I recently made a trip over to Leeds to see a new exhibition of works by Maurice de Sausmarez at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, held to mark the centenary of his birth and continuing until 20 February 2016.
De Sausmarez was closely involved in Pictures for Schools, serving on planning and selection committees and selling work through the exhibitions, as well as the Society for Education through Art (SEA). He took over as president of the SEA from 1968, before his early death at the age of 54 in 1969.
De Sausmarez also moved in the same kinds of social circles as Nan Youngman and other Pictures for Schools artists, and was a member of the Artists’ International Association (AIA), of which he was chairman in the 1940s, although his widow, the artist and colour specialist Jane de Sausmarez, told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with politics after the war. I visited Jane in London earlier this year and she told me that he was good friends with Herbert Read and Betty Rea, and admired her as an artist. He also lived in a caravan at Peggy Angus’ home in Firle, Sussex, and made melon and ginger jam in return for paying rent. He was one of the many artistic and intellectual visitors to Firle to be painted by Angus. Jane met Maurice in 1960. She taught in the textiles department one day a week, under Constance Howard, who had malachite green hair. Howard’s work, along with other artists in the department, was very popular at Pictures for Schools and Jane recalls that people went to the Goldsmiths degree show especially for the textiles.
Like several of the other Pictures for Schools artists, de Sausmarez was involved in the Recording Britain project. He was also an influential figure in art education. His book Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form, published in 1964, influenced the way art is taught in universities, and he taught in Leeds for many years. Jane pointed out several of his former students in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I showed her, including at Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in London, where he was Principal in the 1950s.
Among the work on display at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery are works shown with the AIA. These include ‘A Garden – God Wot!’, from 1939, which was shown at Picture Hire Gallery as part of the Everyman Prints series, a small, black and white zinc lithograph depicting an air raid shelter in a back garden. Another, ‘Red Cross Nurses, Long Liston Practices’, is a study for a painting in the AIA exhibition For Liberty.
There were also some pictures exhibited at Pictures for Schools in 1967, including ‘Faceted Still Life’ (1961/1962), a linear and fragmented still life. Most of the works in the exhibition are either still lifes or landscapes, depicting places in France and Italy as well as the coast of the North East, together with a few portraits. There is a noticeable contrast between those which are representational in a relatively straightforward way, and those which use colour, form, patterns, light and movement in a distinctive palette of purples, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks and blues to create varying degrees of abstraction. On display alongside the paintings were a number of studies, suggesting a process before which works became abstracted. Interestingly, some of the more the abstract works made their way into schools, including ‘Head Form’ and ‘Abstract’, both of which can still be borrowed today via the Artemis scheme.
Also on display were materials relating to de Sausmarez’s involvement in education. This included a pamphlet detailing ‘Talks for 6th Forms’, broadcast by the BBC to schools in Spring 1960. De Sausmarez was among the speakers, introducing the series with a lecture on ‘art and public’, with Carel Weight, Ceri Richards, Reg Butler and Denys Lasdun following, prior to a series introducing children to trade unions.
I was struck by De Sausmarez’s skill as both a draughtsman and a painter, and his distinctive style, and wondered why he is not a more widely known figure today. I hope that both this exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, will help raise his profile and find him a new audience.
Whilst in Leeds I also stumbled upon a selection day for the Leeds picture hire scheme, which is open to the public. A selection of paintings and prints were propped up on chairs for perusal in a small room at Leeds Art Gallery, and could be taken home in special carry bags. It is amazing what you can get for £4 a month, including prints by Pictures for Schools artists Julian Trevelyan, John Addyman and Edwin la Dell, and it made me wish there were such schemes were more common.
I’m looking forward to visiting this exhibition and study session, ‘Herbert Read & Alec Clegg: A Revolution Realised’, about writer, critic and art educationalist Herbert Read and Alec Clegg, the innovative post-war Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire (a pioneering county for art in schools, which included making purchases from Pictures for Schools among other places), at the National Arts Education Archive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park next weekend (Saturday 28 February).
