Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Know what side of the bed you've been lying on

Only a very temporary break from the hiatus, which will I'm afraid last for another week or so, as I try and write about Biomechanics while having to have the odd hospital visit to sort out the decidedly faulty mechanics of my own biology. Rather than a serious engagement with the all-important debates over the collapse of capitalism and its replacement with christ knows what, here's short, irrelevant post on how everyone, no matter how catholic their tastes, how much they try and keep an interest in all facets of the aesthetic-historical pile-up, has a limit to their eclecticism. Mine came with a visit to the Wallace Collection, in Manchester Square, Marylebone. This is a museum absolutely rammed full of the court art of the 17th and 18th century - lots of Boucher, lots of ornamental salt shakers and sundry renaissance-to-rococo knick-knacks. Something about the geographical location (in an area irredeemably marred especially by the closure of two fine grease-cafes in the vicinity), a turreted fortress of Victoriana which one imagines originally credited itself with breaking up the monotony of the Georgian square; the clientele, most of whom looked like they were walking around their friends' living rooms (and in a sense, probably were), even the music in the shop. Al Bowlly! Wonderful, you think, assuming that the shop assistant has a liking for 1930s crooners, before noticing that this is as a plug for a promotional CD of interwar dance music to accompany their current exhibition. The place is full, inexplicably, on a cold autumn Monday afternoon, the local hyper-rich crowding the galleries, maybe transferring their attentions from purchase to appreciation. Or perhaps not.

The exhibition that was the purpose of my visit: Cartoons and Coronets, the Genius of Osbert Lancaster. Osbert was a figure, like John Betjeman, who began in the 1930s as an ardent (if mordant) Modernist, and by the 1970s was best known as for campaigning to preserve the pre-Modernist, and for a warmth towards the England that his generation once attempted to vanquish, or at least transform. Like Betjeman, he's a difficult figure to dislike, erudition and enthusiasm marginally having the edge over little Englandisms (Peter York, unsurprisingly good on this). Nonetheless, it's unsurprising that like Betjeman, he features in the 'Hates' list in Malcolm Mclaren, Vivienne Westwood and Bernie Rhodes' BLAST-redux T-Shirt, 'you're going to wake up one morning and KNOW what side of the bed you've been lying on'. The 1930s work, from Pillar to Post and elsewhere, is still excellent - a precise, droll anatomisation of English building styles, with the admirable aim of making the English actually think about their environment for once. The absurdities of each idiom are neatly pricked, from the 'Stockbroker Tudor' pile with its streamline moderne car, glamour girl and adjacent pylon (which, amongst other things reveals just how old postmodernism is); to the 'Functional Modern' interior where the Bauhaus aesthete (apparently based on Herbert Read) sits bow-legged on an Aalto stool, oblivious to the fact that his sun-window gives onto pissing rain rather than light-air-openness.

The later cartoons - for the likes of the Daily Express or Anthony Powell's epics of bourgeois manners, or for the theatre - still have a certain seedy charm, but are far less interesting. The architectural observations stay sharp, but elsewhere it all gets rather flabby. The lurid sexuality which pervades the prurient sketches of 'permissiveness' - a skirt never quite covers an arse, breasts always seem to be forcing themselves out of dresses - offers a few moments of interest, although they pale in comparison with the teeming, obsessive visions of Ronald Searle, whose angular lines the 1950s- works superficially resemble - and who is vastly more deserving of the exhibition's throwing around of the term 'genius'.  For a little while it's entertainingly inconsequential, but the (appropriate) placing of these loving sketches of the haute bourgeoisie in the setting of the Wallace collection wound me up to the point where the whole affair just became irritating, a faintly smug self-critique placed in the midst of an abundance of ancien regime opulence, as if to insist to us just how little the world has changed. Aren't we all just so eccentric. 'Dear old Blighty. So homemade.' What with the exhibition's titular reference to Robert Hamer's class war classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, you can't help but wish on the collection and its visitors the fate that meets those particular coroneted heads.


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