A glorious picture article on the BBC website last week reminded me that 2019 sees the centenary of the Bauhaus movement, and inspired this week’s post. In terms of art and design, I’m very much a modernist at heart. While I appreciate older art, what really gets me interested is modern art, modern design, and how the world moved forward during the twentieth century as new technologies and new ways of thinking allowed a kaleidoscope of ideas to come forth.
/Tuesday Ten/355/How Great Thou Art
So this week, then, I’m talking about art, design and architecture. Songs that encompass movements that I’m interested in, that I love, and more importantly have interesting songs about them – this latter part meant that a few artists and indeed design movements had to be left out simply as I didn’t have songs for them.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
The key link between all of Metroland’s releases is, really, good design. All of them consider this in one way or another – from the functionality of transport planning on Mind The Gap, to the high-speed travel of the exceptional Thalys, to the more recent, thoughtful photography at the heart of Men In a Frame. And especially so on Triadic Ballet, their second full-length album where they surprised many of us by turning their attention to the Bauhaus movement. What was an unexpected concept worked brilliantly, and in every way stuck to the Gesamtkunstwerk of the Bauhaus movement itself.
While Bauhaus buildings, in particular, looked amazing, with their extensive use of glass, natural light and clean lines, the same could be said for the designed furniture to go in the buildings, and the sans-serif fonts developed and used on any literature – the latter being something I’ve stuck with as a design principle in my writing for as long as I can remember (I don’t use serif fonts whatsoever, and never have).
The three directors of the title, by the way? The three directors of the Bauhaus school – Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, all of whom became noted and influential architects in their own right, particularly Mies van der Rohe whose American work, in particular, is striking in its simplicity. The image here is of the Isokon Flats, probably the best-known and best-surviving Bauhaus-style building in London. Gropius, after he’d left Germany, lived here for a while.
Art Deco as a movement had a number of evolutions, mainly due to cost. The original, ostentatious Art Deco style was sleek and stylish, down to every last detail, and like Bauhaus covered a great deal more than just buildings – from furniture to trains and ocean liners, never mind buildings. There are various Art Deco buildings that remain in London (in differing states, frankly), but the Shell-Mex building off the Strand, much of the Piccadilly Line outer extensions, Ibex House near Tower Hill, and of course Florin Court near Barbican (the latter pictured here, picture thanks to Daisy), are all exceptional examples of the style that are worth a walk out of your way to find. Worldwide, here’s some other examples.
This song is one of the few I could think of that covers the style, as Costello muses on the spectacular Hoover Factory building out in West London on the A40, a stylish, then-futuristic monument to new technology and that still looks gorgeous even now – even if part of it is now a Tesco supermarket…
I’d perhaps argue that there isn’t really a style of “English Architecture”, much as there isn’t a “French”, or a “German” architecture specifically. There have been movements, and styles common to certain regions, but design has always evolved and changed with technology and indeed fashion. Maybe to tourists it is Wren’s mighty buildings that revitalised London after the Great Fire, or John Nash’s Regency buildings (including Buckingham Palace), but much of his work owes much to Palladian concepts, who absolutely wasn’t English! Or maybe it is the modern face of British building (particularly London), with Richard Rogers and Norman Foster’s London landmarks like the Lloyds Building and The Gherkin. Or you could head to Highgate North Hill, as we did a few weeks ago – pretty much every architectural style in the past 400 or so years in the UK features on this one street!
Perhaps, then, “English Architecture” is as much looking back as it is looking forward, much like Teleman’s music, the quasi-futuristic motorik pulse nudged aside at points by a sunburst, breezy chorus, as it celebrates the familiar look of “home” in England, trying to find a common thread in what they see.
It still amazes me that OMD remain – unlike almost all of their peers – as relevant and fascinating as they do four decades from formation. Their recent albums since their reformation ten or so years ago are all essential listens – and stellar examples of modern electronic pop music. But perhaps more importantly for this post, OMD’s subject matter for their songs have often been intriguing, and there are a great number of references to art and artists scattered across their work. But one name keeps popping up, and that’s of the American artist Edward Hopper – an artist who had an extraordinary eye across the mid-20th Century for American life and produced a number of extraordinary works. None for me, though, match the late-evening glory of Nighthawks, which depicts the late-night denizens of a diner in a city somewhere (and I was privileged to see in person at The Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago). The song – one of loneliness and darkness that while referencing Hopper also has more universal themes, perhaps – comes complete with a glorious video that references Hopper’s work in style and content.
There was an outstanding Malevich exhibition at the Tate a few years back, that allowed me to trace the history of this important artist, who pretty much claimed his own art movement (Suprematicism) and in Black Square, made a mark in the sand that was as if past art didn’t matter. The black square was a furious painting over of whatever came before, a new starting point. Of course, art is subjective, and a whole number of movements exploded and sprung up in the wake.