During my visits to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading I had seen various references to BBC radio programmes which discussed Pictures for Schools. After following this up with archivists at the BBC I arranged a visit to the BBC Written Archives, tucked away in a bungalow in a residential area of Caversham in Reading, where they found me out several scripts on microfilm as well as material relating to other post-war BBC programming on art education.
Among the programmes was an extensive review of the 1955 Pictures for Schools exhibition on Children’s Hour by in-house art critic WR Dalzell (also a senior art master at independent Bedford School), who spent a considerable amount of time discussing and describing individual works, their subject matter and their effects – including painting, sculpture and embroidery – in detail, as well as explaining different artistic methods and media such as lithograph prints, and linking these techniques with children’s own work at school. Dalzell urged listeners to visit the exhibition for themselves, discussing the voting system for children to choose their favourite artworks, and ended by offering detailed public transport directions to get to the exhibition.
An episode of Today also included a brief segment on the 1965 Pictures for Schools exhibition, alongside an eclectic mix of items including George Melly on Nat King Cole and features on Esperanto, Dungeness Fish, falcons and an Islington building row, with Nan Youngman quizzed on students’ seeming preferences for abstract art that might be regarded as incomprehensible to their parents.
Another programme, a 1963 episode of World of Books, featured Nan Youngman interviewing Sybil Marshall about her 1963 book An Experiment in Education, which drew on her experiences in Cambridgeshire. Marshall was a teacher in a tiny village school in rural Cambridgeshire during Youngman’s time as county art advisor (1944-1954) and also attended Youngman’s classes for amateur painters and teachers. Youngman found Marshall’s work inspiring and encouraging, and took groups of overseas teachers to visit her students at school. The discussion encompassed the influence of educators such as Marion Richardson and Herbert Read, the pace of educational change and the extent to which educational innovation and experiment received acceptance or met with indifference or acceptance depending on the attitudes of individual teachers or heads.
I was also able to see correspondence regarding other programmes which were under discussion, including a proposed collaboration between writer Colin MacInnes and Nan Youngman on a programme about the British Council’s art education work overseas (Youngman acted as a lecturer and inspector for the British Council in various African and Caribbean countries) which appears never to have come to fruition.
Although I didn’t see any scripts, and it didn’t relate explicitly to Pictures for Schools, another file which absolutely fascinated me was a set of memos and reports dating from the late-1940s to the 1960s relating to a long-running radio series called Looking at Things. Designed as an educational course, the series appears to have been aimed primarily at secondary modern schools (though junior schools also made use of it) and accompanied by pamphlets which contained pictures of the ‘things’ under discussion as well as preparatory and writing activities for children to do in class. In keeping with a central theme I have identified in post-war discourse around education and reconstruction, the programme aimed to raise children’s standards of taste by encouraging them to look closely at everyday objects and places, from changes in fashion and interior decoration to modes and design of public transport, the style and function of buildings ranging from village churches and gothic cathedrals to new schools and civic centres, environments ranging from market or port towns and cathedral cities to new towns such as Peterlee, and new materials for manufacture and building. Experts were approached and enlisted to explain and present the topics under discussion, from eminent modern architects and professors to members of the Council for Industrial Design and furniture designers, although sometimes it was felt that the programme was too middle class, that experts did not fully understand the limitations of their audience, and that some of the language was unfamiliar to children, especially those from more deprived or urban backgrounds, to whom these objects or places may be out of reach. Although the programmes only occasionally seemed to refer directly to art per se, I felt that there were interesting educational parallels with Pictures for Schools, particularly in the way the programme really aimed to encourage children’s skills of close looking and seeing, particularly with reference to their future consumer purchases. There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised.
I’ve been required to make another research poster for an upcoming event in my department, the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire, for staff and post-graduate students to share what they are working on (see last year’s poster here) . This time, I decided to focus on Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman, as through my archival research and oral histories it has become apparent that her life story was intertwined with Pictures for Schools, and that a biographical focus on Nan Youngman will form a key part of my thesis. My recent PhD transfer viva also revealed that my discussions of Nan Youngman had piqued a lot of interest in her among people I have talked to about my project, both as a personality and as a central figure to Pictures for Schools.
