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April 13 2012

Bauhaus: a blueprint for the future

On the eve of a Barbican retrospective, Rowan Moore explores the enduring appeal and influence of the Bauhaus school

Not much united Walter Ulbricht, the Stalinist dictator of East Germany for two decades, and Tom Wolfe, celebrant of the splendours and follies of American capitalist excess. Not much, except a loathing of the Bauhaus and the style of design it inspired. Ulbricht called it "an expression of cosmopolitan building" that was "hostile to the people" and to "the national architectural heritage". Wolfe called it "an architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur or even high spirits and playfulness".

For Ulbricht it was alien to Germany, for Wolfe it was alien to America. Both agreed that it was placeless, soulless and indifferent to ordinary people's needs. And if the Bauhaus attracted such consistent forms of hostility, that is due to the power and coherence of the image it presented to the world, of disciplined and monochrome modernist simplicity, usually involving steel and glass. Given that it was actually a short-lived and semi-nomadic school of design and art with the usual riot of individualists, visionaries, eccentrics, schemers and geniuses that such places attract, this appearance of unity was an achievement.

From May the Barbican is staging an exhibition of 400 of the Bauhaus's works, the first in Britain on this scale for 44 years. It will stress the breadth of its output, including paintings by Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy, furniture by Marcel Breuer, textiles by Gunta Stölzl, architecture by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, photography, film, ceramics, theatre, graphics and product design. It promises to portray the central ideal of the Bauhaus, "to change society in the aftermath of the first world war", as the Barbican puts it, and "to find a new way of living".

When Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 it was with these aspirations for a new life, and for a multiplicity of creative disciplines, together with a stress on the importance of making things as opposed to just theorising about them. But there was not yet a distinct form or direction to these ideas, and almost anything could be considered as a route to a better future, including new spiritualist religions and a strict vegetarian diet which had to be livened up with plenty of garlic. According to Gropius's spectacular wife Alma, whose other husbands and lovers included Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka and the writer Franz Werfel, the most distinctive feature of the Bauhaus in its early days was garlic on the breath.

Certain questions were unresolved and intensely debated. Was craft or mass production more important? Could art and manufacturing be reconciled? Did individual expression impede service to society? In 1925 the school moved to Dessau, between Berlin and Leipzig. At the time it was an industrial boom town, the base of the Junkers aeroplane company. The harder-edged, more technocratic arguments started to prevail. The young Marcel Breuer started collaborating with Junkers on making tubular steel furniture of a kind that would eventually become commonplace in boardrooms and forward-thinking homes. Greater attention was paid to the commercial development and marketing of Bauhaus-designed objects.

In Dessau they built, in the extraordinarily short time of one year, the Gropius-designed building that became as famous as the institution it served. With its glass curtain walls and spare rectilinear forms, it crystallised what would become the dominant type of modernist architecture. It was one of the most prodigiously influential buildings of all time, a prototype that would be followed by office buildings, hotels, schools and hospitals in almost any country you can think of. In Dessau, Gropius and his followers could also try out other architectural ideas on the row of houses built for Bauhaus masters, and on 300 low-cost houses built for industrial workers on the Dessau-Torten estate.

In 1932, however, the school moved on again, to Berlin. The next year it fell victim to the National Socialists – another movement that, after the catastrophic trauma of the first world war, sought a new order and expressed itself through memorable visual imagery. Junkers started making Stuka divebombers, not Breuer chairs, and Dessau was all but flattened by bombing in 1945. The Bauhaus building was severely damaged, and only recently has been fully restored. But its influence spread. The Bauhausler diaspora, of ex-students and teachers building in the style they had learned, extended to Tel Aviv and Tokyo. Gropius migrated via London to the United States, where he became a professor at Harvard and designed the Pan Am building above New York's Grand Central station, much disliked for the way it imposed on the view down Park Avenue. He also designed the Playboy Club in London, prompting a new generation of radicals to denounce him for selling out.

To visit the Bauhaus building now is to be struck again by the extraordinary way in which a single construction in a provincial town could have had so much effect. It is also to see nuances that, inevitably, imitators lost. For years the Bauhaus building was known to the wider world mostly through a few black-and-white photographs that stress its more easily copied details, but miss the point that it was a framework for the creative energy of the school. Its stairs, workshops and balconies were places of display as well as function, and its glass walls made a spectacle of its internal activities. One of the key spaces was an auditorium whose stage is connected to the communal canteen, thereby bringing together performance and life. It also has a subtle colour scheme, contrary to Wolfe's assertions that the Bauhaus was only interested in black, white and grey. If it looked like a factory it also had properties of a commune, a cult centre and a theatre.

Although it was founded by Gropius, architecture was not at first the main point of the Bauhaus, and its vast legacy extends from graphics through product design to art. But architecture came to dominate the public image of the place, and the style of the building proved easier to record than the events that happened there. What Wolfe and Ulbricht railed against was its impact on the built environment. Which, if you only look at its form and not at its content, does indeed look sterile. Hopefully, the Barbican show will put this misconception right.

As for Alma, she tired of the work ethic of her husband and his school. At least if Tom Lehrer is to believed. As "Alma", his tribute to her, has it:

But he would work late at the Bauhaus,

And only came home now and then.

She said, "What am I running? A chow house?

It's time to change partners again."


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April 06 2012

Villa Tugendhat

Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat, a paragon of light and spacious living and the inspiration for Simon Mawer's 2009 novel The Glass Room, has been restored to its 1930s glory and is now open to all

When Ludwig Mies van der Rohe declared that "less is more" he was not talking about budgets. Saving money was rarely among his concerns, and one of the many amazing things about his Villa Tugendhat, completed in 1930 in the Czech city of Brno, is the stupendous price of its apparent simplicity. It cost five million Czech crowns at a time when a very respectable luxury villa could be built for about 320,000 crowns. In other words, it cost 15 times the going rate for houses of this type; he could accurately have said "less costs more".

Not that his clients, Grete and Fritz Tugendhat, both heirs to industrial fortunes, complained. What they got for their money was a pioneering steel-framed house, equipped with glass walls that could slide down into the floor, a special room for keeping their furs chilled and moth-free, and a heating and cooling facility like the engine room of a ship, which consumed a train-wagon-load of coal every winter. It also passed air through a shower of water, over stones taken from the sea, then through filters of cedar oil and cedar shavings, in order to make it cool and fragrant.

They got one of the most influential houses of the 20th century, whose open plan and panoramic glazing are still imitated today. Most importantly, they achieved what Greta called "a modern spacious house… with clear and simple shapes" that gave "a completely special calm". It did justice, she said, "to the primarily spiritual sense of life of each and every one of us, as opposed to mere necessity".

It has been variously claimed that modernist architecture was about rationality, or pure function, or raising the environments of the working classes; none of those arguments applied in this case.

Now, for the first time since the 1930s, it is possible to see the house more or less as Mies (as the architect is best known) intended, following a restoration supported by the EU and carried out by the city of Brno. It can be visited by the public, although its popularity means you have to book a place on its tours long in advance.

Above all, you can experience the living area at the centre of the house. To say that this has two glass walls, an open plan and clean, modernist style is like saying that Chartres cathedral has pointed arches and big windows. Nor does it get you very much further to describe the beautiful materials acquired from distant regions – macassar ebony for the library and the circular dining alcove; a wall in miraculously thin onyx slabs quarried from the Atlas mountains. Nor the spectacular view of the city, the sense of contact with the garden, the abundant light, nor the way that the steel columns, with their mirror finish, almost disappear.

The point is more that the combination of all these elements is mesmerising. If the plan, with the regular spacing of the columns, is lucid, the dissolving effects of the surfaces confound the senses. Reflections draw the garden foliage inside and the patterns of leaves play off the squirming, fossilised patterns of the stone and the grain of the wood. The creamy-brown onyx is plainly heavy, but it is thin enough that, when hit by the low winter sun, it glows on its inward side. The vanishing columns make the ceiling slab levitate, and when the glass walls disappear into the floor the room becomes a theatre box in the sky. At one end the glass is doubled, with space between the layers wide enough for a cuboid conservatory, which again inverts the perception of outside and in.

The surfaces are lush and the lines are spare. The space is ancient and industrial at once, with the construction methods of office blocks, and a pale linoleum floor combined with classical proportions, the rhythms of a temple and travertine. It is made of different scales of time – the geology of the stone, the tree growth recorded in the wood grain, the seasonal revolutions of the garden, the movement of daylight, the movements of people through the space. Silk curtains made it another place at night.

It is dreamlike, the more so for the way that boundaries are drawn with a sharpness something like the uncanny precision you get in dreams. It is a bubble made of straight lines and right angles. Its illusions are framed with the regular measure of the columns, like bar lines in music, and proportions (of which Mies said, disingenuously: "Proportions don't cost anything").

The house is built against a steep slope, with the living space in the middle one of three levels. Below is the apparatus that sustains it, like the backstage of a theatre – the heating and ventilating, the fur room, storage, laundry and the machinery for operating the windows. Above are the bedrooms and bathrooms of the Tugendhats and their children, and a terrace with a Miesian sandbox, perfectly square, and trellises for roses.

Because of the slope, only the top floor is visible when you approach from the street. You enter and a stair descends through what seems to be ground level to the living space, which in turn seems to hover above the garden, an upside-down sequence which further heightens its quality of apparition. You discover that everything in the house revolves around and sustains the central zone. Other aspects are special enough – the daring simplicity of the exterior and the refinement of the bedrooms would have been sufficient achievements for many architects – but here they support the main event.