The Manics, always one of the most intelligent of British bands, have long shown themselves to be a band with a deep interest in twentieth-century art – I can think of at least three songs by the band including this – and here they appear to give a voice to Malevich and his painting to angrily reject the past and offer a future, a concept at the heart of this pro-European, positive (and brilliant) album.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti‘s Futurist Manifesto was remarkably launched in the form of a front page article published by Le Figaro. Perhaps that extraordinary sense of self-importance should have alerted everyone to the more unpleasant aspects of those involved (sadly he, among others, were early supporters of the Fascist movement in Italy too). But the art movement as a concept was an important one, wanting to embrace the beauty of speed, motion and technology – which in many ways it did spectacularly, going on the gripping flashes of colour and energy that much of the art was – in an attempt to move Italy conclusively into the twentieth-century.
Which brings me to Spahn Ranch, a band who evolved and morphed their sound in eight short years, with their eyes and ears open wide to what else was going on, setting themselves far apart from their peers of the time. Their penultimate full-length album Architecture made use of cavernous basslines, that feel like they are going to envelop your entire brain at points, not to mention sparse mixes that left space like unspoken words. The glorious pair of ballads on the album, Futurist Limited and Futurist Unlimited, appear to make reference to the concepts of Futurism, in efforts to look forward and make new, rather than relying on “mistakes” of the past. In fact they rather sum up the band as a whole, restless innovators who ended too soon.
There are perhaps few contemporary artists that bring as much scorn from some as Jeff Koons. Perhaps this is down to his style – reinterpreting mundane, everyday objects as glitzy, bright pieces – and also the outrageous sums of money that many of his pieces have sold for. But also, is it down to his refusal to add meaning to any of his works? Is he just having us on, and laughing all the way to the bank while doing so? If so, good for him. Fools, money, etc.
Which brings me to Momus – who wrote the songs for this album, apparently, based on who funded them – so Jeff Koons was involved, and got a song (one of thirty-nine here). Needless to say it doesn’t appear to be critical of his work at all, just offers rather florid descriptions of some of his work. I do rather love the oversized balloon dogs, though…
/The Stone Roses (20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition)
I wouldn’t normally include The Stone Roses, to be honest – but I couldn’t not with Jackson Pollock to mention. His influence was all over the band’s earlier artwork, as guitarist John Squire clearly based his sleeve-art on the legendary abstract expressionist, but perhaps without the magic that Pollock’s work had. The first time I saw any of Pollock’s paintings in person light a fire in my brain, and I’ve never been able to quite explain why. The controlled chaos of his dripped-paint work has my brain working to catch up on the detail, and I’m not quite sure we all see the same things in his work. And yes, I know many don’t like his paintings at all.
That said, I don’t know how you compare a woman to No. 5, 1948, but the song is a B-side, and frankly sounds like one with the languid vocals and gentle, almost apologetic guitars.
The mighty Spiral Jetty – stretching some 450m into the Great Salt Lake in Utah – is one of those pieces of art that I’d love to see in person sometime. A piece that – at least from the photos and footage I’ve seen of it – seamlessly became part of the landscape, as if it had always been there, and to me evokes a distance from everyday life as it lies at risk from inundation by water on a lonely promontory, some miles from civilization. The piece even inspired the notoriously loud and raucous Trail of Dead to take a step back, and provide a measured, electronic-based track that seems to gasp in awe at what they are seeing – even if squalling feedback does eventually break the calm. Incidentally, I’m looking forward to seeing the band live next week, for the first time in a good many years, as they tour for the Madonna twentieth anniversary.
/Bang Bang Rock & Roll
My wife and I have very different ideas on art. But not design, generally – we both love Modernist design, interestingly, but our opinions diverge enormously on the artists that we appreciate. Most of the artists mentioned above my wife cannot stand (particularly Pollock and Koons), and her expressions and comments ambling around the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern a few years back were entertaining – similarly, our opinions on Rothko differ too, she remaining entirely unmoved by his dark, moody canvases. (The photo here, by the way, is the modern Brutalism of Peter Tábori’s Whittington Estate, taken by me yesterday).
But then, why should we have the same tastes? We had different influences growing up, different cultural exposure, and our musical tastes aren’t far off as divergent. One band I never quite “got” – although really I probably should have done – is Art Brut, who recently returned after a long hiatus. The name of the band is even appropriate here: “Named after French painter Jean Dubuffet’s definition of outsider art – art by prisoners, loners, the mentally ill, and other marginalized people, and made without thought to imitation or presentation” (source), and in this song, they examine (perhaps with their tongues in their cheeks) the concept of “modern art”. According to my wife, who was at their sold-out show at The Garage last week, she reports that this track was extended into an epic, ten-minute-plus version in a second encore that rather caught out a few that thought the band were done before this…