(Click on the poster for a larger version)
My most recent archive visit was another trip to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the Tate Archive. This time I focused on two sets of materials related to her time in Cambridge. The first related to her longstanding involvement in the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors from the 1950s, with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea, a small exhibiting society which aimed to help artists living around the city to feel less isolated, and to establish interest and patronage for their work among the local community. The Society continued to meet at Youngman’s home until shortly before her death in 1995, and in minutes of meetings which detail the allocated tasks for the Society’s exhibitions Youngman was generally described as ‘chief entertainer’.
The second, and more interesting set of artefacts, related to Youngman’s employment as Art Advisor in Cambridgeshire from 1944-1954 – including a speculative letter Youngman sent to Director of Education Henry Morris setting out her skills, experience and describing in detail why such a role could benefit the teachers and children of Cambridgeshire – in a nice touch she ends by pointing out that she has her own car, which would be useful for travelling around the rural schools! I have been reading some books about Henry Morris’s work and legacy, and something which comes out clearly is his difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships – his biographer, Harry Rée, suggests that he found it particularly hard to relate to women – yet there is a clear affection and respect emanating from the letters Morris and Youngman exchanged, and Morris clearly highly valued her contribution to the county. In the same folder are press cuttings relating to the local education committee’s plans to make Youngman’s role redundant as part of cost-cutting measures in 1952, going in the face of Cambridgeshire’s reputation as an enlightened county with regard to education and the arts. Youngman requested a series of letters of support arguing that she should be allowed to remain, from her local teaching trade union branch, the Society for Education in Art, Herbert Read and the warden of Sawston Village College, who stressed the practical and pragmatic value of Youngman’s support for the county’s art teachers, many of whom were previously lacking in confidence, and argued that for this reason art could not be seen as a ‘frill’. Youngman’s impact on individual teachers was manifested in several letters dating back over the years from teachers who had found encouragement and inspiration on her courses, and had been enthused to try out her teaching methods when they returned to school.
One small find which I found particularly touching was a highly personal letter from Bryan Robertson (better known as the long-running director of Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s) to Nan Youngman, in dense, neat handwriting, written when the former was a young man working for Heffer Gallery in Cambridge. It can only be described as fan mail, with Robertson stating his affection for Youngman as a person and as a painter (although he admits he is too intimidated by her to tell her in person), before taking an analytical look at her work in terms of colour and composition, and giving her frank and detailed advice about how her painting needs to develop. This includes telling her to start taking herself seriously as a painter, encouraging her to have a one-person exhibition and stressing the need to prioritise her painting over her role as an educator so she can take the place Robertson thinks she deserves among Britain’s great painters. Robertson’s affection for Youngman continued until she died; he writes at length on her in publications produced for exhibitions held in her 80th year and posthumously, and he appears to have been an important source of support and encouragement as well as, later, a key ally for Pictures for Schools in the post-war art world.
I recently made my third visit to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading, and I now feel like what I look at is more about filling in the details and adding to a more complete picture of Pictures for Schools than helping to build my general understanding of Pictures for Schools and Nan Youngman.
