Tag: modernism

A tour around 2 Willow Road, home of Ernő Goldfinger

The flat-roofed 2 Willow Road.

The flat-roofed 2 Willow Road.

Architect Ernő Goldfinger’s  family home in Hampstead was built as a celebration of functionalism over aesthetics – and yet I was surprised to discover that parts of it did not work very well at all.

2 Willow Road, with its flat roof and large windows at odds with the elegant town houses around it, provides a fascinating insight into the life of a man whose name is said to have inspired Ian Flemming’s notorious Bond villain. Of course, he was also one of the major proponents of brutalist architecture and his uncompromising public housing projects, including Trellick Tower in Kensington and Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, proved controversial. His family home, built in 1939, was constructed around concrete cylinders and served as advert for his architecture practice and ideology.

My tour of 2 Willow Road begins inside the small hallway with institutional-style rubber flooring. There is little natural light but then people don’t normally spend much time in a hallway. We climb the spiral staircase and enter the open plan living room which, in contrast, is bright and spacious. Each detail has been meticulously conceived, with partitions to create separate rooms, large windows to let in light and even low chairs to ensure the road didn’t obstruct views of Hampstead Heath. Goldfinger and his wife Ursula were avid collectors of Modernist art and the walls are adorned with paintings by the likes of Max Ernst and Bridget Riley.

The kitchen, however, is mysteriously small and almost unfit for purpose, even though we are told the Goldfingers hosted regular parties. But just like the tower blocks he designed, it seems his home was also subject to shifting social forces; our guide told us that while the couple were socialists they nevertheless brought with them a small army of servants when they moved in. The servants worked downstairs in a larger kitchen, sending the food up to the smaller one in a dumb waiter. When the Second World War broke out, the servants went off to do war work, leaving Ursula to do the work. When part of the house was converted into flats, the family lost the large kitchen and had to make do with the small one upstairs.

Goldfinger outside the controversial Trellick Tower.

Goldfinger outside the controversial Trellick Tower.

Moving through the house, we stop to look at Goldfinger’s study area, which included a tool cabinet unceremoniously plonked on the wall, before entering the living room. Again, there are some fine examples of Modernist art and the garden once boasted a Henry Moore statue. One of the key features of the wall in a large wooden display ‘frame’ which allowed the Goldfingers to show off their vast collection of paintings in an ever-changing exhibition space. On the fireplace sits a chintzy clock which seems at odds with everything else in the house. We soon discover that it belonged to Goldfinger’s mother, who brought her decidedly bourgeois Austro-Hungarian furniture, ornaments and paintings with her when she moved into the family home. Upstairs, the sparsely decorated bedrooms offer few creature comforts but are designed to make maximum use of the space available.

As well as being an architect, Goldfinger was also an accomplished furniture designer who mixed natural materials with man-made ones and his pieces can be seen throughout the house. Simple yet practical, his designs would not look out of place in a modern home. My personal favourite was the elegant desk with a set of pivoting drawers, which echoes the concrete columns on which the house is built.

Like his own designs, 2 Willow Road is both resolutely functional yet also flawed. For all his meticulous planning, Goldfinger could not predict how human life changes; the tower blocks were built with optimism for a new way of living but soon became crime-ridden ghettos. In an ironic twist, Trellick and Balfron are both Grade II-listed buildings, with some of the flats being sold for almost £400,000.

2 Willow Road, which is run by the National Trust, is open Wednesday to Sunday, with hourly tours available. Further details are available via the website.

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In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre

Francis Bacon's Figuure in a Landscape. Credit: Tate

Francis Bacon’s Figuure in a Landscape. Credit: Tate.

Before the explosion of pop art of the 1960s, when the works of David Hockney and Peter Blake heralded a new era of optimism, British art went through a period of deep reflection as the nation began to come to terms with the devastation of the Second World War. This dark period, characterised by grimy industrial landscapes and introspective figures, forms the basis for a beautifully-curated exhibition called In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre.

Featuring an impressive collection of artists, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, it begins with a series of pieces which highlight how fresh the memory of war was in the 1940s and ‘50s. Auerbach’s Building Site, Victoria Street, London (1959) reminds that the post-War reconstruction was a protracted process. His thickly layered paint creates a viscous feel as if the city is slowly emerging out of the ashes.

