PUBLIC ART: THE BLOKES

The row over statues seems to be dying down, but someone on Facebook posted a picture (left) that illustrates how they have been democratised – Standing Man by Sean Henry in Paddington Basin, a Bloke on the Ground sort of sculpture that Henry specialises in: anonymous, ordinary people without plinths, natural size and at the same level as the viewer.

For contrast I add The Duke of Cambridge by Adrian Jones, the 1907 equestrian sculpture in Whitehall that is so familiar that it is never looked at, representative of the 19th-century statuary that populates our cities: grand, elevated, establishment and not a little oppressive.

The latter sort is being gradually reviewed and sometimes suddenly and violently removed, but the process of democratisation that the review is part of began long ago with the Blokes on the Ground who are slowly and silently replacing them.

MAGGI HAMBLING

gaffered

After a summer of controversy about public statues it’s not surprising that there’s been a row about Maggi Hambling’s sculpture to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s not a representation of the writer, it honours Wollstonecraft obliquely, the figure is naked and it’s been criticised on artistic grounds.

Untitled-1

Modern democratic memorials are likely to be at ground level now or put on benches so that ordinary people can sit beside their heroes. Hambling, who is famously abrasive and contrarian, puts this one on a very traditional pedestal.

Untitled-2

A militant smoker, Hambling gave her statue of Oscar Wilde a cigarette, which has since been removed. Wollstonecraft was quickly vandalised by someone who disliked its nudity (top).

tweet

Hambling has said that people don’t get it. But doesn’t the work of communication have to be done by the writer, not the reader, and if people don’t get it, isn’t it her failing? One feminist artist I spoke to said, “They get it well enough – Hambling is the one who doesn’t get it.”

Untitled-5

Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist but much of her appeal comes from her life. Born into a large family with poor parents, she established an independent career, moved among radicals,  wrote and published much, supported the French Revolution, engaged in direct controversy with Edmund Burke and lived in Revolutionary Paris. John Opie painted her twice (below).

MaryWollstonecraft opie 1791

After advocating personal independence and platonic love she discovered sex late in life, had a child with the go-getting and irresponsible Gilbert Imlay, narrowly escaped the guillotine, attempted suicide, married William Godwin but lived separately from him according to their shared principles, and died giving birth to a daughter Mary, famous as the author of Frankenstein.

Godwin was admired by his son-in-law Shelley, who later came to find him stuffy and pedantic. Driven by a naïve frankness, Godwin sought to honour Wollstonecraft in a memoir that held back nothing about her emotional instability and bohemian life and virtually destroyed her reputation for a hundred years.

Vindication

But there is evidence from the speech and behaviour of some of her characters that Jane Austen knew the Vindication. E. B. Browning read it at the age of twelve, George Eliot was thoroughly familiar with it and Virginia Woolf was well aware of it. The female suffragists brought her writings back into focus again and modern feminist criticism has put her centre stage. Although the ideas and sentiments of the Vindication are surprisingly modern, and there are modern editions, the language probably puts modern readers off and its doubtful if it’s much read.

ART AND ILLUSION

My old friend Nick Rowling, who corrected the mistakes I’d made about the alleged iconoclasm of the English Commonwealth, suggest I read Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, which he thought was one of the best books on the history of art. I saw that his view was shared by Kenneth Clark, who described it as “One of the most brilliant books of art criticism I have ever read.”

It’s also one of the hardest. Gombrich studied at Vienna, where art historians were steeped in philosophy that they often took for granted, and without a knowledge of which it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying. Although Gombrich lived most of his life in England, and although he wrote Art and Illusion in English, he thought it in German. His idea of the way that mental structures or “schemata” shape perception comes from Kant, and the “mythological explanations” of history that he deprecates (explanation in terms of collectives like “mankind”, “races” and “ages”) come from Hegel. Most of his antecedents are German: Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, Hans Sedlmayr, Emanuel Loewy, Julius von Schlosser, Aby Warburg, Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Kris and Karl Popper.

I went online to look for cribs but found that some of them understood even less than me – saying, for example, that the idea of “schemata” was invented by Gombrich, or attributing to Gombrich an opinion of Herbert Read’s that Gombrich dismisses. But that’s how difficult the book is.

HEINRICH WÖLFFLIN

karlskirche
Photo: Johannes Rottmeyer

When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.

Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.

The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:

Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality  and the central dome is cut across.

For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.

