Show Hide image

Mass market modernism

<strong>London Transport Posters: a Century of Art and Design</strong>

David Bownes and Oliver Gre

Patrons of art, from the de' Medici to Charles Saatchi, tend to be faintly dubious plutocratic individuals. Yet in the middle of the 20th century, London Transport, under the enlightened despotism of its managing director, Frank Pick, was perceived as a new kind of patron: the newly nationalised bureaucracies as heir to the taste-setting authority of the 18th-century aristocracy. Nikolaus Pevsner compared Pick to Lorenzo the Magnificent, but he was a stranger figure than that: a canny businessman and yet, according to Herbert Read, "as much a socialist as I was", a patron of modern art at a time when it was ridiculed and marginalised, who would reject it in the late 1930s after being scandalised by surrealism.

Between the wars, Pick's aesthetic authority over the capital's transport system led to an attempt at bridging the divide between art and life, a late outbreak of the Arts and Crafts impulse to reform the aesthetics of the everyday. In fact, according to the American academic Michael T Saler in The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground, Pick's London was Britain's equivalent of the great Continental avant-garde movements, sharing their desire to revolutionise the mundane. If Russia had constructivism, the Netherlands De Stijl and Germany the Bauhaus, Britain had the Tube, transformed into a Gesamtkunstwerk through architecture, sculpture, industrial design and, most of all, the poster. Consequently, this copiously illustrated anthology of essays on the London Transport poster should, in theory, have the status of some new monograph on 1920s art, rather than being just a volume for transport enthusiasts. That it will be read more by the latter than by art or design students is a measure of failure.

Even though it promises "a century of art and design", this is almost entirely a book about Pick's organisation, with an opening dedication to his memory, and with relatively little about the posters as they developed after his death in 1941. To contemporary eyes, the most curious element of Pick's total transport artwork must be the enlisting of artists for something so apparently unartistic. Rather than independent works of art that then had a commercial message imposed upon them, these posters had their utilitarian aspect built in. This is a hall of mirrors where Graham Sutherland implores the commuter to take a refreshing trip to the country, ászló Moholy-Nagy shows you how an escalator works, and Edward Wadsworth recommends you visit the Lord Mayor's Show. It isn't just these great artists who provide the aesthetic interest, but a raft of in-house designers - Edward McKnight Kauffer, Austin Cooper, Herry Perry - churning out suburban vorticism. This, as Roger Fry pointed out at the time, meant that artworks which would have caused consternation at the Royal Academy were not just publicly tolerated, but actively enjoyed when put to seemingly utilitarian uses.

The book charts a very gradual decline. Some of the later posters by Abram Games or William Roberts are as fine as the more famous interwar work, but you can already see the unified aesthetic starting to fall apart: the distinctive Johnston Sans typeface isn't used so often, a certain eclecticism is setting in, and the avant-gardes of the 1960s were almost wholly ignored by London Transport, barring a couple of rather cute pop art posters. By the 1970s the company was reduced to hiring outside advertising agencies. When art returned to the Underground in the 1980s, it was in the form of paintings with no particular utilitarian aim - while an artist of Moholy-Nagy's stature had to sell season tickets, the paintings of a lesser light such as Howard Hodgkin were turned into prestige posters.

So, while the Tube as Gesamtkunstwerk continued, as proven by outbreaks of brilliance such as Eduardo Paolozzi's mid-1980s mosaics at Tottenham Court Road, or the superlative Jubilee Line extension of the late 1990s, fine art was no longer a central element. The book shows a division between Platform for Art, Transport for London's sporadically successful programme of art installations, and utilitarian posters that, for the most part, parody the 1930s. This applies even when artists are hired: banal recent posters by Liam Gillick, Bob and Roberta Smith and others communicate little more than TfL's unformed taste. In the age of Saatchi, this divide can't be because artists are more hostile to commerce. At a time when fine artists are largely uninterested in making actual objects - let alone "useful" ones - their every alleged contribution to the commonweal has to be trumpeted, as in those public art projects adjacent to PFI buildings which explain to you in great detail just what the artist is trying to do here. London Transport was once uninterested in this kind of window dressing - instead, it imagined a bureaucracy itself as a work of art, something beautifully and intelligently documented in this book.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?