Sunday, 29 December 2019

Bridge Postcards of 2019

There are many boring postcards of bridges where little or no attempt has been made to find a fresh angle or a different perspective. The avoidance of cliché gives us something to cheer and this often happens when the camera has been placed on the bridge itself. Examples here include the multiple steelwork intersections over the Forth Bridge and the pedestrian walkway on the lower level of New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. Aerial views present unusual views of structural elements and a well composed conventional three-quarter view can reveal something of a bridge’s design idiosyncrasies. Unusually we have 3 bridges from close to home in Devon (Meldon, Teignmouth and Plymouth) with the rest from North America, Germany and the Netherlands with a single example from Australia. These are the most interesting bridge postcards acquired in 2019. 

Friday, 27 December 2019

Bridges of 2019

This is the regular end-of-year pontine presentation of bridges seen through the camera lens in the last 12 months. With a single exception, all come from Chicago in June. Moveable bridges of various types are a Chicago speciality with at least 20 in the downtown area and as many as 43 across the city. There are double-decker road and rail bridges, lifting bridges and bascule bridges to be seen. Every major road running north or west of the Loop has to cross the Chicago River and their presence adds a vital element to the city’s spectacular cityscape. The exception is from Dresden in January - die Blaue Brücke that crosses the River Elbe connecting the affluent eastern suburbs of Blasewitz and Loschwitz. Also known as Loschwitzer Brücke, and der Blaues Wunder (or Blue Wonder), it’s a cantilever truss bridge and opened in 1893 after a two year build. In 1945 the efforts of the SS to destroy the bridge were thwarted when two civilians cut the wires connecting the detonator with the explosives. 

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Hufeisensiedlung, Berlin

It’s easy to take for granted how easy it is to get around Berlin on public transport. Not so on the November afternoon we chose to visit the Horseshoe Estate. Turfed off the U-bahn at Grenzallee, we had to queue in a haphazard fashion for a bus replacement service - something very familiar to rail travellers from UK - with the result that night was falling by the time we reached our destination. The photographs were taken in a mad dash as the light faded, denying the opportunity to appreciate the distinctive colour palette that Bruno Taut brought to the project. The centrepiece of the estate is the horseshoe-shaped 3-storey apartment building that embraces a generous open amenity space and an ornamental lake. Surrounding it are a series of terraces and low rise apartment blocks, together housing 5,000 people in 1,963 dwelling units, all built between 1925 and 1930. 

Taut’s architectural philosophy was informed by his interest in the Garden City movement (which he studied in England before the First World War) and his political commitment to Socialism. Berlin’s population had been expanding rapidly in the early 20th. century as industrial expansion demanded an ever larger workforce. Which lead to a massive programme of worker housing construction under the control of a Socialist municipality and city architect, Martin Wagner. Taut was one of the leading architects employed on this project and shared the egalitarian ideals of his political masters. The guiding principle was that workers and their families should be housed in generously proportioned apartments in salubrious surroundings in dramatic contrast to the typically overcrowded inner city suburbs where ill health and exploitation by the landlord class was endemic. Taut’s personal contribution to the movement was his belief in the power of colour and texture to enhance the built environment. He specified a variety of textured finishes to animate otherwise anonymous surfaces and employed primary and secondary colour combinations on external doors and walls to enrich the visual experience for residents. Taut was a lifelong painter and his idiosyncratic use of colour divided him from his Modernist colleagues who freely expressed their antipathy. 

Taut’s building had its admirers in Britain and the St. Andrew’s Estate in Liverpool, designed by city architect John Hughes, followed the horseshoe form when built in 1935, although the textured finishes and bright colours of Berlin were not adopted. After 1933 municipal Socialism was dead in Germany and Taut’s colour innovations were rapidly expunged under the Third Reich. The buildings survived but were poorly maintained. Taut himself left Germany for Japan in 1933 and ended his career in Istanbul where he died in 1938 shortly after designing the catafalque for the funeral of Kemal Ataturk. Since 2008 the Hufeisensiedlung has been a meticulously maintained part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Berlin Modernism Housing Estates. 

Monday, 16 December 2019

Crooked House

The Crooked House is a great example of misfortune transformed into opportunity. When this otherwise unremarkable Staffordshire public house began to slide away from the horizontal into some long forgotten mine workings, the owners stabilised the building and made a feature of the new orientation. The story goes that the pub was built on the boundary between land belonging to the Glynne Estate and that of the Earl of Dudley which explains why the building slumped at an angle - the mining activity only extended under half of the pub. The pub was rescued from almost total collapse in the 1940s and continues in business to the present day. These souvenir postcards make the most of the visual incongruities - tilting doorways and tables where marbles appear to run uphill - in an effort to entice the drinking public into its vertigo-inducing interior. It makes an interesting contrast with the Florida Mystery House, featured in a post in December 2014. 

