Recent years have seen an upsurge of academic, curatorial and critical interest in postwar art in Britain and around the world. This has included addressing the question of how we define what “postwar” is and how expansively we might think about the period and its cultural significance. This series of Paul Mellon Centre research seminars will showcase new perspectives on the arts of postwar Britain as an interdisciplinary and transcultural terrain of research. Talks in the series engage with the issues of empire and worldmaking, with questions of migration, the environment and with the intersections of art, technology and new media.
British Cybernetic Art | Wednesday 25 May
Catherine Mason: British Cybernetic Art: The Origins of Digital Art
There is more than a fifty-year history behind contemporary digital art and an important part of that history is British; it originates in the somewhat forgotten science of cybernetics and is intimately connected with art schools. The field of cybernetics came to prominence postwar, and the study of how machine, social and biological systems behave offered a means of constructing a framework for art production in which artists could consider new technologies and their impact on life. Concepts of behaviour and process, media dexterity, interdependence and co-operation began to enter art. Pioneers include Roy Ascott, Gustav Metzger, Stephen Willats and others who saw art as a system involving feedback between creator and audience. Their ideas were largely promulgated through experiments in art schools, adapting Basic Design pedagogy for a new technological age.
A direct link can be traced from tutor to student through art schools from postwar artists, (including Richard Hamilton), who, inspired by science and what might be termed a “man machine interface”, began considering the use of computing but did not yet have access to it, through to artists in the early 1970s, who were able to access the technology (predominantly in polytechnics). The proposed session will elucidate the crucial role of cybernetics in art schools, including Ealing College of Art and the work of Ascott, in incubating cross-disciplinary collaborations which contributed much to Britain’s later leading role in the education and production of digital arts.
Catherine Mason in Conversation with Ernest Edmonds
Ernest Edmonds is a pioneer in the field of computer and computational arts. He saw the invention of computing as a conceptual leap forward for humankind and set about asking what this could mean for art. His work is rooted within the constructivist tradition and often incorporates interaction where the viewer becomes an active participant and colour, structure, time and interaction influence each other.
It is precisely because of the work done by pioneers such as Edmonds and his peers from the late 1960s that the artistic possibilities of computers were even realised. Thinking about computation in this way opened a whole new creative world, the repercussions of which can still be seen today in many aspects of culture, from Hollywood special effects to computer games to contemporary digital art.
Professor Edmonds has exhibited internationally, and this discussion will centre on the role of cybernetics as a catalyst to the early field of computer arts in Britain and its legacy for art today, whilst allowing us insights into his artistic process.
Marginalised Spaces and Émigré Artists | Wednesday 08 June
Sheridan Palmer – The Abbey Art Centre: An “All-but-forgotten” Artists’ Colony
In 1947 the Abbey Art Centre was established by the British-born German art dealer and ethnographic collector, William Ohly, at New Barnet. Set on three acres just beyond the outskirts of a desolate London, it attracted a swathe of Australian, British, refugee German, Austrian and Commonwealth artists. Not only did this colony of artists traverse national and temporal boundaries within a single location, it also encouraged cross-cultural dialogues within its diverse residential hub and provided important contacts in the British and European art worlds at a time of increasingly pluralist and international cultural and political activity. Yet the Abbey Art Centre has remained art historically marginalised.
For many of the colony’s residents, including the Scottish painter Alan Davie, the British tachist artist Phillip Martin and the Australian art historian Bernard Smith, the Abbey’s unique atmosphere, together with William Ohly’s aesthetically potent collection of Asian, Mesopotamian, Mexican and Romanesque antiquities, and African and South Pacific artefacts, inspired a modernist primitivism and globalist vision. In uncovering what Okwui Enwezor called “this hidden vein of artistic post-war activity” we can reassess the cultural climate during this major geopolitical phase from a different perspective. In this paper the Abbey Art Centre is considered as a site of transnational artistic experimentation and modernist postwar cultural exchange.
Jane Eckett – On Modernism’s Margins: William Ohly’s Abbey Art Centre in Postwar England
Despite its name, the Abbey Art Centre operated on the peripheries of London’s postwar art world: marginal both in location – situated in then still rural New Barnet, Hertfordshire – and aesthetics. The Abbey’s assortment of salvaged antiquarian buildings, along with its founder William Ohly’s personal collection of ethnographic art, represented the antimony of modernism’s forward-facing aspirations. But it was precisely the stimulus of the past for artists of the present that Ohly sought, and which underpinned his dealings at the Berkeley Galleries, Mayfair, where, from 1941 until his death in 1955, he alternated exhibitions of antiquities with those of contemporary artists. Both the Abbey and the Berkeley Galleries reflected Ohly’s world view as expansive and eclectic and in which the arts were enduring. Furthermore, both functioned to assist relatively unknown artists – particularly refugees from National Socialism and new arrivals from former British colonies. Among the Abbey’s early residents were émigré sculptor Inge Winter (later Inge King), Hungarian painter-filmmaker Peter Foldes, Viennese painters Helen Grunwald and Angela Varga, Simplicissimus illustrator Marcel Frishman and sculptor wife Margret Kroch-Frishman, as well as renowned long-term resident animator Lotte Reiniger and her art historian husband Carl Koch. Working alongside them was a steady stream of Australians, many of them scarred by years of war service, as were the struggling young Britons attracted by the Abbey’s creative and communal way of life, notably Alan and Bili Davie, Phillip Martin and Helen Marshall, and John Coplans. This paper connects Ohly’s activities at the Abbey and the Berkeley Galleries with his efforts to help émigré and newly arrived “Commonwealth” artists struggling to find a foothold in London’s then notoriously provincial artworld, and suggests that the Abbey’s marginality, both physically and art historically-speaking, offers a rich interpretative frame for re-examining this vital period in British postwar art history.