All of which could add up to a familiar type of architecture, the uninhabitable masterpiece. Critics latched on to this possibility early, and a German architectural magazine asked, within a year of its completion: "Can One Live in Villa Tugendhat?" Greta and Fritz replied robustly that yes, you could. Their wishes were perfectly fulfilled, they said, and the design allowed different activities happily to co-exist. It was "austere and grand – not in a way that oppresses, but one that liberates". They spoke fondly of the way their children could play on the terrace, and of "sitting in the warm sun and looking out on the snow-covered landscape just as though we were in Davos". Mies later designed the Farnsworth House in Illinois, whose impracticalities drove its owner, Edith Farnsworth, to fury and lawsuits. In Brno, however, he achieved a miraculous union of art and life.

It did not last. Just over seven years after they moved in, the Tugendhats, who were Jewish, foresaw the approach of the Nazis and left for Switzerland, and then Venezuela. When they arrived, the Nazis appropriated the house and rented it out to the Messerschmitt aircraft company. They took the timber lining of the dining alcove and reinstalled it in the town's Gestapo headquarters. Shockwaves from allied bombs blew out the glass walls. The Soviet army took it and stabled horses among the exquisite veneers. After the war, it became a ballet studio, a rehabilitation centre for children with spinal defects and a guest house for the government. In 1992 the Czech and Slovak leaders met here to agree the division of their country. The house was a bubble in time as well as space and Greta's "completely special calm" was engulfed by the tumult of its period.

Its story is too good to go unnoticed by novelists, and it has not: Simon Mawer's 2009 Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room is a lightly fictionalised account of the Tugendhats and their house. Its descriptions of the place are evocative, but nothing can compare with the real thing, which, thanks to the EU millions, is about as close to its original state as could be hoped for. The timber abducted by the Gestapo was rediscovered and returned, having meanwhile become the setting of a student cafeteria, and the vibrant red and green chairs with which Mies furnished the space have been reinstalled. It is also different – it is no longer a private house for a highly privileged couple (which led a snarky critic to call it "modernist snobbery… the renewal of fancy baroque palaces, the seat of a new financial aristocracy") but a three-dimensional artwork and museum piece to be visited by the public.

Brno is a town whose location and identity most Britons, maybe even Observer readers, would be hard put to describe. Yet it has had a way of compressing a lot of history into its locality (rather, one is tempted to say, as it compresses a lot of sounds into its consonant-heavy name). The battle of Austerlitz took place just outside the town; Gregor Mendel invented modern genetics in the town's Abbey of St Thomas and Sigmund Freud was born in the region. In the 1920s the most optimistic time in Czechoslovakia's short life, it was a leading centre of modern architecture, several years ahead of London, for example. The vitality of that time has not returned, but in the Villa Tugendhat something of its spirit lives on.


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February 26 2012

Death of the American urban dream

A new film shows how an idealistic postwar housing project in St Louis, Missouri went disastrously wrong

"Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)." So wrote the polemicist Charles Jencks in the course of launching its replacement, postmodern architecture, and he was referring to the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, a 57-acre array of 11-storey slab blocks which, less than 20 years after they were completed, were destroyed by controlled implosion.

The architect of the project was Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, and might be considered unlucky in the amount of violence done to his works. Yamasaki professed humanity, harmony and his opposition to prejudice, beliefs born of his experiences as a put-upon Japanese American. He laid out Pruitt-Igoe according to the best principles of the modern movement: an orderly plan in which cars and pedestrians were separated, ample open space was provided between the blocks, and flats were oriented to catch daylight and views.

By the time they were destroyed, the blocks were notorious for violence, vandalism, chaos and squalor. Police and firemen refused to go there, as missiles would be hurled at them from high levels if they did. If Yamasaki, in common with Le Corbusier and other modernists, believed that rational architecture could make people behave better, Pruitt-Igoe seemed to prove the opposite. So, in Jencks's words: "It was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom." Its fate became the prototype for the detonation of similar projects in the United States and elsewhere. By the 1990s, in Britain, the great kerflumpf of a collapsing tower block became a form of civic festival, in which politicians would preside over bacchanals of cascading masonry.

It was obvious. It became a certitude of the age that some silly architects had had a fantasy, which turned into the opposite, and appropriate measures were taken, but as with many certitudes the truth now seems to be not quite so simple. According to a film recently released in the United States, the causes of Pruitt-Igoe's end were many and complex.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History directed by Chad Freidrichs, is built around interviews with people who lived there, archival clips, and footage of the Blair Witch-like woodland that has grown up on the site. The residents recall their utter joy when they moved in, not only at the plumbing, heating and electricity, but also at views and the "warmth of community". "When I moved in, it was one of the most exciting days of my life," says one interviewee. "My memories of Pruitt-Igoe are some of the best I have," says another. One calls her flat a "poor man's penthouse". People remember "a wonderful building with so many different smells of cooking" and "so many kids to play with". To start with at least, Yamasaki's modernism was not alienating.

The film charts the degeneration – the lifts that stopped working, the rubbish incinerators that failed, the winter that the pipes burst, the rise of bullying and gangs. Eventually there is horror. A man describes how, as a nine-year-old, he watched his mother vainly trying to shove his brother's guts back inside, after he had been shot in the stomach with a sawn-off shotgun.

"It would be here today if it had been maintained like it was when it opened up," says one of the voices, "but it went down and down and down and down."

While government money paid to build the blocks, running costs were to be funded out of rents which, as the residents were poor, were not enough. Rents were raised, even as the blocks declined, such that they consumed three quarters of some residents' income. They were paying more for less.

Behind maintenance lay politics: public housing projects were viewed with suspicion, as un-American and socialist. They were bad for business, in that they deprived private landlords and real estate companies of opportunities. They were also good for business in that they made work for construction companies, but only while they were being built, which helps explain the decision to invest in their creation but not their maintenance.

And, with politics, went race. Pruitt-Igoe's residents were black, many of them recent immigrants from the depression-hit countryside, whose first homes in St Louis had been appallingly overcrowded slums, with nine people in three rooms, to give one example remembered in the film. The lifespan of the development coincided with the rise of white flight, the evacuation of white people to suburbs (whose growth was encouraged by government policy) beyond the city limits.

The film shows old footage of housewives saying "I moved here because it is a white neighbourhood" and "I could just not live alongside them… they want mixed marriages and to be equal with us". With white flight went the loss of tax income to the city. Factories and jobs also moved out which, combined with discrimination in hiring, left the residents of places like Pruitt-Igoe with minimal prospect of work.

Recipients of welfare, meanwhile, were treated brutally: there was a rule that families would lose their entitlements if there were a man in the home and one-parent families were thereby forcibly created. An adult recalls how, as a boy, he had to lie to inspectors when his father paid a visit. There were also bans on owning televisions and telephones. The attitude, says an ex-resident, was "we're giving you money so we control you". For another the effect was to "make people feel isolated and restricted". Their treatment was "void of humanity caring, like a prison environment". The "mindset for inhabitants was that they weren't cared about".

And so the place fell to pieces, despite the heroism of many of its residents. Vandal-proof fixtures were installed, but "the fact that it was indestructible made you want to destroy it". There were "bitter people, angry people" who would attack emergency vehicles, because "they wanted to make a statement". Drugs, prostitution and shootings took over. A rent strike by residents brought some concessions from the authorities, but it was a short-lived victory. Not long after, they were ejected, and the blocks destroyed.

Apart from the effects of policy and poor maintenance, Pruitt-Igoe was also a victim of events nobody foresaw. When it was planned in the early 50s, cities like St Louis were expected to keep on growing, as they had done for decades. As it turned out, the population halved. If the scale of the development made some sense in an expanding city, it did not in a shrinking one.

It is a striking feature of the film that no one mentions Yamasaki's architecture as a major factor in Pruitt-Igoe's calamity, except to praise the quality of the flats. No one calls it grim and inhuman, and when it is compared to a prison it is because of the management regime, not the design. There is no suggestion that a postmodernist treatment could have saved it. Perhaps if it had been lower rise, the problems with lifts could have been avoided, and perhaps the wide-open spaces contributed to the eventual lawlessness. Then again, there are perfectly successful social housing projects, in America and elsewhere, that have both lifts and open spaces.

If it was vain of modernist architects to think they could change people for the better, there is also vanity in their critics to think that design alone can change them for the worse. If there was an element of grand gesture, rather than close attention to the human detail, in the creation of vast projects like Pruitt-Igoe, there was equal gesture in their destruction. The effects of architecture alone are rarely as significant as people think: it can certainly affect your sense of wellbeing for better or worse, and it can aid or hinder the larger forces that it serves. But politics, economics, and such things as the presence or absence of prejudice are what really change people's lives.


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February 19 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art – review

Tate Britain, London

Soames Forsyte, of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, must be the most enterprising art collector in British fiction. At the end of the first world war, while others are still investing in John Singer Sargent, he takes a punt on a work by Pablo Picasso. It is true that Forsyte doesn't struggle to save it when his house catches fire –Dégas take priority – but his prescience has already been established. Forsyte was buying Picasso long before his real-life British counterparts.

How late we were to acquire (if not love) Picasso is one of two stories in Tate Britain's big spring show. It's a cracking tale of politics, class and cultural cringe, more or less pieced together through the captions and catalogue.

The other story is of Picasso's influence on British art. You might argue – the curators do – that Picasso is almost synonymous with modernism and therefore his influence is diffuse. But this show is very precisely focused. It looks at three artists who paid sharp attention without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – and five more who swooned. It is told in 150 works, almost half of them by Picasso; the comparison is frequently cruel.

Picasso's first British airing was in Roger Fry's momentous Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910. Putrescence, pornography, infection: the press blew up like bullfrogs and were still mocking the Spaniard in 1949 when the Tate finally acquired its first cubist Picasso. Only the Bloomsberries and a handful of Forsytes bought him. "I find him perfectly charming and quite easy and simple," wrote Vanessa Bell from Paris with telling complacency. If his admirers couldn't see the complexities, then what hope for a public who scarcely saw his work in museums before the second world war?

