Sunday, 31 July 2011

Old War Office, Whitehall SW1

This figure by Alfred Drury, Horrors of War, is remarkable in itself but doubly remarkable for its date and position. It was carved about 1900 when jingoism was at it height, the Second Boer War was raging and the arms race that would lead to the First World War was getting into its stride. So what is an image like Horrors of War doing on the headquarters of British militarism?
The building was designed by the Glasgow architect William Young and completed after his death in 1900 by his son Clyde. In all respects apart from the sculpture the design is standard British Imperial Baroque with giant columns and a dome at each corner. One would have expected the sculptural adornment to be either military impedimenta (displays of swords, spears, shields, flags etc), classical heroes or depictions of great British victories. What we have is a series of eight contemplative, serious, quiet allegories of war and peace that were extremely unfashionable at the time.
In Horrors of War, a woman looks aghast at a skull. Her left hand rests on a poniard, point down in the ground. Her cloak billows around her, giving a movement that accentuates the horrific atmosphere.
Next to her sits Dignity of War, a woman wearing a helmet and armed with sword and shield. She is not triumphant and there is no hint of glorification of war: she sits quiet and pensive. The other figures in the series (for subsequent posts) are equally ambiguous.
What was the public reaction to these images at the time? There seems to have been none. Quite possibly nobody noticed them, perched as they are just under the skyline of this tall building. Nobody notices them now.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

33 New Bond Street W1

The scaffolding has come down from the new Richard Green gallery, revealing a neo-Classical facade by George Saumarez Smith of Adam Architecture. It is pure Soane, with his typical Grecian incised pilasters and acroteria.
The main decorative element is a relief in three panels by Alexander Stoddart, depicting the last voyage and death of Odysseus as foretold by the spirit of the blind seer Tiresias (who appears on the left of the main panel).
The work is in stark constrast to Henry Moore's screen only a few yards away. Moore rejected a relief, saying it would be "using the position only as a hoarding for sticking on a stone poster."
Stoddart has no problem with stone posters. His relief is not just a poster, it's a polemic, an allegory of the descent of art into modernism. He kindly explained the symbolism for me:
Dear Chris,
In my work Odysseus tends to mean one thing in the emblematic line – and that is classical art itself. In this function Odysseus appears in the friezes I made for the new Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace some years ago, and here in New Bond Street the same thing happens.
Many years ago, in the solitude of my studio, I set myself the mental task of figuring out an emblematic scheme of decoration for a gallery of modern art. I asked myself how this might be done, and how the idiom of neo-classicism might approach this imaginary commission. In view of the extreme lengths modern art has taken to distance itself from its origin in Greece , the Prophecy of Teiresias, found in the Book of the Dead in the Odyssey, sprang to mind. This is where the ghost of the Theban prophet describes a scenario in the aftermath of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in which, after the great slaughter of the Suitors, he must take up his oar and travel away again; away and away into a land of cornfields, where the people do not use salt in their cooking. There he will be stopped by a man on a path and asked why he carries a winnowing fan on his shoulder – and by this mistaking of the most commonplace object to be found in Greece, Odysseus will know that he is in a land where the sea is unknown and so is as far from Greece as can be imagined. (Ultimately, Homer is describing a place north of the Black Sea, in the heart of the Ukraine or suchlike steppe.) When the man asks him this, he should stop, plant his oar in the ground and make of it a makeshift altar to Poseidon, the god against whom he originally transgressed when he put out the single eye of the Cyclops, son of Poseidon. Before this “altar” (an oar, set in the middle of the endless prairie; an image of considerable pathos) Odysseus must make sacrifice, after which he will return to Ithaca to die in his bed. The three panels on the building represent this story, this prophecy. 
The allegory is simple. Odysseus (art) enters an era inaugurated by a great slaughter (the Great War). After this, art travels to a region completely alien to Ithaca ( Greece ), where the customary things are entirely unknown (modernist culture). The oar (the Grecian Thing) is set up in a geographically distant location, as the very building upon which this allegory is played out, as it happens, sits in a time and culture terribly distant from the original conditions (the pathos of the oar in the steppe). Odysseus returns to die in his bed – and here a prophecy upon a prophecy appears; for the resolution of the struggle in rest and dying strikes to the heart of what a return for our culture to the proper terms of art will necessarily entail – namely the recovery of the non-stimulative function of art; the will-stilling, renunciatory purpose of aesthetic experience, and the re-integration of death into our culture, as against the overwhelmingly philistine life-lust of the last century’s parade of cultural mischief. 
In this last respect the work is highly Schopenhaurian; art is a “Sabbath” in the penal servitude of the world’s willing; a momentary arrestment of the Ixion’s Wheel of life-affirmation; a little death. True artists are those who take the pessimistic stand; they comprehend the nature of the world’s suffering. But they are not “pessimistic” in the vulgar, optimistic sense; in fact, to be true they must try to be cheerful and ready to pat the dog! Pessimism, in the proper philosophical sense, is in fact a eudaemonology; a programme for the happy life. Optimism, on the other hand, is a programme for the setting up of camps, and optimistic people are so often wilfully miserable in demeanour. But look how the Dali Llama (God bless him) smiles so! This is because Buddhism is the most pessimistic of all the world outlooks. I believe that there are two waves of modernism, the first (to which I belong) commencing with the emergence of the Ossianic materials in the age of Mengs, Gluck and Winckelmann, climbing to the absolute zenith of artistic achievement in Liszt and Wagner, then declining in a wan sunset with Pound, Eliot and MacDiarmid. The second wave starts with Duchamp’s toilet and ends in Emin’s bed, forming a rainbow of uniquely scatological character, coloured brown. This second wave was contrived to counteract the achievements, and more importantly the effects, of the first; it was done to re-assert Nature over the counter-natural triumphs of past culture. In the way of elegy, the sculpture scheme in New Bond Street invokes the last hurrah of the first wave, in that The Wasteland, by Eliot, has as the sole candidate for its narrator, the prophet Teiresias; “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,/ Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see/ At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives/ Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,/ The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights/ Her stove, and lays out food in tins.” The sculpture-scheme’s title is, in fact, “The Prophecy of Teiresias.”
All best,

