Sunday, 10 April 2016

A new career in a new town

When I was about 15 years old I had a day out in London with a couple of mates. Were we looking to get drunk on cider in the park? Meet girls? Go to a club? I wouldn't have had the first idea of how to do any of those things so, instead, I suggested we buy a notepad and some pens and jot down the names and details of all the statues we saw. Obviously my friends laughed at me and quickly vetoed this motion.

Well I'm having the last laugh now as that's not far off what I'm doing here. Little did I know at the time I didn't need to come to the capital to do it either. For public art is all around us. Often in the much maligned new towns many of us grew up in and call home. Somerset House's Out There:Our Post-War Public Art is a long overdue attempt to take a comprehensive, if partial, view of this. I thank Jackie Bates for drawing it to my attention and her and Matt for coming along to the exhibition with me and adding valuable expertise and opinion to my words below.

Upon leaving the neoclassical courtyard of Somerset House you're presented immediately with a flavour of things to come with Lynn Chadwick's bronze Trigon, made for Harlow town centre, standing in the foyer.

The exhibition is laid out over a handful of rooms consisting of architectural models, sculptures, posters etc; and, to Jackie's delight, Letraset information posted directly to the wall. We kick off with the 1951 Festival of Britain:all figurative sculptures, maquettes and water features. If there's one thing I like it's a water feature.

Predictably there was a backlash. The Aberdeen Evening Press commented "modern art is, like the atom bomb, a dangerous invention". You can judge the wisdom of these words by having a look at Arthur Fleischman's terracotta Maquette for Miranda, below, which, along with F E Williams' 1955 The Sisters is a highlight of the first room. It was eventually sited at the entrance of Leamington Spa's Lockheed Factory.

Around this time Battersea Park was hosting open air sculpture shows which sounds like something I'd have enjoyed very much. Harlow new town was designated a 'sculpture town' and there's even a cute model of Frederick Gibberd's design of the town centre. He said Harlow should, one day, be compared to Florence. Obviously that's still a long way off but an exhibition like this is one small footstep in that direction.

Is it possible that one day tourists will flock to Harlow to see Gerda Rubinstein's City, above, in the same way they fill the Uffizi? Even a fan like me thinks that's highly unlikely but a reassessment of the post-war period of public building is inevitable and ongoing.

There's a great film of locals being interviewed in Bethnal Green at the unveiling of a modernist sculpture. The responses are more varied than you may imagine. Some are even positive. It's all very Mr Cholmondley-Warner. Typical of the style under discussion is F E McWilliams' Study for the Witch of Agnesi which stood at Avery Hill Training College in Woolwich.

Most of the public art was for the people - and paid for by the people. Other examples were privately funded. William Mitchell's doors for Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King fall into this category. They gained Grade II listed status in 1964.

Another is Geoffrey Clarke's 1958-1961 Spirit of Electricity, above, which became part of Thorn House, the HQ of Thorn Electrical Industries on Upper Saint Martin's Lane, Covent Garden. I walked past it many times on my way to work and barely paid it heed.

Big hitters of the art world got involved. Barbara Hepworth's Winged Figure worthy of its place both in the pantheon of her work and in the history of public art. It may seem odd to compare such a piece to the architecture of Stevenage bus station but that's what this exhibition does with no little pizzazz. There's rich pickings here for fans of retro fonts too. Most notably in a short film that espouses art for all, art for motorways, art for factories, art for schools.

That's the oft-repeated mantra of artist Bob and Roberta Smith who crops up to eulogise about public sculpture along with Tate director Nicholas Serota and, most pertinently, some members of the public themselves (far too often left out of the conversations that affect their lives) who reminisce about climbing on the modernist sculptures as kids. This inclusivity is warming as a small part of me felt uneasy about the ethics of imposition.

So much of the public art of the era has gone now. I miss the fountains at the bottom of Centrepoint on Tottenham Court Road and always feel a pang of yearning for them when old film footage shows people bathing in them on impossibly hot and distant days.

I wonder if the citizens of Birmingham feel the same about Nicholas Monro's King Kong. The mighty ape once stood proud in that city's Bullring before setting up outside a car dealer, also in Brum. From there Kong moved to Ingliston Market in Edinburgh where he was painted, first in tartan, then in pink. The wanderer now resides in someone's front garden in Penrith.

Armada Way, Plymouth saw one of the more esoteric examples of public art in Liliane Lijn's See Thru Koan from 1969, above. It was based on a riddle given to Buddhist monks but it must've been equally puzzling to Devonians out for a day's shopping.

Bob and Roberta Smith crops up again towards the end. He's got the best part of a room to himself to tell the story of Henry Moore's Old Flo. She was sited originally in Stepney's Stifford Estate. On demolition of that estate Tower Hamlets council hoped to raise up to £20,000,000 from her sale. A campaign to save Old Flo was initiated and she was kept for the nation. Alas, like so many in the capital, she is now homeless.

Public art's still going up and we end our tour with a look at some models for Anthony Gormley's Room from 2004. Much like Geoffrey Clarke's Spirit of Electricity, earlier, it's basically an addendum, an adornment, to an existing structure.  This time London's Beaumont Hotel. Gormley claims he hopes to "confront the monumental with most personal, intimate experience".

That's not as pretentious as it initially sounds. In fact it sounds like a pretty sweet policy for art creation. Or indeed creation of any type. With sound principles in place from the onset we can create little gems of small beauty. The curators, in their own way, have done that with this show as surely as many of the artists, architects, and planners they seek to highlight. A small triumph.

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