Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, 15 November: ‘The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections’Posted: November 1, 2017
I will be doing a guest lecture at Bradford School of Art at 12 noon on Wednesday 15 November, drawing on an emerging interest in further/higher educational art collections, which has arisen from my PhD research into Pictures for Schools and post-war art education. The lecture, which takes place as part of the ‘Random Lecture series’, is free and all are welcome.
The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections
Like many institutions, universities and colleges often publicly display portraits of grandees such as chancellors and vice-chancellors in order to convey a sense of tradition, heritage and prestige. Less common but more interesting are those further and higher education establishments which have sought to display works of modern art around campus, turning the educational environment into a gallery space. Universities that have chosen to collect and display contemporary art range from modern, post-war universities, where brutalist 1960s architecture is offset by landscaped grounds filled with sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, to redbrick Victorian universities, to former technical colleges which attained university status in the 1960s. Here (primarily) paintings were purchased for display in communal areas such as corridors and lecture rooms, as well as more privately in staff offices. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, many teacher training colleges also became enthusiastic buyers of contemporary art as part of a broader culture of artistic patronage among educational establishments such as schools, and art became a part of the training context for a future generation of educators.
Some educational establishments continue to take pride in these collections, make a point of promoting public awareness and access, and continue to actively acquire work. In other cases artworks have been lost, faded into the background or become hidden in the everyday fabric of the institution as universities and colleges have merged, been expanded, modernised and redeveloped over time. This has been due to insufficient documentation and knowledge about the optimum conditions for the display of artworks, a lack of dedicated resource and staff time, or a lack of planning around care and maintenance for the future.
This lecture will explore the historical establishment and development of some of these educational art collections in colleges and universities in the twentieth century. It will explore their perceived educational impact and appeal, the types of artworks that were considered to be of value and use for display in educational settings, and what this says about changing ideas about the nature and purpose of education. It will ask what an educational art collection might look like now and what it might add to the educational experience of today’s students.
One of the sculptors who exhibited most frequently at Pictures for Schools was Ghisha Koenig, who contributed reliefs and sculptures inspired by factory work, labour and movement, as well as a maquette for a work in St John’s Church in Earlsfield, London.
An exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute displays some highlights of her work, as well as the sketch books and large-scale drawings on which they were based, which entailed hours of observation in local factories. Like other sculpture displayed at Pictures for Schools, Koenig’s sculptures are small in scale. They depict both workers and machinery; materials and products, from paper to expanses of tent fabric, delicately represented in sheets of bronze, are as prominent as the workers themselves, who are often presented as just one among many, sitting in uniformed rows and all engaged in the same repeated sets of movements.
Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, Koenig’s work was drawn from a narrative, realist tradition, depicting recognisable places and activities in an accessible, relatable style grounded in close observation and everyday life.
Ghisha Koenig: Machines Restrict their Movement is at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until Sunday 13 August. For more information visit www.henry-moore.org/whats-on/2017/05/25/ghisha-koenig-machines-restrict-their-movement.
I was pleased to spot some post-war murals in the entrances to some educational buildings on a recent short break in Reykjavik – a city where the sun rarely breaks through a sky filled with low-hanging clouds, yet which is still full of visual interest and colour in the form of colourful and inventive contemporary street art murals.
There are post-war murals in two separate entrances to the technical school in the centre of Reykjavik, in the shadow of grand lava-inspired church Hallgrímskirkja, which towers over the city – through the windows of the school you can see rooms full of mannequins, wigs and hair dressers’ equipment. You can also just about make out some colourful, painted pop-style murals on the walls of the entrance and staircase.
Dating from 1954, and signed Ferró, I assume the mosaics outside are by the Icelandic pop artist Erró, who studied mosaic technique in Italy in the 1950s and apparently had to change his name while living in France due to ‘Ferró”s similarity to the pronunciation of the name of another artist, Ferraud.
A recent large-scale, comic-strip style mural by Erró can be seen in Keflavik airport, but I much prefer the abstract, textural shapes of the technical school mosaics, and the imagery of many hands at work, although sadly tagged over in places, which brighten the entrance ways to an otherwise grey and unremarkable building.
In suburban Reykjavik, meanwhile – next to this 1950s church (one of many quirky and unusual twentieth century churches in suburban Reykjavik) I found a 1964 mosaic attributed to Valtyr in the foyer of Iceland’s Institute of Education. I assume ‘Valtyr’ is the Icelandic geometric abstractionist painter Valtýr Pétursson who, like Erró, studied mosaic technique abroad.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the visual atmosphere of Pictures for Schools, which was largely dominated by realism and familiarity (though there were a few more bold or abstract artists, such as Tadek Beutlich). A high proportion of the artists who sold and exhibited work had been war artists, or involved in projects such as Recording Britain, to document places at risk of disappearing due to war and modernisation. One of them (and the best-named!) was Malvina Cheek, who primarily sold and exhibited paintings of trees at Pictures for Schools. I recently found at that she died last year, at the age of 100, making her one of the longest-surviving artists of that era. Read her obituary in the Guardian here.
The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.