Future Past: Christopher Townsend on a Very British Modernism
Townsend, Christopher, Art Monthly
Britain is a foreign land, its foundation stones shrouded in history and myth. We see it behind us, poorly reflected in the dark mirrors of modern media. Small, impoverished silhouettes move about in the mist. They 'do things differently': they carve stone and wood with their own hands, they walk in the landscape and hear rough music, they dream equally of the remote past and a distant future--a horizon that is to come--of perfectible man and international peace, of equitable societies and manageable technologies.
The era of mid-century modernism and modernity is lost to us now, its Utopias are as unattainable as the archaic ages of Knossos and Troy, and presented to us in fragments gathered from the archaeological excavation of what was to come rather than the digging up of what really happened. It is not simply that there is now no one alive who endured the terrors of the Western Front in 1918; there is now no one who walked across London Bridge in the 1920s and saw Stetson and his fellow shades from Mylae, no one who has driven an Austin 7 for more than sentimental purposes, or gazed in amusement or raw awe at the fresh ferrous brickwork of the commuter stations at the further reaches of the District Line. We reach the 1920s and 30s now through a displaced, televised nostalgia: if John Betjeman's self-reifying, self-parodising Metroland of 1973 was the first instalment, we try now to touch the past mostly in wishful thinking and romantic scholarship, typified by Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns--a made-for-BBC4 book if ever there was one.
The simultaneous adventure towards both future and the antique is an impossible experience for us: whether the horizon of possibility sensed in the shock of travel by fast car or plane or trans-European train to be found in Elizabeth Bowen's novels, or the ridiculous notion that abstract art might--in some future contingency between the aesthetic and the political--transform social life. Lost too are the threads that connected mid-century modernism to its own remote, recently reclaimed inheritance, palpably sensed, palpably rediscovered--like Paul Nash finding Neolithic stones standing in tall grass and used by cattle to rub their backs. The cultural fabric of the inter-war world was held together by classical threads, as if a few loose ends of Ariadne's string or Penelope's unfinished shroud for Laertes had been picked up and incorporated into the weft and warp of modernity. The antique past gave the present something to hope for. Indeed, modernity and the antique were dialectical aspects of the same: Nietzsche diagnosed with his nostrum in the Birth of Tragedy that modernity was antiquity moving backwards. There was a reciprocal telos between technology and mind, the one venturing boldly into the future, the other with equal daring into the past.
By sleeper train and slow boat, by Humber, by Morris and by Green Line bus--as much as by the mind--British modernist art and culture undertook that seemingly self-cancelling excursion. In 1936 the novelist Lawrence Durrell would ask: 'Is there no one writing at all in England now?' Appropriately enough, that letter was postmarked Corfu, but even when the artist was at home, the mind was elsewhere, in another space, another time. We witness the journey in Nash's Avebury-influenced work, and his intuitive engagement with the history of Maiden Castle hill-fort at the same time as Mortimer Wheeler conducted his scientific excavations there (short hauls to Dorset and to Wiltshire) and in the poet HD's psychic palimpsests (a mental excursus matched by flights to Freud in Vienna) recently and brilliantly analysed by Cathy Gere in The Prophets of Knossos. Arthur Evans's excavations at Knossos, with Heinrich Schliemann's at Troy, and the more general efflorescence of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th century offered, in their peeling back of the pellicle of history, insights for a newly secular modernity into a radically different past from that found in modernity's assumed--and breached--Christian heritage. Modernism's sense of its newness was achieved, in part, through its attempt to circumvent the post-Renaissance legacy and reach directly into the antique and the prehistoric. Excavation of the pagan seemed, in the sedulously skewed narratives of the leading archaeologists, to solve the so-called theological crisis of Modernism. Instead of a dead god and indifferent technology, we had an intimacy between men and gods and nature. Oddly, too, as Gere points out, in its use of 'method' and the grid--itself a staple of 'scientific' modernist practice, laid down as exemplar of rationality 'archaeology seemed to provide objective confirmation of some of the most irrationalist strains of modernist thought'.