The attention from Bloomsbury may have been a curse. When Picasso stayed at the Savoy in 1919, designing ropey costumes for Diaghilev (exhaustively represented here, and not a patch on Bakst), the group monopolised him in Garsington and Gordon Square. Other British artists were suspicious, and as the excellent catalogue puts it: "his presence left scarcely any mark on British art".

The exception at this stage was Duncan Grant, whose weak pastiches are an embarrassment to this show. "Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?" Picasso is said to have inquired. It doesn't get much better later on with Ben Nicholson's guitars and Gallicised still-lifes in the 1930s. "Au Chat Botté Dieppe" is neatly lettered across a tabletop viewed through a window, all done in quasi-fractured planes and chalky tones – cubism Cornish-style.

Nicholson, displaying the anxiety of influence, nicknamed the Spaniard "Piccy" and "Picz". Henry Moore shrewdly avoided all mention of his artistic forebear. To appreciate the necessity of this tactic you need only compare Picasso's The Source with Moore's Reclining Figure, two monumental figures placed conveniently adjacent at Tate Britain, and ask yourself whether the latter is likely to have come into being without the former.

It is one of a dozen instances in this show of something pretty near to plagiarism. Each artist has a different Picasso: cubist for Grant and Nicholson, neoclassicist for Moore, surrealist for Francis Bacon. The Bacon room is the least impressive because it insists upon the similarities between the open-mouthed figures in Picasso's Dinard period and those in Bacon's Crucifixion paintings as if they had a shared idiom, meaning or impact. Bacon acknowledged Picasso very readily, but whatever he absorbed feels quite inconsequential to the exuberant agony and grandeur of his art.

If Bacon looks diminished, imagine the effect on everyone else. Graham Sutherland comes over as a second-rate copyist, David Hockney as a lightweight comedian pulling cubist effects with his camera. Hockney can take care of himself, of course, but what is the lasting value of a show where so much of the art is effectively downgraded?

There are masterpieces: several Picassos, including his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, her face two kissing forms like the new moon holding the old in its arms, silky flesh bathed in moonlight, and Wyndham Lewis's Workshop, that marvellous concatenation of geometric planes in coruscating pinks and mustards that almost resolve into windows, ladders and shelves, by day and also, as it seems, by night.

If this relates to Picasso, it is via futurism, and speaking not of pictorial languages so much as the dynamism of modern life. And that is how it goes at Tate Britain: surely Grant got more from Matisse? If Lewis, then why not William Roberts? Did they really mean to make the British look so puny? Extraneous questions are raised from one room to the next; it is no way to experience art.

How Picasso finally arrived in Britain, how his communism affected Anglo-Saxon attitudes, who saw his work when and how they responded: Picasso and Modern British Art is tremendously enlightening – as a catalogue. The show is another matter. It needs to fit the pictures to the text and ends up shrinking the art.


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February 13 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art – review

Varied Tate Britain exhibition reveals unrequited love of artists who tried – and failed – to match the Spaniard's complex energy

The story of Picasso's relationship with British modern art is a tragic Valentine's tale of utterly unrequited love. They sent him endless bouquets, in the form of that highest compliment of all, imitation.

But there is no evidence in this exhibition that Picasso ever gave a hoot what British artists thought of him, or a damn for their work. It is like a collection of love letters that were sent for 60 years, every single one returned unopened.

After all, what was Picasso to make of an artist such as Ben Nicholson, who was reproducing his own 1920s style – in the 1930s? One of Picasso's 1920s styles, I should say, for this metamorphic creator was constantly generating profoundly new ideas. By the time British artists took one of them up, he had moved on. Henry Moore was assiduously interpreting Picasso's grand monumental women when Picasso had moved on to bullfights, minotaurs and war.

Moore is one of the best artists here, who was certainly a perceptive Picasso fan. He saw that even when Picasso was playing with classicism he was a radical. But Moore seems so soft, so easily satisfied next to the master.

The best thing about this exhibition is that it includes a generous number of Picasso's works. Cubist portraits, drawings for Guernica, and savage dream paintings. All of which were either shown in Britain as early as the 1910s, collected by Britons, or belong to current British galleries. They make for a fine and stimulating Picasso display. But it's such a letdown when you move from his complex energy to the brittleness of Wyndham Lewis or the stodge of Graham Sutherland – like visiting Portmeirion straight after a trip to Italy.

Picasso was not the kind of artist who spawned a school. His influence was too compelling and what we understand now is how personal every shift of style was. This is partly due to John Richardson's epochal biography, which appears to have inspired the exhibition's section on Picasso's visit to London to design the ballet Tricorne.

Because Picasso's art is actually his diary, imitation can only seem false. In the US, the generation of artists who trained in the 1930s grew up copying him, but then burst out of his shadow to create abstract expressionism, which was totally alien to Picasso.

There was only one painter who challenged this ageing mythic beast on his own chosen ground of eviscerated reality – and that was Francis Bacon. The truly disappointing room here, where the show comes apart, is Bacon's, precisely because it could have been so good. It concentrates on early works in which Bacon struggles to assimilate Picasso's influence. A bolder choice of Bacon's paintings – more visual and less art historical – could have dramatised a real, deep conversation between two great artists. As it is, the minotaur rages alone and supreme, and the British watch him at a safe distance, copying his bellow but producing only a whimper.

Rating: 3/5


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February 03 2012

A journey along parallel lines

When Ben Nicholson invited his Dutch mentor to live in London, it kicked off an intense artistic dialogue. Now a new exhibition explores their shared concerns and the way their paths diverged

Where were the paparazzi in September 1938? They should have been thick on the ground outside 60 Parkhill Road in Hampstead, for that month one of the 20th century's most audacious painters, Piet Mondrian, moved in. His arrival in England followed that of other leading avant garde artists, designers and architects, many of them having fled fascist or Soviet autocracies. For a brief period in the second half of the 1930s, London, or more accurately Hampstead and Belsize Park, became the focus for international modernism. Mondrian's presence in London, with hindsight, crowned this development. But, at the time, this 66-year-old man, though at a peak of his creativity, was neglected by collectors and very impoverished. Hampstead, too, was quieter, less wealthy and not yet at the mercy of property developers. 60 Parkhill Road was then a boarding house with a communal bathroom on the first floor. Ben Nicholson, the artist who arranged for Mondrian to take a room on the ground floor, had been guided by the need to obtain a cheap rent.

It was a dreary room, by all accounts. The sole redeeming feature was a three-pane, double-height sash window. It overlooked a garden which might also be thought advantageous. Mondrian grumbled: "Too many trees." Self-parody, perhaps, because of his renowned hatred of the colour green. For many years he had banned it from his palette and deliberately limited himself to white, grey and black and the three primary colours, in keeping with the laws of neoplasticism that he and Theo van Doesburg had first explored in the Netherlands.

Mondrian had taken these ideas further in Paris, during the interwar years, while occupying two studios, one after another. These he had decorated with pieces of board and plain furniture, all painted with the colours of his restricted palette, so that the room and his pictures formed a unity. Everything was carefully positioned; Nelly van Doesburg recollected of the first studio that you could not move an ashtray without destroying the room's harmony. Placed on a table in the hallway was a vase containing a single plastic tulip, its leaves and stem painted white. After seeing this, friends knew never to bring Mondrian flowers.

White was his colour. Ben Nicholson claimed: "No one could make white more white than Mondrian." Very quickly, with the help of white paint, his room in Hampstead began to resemble his studios in Paris. Miriam Gabo, the wife of the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo whom Mondrian had known in Paris, helped him to shop in Camden Town for cheap kitchen furniture, which he made pristine with several layers of white paint. Orange boxes, similarly treated, also helped to furnish this room. Soon it was transformed into a sanctuary for work. As before, everything visible would have upheld his aesthetic, while anything personal would have been hidden or destroyed. This erasure of individuality links Mondrian with the bare, anonymous surfaces of architecture's international style and Le Corbusier's promotion of an impersonal "machine" aesthetic. But it also connects with his ambition to arrive through his art at a universal language and what he called "pure reality".

Nicholson never entirely shared Mondrian's utopian vision, not even during the Dutchman's two years in England, when Nicholson was his closest ally. Yet, even before their first meeting in 1934, Nicholson had been travelling in a similar direction to Mondrian, clarifying and purifying his abstract language through a series of white reliefs, today regarded as the high point of modernism in this country. The association between these two artists lasted seven years. It is the subject of a small, intense, beautifully curated exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, which acts as a reminder that abstract art, at its best, can be powerfully visceral. Witness the dynamic tension in Mondrian's Composition B (No II), with Red, between the explosion of red in the top left rectangle and the black horizontals and verticals holding it in position. Nicholson's paintings and reliefs also have depth and authority, as, for example, when he balances the lift of a circle against the weight of a nearby hanging square or rectangle. Both artists achieved in their art a serene equilibrium. But in Mondrian's case there is a fierce rigour and refusal to opt for tastefulness that Nicholson never matched. Thus while exploring the dialogue between these two artists, the exhibition brings out what Nicholson himself observed – the astonishing differences in their developments, despite shared ambitions and concerns.

They were 22 years apart in age. Nicholson was 40 in the year they first met. His interest in Mondrian appears to have begun the year before, and Christopher Green, co-curator of this exhibition with Barnaby Wright, believes that the greater discipline suddenly visible in Nicholson's handling of materials, lines and forms around 1933-34 may be a response to Mondrian's example. But it was not until after Nicholson visited the artist's Paris studio on 5 April 1934 that he began to regard Mondrian as a mentor.

Many people visited this studio at 26 rue du Départ, which acted as a Mecca for modernists. Situated in a nondescript street near the Gare Montparnasse, it was reached via an entrance beside a printer's shop that led into a courtyard. On the left through a doorway was a dank communal staircase, up which the visitor climbed three storeys. Once through the front door of the apartment, he passed through a dark corridor and vestibule, probably unaware that this was where the artist slept, and then reached another door that opened on to the all-white studio decorated with coloured rectangles and squares. For Michel Seuphor, this transition caused the onset of "an incredible feeling of beauty, of peace, of quiet and harmony". Another of Mondrian's friends compared it to the entrance to paradise.

