dimension, but Staggs is not the author to apply a dispassionate eye. 

Modern Worlds is an excellent, serious and lavishly illustrated survey of Modernism in Germany and Austria, forming an ideal counterbalance to art histories that prioritise the French lineage of the Impressionism-Pointillism-Fauvism-Cubism line. This book is a fitting tribute to the vision and commitment of Ronald S. Lauder (and Serge Sabarsky) and provides a fascinating slice of cultural history.  

[i] Olaf Peters, “Degeneration and Empire”, p. 33

[ii] Olaf Peters, “Brücke”, p. 235

An Agincourt for our age

STUART MILLSON enjoys seeing Shakespeare’s Henry V brutally updated

The year is 1415… Trumpets sound at the Globe Theatre; Olivier draws his sword and heroically sets forth to ‘the vasty fields of France’ where English arms and chivalry triumph, and a youthful English king wins the hand of France’s fair princess, Katherine… That is the version of Henry V which we have come to know, but for Donmar theatre’s director, Max Webster, an altogether more brutal side to Shakespeare’s story is revealed, as the mediaeval action and intrigue is re-imagined in a twenty-first century war between England and its neighbour across the Channel. 

The King of France (played by Jude Akuwudike) taunts the young King Henry (Kit Harington), whose sudden accession to the throne of England has shaken his retinue of hedonistic followers, including the loud, drunken nightclub reveller, John Falstaff (Steven Meo). Just before receiving the news of his father’s death, the wild Prince Hal is roaring out another chorus of the football anthem, ‘Sweet Caroline’, the whole dancefloor, a scene of the modern drunken excess, witnessed in most town centres across Britain on a Saturday night. But the change of mood could not be more startling, as Techno sounds disappear, to be replaced by Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

Henry, determined to assert his belief in his right to the kingship of France and to avenge the Gallic court’s insult (their ambassador delivers a box of tennis-balls, thus emphasising French contempt for the immature monarch), the warrior begins to organise his invasion force – a disquieting parallel to current events in Ukraine. As the King makes his speeches, press photographers unleash a barrage of flash photography across the stage, and soldiers – in the battle fatigues of the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq – make their stamping, choreographed appearance. And for this production, military discipline and dance are combined: with former Royal Marine Commando, Tom Leigh, having carefully trained the actors in army ways and psychology, alongside the Ballet Rambert’s Benoit Swan Pouffer slotting each soldier on stage into a battle routine of sinister precision.

The famous line of farewell, uttered at the army’s Southampton embarkation point, ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ (a famous movement for soft strings in Walton’s music to the Olivier film) becomes an almost loveless, cynical farewell: ‘Touch her soft lips, and march…’ Not a shred of glory can be found either, as the mangled English regiments nurse their wounds after the siege of Harfleur, ‘Sweet Caroline’ drifting across the stage, a whispered lament in all the pain and misery. Agincourt, the crowning victory of Henry’s ruthless advance, once again brought out the very best of the production’s costume design and direction: camouflaged men and women advancing with automatic weapons to the stuttering music of Purcell’s Arthurian ‘Cold Genius’, and slicing through the numerically superior French, who were convinced that their chevaliers would beat the uncivilised English on the home soil of fair France. 

English victory, though, is soured by the execution of prisoners; by Henry’s ‘winner-takes-all’ blood-lust (as Zoe Svendsen portrays the King’s character in Donmar’s programme notes) and by the ‘othering’ of the Welsh soldier, Llewellyn. Those who remember Olivier’s Henry V may recall the 1940s actor Esmond Knight’s portrayal of the Welshman, almost as a member of the rustic chorus. But for Max Webster’s production, the Cambrian is embittered and angry at the denigration of his national symbol, the leek, and an ugly, violent barrack-room-brawl ensues. The Kingdom’s unity, here, is far from being even skin-deep.

At the end, Kit Harington’s Henry resembles a prince of the House of Windsor: peaked cap, white gloves and immaculate uniform, the English monarchy at Commonwealth Day, at Westminster Abbey, at the Cenotaph. Yet the play’s narrator (Millicent Wong) warns us that the pomp and circumstance has come at a price; that death and subjugation has followed in the King’s wake – as the Cross of St. George turns into red flames…

Donmar’s Henry V – multicultural, anti-war and Left-leaning in its interpretation – nonetheless has something to say to those who believe in crowns and coronets, or would crowd Southampton’s sea-wall to cheer the Royal Navy’s modern fleet majestical. Perhaps England is not pure, with our leaders holding aloft the crown imperial, but darker ambition and desire spurring them always on, but if this is England’s failure, we share the fault with many other countries. Persuasive (if not entirely fair to England), frank, brutal and always brilliantly acted through its three-hour course, Donmar’s realisation of a great history-play will stay in the minds of its capacity audiences for a long time.

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse (Earlham Street, London WC2), directed by Max Webster; Production Manager, Anthony Newton; music supervision, Andrew T. Mackay

Dreaming of utopias past

Henry Wrong, first administrator of the Barbican Centre, overlooking the build. Credit: Barbican Archive

Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre

Nicholas Kenyon et al, Batsford, 2022, 288pp, fully illus., £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS acknowledges a modernist monument’s coming of age

My first exposure to the Barbican Centre came obliquely. In the children’s science-fiction drama The Tripods, when the producers for the (somewhat cash-strapped) BBC programme had to come up with a futuristic city-cum-biosphere in 1985, they selected the Barbican as one filming location. The palm-filled Barbican conservatory was suitably modern and exotic – at least for a child in the provinces. Years later, I worked in an office adjacent to the Barbican and walked its disorientating aerial walkways daily by rote, knowing that any clever shortcut would lead me inevitably and inconveniently astray. Barbican library became my local library.

Isometric drawing of the Barbican Arts Centre as built, by John Ronayne, August 1982. Credit: Barbican Archive

When it was built, between 1972 and 1982, the Barbican Centre was the UK’s most ambitious urban-planning project to reach construction stage. It houses cinemas, concert halls, exhibition galleries, conference rooms, a theatre, restaurants, shops, cafés, a library and car park in an estate that consists of 2,000 residences, mostly in high-rise towers, all built in a Brutalist style. The new hardback Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre marks the 40th anniversary of the Barbican Centre’s completion, the 50th anniversary of its commencement and (approximately) the 65th anniversary of its conception. Multiple specialist writers cover the origins of the project, the politics and development of the building process and outline the highlights and remit of the cultural activities of the centre. A plethora of photographs capture the centre throughout its operation, from construction up to today, with some shots of classic performances and memorable events. 

