Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bob and Roberta Smith
Liverpool and the Avant-Garde
Liverpool and the Avant-Garde
Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde will feature some of the most important artists of the post-War era, including Keith Arnatt, Stewart Bale, John Baum, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Boyle Family, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Maurice Cockrill, Jeremy Deller, Rineke Dijkstra, Filmaktion, Adrian Henri, Candida Höfer, John Latham, Melik Ohanian, Yoko Ono, Martin Parr, Bob and Roberta Smith, Alec Soth, Sam Walsh, and Tom Wood.
Centre of the Creative Universe offers a unique account of Liverpool’s art scene over the past fifty years. Moving from the immediate post-war period to the present day, it explores how the city has inspired a diverse range of nationally and internationally renowned artists to create an external view of Liverpool and its people.
Creative Universe recognises Liverpool as a place of myth – both generated by its inventive inhabitants and envisaged from afar. Documenting as well as challenging myths of its creative scene, Liverpool is presented here as a world city with an enduring capacity to ignite imaginations. Alongside artworks that chart Liverpool’s rise as a centre of the 1960s global pop revolution, the exhibition explores how the city has also inspired documentary photography, politically motivated art and played host to avant-garde movements from Pop to Conceptual Art and beyond.
By presenting a dynamic interplay of external perceptions and creative influences, Liverpool is revealed as both inspiration and site for radical and unexpected artistic activity. The exhibition also highlights important personalities who functioned as catalysts in the city’s creative scene and bohemian life.
Post-war Liverpool was a place of austerity as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from his 1962 visit to the city attest. As a result of over sixty air-raids during the Blitz much of the city needed rebuilding after the war. Stewart Bale’s panoramic views made for the War Department display the extent of the devastation.
The city quickly got back to work however, delivery vans like those depicted by Bale being a common sight, and there was optimism for the future: looking out from the port, especially towards America. The Bale family originally came to Liverpool from Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. The firm’s photographs of cruise ships built by Cunard capture the glamour of ocean liner travel and the possibilities of a fresh start that immigration permitted.
Irish-born photographer Edward Chambré-Hardman, who ran a portrait studio on Rodney Street, pictures a city re-inventing itself in his personal work. His pictorialist style lends Liverpool a poetic grandeur in images such as Mount Street Snow Scene 1965 or Searchlight on Anglican Cathedral 1951, where an anti-aircraft spotlight is seen illuminating the Cathedral during the Festival of Britain.
The importance of the post-war emigrant community for reviving culture in Liverpool is highlighted by Gordon Fazakerley, who was an art student in the city in the mid 1950s. His own journey from Liverpool to first the ICA in London, and then on to the Scandinavian branch of the Situationist International demonstrates how far Liverpool travelled outwards both intellectually and literally.
In the 1960s a cultural revolution emerged from Liverpool. It was centred upon music and especially the Cavern on Mathew Street, as seen in Daniel Farson’s film Beat City 1963, and the photographs for German magazine Stern by Max Scheler and Astrid Kirchherr.
However, other art forms played an equal part, from fashion to theatre to poetry and the visual arts. Involved in many of these forms was Adrian Henri. Henri staged happenings and poetry events at the Cavern and Hope Hall, wrote poetry and painted pop paintings, such as The Entry of Christ into Liverpool 1962-4.
A key site for artists was Liverpool 8. Among the artists who lived and worked there were Henri, pop artist Sam Walsh, John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. This postcode came to signify a bohemian spirit as creative people came to visit and stay in the area. One famous visitor was Allen Ginsberg, who in 1965 proclaimed ‘Liverpool is at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe’.
Less well-known is the visit of German photographer Candida Höfer, who took some of her earliest exhibited images on a trip to experience the vibrant poetry scene in 1968. Höfer later studied with conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher who themselves visited Liverpool in 1966, capturing the Albert Dock in long-exposure shots.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s Liverpool was an important site for experimental art and happenings. Yoko Ono performed Concert of Music for the Mind and the premiere of The Fog Machine at the Bluecoat Gallery in 1967. Mark Boyle and Joan Hills also presented work at the Bluecoat that year, staging two psychedelic Son et Lumière performances. They later returned to the city in order to create large-scale casts of Herculaneum Dock for the Family Boyle’s Liverpool Series 1976, shown in the next room. These works were part of a massive Boyle Family project Journey to the Surface of the Earth, which involved various random selection techniques to isolate a rectangle of the Earth's surface, and then represent this slice of reality as objectively and truthfully as possible.
Keith Arnatt, who in 1968 buried several of his students up to their necks in the work Liverpool Beach Burial 1968, was one of a group of conceptual artists gathering around Liverpool College of Art, including figures such as abstract painter John Edkins and filmmaker Dave Clapham. Stephen Willats was a visiting lecturer at the art college when he devised the system-based artwork A Moment of Action 1974, originally shown at the Walker Art Gallery in 1974.
At the Walker the previous year was the week-long expanded cinema event presented by members of the London Filmmakers’ Co-operative. Under the group label of Filmaktion, a range of screenings, installations and workshops were instigated in order to examine and demystify the processes of cinema. John Latham’s 1969 performance work at the Blackie highlights the importance of this community-oriented arts centre for avant-garde art in the 1960s and 1970s. In an extract from a documentary film made by Roger Tucker for Granada in the same year, we see Latham dressed as a barrister using an electric saw to cut in half a book called The Christian Life.
Mark Boyle and Joan Hills began making earth studies in 1964 as part of their wider project to see and present reality objectively, often using random selection techniques to choose subjects and sites. They made Liverpool Dock Series in 1976 with their children Sebastian and Georgia. The work consists of seven earth studies and three water studies, the latter filmed with a high speed camera. The Boyle Family attempt to eliminate themselves as artists, to dispense with the ‘memories of places where we suffered joy and anguish or tenderness or laughter. We want to see without motive and without reminiscence this cliff, this street, this field, this rock, this earth.’ This work was first shown in the exhibition Real Life at the Walker Art Gallery in 1977.