Nicholson, too, was taken aback; he later claimed that he did not, on his first visit to the studio, understand Mondrian's art, but he was profoundly affected by the feeling that the room generated. He took away "an astonishing feeling of quiet and repose", which stayed with him, even while he sat at a cafe table on the edge of the pavement almost touching the traffic going in and out of the Gare Montparnasse. The studio seemed to him like a hermit's cave, "where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws".

He was at this time inseparable from the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and their constant interchange of ideas was another influence on his art. He also made several visits to Paris in the mid-1930s because his estranged wife Winifred Nicholson and their three children were living there. The Courtauld exhibition would certainly have been less neat and less focused if the curators had opened up the conversation to include Hepworth and Winifred Nicholson, the latter seeing Mondrian frequently during his last two years in Paris. But their absence is in some ways regrettable. It's boys'-club art-history again, aside from the catalogue essay by Nicholson's granddaughter, Sophie Bowness, who reminds us that Mondrian valued Winifred's opinion on his work and writings, and noted the way she saw "into the essence of things and beauty at its purest".

In London, Mondrian referred to Nicholson and Hepworth as his "best friends". For a man who did not make close friends, this still meant a lot. The fact that they lived nearby, in the Mall Studios, and Mondrian could see Nicholson's studio from his window made communication easy. Mondrian even took tea on occasion with Nicholson and Hepworth's four-year-old triplets. Although the infants behaved beautifully, Mondrian afterward proffered Nicholson the opinion that all children are barbarians.

"It's good to work with you," Mondrian wrote to Nicholson. "You are so precise (I find that precision is one of the most important things for anybody)." The two men regularly exchanged photographs of their work, and Mondrian took a sincere interest not only in Nicholson's work but also Hepworth's. It was therefore a blow to him when, for the safety of their children at the onset of war, Nicholson and Hepworth moved to St Ives at the invitation of Adrian Stokes. They begged him to go with them, but he declined. He had found London conducive to work and liberating, though he had remained an outsider. Yet, even before leaving France, he had resolved that America would be his final destination. It was not the war that decided him on this next move, but the fall of France. He stopped painting and once again felt an inner pressure to leave. The main reason was the need to protect his paintings. Come to Cumberland, Winifred Nicholson wrote, offering him the safety of her home, Banks Head. In her recollections, he replied: "It is too green." She had not forgotten the 1938 journey they made together, from Paris to London. The train sped through the Somme landscape amid early evening sunlight, past lush grass and green and soft poplars. Mondrian had not been anywhere outside Paris for almost 20 years. "Isn't it wonderful," he murmured. At first startled by his pleasure in the scene, Winifred quickly realised that the cause of his exhilaration was the beat of the telegraph poles, their repeated verticals offset by the flat horizon.


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January 29 2012

The world's first 'art blockbuster'

Before 1960, Pablo Picasso and modernism were more often lampooned than loved in this country. But all that changed when the Tate's huge Picasso exhibition caused a sensation and changed the course of British art for ever

In the summer of 1960 Britain was overwhelmed by what the newspapers were inevitably calling Picassomania. The Tate gallery's Picasso exhibition opened in June, the most extensive retrospective of the artist's work ever staged, and from that moment the cultural life of the nation would never be quite the same again. The 1960 show was dubbed "the exhibition of the century"; William Hickey in the Express called it "the most vigorous entertaining, interesting merry-go-round of art that London has ever seen". Tatler magazine coined a new term for the phenomenon: it was "an art block-buster".

It was also the moment when Picasso, and modernism, finally arrived in Britain. That arrival had been a long time coming. As a new Tate exhibition will show, Picasso had been a prime influence on more radical British artists since the first showing of his work here in 1910, but if he was known to the wider public before the second world war, it was often as the butt of cartoonists' jokes.

The attacks had been led by the arch anti-modernists of the cultural establishment. For a while Evelyn Waugh took to signing off letters "Death to Picasso!" GK Chesterton described one of Picasso's drawings as a "piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots". Even up until 1949, Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy, could famously address the RA's annual banquet with a story about Winston Churchill, who had asked "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his… something, something?" Munnings heartily agreed that he would.

The painter Howard Hodgkin, who was, in 1960, working toward his own first solo show, recalls the excitement of the Tate's overdue Picasso exhibition very well. "I was in a rather uniquely privileged position among British artists, because I had lived in New York for a long time where there were plenty of Picassos to look at," he told me on the phone last week. "But at the time there were very few on permanent display in this country. I had been telling all my painter friends about a particular work, but they had not had a chance to see it. We had Picasso-influenced artists such as Keith Vaughan and John Craxton, painters of that sort, but they were really very dilute versions of the man himself."

In the 1950s Picasso remained a divisive figure. The showing of his Guernica at the Whitechapel gallery before the war, and on a subsequent tour round Britain – in Manchester it was hung in a car showroom – had been a political as much as an artistic event. There had been plans for a Picasso show in London in 1952 but it was decided to be too contentious. In a letter to the American ambassador in London, preserved in the Tate archives, the then director, John Rothenstein, wrote that at a recent trustees meeting plans for the Picasso exhibition had been abandoned. "The Communist party is active in this part of London and it is possible that they might try to make capital out of the Picasso exhibition…"

To some extent Picasso was lost in translation. When the artist had last been in Britain, for the 1950 World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a welcoming party of artists met him in London. It was only when the artists arrived at Victoria station that they realised there was no French speaker among them and Picasso had no English. Victor Pasmore, a pioneer of British abstract art, was finally pushed into a taxi with the Spaniard in order to escort him to St Pancras and the Sheffield train. There was, apparently, silence between the two men in the cab as Pasmore shyly tried to conjure an appropriate French phrase. Finally he turned to Picasso with the words: "Moi, je suis peintre."

Picasso looked at him. "Oh," he said. "Moi aussi."

In large part English artists had to put up with black-and-white reproductions of the artist's paintings in books. Hodgkin recalls how RH Wilenski's Modern French Painters was particularly valuable in this respect. "I always remember a phrase from Wilenski," he told me. "It was something like this: 'No exhibition can really do justice to Picasso's range; you'd have to have a temple dedicated to him to achieve that.' In a way, that was what the Tate show of 1960 was attempting, I suppose."

If anyone was to create a temple to Picasso then Roland Penrose, co-founder of the ICA and the artist's friend and first biographer was that man. Penrose had curated two earlier shows of the artist's work in 1951 and 1955 at the ICA but they were necessarily small-scale affairs. The Tate show, in 1960, would be something different; half the gallery space at Millbank would be devoted to the exhibition and every period of the artist's career would be represented by major work; Picasso himself promised 100 pictures from his private collection to supplement those begged and borrowed from around the world.

Penrose was almost as much concerned with preparations for the publicity surrounding the opening as with the show itself: he was desperate for the public to finally "get it" about Picasso. The Tate archives contain a wonderful record of the minutes of meetings of the Picasso party organisers, a "ladies' committee" that included the socialite patrons Lady Norton and Lady Ogilvie, Nancy Balfour, an editor at the Economist, and Fleur Cowles, the American writer and biographer of Salvador Dalí.

Mrs Cowles was in charge of catering, and she proposed a Spanish buffet on the lawns of the Tate for the 2,000 guests paying five guineas each. It would, the minutes noted, be "economical, gay and different". Cowles advertised the fact herself in a story for the Telegraph, explaining breathlessly that guests would be served sangría "that cool, cool drink which lives so chic and social a life in Spain". The party, she advised her readers, was for her simply "a prelude to the regular holiday I take every summer with friends in Marbella, a tiny village at the southernmost tip of Spain".

Notes of one of the "ladies' committee" meetings details how the flamenco music of Satie and De Falla was deemed appropriate background for the party, "Mrs Morland ["ICA board member and doctor's widow"] would investigate the possibilities of borrowing records and securing steriophonic [sic] installation free of charge." Mrs Morland eventually came good, and Decca provided a hi-fi.

The party committee's machinations were almost as fraught as those of the museum hierarchy who horse-traded for loans of Picassos. Penrose deemed it essential that paintings be brought from Russia, despite cold war animosities. Rothenstein travelled to Moscow and Leningrad on a less than conclusive diplomatic mission in order to try to secure the loan of paintings.

Meanwhile preparations for the catering were getting heated. The Tate kitchens felt they should do the party, but Fleur Cowles was insisting on a Spanish chef. Details were leaked to the press: as the party approached it was discovered that 600lb of rice, 800lb of chicken, 450lb of prawns and 160lb of pimentoes had been ordered; "all this," it was reported, "so they can make a Spanish peasant dish they call 'paella'".

Perhaps for the first time, "colour supplement" writers were dispatched to the show's opening, rather than just art critics. Olga Franklin in the Mail did not know what to make of it all. Watching the pictures being hung, she struggled in particular with a painting of Lee Miller, the photographer (and wife of Roland Penrose), from Picasso's pink period. "What did it mean?" she wondered of Mrs Penrose, who was standing nearby. Mrs Penrose replied curtly that the painting was "wasted on her because she was clearly 'the nervous type'. 'You don't really dig all this, do you?'" she said. Eventually, though, the reporter got her answer about what it all meant from "a chap at Sotheby's". Someone had bought Picasso's painting La Belle Hollandaise the previous year for the most money ever paid for a work by a living artist. "That is what Picasso is about," Franklin concluded: money. (The painting had sold for £55,000.)