The site of the Barbican Centre is Aldersgate, next to Silk Street, Beech Street and Whitecross Street, close to St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. The site had been bombed almost completely flat during the Blitz and thus the location presented itself for wholesale redevelopment – on a grand scale, integrating accommodation and facilities. It was already served by Moorgate Station (Northern line underground and mainline) and was within walking distance of the offices and banks of the City. There was little residential consultation – following wartime devastation, Cripplegate district had a residential population of 58. The photographs of the flattened district, with St Paul’s in the background, is a stark reminder of the state of British cities in the post-war aftermath. 

It seems the impetus behind having so many residences was partly political. Sir Nicholas Kenyon, former Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, writes:

The vanishing residential population of the Square Mile posed an existential threat to the survival of the Corporation [of the City of London], with its independent governance and long traditions, for there was a serious possibility in the post-war years that, without residents and voters, there might be a move to incorporate the City into London County Council.

Hostility from LCC and the Arts Council caused friction with the Barbican Centre and led to tussles over funding and control. LCC wanted greater commercial development; the Corporation wanted residences and arts. The Corporation won out and architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were appointed to design the centre and estate buildings. An initial costing of £10m was eventually to balloon to £150m by the time of completion.  

The Lakeside Terrace of the newly completed Barbican building in 1982, with Frobisher Crescent behind. Credit: Peter Bloomfield

The scale of the project is still – in our age of mega-structures – impressive (‘the largest single building for the arts in the Western world.’) The over thirty lifts include one that can transport a twenty-tonne lorry. The distinctive unpainted pitted concrete surfaces of walls were originally smooth before they were pick-hammered by men with pneumatic drills. This was time-consuming and thus expensive. Some aspects were flawed in design. The sculpture courtyard was rarely used because the weight of pieces was considered a potential structural danger to the building below. The gallery space has always been disappointing – a reflection of its late inclusion in the design – and has never lived up to the other facilities of the venue.   

The opening of the Barbican Centre on 3 March 1982: the Queen unveiling the plaque in the foyer, accompanied by The Rt Hon the Lord Mayor Sir Christopher Leaver. Credit: Barbican Archive

When the centre was opened by the Queen on 3 March 1982, the building seemed anachronistic – both behind the times and ahead of them. The building seemed ponderous and unsympathetic, alien in its stylistic unity; cultural tourism was not as developed and streamlined as it would become so there were many doubts about the viability of a costly arts hub. The architecture seemed heavy and uncompromising in a time when Post-Modernism was jettisoning concepts of “truth to materials”, Brutalism and stylistic conformity. Its broad walkways and windswept courtyards seemed too ambitious and forbidding; its thick brass railings seemed passé. More than anything, Brutalism’s intimidating size and lack decorative concession seemed anti-human and indicative of failed visions of Communistic Eastern Europe and corner-cutting city councils. Today, attitudes to Brutalism are changing. Brutalism is an Instagram favourite topic and subject of photo essays and coffee-table books. The high aspirations and unapologetic futurity of Brutalist concrete structures exhilarates the young urban crowd.

The London Symphony Orchestra has been resident at the Barbican since it opened.  The Royal Shakespeare Company acted as consultants as the theatre was designed. However, organisational politics and wrangles over income and subsidies caused Barbican to lose the RSC in an acrimonious parting in 2002 (‘The RSC were reluctant tenants. We were grumpy landlords.’) A transcription of a discussion between senior insiders notes that ‘the Corporation saw the conferences as money generators, and orchestras as money spenders.’ Balancing artistic considerations against commercial one is a constant negotiation, as is that of high culture versus experimental programming. (Although apparently the BBC-funded 1985 Stockhausen festival turned into a sell-out success.) Views on the acoustics of the concert hall were mixed; the acoustics noticeably improved once the Perspex hemispheres were removed from the ceiling. The opinions of performers, conductors and critics are summarised.   

Barbican Cinema brochures from the early 1980s. Credit: Barbican Archive

Most of the fittings are bespoke, which added to the cost but were congruent and effective within the overall design. (There is a great shot of Robin Day’s strongly coloured concert-hall seats.) The signage was considered inadequate from the beginning, leading to notorious navigation difficulties. A Barbican poster announced, ‘If Helen Mirren can find the new Barbican Centre before it opens in March, she will be appearing in Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The book has many photographs of these details, as well as plans, maps, images of construction, aerial views and vintage shots. A selection of posters shows the breadth of programming over the last 40 years, reminding readers of memorable experiences. The authors are either specialists in their fields or they are individuals who have worked at a high level in Barbican Centre management. Short testimonies by knowledgeable figures (including performers, managers and users) intersperse longer narratives, which show palpable affection but address faults. Subjects include the Barbican’s architecture, theatre, music, art, cinema, typefaces and branding and plentiful insights into the management.

Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre presents a comprehensive and sympathetic presentation of one of modern Britain’s most iconic buildings. Not universally loved as a building – indeed, still disliked by many – the Barbican Centre continues to act as an important centre for high culture. Most importantly, the Barbican is largely an independent enterprise, with relatively low and indirect tax-payer subsidies. Today, the Barbican’s distance from the interfering hand of government is more vital than ever.

The Outsider and The Enemy: Colin Wilson on Wyndham Lewis

The Good and Evil Angels, by William Blake
LUKE GILFEDDER examines the differences – and parallels – between two original thinkers

In 1956 Colin Wilson published The Outsider, an overnight literary sensation which saw the 24-year-old autodidact hailed as a prodigy and the first home-grown British existentialist. He sent a copy to T.S. Eliot, who, in a prompt and kind reply, said it was a pity to have missed Wyndham Lewis out of the book, for Lewis was surely an ‘archetypal outsider’1. Wilson would make up for this omission – albeit 33 years later – with the excellent but sadly neglected essay ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’. Published in a long out-of-print collection 1989 Existentially Speaking, it is to the good fortune of Wilson and Lewis scholars alike that the title still survives in the British Library archives.

Colin Wilson

Wyndham Lewis was born in circumstances quite distinct from Wilson’s Leicesterian upbringing, on his father’s yacht off Amherst, Nova Scotia, in 1882. Yet by the time he died, in 1957, Lewis was based just a few streets away from the then-rising star Wilson in a Notting Hill Gate flat. The young Wilson had made several attempts to appreciate Lewis, but each time to no avail. He likened late career works such as The Human Age to “mediaeval castles”, impossible to get into, or quite possibly “not worth the effort”.2 Yet Wilson soon found himself in Lewis’s position of critical neglect – once a boy genius, twice a “pretentious fraud” – the critics who launched The Outsider savaging 1957’s Religion And The Rebel. Both were to remain best regarded for their earliest works: Wilson, for The Outsider, andLewis as pioneer of the avant-garde art movement, Vorticism (England’s double-edged critique of the franticness of Marinetti’s Futurism and the passivity of Cubism).

