21 June 2012

Post-War British Design at the V&A

I suppose it must have seemed a good idea at the time – a survey of British design in the years since the last time the Olympic Games were in London, 1948. And so came about BRITISH DESIGN 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, now on at the V&A. It’s in the same space used for Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 last year, which perhaps explains any feeling of ‘déjà vu all over again’.

The new show is in three overlapping sections. The first, Tradition and Modernity, covers the period from the end of WW2 to the mid-1960s, more or less. The second, Subversion, runs from the 1960s onwards but doesn’t show much after 2003. The last, Innovation and Creativity, is spread over the “last half century” or so. And at this point I ought to admit to being someone who grew up in the first period and saw the rest of it through adult eyes at the time. Perhaps that was why for me the first section (view below) worked best:

To the left of Henry Moore’s Harlow Family Group (1954-55) is part of Reg Butler’s Woman Resting (1951). The painting above is William Gear’s Autumn Landscape of the same year. Further to the left and not visible is a fine Lynn Chadwick maquette of 1951 for Stabile Cypress. At the entrance is part of The Englishman’s Home mural (left) by John Piper made for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and his 1962 work (with Patrick Reyntiens) for Coventry Cathedral’s baptistry window appears nearby. After an austere post-War start we move on to a more consumerist society in the form of Terence Conran’s Habitat and the Country House-style of Laura Ashley. Although the exhibition ties these influences to the 1960s, neither seems to have disappeared since. This section ends with a Mini (sadly with a slight dent over the nearside rear wheel arch, but otherwise immaculate). 

Then comes Subversion. The art here includes one of David Hockney’s Walt Whitman-inspired works, We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961, right), and others by Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. The over-whelming impression however is of fashion and pop with costumes for David Bowie and others and contributions from Mary Quant and Alexander McQueen. The YBAs are represented by a section of Damien Hirst’s restaurant/art installation Pharmacy. Only once did an exhibit label make a reference to ‘postmodernism’. 

On to Innovation and Creativity, though the first and most striking objects (see below):

are an E-type Jaguar and Concorde, both more the product of function than of form. It would have been of value to see some of the china, glass and cutlery designed for BA's Concordes.  The aircraft was, of course, an Anglo-French project and at this point the reality of globalisation becomes apparent.  Jonathan Ive rightly appears for his role in designing Apple products, but not Martin Smith for his Audi Quattro. The statement on one of the panel texts:
Innovation has characterised British design from the introduction of spinning machines in the 1780s and the engineering of ships and bridges in the 1840s to the development of computer codes after the Second World War and the invention of the worldwide web in the 1980s.
seems facile, given that Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN when he proposed the web and brought together hypertext and the internet, both originating in the US. This is not to belittle his achievements, but can they reasonably be labelled “British”?

The exhibition finishes with some complimentary remarks about British architecture and a model of 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin to most of us), but the most dominant new building in London is Shard London Bridge designed by an Italian, Renzo Piano. Its observation platform will open to the public next month. In 2012 it seems strange that there is no mention of Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture at the Olympic Park, surely creative and innovative, albeit controversial.

Innovation in the Modern Age continues until August 31.

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