When the night itself came round it was hard to say what excited the press the most, the paintings or the party. The ladies' committee had pulled off the considerable coup of getting the Duke of Edinburgh to come and he was joined on the guest list by Mrs Jack Heinz ("of the Heinz 57 varieties"), Luis Dominguez, the famous Spanish bullfighter, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn. The Duke of Edinburgh summed up the show "with his usual cheery frankness". Standing before a canvas called Woman in Green, he asked: "It looks as if the man drinks. Does he?"

The aspiring Brangelina of the moment were actors Margaret Leighton and Laurence Harvey, friends of Fleur Cowles, who were overheard in conversation.

"We don't own any Picassos do we darling?" Leighton wondered.

"Of course we do," said her husband, who had recently been Oscar-nominated for his role in Room at the Top.

"Oh, I didn't know they were Picassos," she replied, innocently.

One person missing from the guest list was Picasso himself, who was holed up in his new chateau at the foot of Cézanne's Mont St Victoire and saw no point in attending: "My old paintings no longer interest me," he wrote to a friend, "I'm much more curious about those I haven't yet done." As the exhibition opened, he was photographed at a bullfight with Juliette Greco, Yul Brynner and Jean Cocteau. Penrose wrote to the painter to explain the mood: "My dear Pablo, the Picasso explosion… is overwhelming. Already over 10,000 people have visited the show. There are queues the entire day until eight o'clock in the evening when the gallery closes. You have conquered London – people are enchanted and dazzled by your presence on the walls."

The crowds were such that it was reported that several of the gallery warders suffered nervous collapse. Rothenstein sent an urgent memo to his opposite number at the Arts Council. "The large crowd has placed a very heavy strain on our two floor polishers," he lamented, "one of whom is shortly to go on holiday. I wonder if the Arts Council could take on at least the sweeping of the Picasso rooms, possibly using student labour?"

As news of the show spread, the young Queen expressed a wish to visit the exhibition. Penrose recalled the after-hours' visit of the royal party in another letter to Picasso in Provence, "To my delight, she went in with an enthusiasm that increased with each step – stopping in front of each picture – Portrait of Uhde, which she thought magnificent, Still Life with Chair Caning, which she really liked, the collages, the little construction with gruyère and sausage, in front of which she stopped and said: 'Oh how lovely that is! How I should like to make something like that myself!'"

As the show went on, one publicity coup followed another. The consignment of paintings from Russia finally arrived and an extra gallery was set aside for them. A woman was caught smuggling in paintings by her husband to hang in the show, when she dropped a canvas from under her coat. Mrs Vivian Burleigh explained that her husband painted murals in launderettes and hair-dressing salons "in Picasso's early style… I had to do this to prove my husband is also a genius," she said. "It is disgraceful that the British Arts Council take no interest in their own painters." Mrs Burleigh claimed to have left one painting in the exhibition, stuck up with chewing gum. When alerted to this possibility Joanna Drew of the Arts Council was having none of it. "I know a Picasso when I see one," she said, briskly, "and they are all Picassos here."

What seemed most revolutionary to some observers was the new mix of society that joined the queues. As well as the expected "women in elegant dresses" there were "teenagers in winkle picker shoes and girls in no shoes at all".

By the time the exhibition closed in September, more than half a million people had seen it, breaking all records; 300,000 postcards had been sold, and 92,000 catalogues bought. The "Spanish gypsy style" was featured in Vogue as the summer look; Marbella suddenly looked a possible holiday destination for the would-be chic. Howard Hodgkin went to the show "many, many times to look at different things". David Hockney, for whom comparable queues are currently forming, went eight times, and opened himself up to the possibility that an artist could work in many styles and media in a long career. British art would never be the same, but something else seemed to have shifted, too. The Scotsman noted in a prescient editorial that "It is going to be difficult after this to say that great [modern] art is not popular here."

Not everyone was swept up in the new, new thing though. The head attendant at the Tate, the ex-grenadier guardsman Arthur Wellstead, closed the exhibition with a sharp blast on his whistle at 7.55pm on 19 September. Six minutes later, one observer reported, "the crowds had all gone – including two young men in sandals who tried to dive through a solid line of attendants for a last look. Arthur Wellstead breathed a sigh of relief. 'I'm not sorry it's over,' he said. 'It made a change but it was all a bit hectic.'"


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December 14 2011

Lygia Pape's Livro do Tempo: 'An alphabet of feelings'

As a retrospective of Brazilian modernist artist opens at London's Serpentine gallery, critic Adrian Searle discusses an installation of 365 wooden objects known as the Book of Time



November 07 2011

Power and glory: London's Royal Artillery Memorial

Restored by English Heritage in time for Remembrance Sunday, this monument to the shocking filth and futility of battle is as unforgettable as the war it depicts

The Royal Artillery Memorial at London's Hyde Park Corner is an iceberg of dangerous memories, menacing the traffic that circles its island, forcing unpleasant truths from the past into the present.

They get further away, it sometimes seems, the horrors of war. Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that we live in a progressively less violent world, so peaceful compared with the past that we can't, or won't, believe our luck. There's a lot of truth in that – especially if you compare our century with the years 1914-1918. Nearly 10 million soldiers died in the first world war. That figure is inconceivably higher than today's war casualties, at least as they affect British troops. Among recent conflicts, only the Iran-Iraq war – featuring trench warfare and gas, and claiming up to a million lives between 1980 and 1988 – can even be usefully compared.

The first world war remains a terrible extreme of organised slaughter – a warning to the ages – and this is why its memory must never fade, even as we get closer to the centenary of its almost random beginning with an assassination in the Balkans in June 1914.

For this reason I salute English Heritage which, in time for Remembrance Sunday, has just finished cleaning and restoring the Royal Artillery Memorial. I visited the still-scaffolded monument last week: up close you can see why it needed some work, especially on the reliefs that surround it and depict scenes of artillery warfare.

Created by Charles Jagger and Lionel Pearson, the memorial is a shocking collision of technology and the human body. It enacts in its own form the destructive energies of war. The ambivalence of its style, caught between figurative accuracy and the modernist daring of its age (it was unveiled in 1925) enhances its dreadful power.

A massive Howitzer points into the sky as if preparing to bombard London – but it is carved, incongruously, in stone. After being cleaned by English Heritage, the gun now looks whiter, more skeletal and ghostly than it has for a long time. The rendition of a mighty metal firearm in artfully carved stone is eerie, the conflict between traditional sculptural values and the brutality of mechanised war shocking and grotesque.

The fascination of my visit to the scaffolding, however, was not so much standing on the stone blocks that support the gun as peering very closely at the reliefs below. Each of these scenes might seem, at first glance, a conventional image of artillerymen at work. They are depictions of strength and strain. But the more you look, the more they resemble nightmares conceived by Goya and carved by Donatello. Like German expressionist images of the war, these formidable scenes convey the mess, filth, exhaustion and futility of the western front.

Walking along planks, studying these friezes of desolation, I found myself wondering whose boots lay ahead, poking round a corner. Was an English Heritage stonemason asleep on the job? Then it dawned: I was looking at a dead artilleryman, cast in bronze. From where I stood on the monument, he was like Mantegna's Dead Christ. From any angle he is devastating. This is one of four bronze soldiers posed around the monument. Another, facing the oncoming traffic, holds out his arms like Christ under a shroud-like cape.


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October 29 2011

Towering ambition cut down to size

Royal Academy, London

In the courtyard of the Royal Academy stands a spiral tower, dynamic and asymmetric, telescoping out of itself like a cannon in the moment before recoil, with a diagonal line thrusting from top to bottom. Close inspection reveals tiny human figures added to give it scale: this is a 1:40 model of something which, if built, would have been 400m high. Inside the academy a photomontage shows what its effect would have been on its intended location of St Petersburg. It would have overwhelmed the low-lying city of Peter the Great, like the colossal figure of a worker sometimes used to represent Bolshevism in revolutionary posters. It is a thing of all scales and none, echoing both Bruegel's Babel and bottles in the still lifes that its artist-architect creator liked to paint.

The model is of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, of 1920, a celebration of communism that was intended to outdo the Eiffel Tower but also include huge, crystalline slowly moving blocks hung within its frame, which would house lecture halls, conference rooms and a media centre. It is one of the most famous unbuilt projects in architectural history, an emblem of the fervid decade that followed the Russian Revolution.

There is obvious irony that this project for the affirmation of the new should now be appearing, like a captured rhinoceros in a doge's menagerie, in an institution with both "royal" and "academy" in its name.

It announces two exhibitions inside. There is a small one about the tower, and a larger one, Building the Revolution, which focuses on the structures of the time that were actually built, such as workers' clubs, communal housing, an industrialised bakery, a bus garage, headquarters for Izvestia and other organs of propaganda, and bureaucratic cities for the new administration. There is the Shabolovka radio tower in Moscow of 1922, the nearest thing to Tatlin's fantasy actually realised. A tall, tapering cone of steel lattice, it combines creative freedom with a practical function which it is still performing.

The Narkomfin development is there, an experiment in communal housing that resembled a machine-age monastery, now rotted by Russian winters to almost total ruin. Konstantin Melnikov, who eventually proved too brilliantly individual for the regime, is represented by his Rusakov workers' clubs, his own house, and his Gosplan garage. The latter, dominated by a large disc in its elevation, draws on visionary designs from the French revolutionary era, while also evoking the wheels and radiators of motor vehicles. It was a time when Russian architects were realising the dreams of modernism more fully than anyone else, but also felt free to plunder and recombine ideas from the past.

The buildings are represented by two kinds of photograph. One is the big images of the architectural photographer Richard Pare, taken since the fall of communism, radiant but also unsparing in their depiction of the decay that has befallen almost all of them. The other kind are small monochrome images from the 600,000 in the Schusev State Museum of Architecture's archive in Moscow, still attached to the standard forms with which they were filed. Through a brown fog of ageing photographic chemicals you can make out the structures when still new and raw. You are offered a choice of new images of decayed buildings or old images of new buildings. The new-new is not available. The show is prophecy and elegy at once.