Wilson soon left London for Cornwall, fulfilling Lewis’s reflection in Rude Assignment that “the writer does not ‘escape’ or flee from the world of men in general: he is more likely driven from it”.3 When Wilson next encountered Lewis’s work, via Tomlin’s 1969 anthology, he found he had acquired a fairly strong feeling of identification with Lewis. Here was, as Eliot had suggested, a true outsider, out of key with his time, equally unsympathetic to the assumptions which his contemporaries took for granted, turning out book after book in defence of his unpopular and idiosyncratic views. Lewis saw modern science, art and politics as conspiring to create an unreal state of mind in which the sentimental, illusory and mechanically Progressive flourished, and to this, he opposed a vison that fused radical modernism with an external, static and classical approach to art. Still curious as to whether Lewis was an important writer, Wilson decided to settle the matter by writing an essay purely for fun, delivering his opinions “en pantoufles”, as if “sitting over a glass of wine with friends”.4

As a result, ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’ is a lively example of Existential Criticism, an original conception of Wilson’s which advocates that a writer’s work be judged by what he has to say rather than how he says it. William James wrote “a man’s vision is the great fact about him”, and Existential Criticism seeks to examine that vision, to see how much of reality it incorporates, or, conversely, to determine how far a writer’s attitude towards the world is parochial or based upon some temperamental defect of vision5. Wilson begins by criticising Lewis’s first novel, 1918’s Tarr (a satire of the bourgeois-bohemia of post-war Montparnasse) as a “savage, humourless Shaw”. The book, he says, is obsessed with the trivial and personal, much in the manner of a D. H. Lawrence novel or Ulysses, yet without the redeeming flights into impersonality these works take. If Joyce is a “thin-skinned Irishman who disciplined himself into greatness” and Lawrence a “thin-skinned Englishman who occasionally forgot himself enough to be great”6, then Wyndham Lewis, Wilson argues, never forgets himself for a moment. Not that Lewis, who held that “art is the expression of a colossal preference” – and posited “what is genius but an excess of individuality?”7 – would necessarily contend this. But Wilson differentiates between a strong self-image – an instrument writers use to convey higher truths about reality – and self-preoccupation, which is, by contrast, inward-looking and pessimistic. Wilson posits that artists find release from such solipsistic nihilism through their symbols of meaning, be it Religion for Eliot, Courage for Hemingway or the mystery of sex for D. H. Lawrence. But Lewis was said to find sex as boring and irritating as he found everything else. Wilson speculates that lacking the capacity for such abandonment of the self was Lewis’s main reason for his fateful turn to politics as his form of objectivity (Lewis’s reputation never recovered from his ill-judged and hastily recanted 1931 essay, Hitler).

Having foregrounded solipsism and artistic pessimism as potential defects in the Lewisian vision, Wilson attempts to trace throughout his essay how they might have developed and their effect upon Lewis’s value as a writer. He understands Lewis to be striving to achieve a post-impressionist revolution in prose, seeking to transmute into text the Cubist craving of beauty through abstraction. Wilson describes this as a romantic urge, a turning away from the real world to a misty ideal one, as is made clear in the 1927 story ‘Inferior Religions’:

Beauty is an icy douche of ease and happiness at something suggesting perfect conditions for an organism… Beauty is an immense predilection, a perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing…8

Wilson says this formulation could have come from Yeats or even Walter Pater – a far cry from T. E. Hulme’s classicism with which Lewis was associated. But Wilson makes an interesting distinction here: the new Classicism never fully materialised, at least not as we like to think of it. All that happened was the emotional romanticism of the 18th century gave way to the intellectual romanticism of Proust, Ulysses, The Waste Land or Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Only the likes of H.G. Wells and Chesterton truly dispensed with romantic idealism by turning back to human reality, immersing themselves in socialism or Religion. Wilson says Lewis glimpsed another vision, namely that the ideal beauty of the Romantics could be achieved not by “flying up into the eternal gases”9 but instead through a cold, precise, intellectual art, gleaming like the snows of the Himalayas. This does not sound like much of an existential defect; in fact, it is rather close to the worldview of Bernard Shaw – a Wilsonian hero – who rejected romantic idealism in favour of a discriminating idealism. Discriminating idealism is just what Wilson perceives in Lewis’s paintings; their determined clarity, their quality of precision and “coolness” is said to remind one of Blake or indeed Shaw’s plays.

Wyndham Lewis

Wilson’s central contention is that Lewis’s effortless mastery as an artist failed to translate into his prose, where one needs the “patience of Job” to cut through the “blanket of fog” and figure out what it is all about10 He reasons that while painting can survive a lack of purpose – it deals in visual effects and can still be great if the worldview of its creator is ambiguous – writing deals in ideas and cannot survive the same ambiguity. Prose must have a positive impetus; satire alone is not enough. Lewis may paint like Blake, but he is said to write with the technique of a Daumier. Wilson judges this satirical bent as a negative trait, for Lewis is placing himself above his characters for the sake of lacerating them – only in The Revenge for Love does one sense any sympathy between writer and protagonist. So where War and Peace feels bigger than Tolstoy personally, in The Apes Of God (a satire of the Bloomsbury group), for example, we never forget for one second that it is Lewis holding the brush, pulling the strings of his puppets. And whereas Joyce’s precise technique of photographing his characters through words makes the reader blend with his descriptions, Lewis constantly interjects himself as though trying to dazzle the reader with verbal brilliance, never allowing the object to appear in its own right. This, Wilson says, creates a contradiction between Lewis’s impressive, even “monumental”, technique and his “rather vague, boring characters”. Resultantly, Lewis’s novels tend to “run down like an old hand-gramophone someone has forgotten to wind”11.

