Mass Market Modernism

New Statesman (1996), December 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Mass Market Modernism


Patrons of art, from the de' Medici to Charles Saatchi, tend to be faintly dubious plutocratic individuals. Yet in the middle of the 20th century, London Transport, under the enlightened despotism of its managing director, Frank Pick, was perceived as a new kind of patron: the newly nationalised bureaucracies as heir to the taste-setting authority of the 18th-century aristocracy. Nikolaus Pevsner compared Pick to Lorenzo the Magnificent, but he was a stranger figure than that: a canny businessman and yet, according Herbert Read, "as much a socialist as I was", a patron of modern art at a time when it was ridiculed and marginalised, who would reject it in the late 1930s after being scandalised by surrealism.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Between the wars, Pick's aesthetic authority over the capital's transport system led to an attempt at bridging the divide between art and life, a late outbreak of the Arts and Crafts impulse to reform the aesthetics of the everyday. In fact, according to the American academic Michael T Saler in The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground, Pick's London was Britain's equivalent of the great Continental avant-garde movements, sharing their desire to revolutionise the mundane. If Russia had constructivism, the Netherlands De Stijl and Germany the Bauhaus, Britain had the Tube, transformed into a Gesamtkunstwerk through architecture, sculpture, industrial design and, most of all, the poster. Consequently, this copiously illustrated anthology of essays on the London Transport poster should, in theory, have the status of some new monograph on 1920s art, rather than being just a volume for transport enthusiasts. That is will be read more by the latter than by art or design students is a measure of failure.

Even though it promises "a century of art and design", this is almost entirely a book about Pick's organisation, with an opening dedication to his memory, and with relatively little about the posters as they developed after his death in 1941. To contemporary eyes, the most curious element of Pick's total transport artwork must be the enlisting of artists for something so apparently unartistic. Rather than independent works of art that then had a commercial message imposed upon them, these posters had their utilitarian aspect built in. This is a hall of mirrors where Graham Sutherland implores the commuter to take a refreshing trip to the country, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy shows you how an escalator works, and Edward Wadsworth recommends you visit the Lord Mayor's Show. It isn't just these great artists who provide the aesthetic interest, but a raft of in-house designers-Edward McKnight Kauffer, Austin Cooper, Herry Perry--churning out suburban vorticism. …

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