WAF EXHIBITION REVIEWS
Beyond Bauhaus - Modernism In Britain 1933 to 1966
First Floor Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD
Until 1 February 2020
One of the first questions that springs to mind on visiting any exhibition is ‘what is its point?’, writes Jeremy Melvin.
Is it showing new or unknown work? Is it presenting familiar work in the light of new scholarship? Or is it a way of aggrandizing the exhibitors or curators, using what may be scarce resource?
Those questions often arise in respect of the RIBA, whose ongoing exhibition, ‘Beyond Bauhaus: Modernism in Britain 1933-66’, is the most recent case in point. There is nothing new in it (the exhibits are largely familiar contemporary photographs), and certainly no new scholarship. Indeed, the underlying belief seems to be the old chestnut that Modern architecture in Britain in the 1930s belonged to a small sect of consenting adults, colluding in private to introduce the delights of flat roofs, and consequentially nude sun-bathing and free love, to a wide spectrum of the British public, though necessarily settling for the upper-middle class.
In reality, it was World War II and the operational adjustments needed to win it, that brought about a new relationship between the public sector and Modernism, during the ‘New Jerusalem’ of Clement Attlee after World War II via architects such as Graeme Shankland and Oliver Cox, plus initiatives like the Hertfordshire Schools programme.
There is no sign that the curators of this exhibition have read any of the recent relevant scholarship, particularly the broad and deep pioneering work by Alan Powers on English Modernism from a broader perspective than simply architecture. This despite the catalogue text acknowledging that the Gropius ‘Farewell to London’ dinner in 1937 had ‘participation of the intellectual elite across the arts and sciences . . . including the sculptor Henry Moore, noted biologist Julian Huxley [and] author HG Wells’. In this lie answers to the riddle of what English Modernism was.
England and the rest of the UK did not provide the most advanced avant-garde work in the visual arts, certainly not after the Vorticists. But it remained a major source of avant-garde literature (Woolf etc) and the aforementioned Wells. The point here is that English Modernism lies not in architecture, but in other areas of cultural and intellectual activity, sciences as well as arts.
Not even in architecture did it lie solely with the nude-sunbathing faction: the curators of the exhibition acknowledge that Modernist architecture penetrated the British establishment, up to and including Eton College, but do they know how far it went in other directions, such as the nouveau riche Harmsworth family, creators of the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and erstwhile owners of The Times; or the Flower family, brewers from Stratford-upon-Avon who in effect created the Shakespeare industry in that town from the tercentenary year of 1864?
This exhibition suggests, probably with a nod to its centenary, that the Bauhaus was a far greater influence on Modernism in England than was the case. To be sure, it provided a formal vocabulary, revealed in publications like FRS Yorke’s The Modern House (1934 and many subsequent editions) before most of the immigrants even applied for their hard-to-get visas. Breuer, more than Gropius, extended that formal vocabulary during his short stay in the UK, through projects like the ‘Concrete Garden City of the Future’, into a resource for the rest of his career.
Though two of the best modernist emigre architects, Lubetkin and Goldfinger, had nothing to do with the Bauhaus, emigres from that institution left their mark in the UK, with a few houses, Impington Village College and the faint whiff of glory that emanated from their short-term English partners like Yorke and Fry. Fry – ‘a bit of a phoney’, as Yorke confided to his closest friends— traded off it for the rest of his career, while Yorke himself eschewed much of the ethos and many of the people who were involved with the MARS Group of Modernist polemicists before 1940. The Modernist world was much more complicated and takes far more energy to analyse than this simplistic exhibition suggests. (One of the texts even hints at hordes of young female British architecture students scouring the continent for Modernist architecture – shades of St Trinian’s.)
Nor is the exhibition helped by the design, even though it is by the talented Chileans Pezo von Ellrichhausen. I recall the superb display they designed for the Chicago Biennale two years ago; here, they seem to have forgotten the first rule of exhibition design: to create ways for visitors to engage with exhibits. They are placed behind chipboard screens, with holes cut into them, which makes it almost impossible to see the exhibits unless one wants to practice yoga-like contortions.
How on earth will this make the public fall in love with, or even understand, Impington Village College? If you have to lie on the floor and crane your neck to see more than half of the plan in one look, it is as beyond me as is the posture.