Some of the interesting things I found during this visit included correspondence with the auctioneers Bonham’s regarding artwork which had been left unsold and uncollected after Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the 1960s: after debating whether it should be destroyed (it seems to me to be a real shame that this was even an option, if it was considered to be of good enough quality to have been selected for the exhibitions in the first place!), it was put up for auction. I also read correspondence between the Pictures for Schools organisers and Manchester Art Galley regarding the Rutherston Collection which was lent to educational establishments in the North of England. The keeper of the collection visited the Pictures for Schools exhibitions each year and reserved artworks which, if they were not sold first, were sent to Manchester to be approved for purchase for the collection by committee. I would love to know if the collection, which purchased work by Elisabeth Frink among other artists from Pictures for Schools, still exists. Another interesting set of correspondence related to the guide lecturers – who were seconded from Whitechapel Gallery’s Upper Gallery, or were Directors of Education – who took school parties around the Pictures for Schools exhibitions. There was some debate over how to provide the best experience for school parties and it was concluded that schools usually got more out of the visits if they had time to explore for themselves and ask questions rather than having each artwork explained to them. A large volume of correspondence from schools booking school visits and talks demonstrated the large volume of school visits which were made to the exhibition, with groups typically bringing between 20 and 30 and sometimes up to 70 children. Often, letters were followed up by notes of thanks saying how much the visits had been appreciated, but occasionally letters also expressed regret that the behaviour of students had got out of hand.
Shortly after reading Nan Youngman’s autobiography in the Tate Archive in London, which described a difference of opinion between Youngman and the rest of the Society for Education in Art when the Society voted to move overwhelmingly towards Herbert Read‘s ideas after 1945, it was interesting to find a chain of correspondence between Pictures for Schools exhibition treasurer Katharine Baker and Organising Secretary Joan Bartlett, and between Youngman and Joan Bartlett, in which some parties could barely conceal their frustration about the perceived inefficiency of the SEA and the lack of understanding it showed about its role in relation to the exhibition. Something else which backed up what I read in Nan Youngman’s autobiography, where she described the influence of Marion Richardson and her visualisation method, was a set of ‘O’ Level exam papers Youngman set for the Oxford Local Examination Board in the 1950s and 1960s, which asked examinees to choose a title from the list to help them conjure up a visual image.
Of tangential interest were photographs and reports relating to courses Youngman ran for the British Council both overseas and for overseas teachers in the UK. It was also nice to see another photo of Nan Youngman, this time holding a student’s work at the 1931 exhibition she held of children’s art at Wertheim Gallery. One curio was a bag filled with plastic discs which were used to draw lots at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions when more than one buyer was interested in the same artwork.
Something I am increasingly finding is that even if the basic information given in a catalogue listing does not seem promising, it is still worth looking at everything if possible as often information seems to have been put together in folders that does not seem to belong together – for example, a folder might seem to based on one topic, but then some interesting press cuttings have also crept in which show the critical attitude towards the exhibitions at different times. I had hoped to have finished looking at the collection during this visit, but it seems that I will need to return to Reading again to get a complete idea of what is there.
In Our Experience by Stewart C Mason: A small treasure of a book from the University of Manchester library storePosted: February 24, 2014
Recently, I made my first foray into the University of Manchester store to retrieve a book edited by Stewart Mason, former Director of Education in Cambridgeshire. Mason was well-known for establishing a patronage scheme for schools in Leicestershire as well as promoting the value of artworks in schools, even before Pictures for Schools came into being in 1947; this collection was celebrated by exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1967 and 1980. In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, which was published in 1970 (the year after Pictures for Schools ended), turned out to be a real hidden treasure, offering really good context for the educational backdrop against which such schemes took place. After the Second World War, the educational landscape in Leicestershire changed rapidly to cope with a large rise in population, and the county undertook a number of sometimes controversial experiments, from becoming one of the first counties to abolish the 11-plus, to introducing fully comprehensive education, making use of new ideas in architecture such as open plan schools, building larger schools which could justify purchasing specialist equipment and resources, emphasising child-centred learning, particularly in the infant school, and developing community colleges inspired by Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire to foster learning for all ages and all of the community.
Like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who promoted the idea of the educational environment as being a ‘silent teacher’, Mason also emphasised the importance of the school environment on children’s perception of their education, saying: “[School buildings] can and do exert a powerful influence on what happens inside and around them.” Mason was passionate about introducing contemporary art to schools, and saw art education as having value for the life of the whole school, not just art departments, saying the arts could “release energy and add sparkle and inventiveness to the general life of the school” and “pay for themselves by quickening the whole tempo”.