The photographs are supported by works of art, mostly drawings and paintings, from the same period, from the Costakis Collection in Thessaloniki, by the likes of El Lissitzky, Liubov Popova, Rodchenko and Malevich. They make the point that architecture and art were closely linked. Architects such as Tatlin were often also artists, while artists produced works whose abstract geometry aspired to resemble buildings. The revolution was not only to be achieved – it also had to be symbolised. The crane would be a tool for magnifying the motions of an artist's hand to an immense scale.

It is a strange idea, both arrogant and naive, that compositions in oil paint might shape cities, and the results could be oxymoronic. Factories were also works of art. Instruments of the collective were also monuments of a single artist's vision. Images of mass production were hand-crafted in studios, and a striking feature of this exhibition is the tactility of the artworks and the basic construction, often in timber, of the buildings. Creative freedom and the dictatorship of the proletariat were joined in a way that could not last.

The exhibition ends with a gloomy room showing Lenin's mausoleum. Its architect, Aleksei Shchusev, was willing to bend with the political wind and so produced an effective symbol of a dubious concept. If the near-deification of Lenin was a corruption of revolutionary principles, the brooding mass of his tomb turned away from the dynamic spirit of the 1920s. In a few years Stalin would, in order to create "art as stunningly simple as the heroism we find today in the Soviet Union", crush this spirit completely under the weight of the classicising style called socialist realism.

As either prophecy or politics, the architecture on show at the Royal Academy largely fails. It served an ideal of communism that fatally ignored its reality. The modern progeny of Tatlin's tower includes the Okhta Centre, a proposed tower for the Russian oil giant Gazprom of similar height – 400m – which, until its planned location was moved, would have had a comparable impact on St Petersburg. Yet this crude pinnacle has none of Tatlin's imaginative brilliance, and celebrates gangster capitalism rather than revolution. Meanwhile, big metal thingies have become a cliche of wannabe cities and expo sites and Anish Kapoor is making another contribution to this pointless genre with his Orbit tower on the London Olympic site. Ninety years after Tatlin it is still in his shadow.

Those buildings that were built are now the subjects of heroic preservation campaigns which stress their value as artworks over their social intent. There was talk, pre-crash, of making Narkomfin into a boutique hotel, and the Red Banner textile factory in St Petersburg may become a cultural centre. And the buildings and paintings of the 1920s are presented to the Academy's bourgeois crowds as an interesting alternative to Degas' ballet dancers.

As art the buildings are indeed wonderful, and for this reason alone the preservation campaigns deserve every success. Whatever attention can be drawn to these works, as the RA is doing, is welcome. Their creators' lack of political realism is also a saving grace, as it makes distance between them and the monstrosities of Soviet government. But their effect is not just as romantic divertissements, and it would not be the same if the architects had put their skills into villas for industrialists as their contemporaries did in Paris and Vienna. They carry the idea that art and design can have a social purpose, which the best of them, such as Melnikov's clubs, actually achieved


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October 22 2011

Edward Burra – review

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

The extraordinary paintings of Edward Burra, who died in 1976, used to be something of a minority interest. Unconventional and uncategorisable, no one seemed to know what to do with him. But I sense a shift. When it opened in February, Tate Britain's marvellous survey of watercolours gave pride of place to Burra's landscape, Valley and River, Northumberland (1972), and you could tell by the clustered overcoats in front of it that this was one of the pictures people would think about on the bus home. Soon after, at Sotheby's sale of the Evill/Frost Collection, Burra achieved a record price at auction when Zoot Suits, a work from 1948, went for £1.8m. Were the two things connected? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Not even fashion can touch art when it comes to working out the provenance of trends.

The seal on this revival of interest, however, will be set away from the capital, in Sussex, the county where Burra, mischievous and eccentric, lived and worked all his life (his home was in Rye, a "ducky little Tinkerbell towne" whose centre, he liked to complain, was given over to "gyfterie and other forms for perversion"). The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is staging the first major show of Burra's work for 25 years, and walking around it, it is clear that the painter's friends, devoted and patient to the end, were right: Burra was touched by genius. The artists to whom he is most often compared are Otto Dix, George Grosz and, in the matter of landscapes, his friend Paul Nash (Burra, like Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore, started out as a member of Nash's Unit One group). But look at The Cabbage Harvest (1943), a painting which manages to make a simple farmhouse seem as malevolent as any belching factory – as the wind howls, two hook-nosed figures cling to their repellently bulbous bags of vegetables for dear life – and you can draw a line straight back to Goya.

The paintings (they are all works on paper) divide roughly in four: the early portraits of new immigrants, sailors, drinkers and prostitutes in London and New York; the macabre and surrealist paintings in which men wear terrifying bird masks and sinister events occur around every corner; the landscapes; and Burra's designs for theatre. A good place to start, though, is with The Straw Man (1963), a painting that Pallant House has on long-term loan, and around which, therefore, the exhibition could be said to have been built.

The Straw Man is purest essence of Burra: mysterious, antic, wild. Five flat-capped men – or is it six? – appear at first to be dancing, their calves bulging and stockinged, as if they had come from the ballet. Then you understand: these high steps are not celebratory. They are kicking some kind of mannequin. In the right-hand corner of the painting (right-hand corners are important with Burra; the novelist Anthony Powell recalled that this was where the artist began a painting, sweeping diagonally leftwards), a mother pushes a small boy away from the scene, her gesture confirmation, if it were needed, that this is a tale of violence, not joy. More good-humoured are Three Sailors at the Bar (1930) and The Nitpickers (1932), in which Burra messes elegantly with perspective and fills the scene with off-duty human beings (the nitpickers in question are prostitutes). Burra was expert at languorous bodies, perhaps because his own caused him so much misery; he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and had hands as gnarled as tubers. But he does eyes like no other artist, his subjects' personalities unfathomably caught almost entirely in their whites.

It is his landscapes, though, that for me are the best paintings in this show: transcendent and wonderfully modern – you see Hockney here, and Michael Andrews – even as he nods to the masters. In his last years, Burra toured Britain, chauffeured by his sister, Anne. He went to wild places – to Cornwall, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Moors – and he gawped and gawped. "It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted," said his friend, Billy Chappell. "He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze." Only when he got back home did he settle to work, reproducing the heather and the screes, but with curious dashes of his own: a road as blue as a river, a field as brightly coloured as an orange. And often, too, an invader or three: a crawling lorry, a demonic motorbike, a rapacious tractor, even an aeroplane, tiny in the sky, but indelibly black. Black Mountain (1968), English Countryside (1965-7) and An English Scene No 2 (1970) are unforgettable paintings: giant postcards from a man who could not ignore what was happening to England, even if it is sometimes hard to tell if her changing landscape was more a source of regret or delight. Oh, you must see this show. It is fascinating and beautiful – and we will not, perhaps, see its like again: the majority of these works are in private collections. Feast your eyes while you can.


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September 12 2011

Oh no PoMo

Gaudy and irreverent, postmodernism was once an iconic chapter in design history. Now it sells gimmicky corkscrews. Can the V&A's forthcoming retrospective tell us why?

When Daryl Hannah decorates Charlie Sheen's apartment in Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street, she whips up a quintessential postmodernist pastiche. The faux-ruined walls and clashing colours personify the aspirations of the nouveaux riches, a shallow world of image and artifice. In a rare moment of design slapstick, Michael Douglas (as Gordon Gecko) puts his drink on the coffee table and it falls through – he thinks there's glass there. You can hear the modernists tutting. With its deceptive surfaces and furniture that doesn't do what it's supposed to, postmodernism is not just the backdrop to but a metaphor for unbridled capitalism, where a plump balance sheet conceals all manner of sins and where marble-effect formica hides chipboard. But was postmodernism really so bad?

Already we're in cliche territory. If there were a critic's rulebook, it would stipulate the need to begin any piece on postmodernism with a pop culture reference and a tone of moral ambivalence. That mandatory disapproval is based not so much on the carnival of bad taste that romped through the 1970s and 80s, but on the fact that this bad taste was only skin deep. For, according to the standard reading, postmodernism was fickle and ironic, obsessed with style for its own sake. Where modernism was about high-minded notions such as essence and truth to materials, perhaps even a social agenda, postmodernism was about surfaces and signs. As Fredric Jameson put it in his brilliant Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, "it is like the transition from precious metals to the credit card".

With a major retrospective of postmodernism opening at the V&A Museum later this month, the question is whether we have anything new to say about this phenomenon. Will the show reinforce old cliches, or will it manage to capture some of postmodernism's complexity?

One of the awkward things about the postmodernists was that few of their leading lights actually wanted to be one. Ettore Sottsass, arguably the godfather of postmodernist design, felt that it was an American architectural movement. And in some ways he was right. In architecture, the agenda was set across the Atlantic, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's embracing of Las Vegas neon, by the historicist references of Michael Graves, the vertiginous corporate lobbies of John Portman and the assemblage style of Frank Gehry's house. But in design, the main impetus came from Europe. There were exceptions, such as the American Peter Shire, whose Bel Air chair does a fair impression of a cornice abusing a beach ball. But when Sottsass founded the Memphis group in Milan in 1981, along with Michele De Lucchi and Marco Zanini and others, he unleashed postmodernist design's boldest force.

Memphis was garish and irreverent, trawling history for allusions and splattering them with previously unthinkable patterns. It was a self-conscious riposte to modernism's steel-tube sobriety. Martine Bedine's Super lamp was like a child's toy, part ferris wheel, part puppy on a leash. Sottsass's Casablanca sideboard has something Aztec about it, and that kind of arbitrary reference was pure postmodernism – it might be neo-Mesopotamian, like Sottsass's 1972 Lapislazzuli teapot, or neo-art deco primitivism like the 1982 Murmansk fruit bowl.