That version of the past had a profound effect not just on Nash--where the anti-idealist classicism of Giorgio de Chirico as influence became overlaid by a fascination for the Neolithic and the late Bronze age--but on Britain's two great sculptors emerging in the 1920s and 30s: Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. In part because Moore is now a terrain as well-worn by intellectual hikers as his beloved Yorkshire landscape, and in part because of the current emphasis on her legacy with the opening of a museum in Wakefield named in her honour, I want to concentrate here on Hepworth and how on the one hand she has been assimilated into contemporary British sculpture and, on the other, brusquely rejected by those who might usefully have felt her influence. Moore, perhaps, became too easily the state-sponsored modernist, forever saying the same thing about humanity--forever trotted out to make the vacuous but impressive 'big statement' about man, in the way that Antony Gormley is today. The attention to pure form and eternal motifs turned Moore's sculptures into easy logos for the corporatist state. (Which is not to say that there is no important work to be done in restoring Moore to his wilder condition.) One of the reasons, perhaps, why Hepworth wears better in our time is that, until she made her large-scale work in the late 1950s and 60s, intimacy and locality were uppermost in her mind and practice. This, along with the vital impulse for movement, becomes clear when you visit a collection of her work like that at Roche Court: an exhibition of small Hepworth works within a room which establishes relations with other objects, with space and spectators. It needs a very small Moore indeed to make those connections, though Simon Starling certainly proved it could be done in 'Never the Same River' at Camden Arts Centre with his correlation of a tiny bronze to a much larger flint cast by Des Hughes.
That legacy, which I have intimated as a wider characteristic of British modernism, points two ways: Hepworth was profoundly affected by the past, whether in her encounter with the quoits and quoins of Cornwall's moorland or, more speculatively, a pre-Classical Greece, an imagined Mediterranean. That Hepworth had this engagement is abundantly clear from her small wood sculptures of the 1930s and 40s. One of the highlights of the Royal Academy's desperately muddled 'Modern British Sculpture' show was Hepworth's invocation and 'Celticising' of the Cycladic in Pelagos, 1946, its white painted inner surface evoking the bleached limestone of the Aegean islands as much as Cornish sand, its taut strings at once Aeolian harp and Orphic lyre. Even on the grander scale of postwar commissions, Singh Form (Memorial), 1961-62, translated time and space from the Neolithic and the pagus of the Celtic west to the contemporary and the domestic space of Battersea Park in what was still--just about--the world replete with the possibility of community rather than consumption as the premise for social practice. The hole, borrowed from the primitive gap between or in the stones, to see the sun, became a lens that focused commonality between the pre- and post-historic.
Sometime about May 1979, human nature changed: that iris, long narrowing, finally closed. Homo economicus replaced homo communalis, and latecapitalism's retrievals from its own antiquity took the form of self-conscious pastiche: art was inseparable from the world of advertising. The closed loop of the commodity cycle, which had now replaced history, acted upon art, rather than art even purporting to have any agency in and of itself. Little hope here, then, for the influence of high modernism; the barbarians wandered bewildered in its ruins, unable to replace even one stone of the architecture they had so effectively dismantled over the previous half century. In 2004, half a lifetime in the world of the art market, I pointed out the way in which a new generation of 'British' artists was reclaiming roots in modernism, thinking backwards and looking forwards. I qualify British because the nature of Britishness had changed in the interim: London had become a platform for practice and ceased to be a national capital for a national art in the same way that Berlin, the city, is now largely an airport departure lounge that includes a studio district. Most of my chosen artists then had their national origins elsewhere; Britain, as Moore, Nash and Hepworth would have understood it, had ceased to exist.
I suggested in 2004 that in Eva Rothschild's practice we saw the influence of both Hepworth and Constructivism--itself influential upon Hepworth through the work of Naum Gabo--and, in the return to formal modernist values, a critique of its utopianism, to the extent that Rothschild could even describe herself as an 'anti-modernist'. In other words, this was not the pastiche of neo-geo or neo-Expressionism, or even neo-Dada--a couple of decades older and endlessly perpetuated by first year art students since--but rather a critical rearticulation of Modernism undertaken through its tropes. In Rothschild's Mass Mind, 2004, we were, it seemed, looking at something that referred to the elaborate, mediated, kinesis of a work such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's The Light Machine and the film Light Play--Black-White-Grey, 1930, that it was used to make. More generally, I argued for a formal affinity between Rothschild and Hepworth in their shared investment in balance between volumes and space, their use of asymmetry and their alignment of mass. While I hinted at the way that this created temporality in the work--through the 'delaying' of the spectator--what I did not properly attend to was the importance of movement arising from the temporality of the sculpture. Looking again at Hepworth's small sculptures at Roche Court--for example Vertical Form, 1962, and Three forms, 1969--it is clear how essential movement was to her: movement derives from both the body around the form and the relation between forms. There is a dynamism here, and I want to stress that for Hepworth this meant the full force of dynamism's etymology in dunamis: movement in the breath of the gods. This movement is about embodiment and being in the world; it is existential, rather than mediated illusion. The spectator becomes participant. I would still insist that Rothschild belongs to this tradition, even as she challenges its too easy sentimentalisation and pacification. I doubt she will like the term, but Rothschild is an existentialist--her work reminds the soul that it has a body. I would offer, too, a more detailed lineage to which she now more clearly belongs: dynamism and temporality, post-Hepworth, were still to be found in the sprung forms of Richard Deacon in the 1980s and the poised carvings of Nicholas Pope in the 1970s. Pope's work from that decade, I maintain, is one of the most unjustly neglected oeuvres within British art.
