DIARY 10 June 1968 Discovering the avant-guard

Discovering the avant-guard

The impressive buildings of the West End epitomise the fabulous cultural edifice that is London. Galleries, theatres, cinemas and concert halls present masterpieces of art, music, drama and film. Museums heave with the cultural artifacts of other civilisations and of other times.

MEDIA Avant-garde COLLAGE

High art: Renaissance master; National Gallery; Queen Elizabeth Hall; Modern art; Theatre.

At 19 years old I was intimidated by this establishment culture. This might have been the pinnacle of the civilisation that had nurtured me but it hadn’t penetrated very far into the terraced streets of Selly Oak. Here was a cornucopia of sensation and stimulation that I had barely glimpsed before.

When I went to the National Gallery I was presented with Renaissance masterworks which dazzled but made no sense to this boy unable to decipher the myths or the religious symbols. I could just about grasp the sentimentality of a few Pre-Raphaelites which I had seen in Birmingham Art Gallery. If I went to the Tate Gallery, turning right after the entrance I was faced by a large canvas by David Bomberg of red, blue and white shapes (detail above). Having been subjected to no art education whatsoever, I was challenged to make sense of this meaningless abstraction.

These galleries were free to enter but  tickets for theatres and concert halls were out of my price range, putting music and drama out of my reach. I would not have known what to choose anyway. I could not tell one composer from another or say anything about drama, except for schoolboy Shakespeare. I began to regret the opportunities I had missed at school although there had been no effort whatsoever to present art or music as interesting, let alone stimulating and enjoyable. I do not recall any discussion of art history, only some desultory lessons about how to draw a tree (upside down, to make the branches more natural). Music lessons were about the structure of symphonies but I do not recall being expected to actually listen to much music. I was never given the chance to learn any musical instrument. A teacher once played us an Ornette Coleman[1] record but left the room frustrated by our incomprehension, calling us cultural morons.

Deprived of high culture by lack of access or ticket money, I learned how to find venues where entrance was cheap or free or with special offers for students. I would take whatever was on offer if my meagre grant would stretch to it. One such place was the French Institute in Kensington, not far from my college. Here I saw plays by Jean Anouilh and Jean Cocteau and films by Jean-Luc Godard. They were in French without subtitles but Chelsea Public Library might have an English translation.

Many of these venues presented contemporary or avant-garde performances which were more interesting to me than the established arts. I recall a play, if that is the correct word, at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane by a group calling themselves ‘The People Show’. More of a comedy sketch although the subject was suicide. There were similar, often improvised performances, at other venues such as Gandalf’s Garden in Chelsea.  

Ustad Vilayat Rosencrantz_and_Guildenstern_book  Lichtenstein

Music, drama, painting.

Another local venue was Chelsea Town Hall on King’s Road. Here I saw a concert by Usted Vilayat Khan. George Harrison had played the sitar in a couple of Beatles’ songs and here was my chance to hear the real thing. One day I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the Old Vic on a cheap student ticket, standing in the gods. I had not even seen Hamlet (except by Olivier on the television) but this play opened my eyes to modern dramatists, some of whom with names like Stoppard were being talked about in magazines as new creative forces.

A new arts venue, The Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, opened in 1968 with an exhibition of work by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the first galleries to present Pop Art. These new artistic movements, Pop Art and Minimalism among others, came to the fore; music was reinvigorated by other cultures and electronic sounds; drama became philosophical and absurd. Theatre was freed from the limitations of censorship by the government[2]. New conceptual art and installations perplexed their audiences. The Computer Arts Society was established and one of the first exhibitions of cybernetic art was presented by the ICA in September 1968.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) was older than me, established in 1947. Set up by artists and critics, it challenged the moribund art establishment of post-war Britain, becoming the focus for a new avant garde. Note the plural in ‘Arts’; contemporary music, art and film were all displayed, sometimes in the same presentation.

OBS Collage1

Obsession: Matta, Thek, Dubuffet, Bellmer, Haworth, Lindner, Bacon, Hockney.

The ICA moved to new premises in The Mall in April 1968. Its opening exhibition The Obsessive Image presented works depicting the human figure in new and innovative ways by over seventy artists including Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, David Hockney, Rene Magritte, Claes Oldenburg, Pablo Picasso, Graham Sutherland and Andy Warhol. I was completely unaware of any of these artists at the time and I knew nothing of contemporary art.