Wilson proposes that such “miscalculations of effect” in Lewis’s prose stem from his solipsistic vision of art, as announced in Blast 2:

There is Yourself: and there is the Exterior World, that fat mass you browse on. / You knead it into an amorphous imitation of yourself inside yourself”12

Wilson insists that Tolstoy or Shakespeare’s greatness depended on them not kneading the world in their image, but instead trying to get rid of “themselves” from their work, becoming more like a mirror or a magnifying glass, able to capture that “odd whiff of reality, like a spring breeze blowing through an open window”((Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 100)). He speculates whether the character of Victor Stamp (the protagonist of The Revenge for Love) is a partial admission by Lewis of this “parochial” defect when, in desperation, Victor decides to forego his usual mannerisms and paint something which would “remind him least of Victor Stamp”((Wyndham Lewis, The Revenge for Love, 1937)). It still does not sell, because it is old-fashioned. But old or new-fashioned, Victor never attempts to say anything, he – like Lewis – fails to recognise art is not self-expression but a reaching out towards reality.This overpowering sense of self-expression in Lewis was also critiqued by Anthony Burgess, who described the wartime autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering as reading like a “gor-blimied police report” with the strange yoking of the “Allo-allo-allo-what’s-all-this-‘ere to the intellectual and the exquisite painter” making for such exasperating reading13.

We must pause briefly to deal with the objection that has doubtless sprung to mind, at least to readers familiar with Lewis, namely that Lewis does know that the root of great art is the impersonal and the objective; moreover, he was a paragon of the ‘lone external viewpoint’14. It is not for nothing that Lewis’s critical writings develop from a defence of the self in 1927’s The Art Of Being Ruled – a treatise in how to remain a “sovereign of oneself” in a world where this is “nothing so difficult as not belonging to a party”15 – to a defence of objective reality itself against Sartrean existentialism in 1952’s The Writer and the Absolute. Lewis directly attacks solipsism in the former work, writing that “ideas of beauty, of a god, or of love, depend severally on separation and differentiation”, and compares the foolishness of “the savage who ate his god to procure divinity” to Freudian inwardness16. Yet we may argue the clearest contradiction to Wilson’s interpretation is in The Letters Of Wyndham Lewis, where Lewis opposes the “crushing of the notion of the subject” and states a belief in a sense of objective value which sees “the answer is there all the time; we ‘discover’ it”.17

Wilson is, however, too perceptive a critic not to have anticipated this response; he explains the above as merely demonstrating Lewis’s “Platonic sense of reality”18. This interpretation is the string with which he binds together his varying conclusions as to Lewis’s merits and defects. On the one hand, Lewis’s belief in a world of timeless ideals makes him an excellent critic, especially of the philosophies of time in Spengler and Marx, and in his merciless dismantling of imperfect idealisms – Lawrence, Hemingway, Orwell, Sartre, Malraux – any kind of romanticism that is the opposite of the real. But, on the other hand, Lewis’s Platonic nature is said to lead him into an artistic pessimism, a sense that the real world is corrupt and disjointed, and the artist must remain true to his ideal world. As a painter, Lewis may have stumbled on Shaw’s trick of uniting the irreconcilable opposites of romanticism and anti-romanticism (this is especially evident in Lewis’s late-career paintings, such as 1942’s Homage to Etty, a Lewisian heaven of exterior forms). But as a writer, his Platonism led him into a “life-denying pessimism”, and he spent more energy denouncing the world than expressing with discriminating idealism that “perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing”19. As if unfavourably comparing Lewis to Shaw wasn’t enough, Wilson concludes by noting how much he has in common with George Orwell. Both are said to be tough-minded and honest cultural critics, but who wrote “hysterical” and “bad” novels because of this same artistic pessimism, a pessimism out of which “no vital creation can spring”18. Alas, Wilson’s final judgement is that Lewis was less the “enemy of the stars” than of himself.

Such an atypical interpretation of Lewis may appear highly contentious upon first reading, but even if one disagrees with the answers Wilson provides, his essay leaves the reader with better questions than they arrived with – surely the true mark of fine criticism. He intended for the piece to be “the kind of thing I would want to read if I was curious about Lewis” and on this count, he has succeeded. The only minor gripe is that there is scant discussion of the sympathy between Lewisian and Wilsonian themes. Lewis’s critique of existentialism as merely placing a token emphasis upon freedom – “Sartre’s novels are jokes about Freedom”20 is the perfect foil for Wilson’s ‘New Existentialism’, a corrective against Absurdism. Lewis’s writings also dovetail with Wilson’s criminology studies, each observing the “evil fog” of pessimism and nihilism present at the start of the 20th century plunged people into acts of violence as a means of escape21. Both have an intuitive approach to literary criticism, finding similar flaws, for example, in Hemingway’s characters. Wilson says they know who they are, not what they want to become22, just as Lewis writes “they are invariably the kind of people to whom things are done, who are the passive (and rather puzzled) guinea-pig type – as remote as it is possible to be, for instance, from Nietzsche’s ‘super’ type”23. Lewis, however, believes this is not a shortcoming in a work of art, it “defines it merely”, meaning “the work in question is classifiable as lyrical”21. Lewis allows a novel to be superior from a literary standpoint, even if it is existentially lacking. In the final analysis, Wilson does not afford Lewis the same generosity.

The new avenues of thought opened by this essay make it a double pity that Outsider and Enemy never met, especially given that they once lived just a few hundred yards from each other, in Notting Hill. One senses that they had more in common than this essay suggests, and they could have found common ground over their similar mistreatment by the establishment. When F. R. Leavis derided the Sitwells as belonging to the history of publicity, not the history of literature, we may conclude that no two writers embodied the reverse equation more than Colin Wilson and Wyndham Lewis.24

NOTE This article first appeared in Lewisletter, the journal of the Wyndham Lewis Society, and is republished with permission

  1. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 83 []
  2. Ibid, p. 89 []
  3. Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1984, p.29 []
  4. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 10 []
  5. William James. A Pluralistic Universe (1977), p. 14 []
  6. Ibid, p.83 []
  7. Wyndham Lewis, Doom of Youth, 1932 []
  8. Wyndham Lewis, The Wild Body, 1927, p. 241 []
  9. T. E. Hulme, Romanticism and classicism, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, 1924, p. 120 []
  10. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 97 []
  11. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, pp. 99-103 []
  12. Wyndham Lewis, Blast 2, 1915, p.91 []
  13. Anthony Burgess, ‘Gun and Pen’, 1967 []
  14. Wyndham Lewis and E.W.F. Tomin, Wyndham Lewis, An Anthology of his Prose 1969, p. 18 []
  15. Wyndham Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute, 1952, p.67 []
  16. Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, 1927, p.227 []
  17. Wyndham Lewis and W.K. Rose, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, pp. 155, 378 []
  18. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 103 [] []
  19. Wyndham Lewis, The Wild Body, 1927, p. 242 []
  20. Wyndham Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute, 1952, p.26 []
  21. Ibid, p.86 [] []
  22. Colin Wilson, The Craft of the Novel, 1975 []
  23. Wyndham Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute, 1952, p.86 []
  24. F.R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932 []

Is London street art dying?

