Yesterday I was transfixed by images of Coventry Cathedral on BBC 1 and not just the extraordinary modern geometric post-Brutalist architecture of Basil Spence’s new St Michael’s but some of the art and design contained within it.
It is a building in and of an age, just as we are now “in and of age”. The environment and recent history of that age bleeds through into it, just as ours does now. It is a pure response to the effects of war, and much of what it contains is a response too, albeit indirectly.
There are some principal art, architecture and design movements and references at force. The choir stalls by Basil Spence invoke echoes of design elements of the atomic age as made popular through the graphic work of Charles and Ray Eames. The age of commissioning of the cathedral has bled through. The atomic motif was a benign motif in the 1950/60s. It signified science and hope in a pre Three Mile Island era. It is the softer of the two principle aesthetic references and is in sharp and almost jarring visual contrast to the artworks such as the Christ figure on the pulpit by Elisabeth Frink.
The stained glass in the cathedral was the work of John Piper a former war artist and the painter of “Interior of Coventry Cathedral”. Painted just after the destruction of the prior cathedral during a bombing raid, “Interior of Coventry Cathedral” is thought of as Britain’s Guernica. Just as the horrors of the Spanish Civil War are manifest in Guernica, the experiences of Piper and other war artists have been woven into the art in the Cathedral. The light cast by the windows is hopeful, yet they clearly their form relates to the violent fracturing of the original cathedral’s windows by aerial bombing.
The altar piece is another case in point. A masterpiece by Graham Sutherland.
Sutherland was also a war artist whose style changed radically after the Second World War, as did a generation of young British artists whose work bridged the softer shapes of Moore and Hepworth and the abstract shapes of Caro, Annesley and King.
This was most noticeable in an exhibition that Sutherland participated in for the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale, a group show - “New Aspects of British Sculpture”. Also represented were Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull.
The works were radical and are still uncomfortable and painful to view. In a now famous part of his introduction for the catalogue Herbert Read wrote of them:
‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance… Here are the images of flight, or ragged claws “scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.’
The phrase “geometry of fear” is now often used to describe the art of the early ’50s from this group of British sculptors. Their experiences of the war directly led to the aesthetic of their art. In their case there was a dramatic and sudden reforming of the world through war.
Herbert Read writes about the relationship between artist and experience in “Art Now”, quoting from Ernst Cassirer’s Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture:
‘Art is for the first time clearly conceived, not as the mere reproduction of a ready made, given reality, but as the discovery of reality which discovery is communicated in a symbolic form.’
(aside: that looks familiar)
and further on Read says:
‘Art is indeed the discovery and establishment of a new world of forms, and form is rational; but art is a continual transformation of form by forces that are vital and irrational.’
Dan Catt wrote an excellent essay on the New Aesthetic a few days ago which has had me thinking continuously about it in relationship to Read and the Geometry of Fear, a thinking only catalysed and crystallised by the images of Coventry Cathedral on television.
There have been several responses to a Bruce Sterling essay which make me feel that the art world is confused in responding to the New Aesthetic and is either aiming to co-opt it by the suggestion of making work in response to it or to downgrade it as merely a set of observations. Here the parallels between the Geometry of Fear and the New Aesthetic just become stronger for me and relate to truth to materials. The New Aesthetic is not merely an observation, it is a series of works, a transformation of the observed forms in an appropriate medium.
Just as that generation of British Sculptors wrought their art (their response to the experiences and the environment of a post-War age) most successfully through hacking and gnawing at clay and casting it in Bronze - making their responses both physical and visceral, the most appropriate part of the New Aesthetic is the making of the responses and investigation to it through the medium most directly related. To experience machine vision through simulations of the eyes of the machine. To see the world that we now co-inhabit as the machines see it, and to look evermore for the hitherto ignored traces of this sharing of worlds and the spaces where it bleeds through into our age and society. Just as war bled through for Sutherland, Piper, Spence and the artists of the Geometry of Fear.
Sir Phillip King described post-war sculpture as being:
“somehow terribly like scratching your own wounds - an international style with everyone showing the same neuroses…”
A statement which has a resonance for our times too with the inexorable linkage of machine vision, filter bubbles and surveillance.
I’m not trying to suggest for a moment that the New Aesthetic is literally only about geometry or fear. It is in fact, in my view, neither. However for me there are similarities between the two “movements” in that the New Aesthetic is becoming a set of manifested and moreover material responses to the experiences of a radically new era which is dramatically breaking through. This materiality and truth to materials is however often invisible to those who are not inhabiting the space.