‘THE NEIGHBOURS’

The_Neighbours_by_Siegfried_Charoux_(18901546010) (1)
The Neighbours, by Siegfried Charoux (Photo: David Holt)

Since I began looking for public sculptures with narratives different from those of the questionable Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes, I’ve realised that there’s a well-established tradition of egalitarian and popular monuments in England going back at least eighty years.

The latest in my collection is The Neighbours by Siegfried Charoux in Highbury Quadrant, north London, brought to my attention by Municipal Dreams on Twitter.

English Heritage says  of this listed structure, “Figurative sculpture. Commissioned 1957, unveiled 1959. Siegfried Charoux, sculpture, for the London County Council on the recommendation of the Arts Council. Cemented iron, four feet high. Two figures, realistically portrayed yet demonstrating an idealism of ‘working man’. A strong and humane representation that well suits its setting, and demonstrating the range of the LCC’s patronage.”

The post-war decades of social reconstruction, public enterprise and of art for the people also produced public murals in the same vein. I wrote earlier about the dusty and neglected History of the Old Kent Road by Adam Kossowski, also commissioned by a London local authority. Kossowski’s narrative recalls that of the South Bank Exhibition  the 1951 Festival of Britain, with its displays on “The People of Britain”, “The New Schools,” “Sport” and “The Seaside”.  Although they appear didactic now, this was the era of the 1944 Education Act, the NHS, New Towns and the meritocracy.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA
Mosaic nap of Hemel Hempstead by Rowland Emmett. (Photo: Lumos3)

Less didactic but still demotic was Roland Emmett’s mosaic map in Hemel Hempstead.

The tide of democratic public art is so high now that it’s begun to wash round the plinths of the generals and slave traders, all of which which are all over a hundred years old. The fact that democratic sculpture has received so little attention in the current debate reflects the fact that no-one really takes much notice of public art.

CROMWELL, IRELAND AND THE JEWS

cromwell wythenshawe

Does anyone imagine you can understand the past simply by looking at statues?

That’s not exactly what’s meant by saying statues are “part of our history”, but it implies that if statues are removed people will know less about history. The history they record, however, is not the deeds of those commemorated but the beliefs of the age that made the monuments.

Most people don’t know much about history. I had an educated colleague who thought the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie were Jacobins and that Oliver Cromwell came in with the Glorious Revolution. The statue of Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, which has just been vandalised by anti-racists, wouldn’t have helped him.

85014c53fd cromwell racist

The protesters daubed FASCIST, RACIST and COCKROACH on the plinth. The pretext was Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, which was pretty savage. Cromwell, as it happens also readmitted the Jews to England after an exile ordered by Edward I. If you want get het up about that too, there’s a statue of Edward above the street at 114 High Holborn and a prominent one at Burgh by Sands.

In Ulysses James Joyce wrote about about Ireland’s attitude to the Jews:

Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being
the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No.
And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

It’s complicated.

ROBIN WELCH

robin welch

I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

COUNTY COUNCIL BAUHAUS

charles aslin
Charles Aslin (1893-1959)

I saw the RIBA’s exhibition Beyond Bauhaus on Saturday, which charts the influence of Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy and Walter Breuer during and after the years when they lived in England.

As I live in Hertfordshire, I was intrigued to discover that the rapid school-building programme in the county after the Second World War was implemented by by a team of architects under Charles Aslin (above), whose debt to Gropius was explicit. The population was growing fast and there was great demand for schools. The county architects, backed by the director of education, John Newsom, who was reputed to be good at sourcing materials in a time of scarcity, devised a standard prefabricated model, mainly used for single-storey buildings and making great use of natural light, colour and art.

carpenders park
Designs for interior colour schemes for the entrance hall at Carpenders Park School, Oxhey by Oliver Cox, HCC Architects.
Image from RIBApix

I’d noticed the criss-cross ceiling girders in nearly every Hertfordshire school I visited (below)- round the corner from me is Margaret Wix Primary School built on such a model. My daughter went to St Albans Girls School, also built like that, with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the foyer. The Hertfordshire achievement was quickly recognised and it influenced school building elsewhere – by 1970 about 40 per cent of British schools had used it.