In the book, which features essays by a number of teachers and headteachers in Leicestershire schools, there is a strong emphasis on learning through doing and discovery, rather than by rote (I feel that the cover really conveys this ethos of learning!). The vision of education promoted by the book recognises that individuals learn differently and are able to take some responsibility for their own learning and promotes emotional and intuitive development as much as academic achievement. It is seen to be important that the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an ‘integrated day’, taking a view of education in which teachers are learners as much as children, and creating an environment where children feel that there they are on equal terms with their teachers and are encouraged to take a questioning approach to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they became adults. Some of these ideas, such as learning by doing, along with the idea of the school as a total society implied by community-based education, are also reminiscent of those of American educator John Dewey.
It was also interesting to hear how schools used their artworks. At Albert Road Primary School, Hinckley, for instance there was at least one original, contemporary work of art in each classroom. Children were encouraged to handle artworks, and were exposed to all kinds of artwork, including abstract art. Albert Road Primary was also home to the Clown, a piece of sculpture in the playground which “is fondled and loved and climbed upon and sometimes even given clothing”. I’ve tried contacting the schools featured in the book to see if they still own the artworks mentioned, and if they are still in use in the school. Only one school has got back to me so far, saying the school has the artworks but they are no longer on display. They have invited me to visit, however, and I may take up the opportunity as I am keen to find out what happened to the artworks of a county once so well-known for its patronage but which has seen some of its artworks sold in recent years.
I’ve been trying to get a sense of the art scene at the time in which Pictures for Schools was in operation, and one phrase which has been coming up again and again is ‘the Independent Group’. The Independent Group comprised a group of young artists, writers, designers and architects who met at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London between 1952 and 1955, who included Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Nigel Henderson, Peter Raynham, Mary Banham and Alison and Peter Smithson. I have been reading Ann Massey’s book about them, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture, 1945-59 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995), to find out more. Although it’s not directly related to Pictures for Schools, there is overlap with certain figures such as Herbert Read, Chairman of the ICA at the time, who was also a chairman of the Society for Education in Art and a supporter of Pictures for Schools yet was seen as a reactionary figure by the Independent Group. I also think that one member of the Independent Group, Eduardo Paolozzi, may have submitted work to Pictures for Schools. Massey’s book has also been really good for gaining an understanding of the ways in which fundamental concepts such as modernism, art and culture took on a changing role and meaning in the post-war period.
Founded in 1946, the ICA was seen as a left-wing institution, which promoted European modernism (which, it has been suggested was unpopular with the public yet influential for artists and critics), and functioned as one of the few places in London to see and discuss modern art and design. The Independent Group positioned itself against the ICA, which, Massy suggests, thought the achievements of the European avant-garde could never be surpassed, by analysing modernism critically and using it as a starting point to explore culture. The Independent Group reacted against the Neo-romanticist style of painting and the new culture of consensus brought about by the welfare state, which fused national tradition with European-style modernism, to increasingly reference new technology and take an interest in the new, Americanised mass culture and patterns of consumption, embracing aspects of American sociology and cybernetics.
Unlike the elitist modernism promoted by the ICA, the Independent Group worked to break down hierarchies and bridge the divide between high and low culture, in this respect looking ahead to Pop Art. They collected and discussed aspects of mass culture such as comic books, which were seen at the time as subversive and dangerous for children and even banned from import (articles in Athene, as well as references to the dangers of children’s increasing exposure to comic books in reviews of Pictures for Schools, reinforce the danger and assault on children’s sensibilities that these encroaching aspects of American culture were felt to present). American imagery was seen as sophisticated and cutting-edge, created by skilled graphic designers, and used to interpret why some images worked more effectively than others.