Image: Frank K. Molloy
DAVID UPTON tries his hand at making his mark

Everyone knows about Banksy, who came to fame around 2000 for his cheeky anarchic spray paintings and stencils on walls in Bristol, and later all over the world.

His real name is still officially secret, though by now his works sell in the major art auction houses, and walls are removed so his paintings can be sold (see But it’s over twenty years since Banksy started, and the street art scene has changed completely. You don’t discover Banksy paintings any more: or if you do, somebody else has found them first and they soon disappear.

What we see these days, despite the continuing mists of spray paint propelled by greenhouse aerosol gases on to London’s walls, is mostly mediocrity, angling to sell itself through traditional art markets for the highest prices. Even the anti-establishment rebellion and lawbreaking has gone: artists today use spaces where graffiti are tolerated, sign their names, and sell clothing brands.

Banksy himself sets high standards of professionalism:

All artists are prepared to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?

Banksy, p.10

Banksy also has really original artistic ideas, that make you laugh and understand even when you had a different viewpoint to start with. Someone who can do that is rare. He broke with the traditional art market, sold prints his own way, and refused to go after the highest possible prices. For example, during a residency in New York he set up a stall selling real Banksy prints at $60, a fraction of their ‘retail value’ – only seven were bought.

It’s not like that any more.

Of course in any art movement there will only ever be one or two stars, followed by a lot of lesser figures, some drawn in by the hope of quick profit. Anyone these days can go out and paint a wall, and the rest of us have to walk by it until someone else paints it over.

Part of the problem is the confusion between graffiti and street art. In a serious legal study of the copyright issues involved, E. Bonadio says:

…what distinguishes graffiti writing from the broader concept of street art [is that] … by placing tags (as well as other letters-based pieces difficult to read to the everyday public) on walls and other surfaces, graffiti writers aim at speaking just to other taggers or crews, while street artists want to address a larger audience

E. Bonadio, p.8, footnote 60

Simple ‘tagging’ makes up most of the graffiti we see. It’s easy, a sort of logo meaningless except to insiders, rather like dogs peeing on lamp posts. Police operations, such as ‘Misfit’ in London and ‘Anderson’ in Bristol, and increased security measures in target areas such as London Underground, have cut down the amount of visible graffiti. Prison sentences were real: for example ‘Tox’ was sentenced in 2011 to 26 months imprisonment after allegedly causing over £200,000 worth of damage. 

Street artist Ben Flynn, aka Eino, says that these convictions have driven out serious art in favour of quick-and-dirty graffiti:

We would spend days drawing what we were going to paint that weekend. When I wrote graffiti, I knew I would have maybe an hour or an hour and a half to paint. Now, there is less time to do something nice. They have only five or ten minutes, so they are not going to spend their time in their bedrooms developing intricate graffiti. So graffiti has evolved into something that is less easy on the eye

Evening Standard

Even the more elaborate, larger, geometrical tag patterns, colourful though they sometimes are, tend to be stylised and repetitive. They may brighten up a dull corner but they don’t say anything to most of us, though this sort of design can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet in the 1960s.

A few might be described as ‘art’, though only a few I’ve seen recently seem to me to be witty and cheeky:

I saw some quite well drawn heads recently, for example:

This is a painterly achievement, and the drapes are amazing, considering they were done with an aerosol can, but it still reminds me of Tretchikov’s ‘Chinese girl’, which the Independent once described as the Mona Lisa of kitsch (Independent, 17 March 2013).

Sites such as the Stockwell Pen, or Leake Street near Waterloo, are provided by official or corporate bodies in the hope that they will confine or ‘pen’ graffiti to a small area (this has not worked in Stockwell!) or that they will provide nurseries for future Banksys, as John Nation’s site in Bristol is said to have nurtured Banksy. Street art is officially permitted there. London has incorporated them into its tourist trade.

The images above  are in the Stockwell Pen ‘approved’ area,  and in effect signed: you can quickly find the web sites of the two artists (Cat in bath: Large face Mono is Spanish and living in London; his site shows a lot of advertising and commissioned/ advertising work, and advertises his own clothing line. Woskerski’s site advertises prints of his works, selling at £70, and a full scale canvas selling at £1,400. These wall paintings give the artists, literally, ‘street cred’. It’s not that prospective clients come down to Stockwell to see them: it’s enough that these paintings are shown photographed ‘in situ’ on their web sites, and on social media such as Instagram. If they were painted over tomorrow, it would not matter once they are on social media.

The tourist industry boasts

London has one of the biggest and best collections of uncommissioned street art in the world. Local and international artists have decorated the streets of London with a staggering array of creative works, from miniature bronze statues to painted murals several storeys high

Visit London website

Websites advertise street art areas, guide books mention them. You can go on escorted tours, just as you can do tours of the Jack the Ripper murder sites. There are agencies that claim to help you find a street artist and commission work ( or to “offer a consulting service to both individuals and corporations to acquire and expand their art collections” ( There are galleries specialising in ‘street art’, conveniently transferred to prints you can take home. (See for example in Hoxton, or in the Portobello Road.)

But much of this now is street art with its heart ripped out. It’s people building a career as an artist/ designer, aping the style of the streets and painting in ‘permitted’ graffiti areas as a way of building credibility. It’s a thousand miles away from the furtive, athletic life of the original taggers, as shown in Crack and Shine videos (eg, ) It merges imperceptibly into advertising, it doesn’t say anything about the world, except ‘buy my clothing brand’. It just has a (dishonestly) more ‘raw’ or ‘edgy’ feel than if you said ‘here is an artist who mostly does prints in a studio’.

Graffiti artists have also specialised in painting out of the way places, which are often dangerous. As Banksy says:

People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access

Banksy, p. 237

At least one artist has died as the result of a fall, though apparently not whilst painting (see No-one wants artists to be at risk, but it’s annoying when they dishonestly imply that they are. Any street art is at its best when it relates to its context, and places like the Stockwell Pen are too bland, too half-heartedly municipal, to be a context for anything.

Some new ideas have come up, but often you can see from the internet how they have died out. Guerilla knitting, for example – covering street furniture with knitted cosies – had a vogue around 2005-2010. The web sites are still there, but haven’t had anything new added for ten years (see

However, if you look around Brick Lane, which as far as I know is not officially a permitted graffiti area, there are some signs of new ideas.