green lanes croxley
Green Lanes School, Croxley Green, 1949

The exhibition made me curious about the primary school I’d attended, Pinner Park, then part of Middlesex County Council. When we’re children we accept the world as it presents itself and have little sense of context or history, but looking back I remember a modernist building with flat roofs and metal-framed windows. I discovered it was of the many modernist buildings constructed before the war by Middlesex County architects  William Thomas Curtis and his assistant Howard William Burchett. They created dozens of public buildings in Metroland , including the now-listed Kenton Public Library (below), recognisable from their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. They used innovative methods and materials such as the concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School.

kenton library 1kenton library 2

Historic England’s description of Kenton Public Library gives an idea of Curtis and Burchett’s style and influences:

The square tower has two small, latter projections on the south-east corner, one of brick and one glazed. Both wings lit by tall metal windows. Entrance hall lit by east wall of glass bricks. Interior: original staircase, issuing desk and screen, and original bookcases. The main reading room is both side-lit and top-lit by means of circular perforated openings. Included as a good example of the Middlesex County Architect’s Department’s style adopted after 1933, owing much to the work of Wittem Dudok in Hilversum, yet giving a distinctive architectural form of calibre and panache to the London suburbs. This example is especially notable for its boldly geometric composition and the survival of internal fittings.

STREET ART: ZOLTÁN BOBOREKI-KOVÁCS

IMG_20190703_093036365
When we visited Košice, Slovakia, a few years ago, we heard Hungarian spoken in the street, and on a walk in the hills encountered a family picnicking over a bogrács, a typical Hungarian cauldron. Košice was once Kassa, part of the kingdom of Hungary, and was one of the areas lost at Trianon after the First World War.

Public art can be an exciting introduction to a previously unfamiliar artist. The Story of the Old Kent Road introduced me to Adam Kossowski, and an unsigned cartoon in a river boat on the Danube opened to me the fascinating world of Pál Molnar-C. In Budapest a few weeks ago, I stopped to look at a heroic piece of relief sculpture (above) on a building in Károly körút, just opposite Deák Ferenc tér, which I took, from the modernity of the building and the style of the work, to be a piece of Socialist Realism celebrating Communist power and the harvest, a remnant of Hungary’s fifty years under Soviet rule. It was unsigned, and so I thought that this interesting and neglected bit of artistic flotsam, marred by modern graffiti, would forever remain a mystery to me.

However, when I posted a picture of it on Facebook, Peter Langh, who owns Gallery 567 in Budapest, told me that that artist was Zoltán Boboreki-Kovács and that the sculpture represented the annexation of Upper Hungary following the First Vienna Award – part of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and taking in Košice/Kassa. So, obviously not Socialist Realism. But its idealized figures, its juxtaposition of the maternal, the bucolic and the military, its strong faces and dramatic gestures, all indicate how similar nationalist art and communist art can be.

Borbereki-Kovács_Zoltán_Magyar_golgota_(1941)_Budapest,_Farkasréti_temető

Boboreki-Kovács (19007-92) trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest, and in Rome, and was associated with the Szolnok Artists’ Colony, where he became interested in sculpture. Wikipedia says of him that he created realist monumental sculptures, that his compositions were closed and block-like, and that his art was characterized by pure forms and folk styles. At first he worked in in stone, then switched to bronze and wood. He also created sculptures for buildings. He left Hungary for South Africa after the war and his heroic style changed under the influence of modernism, abstraction and African art. His Hungarian Calvary (1941)(above) in the Farkasrét Cemetery is still in the style of his Re-annexation tableaux (below).

img_20190703_0931320822659214770..jpg

ALAN COLLINS

img_20181024_114656955_hdr1851357797.jpg

The Angels of the Apocalypse sculpture on the Seventh Day Adventist European HQ in St Albans faces on to the main street of the town and its angular shapes are familiar to everyone. So familiar to me that, despite having lived there for years, I’d never bothered to find out anything about it.

It’s by Alan Collins, ARCA (1928-2016), an English religious artist who lived much of his life in the USA and who taught at Seventh Day Adventist universities. His sculptures in Guildford Cathedral, better known but less visible than his St Albans angels, won the Sir Otto Beit medal in 1964, and he made the lettering on the Kennedy memorial at Runnymede, a remarkable commission because he did not specialise in letter cutting.

runnymede-jfk409504251.jpg

The Angels of the Apocalypse were made in 1965 in fibreglass for the Adventists’ building, a rare piece of

screenshot_20181025-074829~21621442860..jpg

modernist architecture in a conservation-conscious town more interested in its Roman, medieval and Victorian past than in the 20th century.