As well as expanding the possibilities of what art could be, whether by incorporating ready-made imagery into collages, such as those by Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, or by discussing ideas of transparency in relation to sculpture, as with William Turnbull, or by changing the ways in which art was experienced and the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, the Independent Group showed that art exhibitions were not limited to showing art. Parallel of Life and Art (1953) juxtaposed photography with art images, Growth and Form (1951) incorporated scientific imagery such as X-Rays, and This is Tomorrow (Whitechapel Gallery, 1956) teamed up artists and architects to visualise the future. The Group invited experts to do lectures, aiming to forge new relations between science and art; several of the Independent Group had scientific and technical knowledge, whether from being aircraft pilots during the war or engineering draughtsmen or undertaking research.
However, the aspect of the Independent Group which interests me most is the notion, referred to by Massey and others, of the ‘knowing consumer’ and the ‘trained eye’. Massey and others have suggested that, in contrast to Herbert Read’s idea of the ‘innocent eye’, the Group analysed culture from within as sophisticated readers of complex imagery, who had grown up with mass culture and were in a position to relate to, make sense of and reappropriate it. This relates to the idea of Pictures for Schools as developing children’s skills of ‘active looking’ as a way of establishing active citizenship and giving children visual skills to orientate themselves within a confusing, complex modern world to enable them to make genuine judgements of taste, as well as Susan Sontag‘s call for a renewed emphasis on the senses when approaching and interpreting both art and modern life.
Setting themselves in opposition to the old guard at the ICA, particularly Chairman Herbert Read, the Independent Group took issue with Read’s universal ideas of beauty, which emphasised qualities such as timelessness, with members such as critic Lawrence Alloway (a familiar name from the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene) seeking a new aesthetic critique involving a more formal rather than metaphysical way of looking at art. This led to the development of an Expendable Aesthetic, which recognised consumer demand, changing technology and taste and the changing nature of fashion and style, dissolving the link between quality and longevity and identifying modern design as serving consumer needs rather than being dictated by external factors such as the media.
For more information about the Independent Group visit http://independentgroup.org.uk/index.html.
In my last supervisory meeting one of my supervisors mentioned the Gestalt in relation to twentieth century art and art education, so I’ve been trying to read up on the concept. I’ve also been looking at a couple of really interesting books by Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1956) and Towards a Psychology of Art (1966), a Gestalt psychologist who applied modern psychological theory specifically to the analysis of art and visual perception. Arnheim was writing at a time in the mid-twentieth century when psychologists were increasingly using art to try and understand the human mind, and when art teachers were consulting professionals such as psychologists to inform their teaching of art and understanding of children’s artwork (as I have seen through articles in the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene).
I’ve been really interested by definitions of the Gestalt, which emphasise ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrated’ personalities; Gestalt theory suggests that a subject’s wholeness can be threatened by an ‘atomised’ society in which subjects and activities, including art, are compartmentalised, specialised and seen in isolation, and in which the goals of society are too abstract and unobtainable. A key idea within Gestalt theory is that the whole determines the parts, and that the view of what is being focused on depends on the interaction between a background’ against which the point of interest, the ‘figure’, stands out. Gestalt therapy works on the basis of restoring the subject’s ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrity’, with the individual experiencing growth by coming into contact and assimilating with the environment. As Goodman, Hefferline and Perls explain in Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in New York at the start of the 1950s, the Gestalt approach to life is one which is original, undistorted and natural. Individuals are encouraged to have a heightened awareness of where they are and realise that they and their environment are not independent entities, but that together they constitute a total system. Individuals must not take their environment as a given, something over which they have no control, but realise their capacity to influence it, whether in private or in public spheres such as town planning. It is important, therefore, for the modern citizen to be self-aware.
This seems to tie in with ideas of the ‘active’ or ‘aesthetic’ citizen promoted during the post-war period who, it was thought, through exposure to ‘good’ examples of art and design, would become sensitised to and therefore care for their environment. It also relates to writing on citizenship and art education in the post-war period, notably by Herbert Read, who argued in Education Through Art that art education is a process of educating the individual as a whole person and enabling them to ‘assimilate’ to society by making a contribution as a citizen at the same time as maintaining their own uniqueness as an individual. Read argued that the purpose of art education is to enable an individual to develop a creative outlook on life, and this has parallels in Gestalt theories on visual perception, which link vision to a creative grasp of reality and define vision as a creative activity of the human mind. Herbert Read has been coming up so much in my reading – he seems to have had a finger in every artistic pie in the mid-twentieth century – that I wasn’t really surprised to discover that he actually translated one of Arnheim’s books from English into German.