But what Memphis is chiefly remembered for is the plastic laminate that gave these pieces their dizzying visual effect. Thanks to this emphasis on shock-and-awe surfaces, it has become common to suggest that Memphis products were designed merely to look good in photographs – that it was mediatised furniture for an image economy. Jameson made the same point about postmodern architecture. This may be true, although in Memphis' case I'm not sure it was as conscious as that. Certainly, news of Memphis travelled fast – influencing some of the worst design of recent times – but Memphis itself was never a commercial success. The only people who seemed to do well out of it were Abet Laminati, the Italian laminates company that produced the riotous veneers Sottsass and co made all the rage.

The problem with the conventional reading of Memphis as ironic, mediatised furniture was that Sottsass, at least, was not that cynical. A romantic, he believed that domestic objects could take on an almost sacred quality. A truer postmodernist was his compatriot Alessandro Mendini, who had established the Studio Alchimia group even before Memphis. Sharing none of Sottsass's optimism, Mendini was much more the ironist and iconoclast, seizing the opportunity to break all of design's rules – such as originality. His Proust armchair, a baroque confection daubed in pointillist brushstrokes, crosses furniture with an impressionist painting. He once described it to me as "hermaphrodite design" – nothing is his except the act of creating a hybrid. It was literate, sophisticated and meant as a joke.

Just as architectural postmodernism descended into the pejorative "PoMo", with pastiches such as Philip Johnson's AT&T building (which crossed a skyscraper with a Chippendale cabinet), so postmodernist design fell into gimmicky merchandising. Mendini was a key culprit, with his toy-like Anna G corkscrew for Alessi, shaped like a woman in a dress. Even more literal was Michael Graves's kettle, also for Alessi, with its whistling plastic bird perched on the spout. Abandoning the old form-and-function dogma, design embraced its new nature as kitsch – kitsch that still sells rather well today, we might add.

From here, the link to pop and street culture is an easy one, and the V&A retrospective promises to regale us with instances of where postmodernist design culture simply became popular culture. Hip-hop sampling, Peter Saville's New Order record covers, Grace Jones's eclectic styling and the Levi's ad in which Nick Kamen strips off in a launderette are all claimed as a groundswell of the postmodern ethos. There's a good theoretical basis for a lot of that, but it threatens to confuse postmodernism with 1980s popular culture generally – and resuscitating Neneh Cherry as a postmodern icon feels like the 80s revival run amok.

In fact, revivalism seems to be one of the permanent legacies of postmodernism. Retro has become a perpetual condition. You can see it in ultra-conservative magazine design and referential fashion statements. If chameleon style-shifters such as Madonna and Grace Jones are postmodernists, then so is Lady Gaga. What is Apple if not neo-modernism, a revival of the minimalism preached by Dieter Rams and the Ulm design school in the 1960s? And the image economy (if that really is a Memphis legacy) is now so advanced that designers publish computer-generated images of work that is not only skin-deep, but doesn't even exist. In architecture, meanwhile, PoMo didn't die so much as find itself exported to the new bastions of turbo-capitalism: mirrored glass (and the lack of financial transparency that goes with it) abounds in Moscow, while the towers with the funny crowns migrated to Dubai and Shanghai. The V&A ends the story in 1990 (well, shows have to end somewhere) but postmodernism is proving a difficult habit to kick.


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September 09 2011

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea: 'A dash of foreign innovation'

Steve Rose revels in the modernist pavilion that rebranded the experience of British seaside towns in the 1930s



August 19 2011

The people's painters: what makes a work of art popular?

Monet, Van Gogh, and Klimt are the favourite artists among virtual art collectors. But before you turn your nose up at these obvious choices, let's consider their mass appeal

What makes a painting popular? As I write, the social media-style art site Artfinder lists the top five works collected by its users as follows:

1. Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise

2. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night

3. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss

4. Gustave Caillebotte, The Parquet Planers

5. Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave

It's interesting that popularity in this case depends on what people add to their online collection. I have always believed that artistic taste varies wildly between works we might find challenging and stimulating in a gallery, and those we'd love to own. Putting a work of art in your digital collection is not quite the same as buying the actual painting – but it means you want to have it around, at least on screen. Collecting a work of art, even virtually, means you can live with it.

So it is not surprising that the Artfinder top five may strike some as conservative. Or a little bit obvious. After all, the only surprising name here is Gustave Caillebotte, whose enigmatic, arguably homoerotic image of working men is a fascinating treasure of the Musée d'Orsay.

But popularity always is obvious. And it is healthy. On the whole, the world's favourite works of art are the world's best works of art. Monet deserves his number one slot. He is an artist you don't find a lot of cooler-than-thou art theory books being written about – because he is popular. But there are few experiences in art as rapturous as losing yourself in a Monet. What is retardataire about the sensory and psychological journeys into which his paintings lure the beholder?

Van Gogh, the visionary, and Klimt, the hedonist, are two more artists whose popularity is heartening. It is a great posthumous gift to Van Gogh to be loved by so many when he was so lonely in life. And Klimt, however many snobs try to do him down, is a mystic priest of love.

Japanese art was loved by Van Gogh and his contemporaries, so Hokusai confirms that the mood here is early modernist.

Perhaps what it reveals is that the most popular art, that hits most people most deeply, is the art of the early modernist era from the 1860s to the 1900s, when new visions changed painting forever while still drawing on its long global history. It was a golden moment.


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July 07 2011

A nation of abstract art snobs?

There's strength and truth to be found in abstract expressionism – British sceptics need to get over their puritanical hauteur

Britain has never "got" abstract art. Even articles that appeared this week marking the death of Cy Twombly attracted comments of the "my child could do that" variety. It is tempting to dismiss these attacks as philistine, but that would be to ignore an eminently respectable and artistically sophisticated British tradition of disdain for abstract painting.

In a justly famous collection of essays called Art and Illusion, the leading art historian of postwar Britain EH Gombrich argued that western painting is the pursuit of reality – that in effect representational painting has a scientific vocation. This is a translation to art of the empiricism that goes back in British philosophy to John Locke. To look is to discover (although Gombrich showed how what we see is coloured by what we expect to see). If art is about trying to see things how they really are, what is the value of abstraction? For Gombrich it basically had no value at all.

It was not only theorists who believed this in postwar Britain. The best artists did, too. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud fearsomely depicted real life as they found it – real human life, with the figure at the heart of the matter, the lonely human predicament their weighty concern. Bacon loudly dismissed the American abstract painting of the 1950s as looking like "old lace". Freud paints to this day with total commitment to reality and no interest whatsoever in abstraction.

So British sceptics who think abstract art like that of Twombly is just a load of visual guff can claim a tradition on their side.

Why, then, are we so different from Americans? In the same postwar years that saw British art dig itself into a realistic trench, US painting became heroically and famously abstract. From the moment Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine, the New York abstract painters were revered, renowned, and part of modern American national identity. The US and Britain were very different places at the time: America was at the height of its wealth and global power, and abstract expressionism suited the confidence of this epic society. Britain was living through the end of empire; everything was shrinking. Gloomy realism suited the times.

Having grown up and become fascinated by art in a 1980s Britain where abstract modernism was still laughed at, when at last I got a chance to see American art in depth in New York, it was one of the most liberating, beautiful and profound experiences of my life. I recognised some deep strength and truth in abstract expressionism that I did not find – and still do not – in most modern British art. From Henry Moore to Antony Gormley, even our "modern" artists seem stuck in the fussy world of the figurative, while American painters such as Rothko transport me to a heightened reality.

It is actually impossible to argue with someone who refuses to experience the power of abstract art, because to feel it you have to let yourself go a bit. Perhaps the problem is one of trust. British sceptics cannot bring themselves to trust the mystery of aesthetic experience. Even that phrase "the mystery of aesthetic experience" is about to be mocked ... but it is your loss. This scepticism must, in the end, go back to the Reformation and its fear of graven images. Somewhere in your psyche, abstraction-haters, when you look at Twombly's lush colours you see a medieval stained-glass window: and the puritan in you wants to smash it.


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June 14 2011

The Vorticists at Tate Britain – in pictures

The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World celebrates the avant garde movement which briefly lit up the art world before and during the first world war



June 13 2011

Vorticist paintings unseen for almost 100 years shown at Tate Britain

Avant garde works from short-lived movement named by Ezra Pound and led by Wyndham Lewis feature in summer show

Paintings that have not been publicly shown for nearly 100 years are to go on display at Tate Britain, shining new light on the role of women artists in the short-lived but invigorating avant garde art movement vorticism.

The London gallery will, from Tuesday 14 June, play host to the first major show dedicated to vorticism since 1974, when the Hayward gallery in London opened a whole generation's eyes to the movement.

Vorticism was given its name by poet Ezra Pound and led by the painter Wyndham Lewis.

The new show is much more focused than the Hayward's. It looks in more forensic detail at the vorticist exhibitions held at the Doré Gallery in London in 1915 and the Penguin Club in New York in 1917 as well as the movement's house journal, Blast, of which there were two editions.

Curators turned detective to try to find as many of the works originally exhibited as possible, and found three works by the artist Helen Saunders. She was one of at least four women who were an important part of the movement but are often overlooked.

"It brings into the public domain three paintings we haven't seen before," said Chris Stephens, Tate Britain's head of collections. "And the work stands up. They are as good as equivalents by Lewis."

The vorticists did not have many members; nor did the movement last long, because of unfortunate timing – it formed in 1914 as Europe hurtled towards war. By 1918 there was not much appetite for dogmatic groups such as theirs.

Nevertheless, the group holds an important place in 20th-century British art history.

"They were the first abstract modernist group in Britain," said Stephens. "It inevitably comes out of the revolution of cubism, but then, so does everything in the 20th century."

