I went to the “History Is Now” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank recently.
I really like the physicality of the Hayward Gallery. I particularly love the brutalist staircases which clearly show the concrete shuttering in relief. You can read the grain of the wood used to cast the stairs.
The exhibition itself was a mixed bag. Six British artists were asked to curate different areas of the building with their thoughts on a particular strand of Britain and its culture since the end of World War II. Some parts didn’t work for me as art. One whole area by Roger Hiorns was a compendium of BSE related material. Not a lot of art going on aside from a couple of Damien Hirst pickled cow heads and video installations – no feel good factor here. Rather more successful was Hannah Starkey’s selection of photographs from the Arts Council archives.
The most interesting room for me was the Peter Wentworth room which dealt with Britain as an island. This included a Bloodhound land to air missile on the terrace area which had been used during the Cold War years to deter Soviet planes carrying Russian missiles. Again no feel good here, although it was beautifully lit on the London skyline as my cover image shows.
But there were two particularly pieces that got me thinking about public art in the Black Country when I was growing up.
The first was Ben Nicholson’s mural from the Festival of Britain in 1951. This is a large curved piece almost 5m wide and just over 2m high.
This is the first time it had been displayed since the Festival in the South Bank some sixty years ago. The Festival of Britain was designed to lift British spirits in the aftermath of the war. 8.5 million visited the site. To put this in context, in 2013 the top free attraction in the England was the British Museum which attracted 2 million less, despite the growth in tourism and population. The Festival resurrected an area of London which remains vibrant today.
I like the scale of the piece and find the colours and shapes particularly restful. It particularly complements the carpet in the Royal Festival Hall, one of my favourite buildings in London.
After display at the Festival, it ended up in the VIP Lounge for British Airways at Heathrow before being owned by the Tate Gallery.
This painting reminded me in scale, if not content, of the stained glass mural in the Churchill Precinct in Dudley. I recall it casting light around the concrete confines of the precinct and whilst I wasn’t particularly fond of the imagery and it doesn’t touch me emotionally other than in a “memory lane” way, it did offer public art on a scale similar to the Ben Nicholson mural. It was designed by Edward Bainbridge Copnall.
Here’s a video of the unveiling from 1969 via the Pathe website.
It was removed due to weather damage and vandalism during the 90’s and is stored at Himley Hall nearby. I really would be curious to know from any of the Black Country readers of this blog what is there in its place and if the plans to restore it have gained traction. I suspect not, given the decimation of Dudley by the opening of the Merry Hell Shopping Centre in Brierley Hill in the 90’s.
The other items at the Hayward I enjoyed were small Henry Moore sculptures. I love a bit of Moore. I just want to rub my hand over the surfaces and feel the indentations.
There was one of his string sculptures included (it may not have been this particular one). Again who could resist giving these babies a twang!
But the one that really got my attention was an eleven minute video of Barbara Hepworth’s Tate Exhibition of 1968 (check). The film was made by the BFI and unfortunately I can’t find it on line. This short Pathe news clip gives a flavour though.
Again I remember the Mander Centre in Wolverhampton and being fascinated by the Barbara Hepworth sculpture that was installed on the ground floor. This is it in-situ in the 60’s.
It’s called “Rock Form” (appropriately for this blog) and I love it. It has a steely grey/green pitted surface and again beautiful curves and spaces. I also love the metallic colouring of the inside of the holes. There were six castings made and here is another image of one of those castings from 1966. The photograph is from Battersea Park and the natural light really does it justice.
The sculpture has had a chequered recent past and is no longer in Wolverhampton. It is owned by RBS and thankfully survived “Fred The Shred”. After much campaigning, it appears that it will be returned to its rightful home in the Mander Centre at some point in the near future. This is extraordinary knowing a) the nature of banks and b) the sculpture is valued in excess of £1m. There is a much more informative blog about it here.
I don’t spend much time in the Black Country now. The most recent public art that I’ve seen are the crap Iron horses on the road from the M6 to Wolverhampton. These are angular approximations of animals and don’t do anything to create interest to their local environment. They seem to say “remember – we used to make things here”. This is something that everyone who lives in the Black Country is painfully aware of and doesn’t need to be reminded of. In particular, the Hepworth sculpture looked to the future. 50 years on, it still looks fresh. I’m not sure you could say this about a good deal of the recently commissioned public art.
I know property developers often see public art as a “git on a stick” or a “bronze turd”. The two examples in Wolverhampton and Dudley are diverse but show in different ways how interest can be created. The area needs more of this now rather than reminders of all its yesterdays.