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Time - Life Building, New Bond Street W1

Henry Moore didn't like doing architectural sculpture, largely because the sculptor is under the control of the architect and, even worse, the client. His first experience was at the London Underground building, which he hated even though the architect and client were the most artist-friendly team in history - Charles Holden and Frank Pick.
In 1951 he had become interested in the possibilities of sculpture as part of the architecture, however, so he welcomed the approach from architect Michael Rosenauer to work on the new Time-Life building. The fact that it was the richest commission in post-war London, funded in US dollars and therefore exempt from rationing on building materials, must have helped.
In a lecture for the British Council in 1955, Moore recalled: "It was feeling that the time is coming for architects and sculptors to work together again.....It seemed to me that the screen must be made to look as though it was part of the architecture, for it is a continuation of the surface of the building – and is an obvious part of the building.....The fact that it is only a screen, a kind of balustrade to the Terrace with space behind it, led me to carve it with a back as well as a front, and to pierce it, which gives an interesting penetration of light, and also from Bond Street makes it obvious that it is a screen and not a solid part of the building."
Moore characteristically rejects any form of surface relief because it would be "using the position only as a hoarding for sticking on a stone poster."
He also wanted to mount the sculptures on rotating mounts, so they could be turned round regularly for a variety of artistic effects, complaining bitterly that his proposal was rejected. "I’m sure that the people who built Chartres Cathedral were able to have second thoughts," he said.
A transcript of the lecture is here.
Moore did four maquettes of the screen, which he had cast in bronze in editions of ten for sale. It is interesting to see his design evolve - an example of the first version is in the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, and I recently discovered a Maquette No 4 in the unlikely surroundings of a lobby in the Blue Fin Building in Southwark.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Methodist Central Hall, Storey's Gate SW1

I've never been sure what to make of the Methodist Central Hall. It was deliberately designed not to look like a church so heathens would not feel detered from entering, and the design competition specified a non-Gothic style to avoid competing with Westminster Abbey.
However, the design, by Lanchester and Rickards, is not just secular - much of the symbolism is actively militaristic. Bunches of spears, arrays of Roman swords, helmets and flags. This would not be surprising on a Government building in the England of 1905 when the design was started, but it is very odd for Dissenters with their tradition of pacifism.
The high point from an artistic point of view is the pair of angels at the centre of the main facade. By Henry Poole, they float serenely in lovely calm over the bustle of the tourists in Parliament Square.
The entablature on the giant order of columns on the Central Hall is eccentric to say the least, with windows and the symbols of the Gospel writers. The eagle is John, the ox is Luke, the human, Matthew and the lion Mark.
I originally assumed they represented the the continents but that is clearly wrong.
It is not clear who is responsible for them, but Henry Poole was busy with the angels so I imagine they were designed by H.C. Fehr who was also involved with the project.