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.
One of the aspects of Pictures for Schools I will be looking at is the networks of artists, educators and administrators involved, and some of the links between these figures and other initiatives and movements. One network I have started reading about is the Artists’ International Association in which Nan Youngman, a driving force behind Pictures for Schools was highly active, as well as art critic Herbert Read (all information below is based on Robert Radford and Lynda Morris’s A.I.A.: Story of the Artists’ International Association,1933-53 (Modern Art Oxford,1983)).
There are interesting parallels between initiatives to introduce examples of good art and design to children through, for example, the School Prints and Pictures for Schools schemes, and AIA projects such as Everyman Prints (which was available for purchase from selected branches of M&S) and Small Pictures for Small Prices, which aimed to bring affordable art ownership to a wide section of the population and benefited both artists by providing employment and the public by raising popular standards of taste. The AIA also had links with other movements I may look at such as Mass Observation, and it anticipated the development of state-led bodies such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art (CEMA) which was set up during the war (a precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain in its art patronage and championing of the position of the artist in society).
The AIA was founded as the Artists’ International in 1933 and grew out of the anti-Fascist and anti-war political climate of the 1930s. Artists resented money being spent on the development of arms rather than culture and the AIA aimed to mobilise ‘the international unity of artists against Imperialist War on the Soviet Union, Fascism and Colonial oppression’. Several members, including Nan Youngman, had been members of the Communist Party’s artists’ wing the Hogarth Group and several AIA members joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. By the late 1930s, the AIA was a mass organisation with many hundreds of members, not just artists and designers, but art teachers, students and non-professionals. Exhibitions took a political slant, whether depicting topical subjects such as hunger marchers or aiming to raise support for anti-Fascist and anti-war causes. The AIA invited submissions from European artists with similar aims, and assisted refugee artists escaping Fascist and Nazi oppression with work permits, homes and visas. The group also had a social function, with members, for example, travelling abroad and going on holiday together.
The AIA’s exhibitions reflected and responded to major concerns, changes and events in society, and exhibitions were held in a range of public venues which enabled them to be seen by a mass audience, for example an exhibition of War Painting was held at Charing Cross tube station, and another wartime exhibition was held in the bombed-out basement of John Lewis. Exhibitions such as Art for the People, held at Whitechapel Gallery in 1939 and visited by 400,000 people, aimed to educate the public in modern art, hanging artworks in sections such as surrealism, abstraction and realism and encouraging artists to talk to visitors and answer questions, as well as inviting visits by school teachers. There was little access to contemporary art in provincial Britain, so exhibitions also toured to factories, civic centres and barracks.
The AIA also had sub-groups, and worked with other types of creative practitioners, from photographers and architects to writers, dramatists and musicians, and held exhibitions of art by unprofessional painters, including a group of miners. Whilst the artists who belonged to the AIA were not universally linked by one style, and the organisation helped break down the divide between fine artists and commercial artists such as silk screen printers and cartoonists, one of the things which stood out to me was the debate between realism or abstraction; in the 1930s, many artists moved back towards realism as they felt it enabled them to respond more effectively to the times in which they were living, at the same time as appealing to a wider audience. This led to a distinction between ‘free’ artists, and ‘engaged’ artists who leaned more towards propaganda. In 1938, the AIA organised a debate about realism versus surrealism, pitting Graham Bell, William Coldstream and Peter Peri against Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and Humphrey Jennings. Whilst this tension between realism and formalism/abstraction is a product of the particular circumstances of its time, it may tie in with debates still going on when Pictures for Schools was in operation, about whether children responded best to styles and subject matters with which they were familiar, such as landscapes and still lifes, or whether they should be exposed to abstraction and contemporary innovations in modes of expression.
As well as its explicitly political aims, the AIA’s emphasis on the social role of art is of great interest, particularly the AIA’s attempt to improve the position of the artist in society through pragmatic and practical initiatives at a time when artists were facing great challenges surviving in a tough economic climate. Through the establishment of ‘working units’, the AIA put the skills of its members at the disposal of anyone needing a mural, banner, illustration, cartoon, stage decoration, tableaux or poster which could be put to use in anti-Fascist or anti-government protests. The AIA was involved in the Council Institute for Art and Design (CIAD), which brought together art and design institutions, and promoted schemes for the full employment of artists. During the Second World War, artists were employed to paint murals in temporary buildings such as bunkers, barracks and British restaurants, and commissioned to paint portraits of young men about to go away to war. AIA members such as Evelyn Gibbs and Carel Weight acted as unofficial war artists, painting wartime scenes such as evacuation.
The AIA functioned in a way similar to a Trade Union for artists or a professional lobbying body, using subscriptions to provide legal counselling, debt collection, credit advice, war work advice, unemployment and sickness benefit. Assisted by Nan Youngman, it published recommendations for the reform of art education in schools and colleges and the establishment of government-backed bodies. It also initiated a circulation scheme of 500 pictures by its members, with artists having the chance to sell their work; the AIA negotiated an annual royalty fee of £5 per picture per year with the government.
By 1953, the AIA’s political clause had been removed, reflecting a more general shift towards apolitical art. The pictures of industrial Britain which had previously been popular began to be replaced by a new type of realism depicting escapist Cornish and Mediterranean scenes, and it will be interesting to see to what extent this trend permeated the pictures chosen for Pictures for Schools.