• 06 Jan 2017

Monday will see the first of the 2017 Paul Mellon Lectures take place at the National Gallery where Professor Thomas Crow will begin Searching for the young soul rebels: Style, music and art in London 1956-59. Over the course of five weeks the lectures will look at the emergence of the Modernist style among youthful connoisseurs of advanced American jazz and how it fostered a favourable climate for signature British artists of the 1960s - Robyn Denny, David Hockney, Pauline Boty, Bridget Riley, Bruce McLean, and Terry Atkinson, among them.

For the latest issue of PMC Notes Professor Crow wrote to introduce the lectures:

The status of Modernism in visual art, as the pursuit of abstract formal and conceptual autonomy, continues to be a matter of endlessly unresolved speculation. But there is a difference between an idea and an identity. If “Modernist” becomes an identifier actually claimed by individuals and explicitly ascribed to them by others, then speculation becomes moot. In the London of the later 1950s, there were such individuals, towards whom one could point and say, ‘There goes a Modernist’; but such people weren’t artists in the customary sense of the term.

The bearers of that name, the Modernists, belonged to a movement of young fans, devoted on an almost full-time basis to fastidious discrimination in dress and demeanor. The emotional urgency behind their self-presentation came from their choice of music, from Bebop, Cool Jazz, and the propulsive Hard Bop that gained wider popularity among black American audiences toward the end of the decade.   Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, the Californian stars of the cool tendency, fostered an imported Ivy League look, adopted by these young Londoners as a riposte to the unkempt jumpers, sandals and real ale associated with fans of purist Trad and New Orleans revival jazz.   Photographs of Baker and Mulligan, as put together as two outlandishly talented young heroin addicts could possibly present themselves, spoke to the coded secret of an outwardly ultra-conformist appearance: two literal outlaws refusing outward markers of marginality.

Filming on the set of Ready Steady Go, February 1964. Image © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Sto

Filming on the set of Ready Steady Go, February 1964. Image © Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Sto,

Their black peers were marginal in the larger society in ways that superior abilities could never overcome. Certain of them put even greater emphasis on impeccable tailoring, so to defy and negate mainstream assumptions of inferiority.   Miles Davis was renowned for this, “cool” both in his clear, measured playing and in the understated elegance he cultivated in his dress, his inward rage contained by playing down rather than acting out. As Mod chronicler Paolo Hewitt puts it: “Miles and his peers are playing the enemy beautifully, walking amongst them while changing the landscape forever. You think he’s a bank manager, in fact Miles is a revolutionary in silk and mohair.” The young Lee Morgan gave Hard Bop the same sartorial distinction. 

All of this was understood in London and emulated by the self-conscious cults, the original Modernists (Mods) or Stylists, minority devotees of the most advanced jazz as wordlessly eloquent defiance. Any given moment in such style creation can represent only a snapshot of a process typified by high aesthetic consciousness and provisional coherence, developing by means of continual self-critique: exactly the core qualities that objects of fine art are expected to exemplify. In that spirit, the lectures will incorporate the work of recognized fine artists, some of the best-known names of the 1960s, who partook of the same ethos of sharp concision, alertness to the lived moment, and sheer style. By according the style cults the same assumptions of intention, intelligence, fine intuition, and self-awareness that one would bestow on any certified fine artist, it’s possible to obviate the condescending, clinical tendencies of Cultural Studies. Conversely, fine art can be understood to gain traction from lived experience of a vitality rare within its conventional confines.

The full list of lectures and tickets can be found here. Tickets will also be available to purchase on each evening at the National Gallery.