Sprung forms and tension were the last things to be found in Sarah Lucas's singularly horrible 'Nud Cycladic' works in the current British Art Show. I include these sculptures here because they are, in a way, influenced by Hepworth--or rather because they seem to represent a surly, antithetical response to Hepworth in their borrowing of title, their aping of form and their insistence on pathos and abjection. The appellation suggested that Lucas had the classical Mediterranean in mind; her use of plinths OK, raw wood panel and breeze block, but plinths of a kind--suggested a response to the traditions of sculpture, albeit that after Rodin modernist sculpture problematised the plinth in the same way that painters after Mondrian and the Constructivists challenged the frame. 'Nud Cycladic' seemed to me to epitomise the phoney luxuriating in abjection that characterised yBa sculpture--pace the oeuvre of Tracey Emin. It was a self-conscious enactment of abasement and shame manifested, as usual, in Lucas's signature failed forms, the floppy phallic rope roped into a critique--of a kind--of corporeal dignity. At the core of Hepworth's values, and indeed Moore's--even in the hole in the heart of the artwork--is a belief in the perfectibility of man at some infinite point. That is where the dynamism comes in--no matter how many times matter fails, you get up again and move towards the infinite utopian horizon. As Samuel Beckett, that misread master of miserabilism, put it, 'fail again, fail better'. Lucas's Cycladic bodies can't get up; they are too tangled in their own physical and spiritual ennui. Furthermore, you get the sense that it is not a matter of 'can't' but a childish 'don't want to', of wanting--again--to perform self-pity for the marketplace.
What yBa, as a peculiarly self-avowing 'English' art, never gave us was any feeling for the local. Appropriate enough, perhaps, as those artists were the first generation to represent a nation in which the local had been wiped out, an erasure by international brands and industrial farming in which their patrons were often more than merely complicit. Old cricketers left creases, brass-bands and choirs closed with the pit and the factory, to be replaced by cheerleaders cheering on nothing, or revived by Jeremy Deller as so much 'air family'--a phrase courtesy of Douglas Coupland that was perfectly appropriate to the times. A sense of the local and its community was crucial to Moore and Hepworth. Their local limestone and Millstone Grit constantly evoked in their early works, and insisted on in the opening of the Hepworth gallery in the artist's birthplace. Britain's high modernity invoked regional 'difference', whether in poetry and painting or the mass-cultural projects of the Shell guides and EV Morton--of course, those guides to difference were also programmes for its erasure. There was already a sense of nostalgia about those publications, a sense that measured the losses of identity against the gains of modernity. But in contrast to the naive way in which Nash, for example, or Moore experienced and represented locale, there is perhaps something too self-conscious in its contemporary resuscitations. Tim Harrisson's Wake, 1999, at Roche Court, while a stone carving firmly in the old tradition, is too much of the old churchyard, graveyard wall. Des Hughes's beautiful, bored, bronze-cast flints--balanced between Moore or Hepworth figurines and the tradition of flint building, between the Neolithic tool and the 'flintiness' of British character (a long-lost trait)--are forms that can only look back. These works suggest that for the modernist tradition that Hepworth embodied and empowered, there is nothing left to find; there is nothing in the field, no history, only form, nothing more to move towards. The journey can only be made in the mind, ever backwards, ceaselessly against the current.
The Hepworth Wakefield opened in May.
CHRISTOPHER TOWNSEND is a professor in the department of media arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.…
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Publication information: Article title: Future Past: Christopher Townsend on a Very British Modernism. Contributors: Townsend, Christopher - Author. Magazine title: Art Monthly. Issue: 348 Publication date: July-August 2011. Page number: 7+. © 2009 Britannia Art Publications Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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