They were part of a maelstrom of new, aggressive art "ism" movements, not least the one practised by the Italian futurists, who were, in Lewis's eyes, the bad guys.

Stephens said: "Unlike the futurists, who celebrate the energy of the machine and actual war as a purging force, the vorticists were engaged in more universal ideas of identity, time and movement in a philosophical sense."

Depressingly, many of the works shown at the Penguin Club have simply been lost. One painting in the show, Lewis's Workshop, disappeared for 50 years until it turned up in a midwestern antiques shop in the US in the 1960s.

But the curators harbour hopes that the publicity surrounding the new exhibition could lead to some vanished vorticist works being discovered in attics or barns.

Stephens said: "This is the first major show in the age of the internet, so maybe we can flush some out."

• The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World is at Tate Britain until 4 September.


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June 05 2011

Modernist America by Richard Pells – review

US art and music may have embraced the European avant garde, but how big was its impact on Hollywood?

On the cover of Richard Pells's Modernist America are pictures of George Gershwin, Marlon Brando, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building – a Dadaist litany that quite fails to do justice to the book's capacious grasp. Everyone from Bardot to Bartók, from Le Corbusier to Le Carré, from Tennessee Williams to Indiana Jones is crammed into its pages. Not even the kitchen sink is missing. Having discussed the neo-realism of Fellini and Bertolucci, Pells moves straight on to analysing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other kitchen-sink classics of half a century ago.

The book's thesis is that fears of US cultural imperialism are overblown. If the modern world has been taken over by American art, then that is only because American artists have taken so much from modernists around the world. What was Andy Warhol but Duchamp for the leisured class? Jazz might be the definitive American sound, but its roots are all over the place – in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Europe. Tin Pan Alley is a mash-up, too – a harmonic hybrid of Gilbert and Sullivan, Dixie dance and the melancholy chords of the Jewish scale. Without The Rite of Spring there'd have been no Appalachian Spring. Without Hitler, who exiled so much European talent, there'd have been no Hollywood.

And without Hollywood, Pells wouldn't have a book. Fully half his text is given over to what he calls "the most important… form of art and entertainment in the modern world". Art, he is adamant, the movies most certainly are. Film editing, he tells us, owes debts to cubism, futurism and surrealism. Cutting from one shot to another enables the cinema to "create a feeling of movement as well as a sometimes fractured sense of time and reality. The fragments of experience, captured in a single shot and then juxtaposed with other shots to produce a multiplicity of perspectives, are the cornerstones of the cinema, and they are also central to the modernist view of the world."

Undeniably true, though Pells fails to see that the movies' formal modernity is more often than not undercut by a preachy, moralising conventionality wholly at odds with the insurrectionary impulse of the avant garde. Only in the late 1960s and early 70s – the subject of Pells's best chapter – did Hollywood stray into ideologically challenging terrain. Nor do movies play havoc with the surface of the recognisable world – as every important painter at work since the invention of the camera has done. Life as seen through the lens of Michelangelo Antonioni takes place in a spooked-out arena – compressed, closed off, dislocated, alienating. But even at his most Brechtian, Antonioni makes images of a verifiable, empirical world. Like it or not, the cinema defaults to realism.

Pells, though, can see the self-conscious aesthetics of modernism everywhere. Groucho wisecracking straight at the camera, Busby Berkeley making abstract patterns of his dancing girls by filming them from on high, John Ford's repeated vistas of Monument Valley – all draw attention to themselves and away from the stories their movies are ostensibly telling. Even the inventor of the method was an unwitting avant gardist. Constantin Stanislavski might have believed his techniques would help actors attain such naturalistic transparency they would disappear into the drama, but Pells is having none of it. The method, like all forms of modernism, calls "attention to the charisma of the creator". Fair enough if you're talking about Brando, but what about TS Eliot, who believed that art was less the expression of a personality than an escape from it?

The problem is that Pells, a recently retired history professor from the University of Texas, seems to believe that a work of art is modernist merely by dint of its having been made in the era of modernity. An evening in front of the box should convince him that this is far from being the case. The medium itself may be a cubist-style cut-up job, but the main reason for the popularity of shows such as The Sopranos and Mad Men is that they offer the pre-modernist delights of the Victorian novel – solid, rounded characters, unpredictable yet understandable plots, invisible narration.

Miraculously, though, Modernist America isn't crippled by its historicist blunder. While Pells's big argument doesn't hold up, most of his smaller ones do. No one who thinks Cyd Charisse a lesser dancer than Ginger Rogers is entirely to be trusted, but otherwise Pells makes for a fine guide to the 20th century. His book is worth reading for the section on Hemingway alone – and for the blinding insight that the tics and twitches of Travis Bickle and Clyde Barrow and the other crazies of the American new wave owe a lot to Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois. Now that's what I call modernist talk.

Christopher Bray is working on a book about 60s politics and culture


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March 08 2011

Why Picasso has his finger on the 21st century's pulse

We view Picasso not as a curious historical figure but as a living force, accessible, universal. What makes him so contemporary?

On first glance, Pablo Picasso is the last artist you would expect the 21st century to admire. He was unapologetically and aggressively selfish, not just in life but as an artist. He did not care if any other artist learned anything from him – he preferred to be unique. He has therefore not "influenced" a young artist since the days of Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock. There is not much to connect his paintings, sculptures or collages with the art of this century. So why do we respond to him more like a brilliant forward-looking contemporary than as a figure from the past?

The excitement that Tate Modern is to display a record-breaking Picasso confirms that collectors, curators, press and public can't get enough of him. Picasso fascinates our time as Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio do – not as a curious historical figure but as a living force, accessible, universal. It is as if his modernism gets more modern all the time – the newness never wears off.

Picasso appears to have decisively broken away from other 20th-century greats in the appeal and fame of his art. Marcel Duchamp may be the true progenitor of today's art in his invention of the readymade – but he does not set the pulses racing in the same way. How does Picasso seem more exciting when he stuck with traditional ideas of making?

It is no surprise if you go back a hundred years to the time when Picasso was creating his cubist art – the most radical and extreme of the string of styles through which he unmade and remade reality. Compared to cubism, earlier modern art now seems irrevocably 19th century: even Picasso's own blue period paintings belong in an older world. After cubism, art would never be the same again, yet no artist – not even Picasso, who spent the rest of his life playing with the possibilities of this new way of seeing – ever created a more convincing modern art than cubism.

Art does not happen in a sealed bubble, cut off from other intellectual developments. When Picasso was a cubist, Einstein was theorising relativity. There is a close parallel between Einstein's demolition of the plausible, orderly universe of Newtonian physics and cubism's explosion of the coherent, illusory world of the perspectival picture as it had developed since the Renaissance. Yet neither Einstein nor Picasso were iconoclasts for the sake of it. In both cases, what they produced was not chaos. It was a richer and more complex description of reality.

In this century, new media are once again remaking the world, altering our experience of reality. Life has never been more complex, truth never harder to express. And so I do not believe the vogue for Picasso is coincidence, or just a fashion. He is the artist who in modern times has most bravely expressed, through cubism, the strangeness of human relationships, the mystery in the simplest experiences, the difficulty of knowing the fullness of life. As we become more and more aware of the complexity of reality in a world of technical and scientific revolution, it is the revolutionary and profound art of Picasso that speaks to us in the way that only truth can.


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November 08 2010

Sculptural witnesses to Nazi lunacy go on display

Modernist sculptures confiscated for being 'degenerate' appear in exhibition after being unearthed on a Berlin building site

For seven decades they lay underground, considered lost for ever after being confiscated by the Nazis from Germany's leading art galleries and labelled "degenerate".

But 10 bronze and terracotta sculptures which have been discovered on a Berlin building site are to go on display tomorrow leading the city's mayor to describe the figures as "witnesses to Nazi lunacy".

Described by experts as gems of classic modernism, the sculptures are mostly of the female form, including a pregnant woman and one of a Weimar actor, Anni Mewes.

That sculpture by Edwin Scharff, along with ones by Otto Baum, Naum Slutzky, Karl Knappe, Marg Moll, Gustav Heinrich Wolff, Otto Freundlich and Emy Roeder, were among 15,000 works gathered from museums across Germany in the 1930s by the Nazi regime and labelled "entartet" – deviant or degenerate.

The label was given to any art considered to clash with Nazi ideals such as nationalism, physical and mental strength and Aryan supremacy.

The works were put on display in a Munich exhibition of degenerate art in 1937, which subsequently toured the country. Following the tour, they were either destroyed or sold.

The rediscovery of the sculptures – in total there were 12, but two were too badly damaged to go on show – was something of an unexpected find.

Excavation work on a site in front of Berlin's town hall ahead of the construction of an underground railway line extension was focusing on recovering 13th-century artefacts when a metal sculpture was unearthed in January. The final one was uncovered last month.

Just how the works ended up in what used to be an office block at what was then 50 Koenigsstrasse, remains a mystery.

But historians are researching the theory that the sculptures were salvaged by Erhard Oewerdieck, a stockbroker who had rented office space on the fourth floor in 1941.

Oewerdieck and his wife Charlotte helped Jewish citizens escape from the city during the war, for which the couple were later honoured by Israel.

Fire destroyed the building following a bombing raid.

Although the sculptures were found in the basement it is likely they had fallen through from a higher floor when the building collapsed. Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Neues museum, where the fire and smoke-stained works are going on display, called the find "unique".

He said: "Never have works of art of this background or value been found during an excavation.

"The discovery emphasises the importance of undertaking archaeological investigations in the city centre."

Over 200 similar excavations have taken place in the German capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a period that has seen the city dug up and rebuilt more than at any other time in its history.

Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said the exhibition, Degenerate Art from the Bomb Rubble, was a "belated act of defiance" against the Nazis' attempts to destroy the works of art, which he called "witnesses to Nazi lunacy".


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