Small sculptures are now appearing, glued high up walls where they can’t easily be reached. (Broken vegetables in the next image are where people have tried to help themselves to a free art work.)

The orange balloon in the next image is a 3D object, made and signed by Tripsandpieces ( )

Other new ideas involve what used to be called ‘stickers’. Stickers were an easy equivalent of tagging with simple graffiti. You made a few copies of a design on pre-glued pages and stuck them on lamp-posts or doors. Often, like ‘tagging’, this was just an in-group communication. However, the sticker scene has grown up and there are currently some very interesting works in the Brick Lane area. Typical walls and doorways are crowded with overlapping stickers or mini-posters, some of them political, some satirical, some just weird. The process is known as ‘paste up’, or ‘wheat-pasting’ from the flour based glue used to do it. (See )

Of course, fly-posting goes back a long way. But fly-posting art for art’s sake does not. The result, similar to the leap graffiti ‘tagging’ took to become street art, is richer and more interesting walls.

Images can be larger and in different styles. Artists can take their time. Brick Lane currently houses  several paste-ups done in bold spray paint on old newspapers, for example, by ‘LT66’ –  . (LT66’s images can also be bought framed from . I liked them so much I’ve just bought one myself.) The use of newspaper reminds me of ‘arte povera’, and the style is bold but lyrical. And LT66 isn’t just in it for the money – his site says “Looking to exchange Paste ups DM me I can paste yours up around Brick Lane in exchange for mine going up in new areas”.

Some images use QR codes, which open up a whole area for interaction, but sadly many of these are blurred or damaged and wouldn’t read properly on my phone. So as an example, here is one I put up myself, in Centaur Street, Lambeth, near some mosaics about William Blake’s work.

Use the barcode reader on your phone; this will take you to an experimental animated page on my website. The animation uses .css, which gives a limited range of possibilities. However, it springs into life once you hit the web page, whereas if you use a video (for example) you need to authorise it separately to run, and this spoils any spontaneity.  But you don’t get the augmented reality (AR) effect, of placing the site page in the background you see through your camera.

Insa has made digital, moving works using an AR app, gif-iti, which you download to your phone. (Regolini 2020) When you point your phone camera at one of his works (or at an image of the work) it shows the work as a .gif, in motion. Typical screens involve laboriously painting layers by hand and then photographing each one, rather like drawing a cartoon. This is a great AR technology, but it only works for the few screens contained in the app; each time Insa makes a new work, he’ll have to issue a new app. However it does look good on mobile phones: if anyone ever markets a good AR viewer, this will revolutionise street art.

Another Insa project involves creating identical images at different places and producing a series of coordinated views in one .gif (see But this is not anti-capitalist rebellion: like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, it was funded by Netflix. It takes in all the spectacular capitalist destinations – Paris, Manhattan, Taipei, like Michael Palin on E. Technically ingenious, but art monetising itself using the traditional market strategies.

Banksy too has taken the big money route. But one of the greatest triumphs of London street art, ironically, is the video of a Banksy art work shredding itself just after it had been sold for over £1 million at Sotheby’s in October 2018. (see ). The wealthy international connoisseur audience is visibly gob-smacked, mouths hang open, people jump to their feet: the anarchic spirit of the streets lives on.

There’s hope yet.

As a personal coda, I felt I could not write about street art until I had tried doing it. I prepared some modest stencils, of an eye and an apple, using three colours. Drawing and cutting out the stencils took an afternoon. Practising with paint on some Amazon cardboard boxes took another hour. As Banksy said, “Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought” (Banksy p 237)

When I eventually left my studio and got out into the streets, the main lesson I learned is that even a simple stencil takes a lot of time and concentration to manipulate, and to spray properly.

As a result, you WILL NOT NOTICE the police officer coming up behind you.

Image: Frank K. Molloy

References and acknowledgements

Banksy – ‘Wall and Piece’, Century, London 2006.

Bonadio, E, Copyright Protection of Street Art and Graffiti under UK Law (4 April 2017). Intellectual Property Quarterly, Issue 2, 2017 , Available at SSRN:

Evening Standard, 18 July 2011, at

Independent – see


Visit London – official visitor guide’ see

The evolutions of revolutionary architecture

A 1934 competition project, Narkomtiazhprom – from Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism,1920-1980

Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930

Park Books, 2021, 624pp, illus., $65

Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital

Princeton University, 2021, 274pp + xii, illus., £34

Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980

Scheidegger & Spiess, 2020, 448pp, illus., £65

ALEXANDER ADAMS traces the neglected history of Soviet building design

The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus.  

The new school combined eight departments (fakul’tey): painting, sculpture, architecture, woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, graphics (poligrafiya), and textiles1

There was a core curriculum which covered the basics of design and art, with additional topics: “Mathematics, Chemistry, Descriptive Geometry, Political Economy, History of Art, and Military Arts.”2. The school offered free education and encouraged applications from poor students, many of whom had part-time jobs to support themselves.

While similar to the Staatliche Bauhaus in its “communistic” spirit, Vkhutemas was over ten times larger than its German counterpart in terms of the student body. With an enrolment of more than 2,000 students, it was an unprecedented modern undertaking, rivalled only by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which counted well over 1,000 students in the 1920s3

VKhuTEMAS students with models

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a record of the school through its teaching material, archival sources and explanatory essays. It provides us with a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Soviet avant-garde in the brief window before Modernism was occluded by Socialist Realism. VKhUTEMAS was a cockpit of Constructivism and Functionalism. Constructivism was a Modernist movement which divided into two strands: a) a Cubist-inspired abstract school of art that deployed geometric forms and b) a utilitarian form of architecture favouring Euclidean forms and eschewing decoration. Functionalism is a principle that design must be ergonomic and pragmatic, subordinating aesthetics to function. There was a stress on modern materials, geometric forms and human psychology would aid design of structures, making them fully rational and determined by science. Architecture, unlike painting and sculpture, was not imitative and could thus be liberated from convention. Constructivism is avowedly Modernist in form; Functionalism is Modernist in form only by default. VKhUTEMAS taught both – inasmuch as they were distinguishable.

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space records school publications and course materials. These consist of montages, collages, photographs, diagrams and texts. These are reproduced photographically. The Russian text is partially translated into English for the first time. This large book reproduces pages from the archives at large size, most with translation facing. The syllabi are transcribed and translated. Some commentaries provide other information. Models in cardboard, wire, glass, plaster and string were made by students and were photographed as examples. The curriculum gives us information about the teaching methods, the ideas that were to be imparted and what students were expected to demonstrate. Examples are given of documents, fabric samples, clothing, furniture designs, posters, architectural plans and art work.

