“If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there” is a quote attributed to many sources, and rehashed over and again. It conjures up a decade of drug-fuelled oblivion, hazy, dreamy years of lounging and lotus-eating.
Very, very different from the intensely creative, vibrantly and eagerly workish decade documented by Lisa Tickner in her new book, London’s New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s (Yale University Press).
Tickner, an art historian, not only was there — in 1968, at the famous (or infamous) Hornsey College of Art — but remembers it all very well. What she does not remember she has researched, considered, sifted and recorded in vivid detail for this unusual book.
Her approach, however, does perhaps have a tang of the Sixties about it: the account moves, you might say, from party to party — that is, from one significant event to another, without an attempt at a completist narrative. From 1962 to 1968, important highlights are chosen to stand as a reflection of their moment, each linking back and forth to others, creating a loose web that adds up to a wider picture. These eloquent moments are investigated and analysed in a style that reminds us of the author’s academic credentials, at the same time as showing a wide and warm immersion in her subject and a generous range of reference.
Before she kicks off with the golden decade, though, she pays tribute to the build-up. The key year, she says, was 1956: against a turbulent broader socio-economic background (first nuclear power station, first computers, the Suez crisis, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and more), the arts scene was exploding; Elvis topped the UK charts, John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger identified the Angry Young Man, the exhibition Modern Art in the United States brought Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning to the Tate, and much more.
So as the Sixties proper dawned, there was already, as novelist Angela Carter put it, “a yeastiness in the air”. And 1962’s seminal Pop art documentary, Pop Goes the Easel, made by Ken Russell for the BBC arts strand Monitor, was building on what was already becoming a strong theme: “old” art was dead, and some younger British artists, rather than following the Abstract Expressionism of their American forebears of the previous decade, were making art from the stuff of everyday life around them — the imagery of mass consumption, anything from pinball machines to Kellogg’s cereal packets.
Of the four chosen artists, only one — Peter Blake — is a household name today. Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips are less well known; the sole woman in the group, Pauline Boty, has had a belated rediscovery. She died of cancer at only 28, so it’s hard to say what her career would have been: this book, though, gives a tantalising glimpse of a very young artist cleverly and deliberately playing with her own sexuality (as a provocative bottle-blonde) to challenge the norms of the time.
In her chapter on 1963, Tickner brings us the story of John Kasmin, whose London gallery had an almost immeasurable influence on contemporary art in Britain, with a roll-call of great international names. The following year brings an account of two vital exhibitions — one at the Whitechapel Gallery, under its seemingly visionary director Bryan Robertson (entitled New Generation: 1964, with a dozen artists, almost all under 30); the other entitled Painting and Sculpture of a Decade: ’54-’64, a stunning international survey at Tate.
These two sections show how some of the basics of our art world, half a century later, were laid at that point: in Kasmin’s vision, which was something of a blueprint for galleries since, and in the early use of philanthropy and sponsorship. For his Whitechapel show, Robertson persuaded cigarette brand Peter Stuyvesant in as a sponsor; the Tate exhibition was lavishly funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Tobacco and oil, respectively: think how that would play in the London of 2020. Nonetheless, these seminal shows were made possible — and the sponsorship model which has been so essential to the cultural world’s growth ever since was established.
One of the recurring figures in the Sixties art scene was the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who became Lord Snowdon in 1961 after his marriage to Princess Margaret. At the dawn of the decade he had documented London, in its still-bruised postwar condition, from the grim backstreets to the glittering Mayfair establishments; now, with the birth of newspaper colour supplements (he joined the new Sunday Times Magazine in 1962), his work and his social vision (as well as his love of people and parties) had a powerful impact. The colour supplements not only followed the new arts scene, but helped to create it, and Snowdon was everywhere. In 1965, with Robertson and John Russell, Snowdon co-authored Private View, a lavish, large-format book with more than 300 photographs that showed the artists in their studios almost with supermodel status: a sort of visual who’s-who that was incisive as well as glamorous.
Photography was so important, in this scene and at this moment — think of David Bailey, Terence Donovan, Duffy and others — that Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer, encapsulated the mid-decade, in all its rather decadent strivings, like nothing else. The famous Time magazine article — which coined the phrase — shone a spotlight on “Swinging London”, with its combination of youthful hedonism and growing commercialism, and the fashion world was leading the charge.
As was the new lifestyle journalism. Tickner says: “Blow-Up links the interests of high art (whether Rothko or Rauschenberg, modernism or postmodernism) to those of commerce and the supplements.” As editor Karl Miller put it, “the respect for affluence that radiates from the advertisements [in glossy magazines] is tempered by sharp feelings of guilt and responsibility.” Thus, the mid-decade was simultaneously revelling in its new consumerism and worrying at its so-called radicalism.
As Tickner moves on to discuss Art, Mass Culture and the Export Trade (in 1967), growing international tourism is partly founded on Britain’s reputation for culture, creativity and trendiness. But 1968 brings a darker mood. The British art schools were hotbeds of the Sixties’ creative spirit, profoundly important in producing some of the best fashion creatives and bands of the time as well as the artists of the future. But there was disillusion, already, with the postwar dream, and political turbulence across the west, from the mighty événements in Paris onwards. In a year of extreme student unrest, the sit-in at Hornsey College of Art in north London was one of the most powerful and sustained British protests, and Tickner gives us the blow-by-blow, as well as deep context.
Her conclusion, however, shows us that there are perhaps no real conclusions to be drawn from this or any other decade: by 1969, life and society and art were all moving on to the next thing. Some survived triumphantly, others did not. The darker side of the glittering decade — rates of poverty and deprivation that underlay the gloss — became more pressing concerns: the era’s reputation for narcissism and frivolity occluded some of its forceful creative impulse. Some felt the time had been life-defining; others went along with John Lennon, who claimed (even though it was the time of his rise to mega-fame) that: “Nothing happened, except that we all dressed up.”
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