In the week of 22 to 28 June 1973, a unique, unprecedented series of film screenings and events took place at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool under the title of Filmaktion. A group of British avant-garde filmmakers associated with the London Filmmakers’ Co-operative presented works infused with the political and cultural influences of the underground counterculture, calling into question existing notions of the cinematic viewing space and the role of the spectator. As William Raban noted in a letter to the Walker’s curator, ‘[F]or some of us who are using projection as part of the creative film process the conventional cinema is redundant.’ A selection of the material shown at the Walker in 1973 is re-screened here, including William Raban’s Filmaktion Timelapse, which, within the space of a single shot, condenses the week of activities into a few short minutes.
The 1970s saw the return of realist painting in Liverpool, as many influential artists in the city looked to American photorealist painting. John Baum, Maurice Cockrill and Sam Walsh – all at the time lecturing at the city’s art school – each adopted the style to varying degrees, yet still produced paintings depicting Liverpool.
Cockrill’s detailed façades of public buildings such as The Walker Art Gallery 1974-5 and Sudley 1974 draw upon the heightened mood in works by American painter Edward Hopper, establishing what Cockrill termed a ‘synthetic realism’. Welsh artist Baum’s painting of poet Roger McGough’s Sefton Park residence Windermere House 1972 imagines a Liverpool redolent of West Coast America, with verdant grass and perfect blue skies. In Five Girls 1973, Baum captures the conversation of his students outside the art college. As with the chatter we cannot hope to hear, we are always at a once-remove with Baum’s work. The artist hoped to ‘retain a gap between the onlooker and the painting, just as with the stage or cinema there is a gap between the onlooker and the performance.’
Sam Walsh, who had worked primarily in pop and abstract styles during the 1960s, had perhaps the loosest interpretation of the photorealist style. In The Dinner Party 1980, which can be seen as the artist’s response to Adrian Henri’s painting The Entry of Christ into Liverpool 1962-4, Walsh depicts his friends, including his bank manager, sitting down for a meal or ‘last supper’, devotional art in the collections of the Walker Art Gallery being a key influence for Walsh at this time.
In the 1980s Liverpool became the focus for a number of influential photographers. Martin Parr and Tom Wood both lived in Merseyside during the 1980s and photographed the city extensively. Parr created his acclaimed series The Last Resort 1983-6 in the faded seaside town of New Brighton. However, the works shown here by Parr include never-before seen views of Liverpool. They depict the city in decline, but also possessing a character of defiance embodied in its people.
Tom Wood for many years focused almost exclusively on Liverpool and Merseyside in his work, as in the two featured series here. The first series, taken at the Chelsea Reach nightclub in New Brighton offers an affectionate portrait of the exuberance of local youth, while the second series presents images taken on Liverpool buses, rich with pathos and inflected with the hopes and desires of Wood’s fellow passengers.
Birmingham-based photographer Vanley Burke regularly visited the black community in Liverpool. The images he produced show a city that had not changed significantly since the war, in much need of investment, and in many ways ostracised from the wider country as well as being divided within itself, problems that culminated in the media-dubbed ‘Toxteth Riots’ of 1981. Burke captures a city of grafitti, one where jumble sales take place on old bomb sites and a dog chews on a brick, yet also a city where the spirit of community shines through in street festivals.
Since the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1998 through to the inauguration of the city’s Biennial in 1999 and up to the present day, there has been an explosion of visual arts in the city to rival what occurred in the 1960s.
Interest in the city from artists based all over the world is reflected in some of the works here, such as French-Armenian Melik Ohanian’s film of a deserted Liverpool Dock during the 1990s strike, the study of young clubbers at The Buzz Club by Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra or American photographer Alec Soth’s portraits of modern Liverpudlians at locations including the Adelphi Hotel.
Neville Gabie’s photographic series of temporary goal posts dotted around the city highlight the significance of football for Liverpool’s global identity – he grew up a Red in South Africa – and also the capacity of Liverpool’s inhabitants to inscribe their own identity on the city. Meanwhile Anna Fox’s installation Mum in a Million 2003-6, first produced for the Further up in the Air 2001-4 project at Sheil Park, Kensington, celebrates the matriarchal make-up of Liverpool’s communities by gathering together flowers given on Mothers Day. Yet the all-encompassing nature of the repetitious pattern gives the installation a funereal overtone, a valedictory monument to the lost community of Sheil Park after the tower blocks were demolished.
The exhibition closes with a text painting and DVD by Bob and Roberta Smith, and a new commission from Jeremy Deller and Paul Ryan that addresses changes to Liverpool through the sites connected with The Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
Image: Keith Arnatt, Liverpool Beach Burial 1968 © Keith Arnatt
Talks and discussions
* Artist Talks: Imaging Liverpool: Rineke Dijkstra Wednesday 14 March 2007
* In The City: Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde Sunday 25 March 2007
* Artist Talks: Imaging Liverpool: Vanley Burke Wednesday 11 April 2007
* Artist Talks: Imaging Liverpool: Martin Parr Monday 16 April 2007
* City Walk: Liverpool 8: Darren Pih Saturday 12 May 2007 free
Supported by the Liverpool Culture Company as part of the city's preparations for European Capital of Culture 2008.
The Granada Foundation and P H Holt Foundation have supported all public events and educational activities that accompany the exhibition.
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4BB
Tuesday–Sunday 10.00–17.50 Closed Mondays (except Bank Holiday Mondays)