Although the foundations of the school’s teaching were doctrinal, the actual practice did allow for experimentation and personal expression. All tutors and students had to be members of the Party but it does not seem that the teachers were anything other than thoughtful, patient and responsive to their students. Teachers included serious artists already known in the West: Alexandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko. 

Konstantin Melnikov Kurochkin, Gosplan Garage, 1930s

VKhUTEMAS was closed in 1930, victim of the political struggles and the Party’s declining approval for Modernism, which would soon be denounced as ‘bourgeois formalism’. The solution to the unsatisfactory performance was to split up the school into different, specialised institutions. The fates of the tutors mirror the fate of the avant-garde under the Stalinist regime. Rodchenko moved from avant-garde design to documentary photography. Ladovsky was purged under Stalin, a fate that also befell Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky and other Modernist artists. Aleksandr Drevin and Gustav Klutsis were executed in 1938 as part of a purge of Latvians (partly overseen by Lavrentii Beria).  Vladimir Baranov-Rossine (a Jew) died in a Nazi death camp.  

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a fascinating insight into Soviet Modernism and design pedagogy. It is a somewhat specialised volume but a valuable addition to any extensive library on art education, design history and Soviet fine and applied arts.

The rivalry between the USSR and the USA dated back to the inception of the USSR. From the earliest days, ambitious Soviet officials and architects eyed the skyscrapers of New York with envy. For them, the logical development of the USSR would be to harness the capabilities of Soviet New Man, unleashed through the liberation of labour and freed from the shackles of bourgeois tradition, in order to build a new society that would surpass the USA’s lead. Socialism was a development of – and ultimately, replacement for – capitalism and this would be demonstrated through the creation of buildings grander than those of capitalism.

One of the great projects was Palace of the Soviets (designed 1931-3, head architect Boris Iofan). It would be a vast auditorium for conferences, with a giant library, served by 148 elevators, topped by the tallest building in the world, at 415 m (1,362 ft), with a 100 m tall statue of Lenin on the top of the tower. This would use techniques and materials innovated by the British, Germans and Americans to construct a palace dedicated to the people rather than to commerce. (Iofan led a delegation of engineers to New York to gain technical information.) It was seen as a direct riposte to the West, refuting the idea that Russia was technologically undeveloped and that Socialism could not match capitalist democracies. It had been barely started by the time the Great Patriotic War diverted the labour and materials into the war effort.

As Katherine Zubovich explains in Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, in the immediate aftermath of the victory over Germany, Stalin planned a group of eight tower blocks and completion of the Palace to show that the USSR was ready to enter the modern age and rival the world capitals. These would accompany completion of the Palace of the Soviets. Although the ill-starred Palace would never progress – the alarming amount of ground water flooding the foundations indicated the unsuitability of the location for the world’s tallest building – the tower blocks would be constructed. It turned out there would only be seven, built over the period 1947-53.

In the late 1930s, Stalin had effectively halted Soviet Modernism in all areas. The social, educational and – in some respects – the economic sovietisation of the USSR proved highly disruptive, slow and counterproductive. The Revolution would have to be stopped and (purely in an unannounced manner) reversed in select areas. A good example is the rise of Socialist Realism, which replaced the experimental Modernism of Suprematism and Constructivism with academic painting and sculpture depicting workers and party officials. In architecture, Stalinism entailed curtailing the excesses of Modernism and Rationalism, in favour of Historicism made at inhumanly large size. As always in totalitarian states (past and present) words were redefined. “небоскреб/neboskreby” (“skyscrapers”) was redefined to mean Western capitalist tall buildings; “Высокое здание/vysotnye zdaniia” (“tall buildings”) was the preferred term for tower blocks in the USSR.

The heroic experimentalism of the early revolutionary period of the Modernist period had never materialised. Construction on the Palace of the Soviets had stalled. Although the city had suffered aerial bombardment, it had not suffered as much as Leningrad, not to mention Stalingrad. The project of boulevardisation and the new metro system from the inter-war period was intact. In January 1947, with the USSR still gradually recovering from the ravages of war, the decree was issued to construct eight new skyscrapers. The plans were initially fluid.

In the early months of 1947, Soviet officials, construction managers, and architects themselves had little notion of the shape the project would take over the following months and years. The skyscraper decree of January 13, 1947 was impressionistic at best. The document gave little indication of the outsized role the buildings would come to play in Soviet life4

The buildings were Hotel Ukrainia (the tallest building in the USSR), Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, Kudrinskaya Square Building, Hotel Leningradskaya, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow State University headquarters and the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry. Construction was staggered due to the potential strain on labour, logistic and management. Zubovich outlines the internal politics of the bureaucracy and the shifting responsibility for the project as it came to life. The internal manoeuvring was not just a question of personal advancement but of survival by denouncing rivals as insufficiently Communist, as officials lived under the shadow of the KGB removing individuals due to counter-revolutionary subversion.

The ‘Seven Sisters’ displaced tens of thousands of Muscovites, who were evicted without compensation, although the Moscow government was obliged to find or build accommodation. The author tells the stories of some of the residents who were resettled to the outskirts of Moscow. The process was administered by Lavrentii Beria, former head of the NKVD. Rehousing the displaced population became a project in itself. The influx of construction workers required temporary housing, which would expand the city boundaries of Moscow.  

Construction became an opportunity for propaganda. The presence of women doing some of the lighter labour was heralded by the press as a triumph of communal co-operation in the world no longer encumbered by custom. Press coverage concealed problems:

Postwar shortages resulted in intense competition over materials, equipment, and labor between managers working across Moscow’s different construction sites. Building materials often arrived late or not at all, and construction equipment and gear were in short supply. Managers at all skyscrapers sites complained about a shortage of skilled workers5

Limitations in the conditions were obvious. Overcrowding in dormitories was commonplace. Internal Party reports noted

…workers’ housing was not only lacking mass-political activities and red [political] corners; living conditions in the material sense were abysmal6

Completion of the Seven Sisters coincided with the death of Stalin, soon followed by the era of the Great Thaw and de-Stalinisation of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. The untrammelled power and stylistic appropriation of the past were deemed indicative of the flaws of Stalin’s reign.

