11 February 2015

Morris and Warhol at Modern Art Oxford

I had thought of calling this post, Jeremy Deller’s Morris and Warhol at Modern Art Oxford, to recognise its auteur. In fact, the show’s full title does the job: Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol curated by Jeremy Deller. Deller is a conceptual, video and installation artist who won the Turner Prize in 2004 for a film and who regards Morris and Warhol as his greatest artistic influences. He sees similarities between the two as he explained at length to Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian:
Both established printmaking businesses, both envisaged art not as something done in lonely garrets but through collaboration. One critiqued the industrial culture of the 19th century; the other parodied the industrial culture of the 20th. Both wanted art to be for the people. Both – and this is where Deller is at his most challenging – were political artists. Come on, Warhol political? “The electric chair? The pictures of race riots? There’s more to him than his trademark blankness.” 
Deller takes these politicised Warholian images as parallel to Morris’s political writings almost a century earlier. “Morris wrote furiously about how the crafts skills in India and Malaya were ruined because the British empire wanted cheap mass-produced products. He totally understood the processes and how that affected art making. William Morris was the precursor of modernism.” Really? “He stood for things being beautiful and practical and well made. Bauhaus was a reaction against cheaply made goods. Morris got there long before them.” 
He shows me a political pamphlet Morris wrote called A Factory as It Might Be. “Everyone thinks he’s a luddite. He wanted people to have gardens and grow their own vegetables. But Morris didn’t oppose machines: he thought they were good if they took away demeaning labour.” The factory that the English communist dreamed of was not, Deller argues, so very far away from the Factory that Andy Warhol ran in midtown Manhattan. 
“Both were very much hoping that work might be idyllic,” says Deller. Did Warhol really care about that? “The working environment he created at the Factory is a norm now for creative people. There’s a flow of people from whom you get ideas that feed into the art. I think that William Morris would be very happy that, in 2014, we live in Warhol’s world, that we don’t work in the kind of factories he hated.” He describes Morris as the Warhol of his day, trying to revolutionise the alienating world of industrial work by the means of, incredibly, soft furnishings and floral wallpaper.
And so on. Visitors may or may not be convinced by this line of argument - Richard Derwent in the Daily Telegraph certainly wasn’t:
Nothing I’ve seen in any medium begins to touch the depths of the exhibition Jeremy Deller has put together about what he conceives to be the many points of similarity between two great artists, William Morris and Andy Warhol. But these exist only in his own mind. Virtually every comparison he draws between the two either in the catalogue or in interviews is at best a half-truth, which he then justifies by blatant sophistry.
and later called it one of the worst exhibitions of 2014. Perhaps he made the mistake of seeing this show and the Ashmolean’s William Blake on the same day out. But let’s look on the bright side: the exhibition is free and so is the MAO Exhibition Guide with background essays, eg The Relationship Between the Neural Plumbing and the Agape by Dr Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humity Institute – well we are in Oxford. And those of us who are ill-equipped for that level of appreciation and also aren’t desperate to synthesise the two men’s work, can enjoy the show, with its hundred plus items including books and photographs. MAO has a bigger area available than was the case at the recent National Portrait Gallery William Morris exhibition and makes use of it to show the technique of block-printing wallpaper and one of the large Quest for the Holy Grail Tapestries designed by Burne-Jones, Dearle and Morris, The Attainment; The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Boris and Sir Percival (1895-96, 6th panel below):

Among the Warhols (which include the inevitable images of Jackie, Marilyn et al), I was intrigued by Map of the Eastern U.S.S.R. Missile Bases (below 1985-86):

However, as I pointed out in the post here about the NPG show, Morris’s life and work is permanently on display in various locations in the UK, while Warhol turns up all the time. As for the links between them, the beholder can make their own mind up, there being numerous opportunities for comparison, for example a Morris wallpaper (below left) and Warhol’s Head with Flowers (1958, below right):

But one fairly obvious question is never answered in Deller's show – what, if anything, did Warhol think of his predecessor, Morris?

Love is Enough continues at MAO until 8 March and will be at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 25 April to 6 September 2015.


From Google statistics I know that not everyone who reads this blog has English as their first language. So an explanation may be helpful – there is no such word as “humity”, even though it does appear on page 7 of the MAO’s Exhibition Guide:

A Google search reveals that “humity” is often as a misprint of “humidity” (commonly, it would seem, in queries from cannabis growers and in hotel visitors' reports). We can safely rule out “homity”, an English pie made from potato, onion and leek (enough said):

And being Oxford, you can rule out “humility” and start looking for something much grander – ah, yes “humanity”. The University of Oxford Future of Humanity Institute in the Oxford Martin School, what else?

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