Environmental Surrounds | Wednesday 22 June
Matthew Wells – The Carpet, the Office, an Environment
Influenced by wider social and economic concerns in postwar Britain, the office was reconfigured around ideas of flexibility and communication, ideas derived from the German movement known as Bürolandschaft. Led by management consultants who advocated for open-plan spaces to emphasise group participation and teamwork, these reconfigurations to the office required new acoustic solutions to provide environments for optimal working conditions.
In order to address the new office environment, architects and designers turned to the mass use of carpets to absorb and counteract background noise. Weight, thickness and colour became important design criteria. Examination of the work of individual actors (e.g. Foster Associates) or the material agency of specific products (e.g. high-pile Perlon velour textiles), can show us the impact of carpeted floors on lighting, acoustics and comfort.
These new environments were connected to the inclusion of computers in the organisational infrastructure of bureaucratic tasks. Computers began to order electoral rolls, control the production of goods in factories and record land transfers. Initially delegated to isolated rooms, by the 1960s and led by companies like IBM, new communications systems, services and data conduits entered the open-place office. In turn the carpet shifted from a surface to a module; not just planar but a three-dimensional grid, enabling new types of economic activity and reconfiguring working life for those inside the office.
Alistair Cartwright – The World Turned Outside-In: Luxury Squats and Liberty Villas, 1946
Writing in 1962, Richard Wollheim compared the transformation of postwar London to Paris’s experience of “Haussmannisation”. But if the latter involved a “turning inside-out” of the habits of the private bourgeois citizen, postwar London’s great inversion tended to move in the opposite direction, and involved a very different section of society: from a “non-conformist chapel [...] turned into an all-night cafe” to “back-bedrooms in W11 or N4” metamorphosed into gambling dens, Wollheim proposed the image of the city turned outside-in as the spatial rubric of the period.
This talk sets out to trace that image back to a decisive but overlooked moment in postwar history. By investigating the visual representation of the 1946 squatting movement – a movement that re-christened disused army camps as “Liberty Villas” and took over luxury flats as communal housing blocks – the paper grounds Wollheim’s image in the politics of class and empire. While photography and newsreel multiplied the viral spread of the movement, illustrations and cartoons offered a more intimate view, recalling the experiences of returning ex-servicemen in far-flung theatres of war, and the role of women on the home front. Through the visual culture of a mass movement and its historical echoes/ripple-effects, the talk seeks out the deep roots of the postwar city’s great inversion, considering work by Bill Brandt, Bryan de Grineau, Muriel Box, Carl Giles, James Boswell and others.
Experimental Modes of Making | Wednesday 29 June
Inga Fraser – Oswell Blakeston: The “Magic Aftermath”
Oswell Blakeston (1907–1985) was known as an experimental filmmaker and critic before the Second World War. Afterwards, he adapted to the newly fertile art scene(s) emerging in London, moving beyond film to experimental forms of painting and writing. He began exhibiting as a visual artist in 1958 with monographic shows at the Grabowski Gallery (1962), the New Vision Centre (1962 and 1964) and the Drian Galleries (1965). He worked with “crystalgraphs” (paint mixed with salt crystals grown on canvas), glass and high-speed photography, and exhibited in group shows alongside artists and friends including Halima Nalecz, Aubrey Williams, S. Xoomsai and Franciska Themerson. Unsure of how to place his newfound visual practice, Blakeston went on to embrace such non-specialist exhibition venues as the Mount Street Post Office, a Hampstead butchers and Great Yarmouth Central Library. In Blakeston’s archive we find evidence of an art world efflorescing. Through his work as both artist and critic intersecting with successive postwar countercultures, we are able to trace a path of fleeting affiliations, marginal spaces and fugitive works. Blakeston’s tendency towards inconsistency and immateriality is inherently at odds with traditional art historical methodology. This paper presents findings from research in Blakeston’s archive as a hypertext – linking his work to that of his contemporaries, as well as to more recent research projects, revealing more of the diversity, connectivity and idiosyncrasy of postwar British art.