When Khrushchev spoke on the final day of the Builders’ Conference [in 1954], he called for greater efficiency in construction, increased use of industrialized and prefabricated materials, and an end to unnecessary decorations and embellishments in design that, as he stated, caused “unnecessary expenditures7

According to the new guard, Stalinism’s stylistic anachronism betokened a system-wide culture of deception. In terms of financial and human costs, monumentalism was indicative of inhumane excess that could no longer be supported.

Administrators and architects fell from favour but the undeniably impressive aspects of the project appealed to Communist regimes elsewhere. Soon structures typical of Stalinist Historicist architecture would spring up in the form of the buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, the Presidential Palace in Bucharest and buildings across the Eastern Bloc. 

A third book joins the space between the VKhUTEMAS and the Stalinist years, then brings the story up the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 seeks to place Soviet furniture, clothing, interior design and architecture in a continuum that integrates them within the ideals and reality of the USSR over almost its entire existence. Soviet design is relatively little known compared to other Modernist movements such as Secession, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Minimalism and Italian and Scandinavian Modernism. The reasons are that the USSR exported relatively little and (aside from political sympathetic states) it had little cultural and technological exchange with other states.

Due to its relative isolation, the USSR had to produce everything. This was a precursor to the creation of a new rational world suitable for Soviet Man, then, later, independence demonstrated the viability of self-sufficiency of the Communism-in-one-country doctrine. Soviet Design includes everything from teacups to underground stations. As with all areas of life in the USSR, the 1920s were full of bold experimentation and radical ideas.

Space was at a premium, so efficiency was prioritised. The drive to make furniture compact and multifunctional chimed with reappraisals of ways of living. Leading designer and theorist El Lissitzky declared,

Salons, halls, boudoirs, living-rooms […] everything has been swept away – only the bare living space is left8

New Soviet furniture could be folded away, rotated or reversed for different functions. Telyakovsky’s combination unit had a bookcase, desk and bed. Built-in storage was designed for new-build apartments. Soviet engineer-designers made a virtue of the limitations imposed by circumstances and, in doing so, their labours turned New Soviet Man’s domestic environment into something between factory cell, submarine berth and space-flight module.  

Soviet designs could be painfully uncompromising, with straight lines and flat planes more suited to showroom than living room – certainly not suited to human anatomy. Due to the severe restrictions (technical, material, financial, bureaucratic and political) many designs never went beyond drawing or prototype stage. Mismanagement, delays and lack of competition led to chronic shortages and compromises in all areas of Soviet life. Production targets were arbitrary and goods were often defective. Designers rarely saw their designs reach production in the quality they stipulated.

The earliest phase produced some attractive designs. A teacup and saucer from 1923 have spare geometric Suprematist forms on a white ceramic ground, crisp, dainty and assertively ant-traditional. The designer was Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954), a student of Malevich and one of the outstanding figures in Soviet ceramics. (Suetin designed Malevich’s coffin.) Some outstanding examples of suites or interiors were produced for public expositions.

The design of furniture models (in many cases never realized) taking their inspiration from Constructivist forms effectively ceased after 19349

By 1932, Stalinist policies decreed a return to order and convention – to a degree. Expressions of physical culture would become heavier, grander, more voluminous; traditional materials and forms would be adopted, although decoration would never become too elaborate. To give an impression of stability and continuity, the fine and applied arts would turn their backs upon “bourgeois formalism” of Modernism that distanced the proletariat from the products of their society.

This Historicism is evident in the submitted designs – reproduced in the book – of the Palace of the Soviets. Cinemas, theatres, department stores, hotels and other important spaces evoked the grandeur of the Romanov Empire period, complete with chandeliers, marble facing and dark lacquered-wood panelling. Rather than being challenged by Functionalist surroundings that asserted the dawn of a new age, Soviet citizens in the 1940s would be embraced by the stifling pomp of the belle époque, made available to all, not just the (now liquidated) capitalist class.    

Reverse engineering and copying formed part of Soviet design. The most notable example was the adoption of Art Deco for architecture, furniture and Metro stations. The use of crisp lines, simple forms, tubular metal supports and absence of ornamentation provided a counterpoint to the rival Stalinist Historicism. This Art Deco can be found in a showpiece ship that was used to ferry passengers to holiday resorts on the Black Sea.

All Union Competition entries, 1972 – from Soviet Design

Post-war reconstruction, advances in technology and the death of Stalin allowed moderate Modernist designs to reach production stage and dominate interiors from the late 1950s onwards. There was popular demand for domestic furniture that was informal and comfortable. We see curvilinear metal tubing, foam padding, slimline design and lightweight construction become commonplace – many of the products copied from Western examples. Electrical appliances became affordable. The communal canteens demanded by the communitarian ideals of the Revolutionary era – which had never been popular in domestic habitations – were abandoned in favour of fitted kitchens.

Significantly, the advent of the Eastern Bloc brought international trade on a large scale for the first time in Soviet history. Apparently, the USSR imported many interior fittings from Czechoslovakia. Despite advances, however, Soviet manufacturers were unresponsive to public demand, often unwilling to modify inferior designs. Lacking competition and the profit motive, manufacturing was deeply inefficient.

Soviet Design does much to familiarise readers with the origins, principles, limitations and unique circumstances that led to the designs produced in the USSR. The many large illustrations, explanatory narrative and concise biographies of major figures will make this book a primary introduction to one of the most neglected fields of design.

  1. Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930, p40 []
  2. Bokov, ibid, p132 []
  3. Bokov, ibid., p40 []
  4. Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital , p81 []
  5. Zubovich, ibid. , p150 []
  6. Zubovich, ibid., p154)

    Unrealistically high targets (motivated by arbitrary statistical ambition) pushed workers to breaking point. As with the pre-war metro construction, accidents were frequent. Pay was so low that there was even labour unrest. What was not made clear in the press was the amount of forced labour used. By 1950, 8,000 prisoners (including foreign nationals) were working on the Seven Sisters in zones segregated from the population and the (nominally) free workers.

    The buildings were well-appointed and the décor restrained. The public spaces at the lower levels were Historicist, pastiching Romanov-era state buildings, replete with marble cladding and columns. The Party elite scrambled to petition high officials to secure apartments. As it was, the number of apartments did not materially affect the housing crisis in the city. Although more generous than average Moscow apartments, the tower-block apartments were not large, especially when occupied by multi-person households.

    At the very moment Moscow’s skyscrapers were completed in the mid-1950s, they became symbols of Stalinist “excess” ((Zubovich, ibid., p5 []

  7. Zubovich, ibid., p201 []
  8. 1926. Quoted, p74, Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 []
  9. Krasnyanskaya, Semenov, ibid., p174 []