In his writing on art Rudolf Arnheim explained that pictures and sculptures work by communicating dramatic tensions which convey universal patterns. Art functions by discovering order, law and necessity in seemingly irrational experiences, thereby helping observe, uncover and predict the nature of things. Visual perception works, and art can be understood, then, by grasping these significant structural patterns and not reducing them to uniformity but by making them comparable to other things. Arnheim suggested that a person’s responses to artworks and expressions are shaped partly by what they have learned through education and by being subjected to external standards, partly by insight and observation, and partly by stereotypes influenced by the viewer’s peers and social group. One of Arnheim’s most interesting observations, made in Towards a Psychology of Art in 1966, is that the experience of modern art had become mediated by an array of experts and lay people pontificating on what art was and what it wasn’t, and what was done, when it was done and why, in a series of books, articles, talks, lectures and guides which left art in danger of being ‘drowned by talk’. Modern art, along with much of the art of the past, had become remote and incomprehensible to people, argued Arnheim, because it had been split off from ‘practical life’ and become the preserve of experts. All the thought and discussion surrounding art meant people could no longer discover meaning from simply relying on their senses and instinctive judgements. Museums, said Arnheim, consisted of remote objects seen at an aesthetic distance, meaning that people could visit museums yet not really see the art. Partly, suggested Arnehim, this could be remedied by experiencing the creation of art.
Arnheim was keen to debunk myths that the artist is mythical or irrelevant and link the artist with everyday life, saying that the artistic outlook is about a person finding and shaping information from what’s around them. Therefore, he argued, it is not just gifted experts who can take a creative approach to life but every person. Art, said Arnheim, is in all objects and activities, and it is what makes the world visible (Arnheim argued, furthermore, that the realistic tendency in Western art had produced a gradual decrease in visibility of the world). Art, he explained, both expresses an attitude toward life and is a tool for dealing with life. Art cannot be seen in isolation and must be viewed as an attempt to understand the meaning of existence through shapes and colours and movement. Art, therefore, cannot be seen as light entertainment to be enjoyed after work but is something to be immersed in fully with all the viewer’s mental powers.
Also of particular interest to me are Arnheim’s discussions of abstract art versus realist art; he argued that abstract art is just as valid a means of conveying expression, and can enhance the artist and viewer’s understanding of the world, just as much as realistic art, sometimes even more so. Abstract art is just one way of looking at the world. Arnheim argued that the purpose of the artist is not just to record faithfully what is around them, and that images of reality that are not ‘realistic’ can be just as effective as detailed transcriptions of reality. As in other types of great art, Arnheim pointed out, abstract art is not easy to analyse and good form does not show.
Arnheim also made some interesting observations on modern art and its reception, saying that modern art is far from naïve but derives naturally from spontaneous observation and the characteristics of the media; experimenting with techniques, he suggested, can help people find their way in the world. Furthermore, Arnheim suggested that modern style goes back to the beginnings of art, to a time before it was thought that works of art should be observed solely from one constant viewpoint. However, Arnheim acknowledged that twentieth century art was not easy for many in society to accept, often representing unpleasant sights and appearing violent, full of conflict, ugly, and disillusioning: new ways of expression represented familiar figures of men, landscapes and cities in frightening and mutilated ways, something that was hard for ‘the average man on the street’ to relate to. Arnheim used this to caution against the idea that art should be easy or pretty, saying that the tradition of artists offering amusement, entertainment and decoration should be challenged. In art education, Arnheim cautioned against a trend towards allowing the child to express shapeless emotion’, and a tendency for artists and art students to practice composition for composition’s sake without having something to say.