I was astonished by the many and different approaches to representing the human figure. Unlike pure abstraction, the image represented was recognisable and I did not have to ponder what it was or if the picture had been hung upside-down. I could just marvel at the inventiveness of Paul Thek’s Death of a hippie, Lichtenstein’s comic cartoons, Dubuffet’s doodle-like figures, de Saint-Phalle’s painted papier-mache torsos, or Stevenson’s massive close-ups.

Until then I had thought that a painting or sculpture was mainly an exercise in technical skill, requiring years of practice and probably some innate talent. Now I saw that images could be manipulated, coloured, distorted, broken down and reassembled to produce not just a picture but introduce new meaning and emotion. It triggered something in me that opened my senses to new possibilities.

The publicity surrounding ICA’s move to the unlikely stuccoed classical premises designed by John Nash must have drawn me in, or perhaps they just offered very cheap student membership. I joined in April 1968 and was presented with art, film and music that surprised and inspired.

Scorpio  Herostratus  Herostratus Mirren  media   

Scorpio rising; Herostratus; Herostratus[3]; Mr and Mrs Kabal.

By the 1960s there was a long-standing tradition of short films which could be shown in cinemas and on the television. This was an innocuous artform, often produced as semi-documentaries about aspects of life in Britain. This was very different to the short films I saw at the ICA. Kenneth Anger’s film Scorpio rising featured biker subculture, homosexuality, religion, the occult, Nazism and rebel icons of the time. It was one of the first films to feature a soundtrack of pop music by The Crystals, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and others but no dialogue. Was it a dream or was it a trip?

A film by Don Levy called Herostratus, on the other hand, was over two hours long. It told the story of Max (Michael Gothard), a young poet who hires a marketing company to turn his suicide into a media spectacle; such themes were controversial at the time. Helen Mirren made her film debut at age 18. Both director and lead actor would later commit suicide.

Walerian Borowczyk was another very different film-maker whose work I saw at the ICA. His 1967 film, The theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, was a full length animation which properly deserved the epithet ‘surreal’.

The ICA also introduced me to contemporary music. Luciano Berio was an Italian experimental composer who experimented with electronic music. His most well-known work Sinfonia (1967-69) for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices do not ‘sing’ in the classical manner but shout and whisper in a musical collage. I discovered how an orchestra can do more than produce academic musical forms but can build an aural landscape.

Revolver Berberian  Revolver Beatles

Revolution by Berberian; Revolver by The Beatles.

Cathy Berberian was an exponent of contemporary vocal music with a distinctive voice. She was married to Luciano Berio until divorced in 1964 but they continued their musical collaborations begun over a decade previously. She worked with many innovative writers and composers including John Cage, Igor Stravinsky and Anthony Burgess. Free from the formalities of lieder and aria, her voice became a creative tool. One of her productions featured a baroque reworking of twelve songs by The Beatles.

I was not actively looking for the avant-guard but it appealed to me more than establishment art and was more accessible. I was hooked; I would thereafter seek out obscure film-makers, theatre groups with a mission, innovative music-makers and artists who looked for new ways to interpret the world.

I took my time to catch up on established arts; later at another university I learned about the Renaissance. It would take twenty years before I really began to enjoy opera; classical music largely remained elusive. I became a culture-vulture, picking up whatever I could.

[1] Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist who was one of the main innovators of the free jazz movement in the 1960s. As schoolboys we never stood a chance of getting to grips with it.
[2] Until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office could refuse licenses to ‘unsuitable’ plays. Theatres such as the Royal Court had to turn themselves into private clubs in order to present anything controversial. This censorship was abolished by Act of Parliament in September 1968. The following day, the ‘love-rock’ musical Hair featuring nudity on stage opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The Royal Court was situated just down the King’s Road in Sloane Square, not far from my college, but I never went. The complications of buying membership, and not understanding the ideological importance of the plays they presented, were barriers to my participation.
[3] Helen Mirren.

DIARY 27 May 1968 The times they are a-changin’

Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’. (1)

It was a watershed year in history. The ‘old road’ was coming to an end; there was revolution in the air. Revolutionary bonfires would be lit in Paris, Prague, Los Angeles and many other places; the sparks fell everywhere. Mutually assured nuclear destruction may have kept the peace in the developed world but bloody battles between the superpowers were being fought in Vietnam and would flare up across other continents. There were increasing demands for recognition, rights and self-determination. The world became smaller through technology; culture burst into multi-colour.

My own ‘old road’ was ending too; 1968 was one of my personal watershed years. This diary is all about how this boy from south suburban Birmingham discovered the world, went abroad for the first time, suffered the pangs of unrequited love, became both confused and enlightened by philosophy, and was awe-struck by music, art, drama, films. That year defined me in many ways that I am still trying to understand fifty years later.