Monday, 9 December 2019

Tristram Hillier in Taunton

On my first ever visit to the Tate (aged 14 and a juvenile admirer of Dali and Magritte) my uneducated eye was drawn to a Tristram Hillier landscape, La Route des Alpes (1937) where a proliferation of pylons, transmitters and roadside signage with distant ruins seemed to resemble exactly what I would like to be painting myself. Only the addition of a train on a viaduct could improve it. Last week I saw the painting again in Taunton in the exhibition Landscapes of the Mind - The Art of Tristram Hillier and its grip on the imagination was as strong as ever. It’s a painting that doesn’t immediately disclose much about its meaning and there’s no great message to transmit. This curious assemblage must be accepted on its own terms as an unsettling mystery that doesn’t demand to be decoded. In Hillier’s paintings there’s a sense of detachment enhanced by the meticulously finished surface values, beneath which we sense the work of a complex and often troubled individual. 

Hillier was a rootless English colonial, born in Beijing in 1905 where his father was manager of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, he was 9 years old before he saw England. Family relationships were cool and distant and much of his childhood was outsourced to a Catholic public school. The decision that he should study Economics at Cambridge was dictated by his father. After his father’s death, he was able to find his way to the Slade where he fell foul of the doctrinaire inflexibility of Henry Tonks and later to Paris to study painting in the studio of André Lhôte. As an artist, Lhôte had been quick to spot the decorative potential of Cubism which he presented in a rich and vibrant colour palette and this formed the basis of his teaching and attracted a large number of students. For a few years, Hillier experimented with Cubism, Fauvism and a polite form of Surrealism and on a brief return to London in 1933-34, he participated in the Unit One movement, one of the few concerted efforts to inject some avant-garde vigour into the torpid English art world. Hillier lived well and painted in Europe from 1935 to the early days of the war, mostly in France and Spain. Back in England he did 3 years of war service in the RNVR before settling in Somerset in 1943 where he remained for 40 years until his death in 1983. The wandering days were not entirely over as he made regular painting trips to Spain and Portugal, almost every year. 

There's a Paul Nash (above right) and a Ben Nicholson (extreme right) included for context.

The Paris years (1927-30) were the most formative influence on Hillier’s identity as an artist. By his own account, he shifted from one direction to another as he was exposed to the full range of competing ideologies but it was the contacts he made with the Surrealists that made the most lasting impression. Max Ernst rented him a studio and he painted alongside André Masson on a Spanish journey. Roland Penrose became a friend and he made the acquaintance of Picasso and André Breton. Echoes of de Chirico can be seen in his preference for minimally inhabited spaces, albeit described with a meticulous realism that de Chirico never aspired to. Coherent themes emerged in the 1930s - first among them being a fascination for coastal harbour scenes and maritime detritus. Like his friend Edward Wadsworth, he was well aware of the power of oversized items of marine engineering to disconcert the viewer with their formal incongruities. Lighthouses, breakwaters, jetties, flagpoles and cranes formed the compositional elements of his most intriguing paintings. Landscape reframed as still-life. 

When Hillier published his autobiography, Leda and the Goose in 1954, he was well established in his Somerset home with almost 30 years of painting ahead of him. He is sparing on the subject of his artistic career and there’s even less about his ideas and motivation, being most comfortable describing his hectic social life, his travels and passion for sailing. The backward glance seems to confirm the increasingly conservative drift of his values and opinions even though he was not yet 50. His former allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith had been renewed and the art of the still-life was claiming much of his attention. There’s a passage in the book where he acknowledges the unique genius of Picasso but he is at pains to add that it is “an evil genius as I have come to know”. 

The retreat into deepest Somerset was not a retreat into the comforts of the English Pastoral. It’s striking the extent to which Hillier repudiated the bucolic vision of the green and pleasant land. The stark outlines of winter trees and the harsh geometry of agricultural buildings surrounded by broken, unrepaired fences and collapsing drystone walls populate the rural scenes. Everywhere dead and dying trees, anguished in form and devoid of foliage offer reminders of decay and dissolution. Where figures appear, their relationship lacks warmth and sometimes suggests hostility - all of which hints at the darker side of country life. The winter months of incessant rains and days of gloom were not to Hillier’s liking and his journeys south to Portugal and Spain brought essential relief. Here, vernacular architecture and townscapes marked by the dazzling contrast of sunlight and shadow vied for his attention with the lure of the coast, the boat builder’s yard and the ensembles of fishing boats drawn up on the beach. Human forms were banished and the resulting paintings often deeply unsettling in their sense of desertion. In the most subtle way possible, it all suggests a life of undemonstrative discontent and low level depression. Achievements seemed outnumbered by disappointments and the glamorous days of dizzy socialising at endless parties and the Mediterranean sailing expeditions were impossibly distant. More than enough to turn a conservative disposition toward the consolations of alcohol, tobacco and the endless fury of the opinion pages of The Daily Telegraph

The Taunton exhibition is exemplary in its choice of work and its presentation. A compact and intense exhibition can be more rewarding than a sprawling survey and this is perfect in both size and scope. As a long term admirer I needed no convincing of the quality of Hillier’s work but there’s every chance that this show may persuade those new to his work that Tristram Hillier was an artist of consequence who, at his best can stand alongside many of his contemporaries who enjoy more substantial reputations.