Rosie Ram – The Negative Logic of Parallel of Life and Art
Parallel of Life and Art (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1953) is lauded as a landmark exhibition of the postwar period in Britain. However, the photographic logic that underpinned the display remains critically under-analysed. This paper argues that Parallel of Life and Art should be reconceived as constituting a collaborative, transdisciplinary and technologised form of research, one in which the photographic image was mobilised methodologically to offer disruptive and destabilising ways of studying the postwar world. Taking the most ephemeral traces of the exhibition as the focus, Dr Ram examines the photographic negatives that were generated by the organisers Nigel Henderson, Ronald Jenkins, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Alison and Peter Smithson to manage their inchoate research process. By analysing these negatives – conceived as the darkly translucent shadow of Parallel of Life and Art – this paper demonstrates the formative role of photographic negativity in the exhibition’s material, technological and conceptual base. Positioning Parallel of Life and Art across the inversional interface of the negative, she argues that the exhibition performs a photographic negation of artistic tradition, articulating a shift from the modernist forms of painting and sculpture towards more searching and uncertain research strategies within the nascent field of contemporary art.
Postwar Contemporary | Wednesday 06 July
Ben Cranfield and Victoria Walsh – With Time: Becoming Contemporary in Postwar Britain
In 1957 Lawrence Alloway declared: “Roger Fry and Herbert Read […] were not my culture heroes” because they gave him “no guidance on how to read, how to see, the mass media”. Whilst Alloway’s position, through the lens of the Independent Group, has frequently been framed as a breaking away from modernist formalism towards the information age, paving the way for a freefall into postmodern, Alloway’s generational antagonism can be read as a part of the constitutive anxiety that pervaded the ICA, where he was Assistant Director: how to be a part of one’s time? It is revealing that Stuart Hall chose to end his own reflection on the postwar moment, Familiar Stranger, with his move to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies; an emergence from his untimely feeling that he was the “last colonial” to an understanding that his “life was his own to make”.
This paper proposes (out-of-) timelines as a way to connect apparently disparate concerns of the postwar moment: technological simultaneity, the experience of emigrees and post-colonial subjects, non-heteronormative positions and shifting patterns of labour, through an examination of the artistic and critical positions that formed in and around the spaces of British postwar contemporaneity, the ICA, Council for Industrial Design and Birmingham’s CCCS.
Postwar Colonialism | Wednesday 13 July
Iain Jackson – Modern Architecture in West Africa: Schools, Sculptures and Magazines
This paper is concerned with modernist architecture in “British West Africa” produced in the aftermath of World War Two and the independence period of these countries.
These experimental and often provocative structures were designed for climatic comfort, as well as becoming didactic vehicles for ideas sharing ideas of a modern and liberated Africa.
The paper will discuss attempts at forming a “Bauhaus” Art School in Accra, followed by various commissions of libraries, community centres and museums that attempted to blend the most radical architectural designs with decoration, murals and sculptures. The West African context seemingly presented a “blank canvas” for newly qualified architects eager to “experiment” in ways that would be impossible in Britain. Whilst these buildings were often presented as symbols of an emerging nationalism and expectation of liberation, they also reveal the ongoing neo-colonial methods, with many relying on the patronage of multinationals such as the United Africa Company.
Finally, the paper will discuss how these projects were reported and shared, especially through the high-brow magazine Nigeria, which regularly featured extensive articles written by the architects on the latest designs.
The result was a diverse and extremely fertile context that reveals an often-overlooked set of important structures responding to a period of political flux and cultural exchange.
Rixt Woudstra – “A feeling of warmth”: Tropical Timber, Modern Interiors and the United Africa Company in Postwar Britain
In 1960, the new, modernist headquarters of the United Africa Company (UAC), one of the leading British trading businesses extracting palm oil, cocoa and other raw goods from West Africa since the late nineteenth century, opened near Blackfriars Bridge in central London. While the structure’s grey concrete and glass exterior appeared cold, inside the architects used a strikingly large variety of gleaming tropical timbers. The doors, floors and panelling, as well as most of the furniture, were made of honey-coloured idigbo, pinkish makore, fine-textured guarea, reddish-brown sapele and deep-brown African mahogany – all logged by one of the company’s subsidiaries, the African Timber and Plywood Company, in Nigeria and Ghana. Although an exceptional example, it was certainly not the only building containing exotic timbers in postwar Britain; tropical wood could be seen in and on the outside of university building, civic centres, housing estates, sport facilities and offices.
Scholars have explored how Jamaican and Honduran mahogany, sourced by enslaved workers, left an imprint on British domestic interiors and furniture design in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Less well known, however, is that “empire timber” – and later, “world woods” – continued to permeate British design and interior architecture well into the twentieth century. This talk focuses on the commercial activities of the UAC in Nigeria and Ghana during the 1950s and ’60s and considers how tropical timber was deployed to soften or provide a decorative element to modernism, often perceived as cold and austere. Moreover, examining tropical timber and tracing where and by whom it was logged, how it was processed, sawn, shipped and sold, enables us to see how British postwar modernism was dependent on imperial and neo-imperial networks of extraction and colonial labour.