I watched the events of May 1968 in Paris on television. I had been there and it was no longer just a news report. In London, colleges were being occupied by students; all I had to do was to get on a bus to join them. I joined a student demonstration in Trafalgar Square. It was supposed to be about cuts in grant funding but with students occupying in Paris and London, there was talk of more than just subsistence allowances.

I was impressed by a student leader from Leeds who was making various radical demands. I was equally impressed by the support he had brought, some ten coachloads from his university. I was disappointed by my fellow students; I saw only one other person from Chelsea College at the demonstration despite the fact that the number 11 bus would get you there in 20 minutes. Jack Straw, the president of Leeds University Union, had brought several hundred on a 400-mile round trip.

My political awakening was just beginning. It had no name but I was becoming anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-racist and anti-establishment. The latter was possibly the most important at the time. Organised politics meant little and I would not be joining any political party, at least for some time. Certainly not the Labour Party which was part of the establishment. Having been subjected to no particular socialist, liberal or conservative influences during my tender years, I was politically naïve and could best be described as a hippie (student section).

1968 Derek Perry-002  Me in 1968.

61HBN+VQlHL Bob Dylan in 1968.

(1) Thanks, Bob. You got the mood right and with such poetry.

DIARY 2 November 1967 King’s Road Chelsea. Part 1

Swinging down King’s Road Chelsea part 1

If you are new to London, don’t bother with an expensive sightseeing tour bus unless you like an open top in the rain and commentary in 12 languages. Just take the number 11 bus. I would get on it near Manresa Road on King’s Road and it would take me eastwards towards Victoria and thence to the City. It would pass Sloane Square, Victoria, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Fleet Street and the Bank. Get off anywhere and within a short walk you will find most of London’s worthwhile sights.

Although I would arrive at South Kensington station in the morning and walk to college, the most useful bus was the number 11. It would take me to cinemas, clubs, demonstrations, galleries; or I could simply stay on until the terminus at Liverpool Street and take in the sights.

That is, if I wanted to escape from King’s Road. In 1967 it was the epitome of swinging London with new boutiques pioneered by Mary Quant and others, bars and clubs frequented by pop stars, lurid colour schemes applied to both buildings and vehicles, and bright young things in their mini-skirts and paisley shirts.

Collage Kings Road

Of course, I quite liked it. The vibrancy, the music that blared from shops, cars treated as art objects with two fingers in the face of stuffy 1950s London. Here I was in a place that seemed unique and promised to be the centre of a new expanding universe providing what some of us young people wanted.

It might have looked wildly chaotic to the staid observer but it was really not much more than a fashion statement, however revolutionary the mini-skirt and psychedelic colours appeared. The celebrities were pop stars or the entrepreneurs themselves such as Mary Quant and Alvaro Maccioni the restaurant owner.

There were some attempts to show that this was a dangerous place; but King’s Road was no Haight-Ashbury with its free love and drug-taking. I recall a popular sensationalist magazine called Titbits which asked the question ‘Are our girls in danger in swinging Chelsea?’. This headline was above a picture of a group of young women walking down King’s Road arm-in-arm. They need not have worried. These women were all known to me as fellow students and with their knee-length tweed skirts and sensible shoes they were completely incorruptible. King’s Road, with its new shops and restaurants patronised by some of the better-off was something of a breath of fresh air in a London still showing the scars of the Blitz, dirty buildings and grey streets. I had to go to Soho or Covent Garden (still a vegetable market) or the East End to find the darker places where there might be danger.

Collage My places

Not that I could actually go to many places in King’s Road. As a penniless student I could not afford the entry fee or the price of drinks and I knew no-one who could introduce me. Fortunately, there was a new concrete shopping centre called King’s Walk with a Boots and a supermarket where I could buy my essentials. The places I could afford were the Picasso Café where I ate my first proper spaghetti and the Six Bells which served ghastly Watney’s keg beer; I was forced to drink bottled brown ale. I chose this pub because Dylan Thomas had been a regular and they had jazz upstairs on Fridays; this was old bohemian Chelsea. I could buy a meal at The Chelsea Kitchen or The Stockpot. It was free to go into Gandalf’s Garden where you could lounge on large cushions and drink herbal tea. Late at night you could have tea and a sausage sandwich at a stall in Sloane Square; this is where I witnessed the cliched conjunction of a man in evening dress, a drunk, and a ragged homeless man all together at 2am one morning.

In the evening, I would meander back through the streets of South Kensington and take the Piccadilly Line back to Turnham Green and unremarkable Acton.

 

© Derek Perry 2017