Some of the pieces such as Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) references the human cost of war more overtly. It depicts a warrior laying on the ground in defeat which stands in contrast to the idea of the victorious soldier. With its distorted facial features and gaping holes, Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze statue Shattered Head (1956) evokes the physical and mental anguish of war. Meanwhile, Francis Bacon’s 1945 piece Figure in a Landscape, in which the figure is obscured by a black void, suggests a loss of identity though he is still discernible as a person. Blood-red flowers flicker in the background alluding to death on the battle field, poppies or Nazi uniforms.

Lucien Freud’s portraits – Head of a Girl, Head of a Woman and Portrait of Peter Watson – reveal inward-looking figures who appear to be carrying a heavy burden, although it is impossible to decipher what they are thinking.

The exhibition then moves towards a series of pieces where the connection with war is less obvious but its effects can nevertheless be felt. The pale, vacant faces of L.S. Lowry’s The Funeral Party (1957) references the austerity of the post-War years, while Josef Herman’s Evenfall (1948) is a startling study of a mining village in Wales where life continues despite the hardships people face.

Alongside In the Shadow of War, Lakeside is also hosting a complementary exhibition featuring photographs by Lee Miller. Miller worked with some of the most eminent artists of the early 20th century, including Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, she also worked as Vogue’s official photographer during the Second World War. This exhibition features some of the photographs she took during the Allied victory and her images include the liberation of the concentration camps, towns razed to the ground, the suicide of Nazi officials and Hitler’s mountain home in flames.

Looking at these pictures it is almost impossible to believe that Europe was able to rebuild itself following destruction on this scale. Miller’s subjects bear a look of relief but also extreme weariness; you can only imagine how she and the envoys felt as they uncovered the extent of the Nazi atrocities.

The two exhibitions take place ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War next year. Both are free to attend and run until 22nd February.

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D. H. Lawrence Festival: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at Lakeside Arts Centre

lawrence2This year’s D. H. Lawrence Festival came to a close last week with a performance of his 1911 play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at Lakeside Arts Centre. Drawing on many of the autobiographical themes that would haunt his later work, Lawrence gives us a terse account family breakdown and death in a Nottinghamshire mining community.

The play draws heavily on his earlier work, Odour of Chrysanthemums, a beautifully descriptive short story full of potent symbolism. The play is set in a dismal, rat-infested pit cottage. Lizzie Holroyd is waiting for her husband to come home – she has been told that he has been drinking at the pub and sure enough he comes home inebriated with a couple of bawdy women in tow.

But the following day, Lizzie learns that her husband has been killed in a pit accident and in the final scene she and her mother-in-law receive his body, wash it and dress it while lamenting where everything went wrong. But there are no clear resolutions; Mr Holroyd’s behaviour is of course difficult to stomach yet there is the suggestion that he is not entirely to blame for the disintegration of their marriage.

Although this was a rehearsed reading, with all the actors appearing script-in-hand, it was it was a gut-wrenching piece of theatre and all the actors put on passionate performances. The Nottinghamshire dialect was delivered accurately by all the actors, particularly the one who played the feckless Mr Holroyd. Although Lawrence is not widely-known for his drama this piece proves that he was an accomplished playwright who was able to create vivid characters and dialogue. Let’s hope we see it on stage again in the near future.

For details on what’s on at D. H. Lawrence Heritage in Eastwood visit the website.

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Notes on Carol Rama’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary

c2A busy summer has meant that I didn’t manage to get to Nottingham Contemporary’s Carol Rama exhibition until Eanna O Ceallchain’s Wednesday walk-through earlier this week. The tour was an exploration of Italian artist Rama’s work, in particular her ideas around formalism and physicality, as well as the literary influence of her friend, the avant-garde writer Edoardo Sanguineti.

The Rama exhibition follows on very neatly from the Contemporary’s previous one, Somewhat Abstract, which examined different degrees of abstraction in art. Rama, who was born in Turin in 1918, experimented with these techniques in the post-War years but it is her bricolage – pieces made using found or everyday objects – which are particularly striking. As Eanna explained during the walk-through, the objects ‘reach out’ towards us, adding a sense of the corporeal to her work. Rama was fascinated by both purely formal ideas, such as mathematical formulae, language, shapes and colour, but she punctuates her pieces with physical and grotesque objects such as glass eyes and animal claws.

Another recurring motif is the use of inner tubes, a reference to her father’s failed bicycle business which precipitated his suicide. They are used in her pieces about so-called Mad Cow Disease in which they represent udders, although in their dismembered state they also resemble other body parts like intestines. The idea of a physical disease such as this breaking down mental faculties and changing the abstract notion of what a person (or animal) is.

Rama’s earlier works are also included in this exhibition. The figurative pastel illustrations, full of whimsical and sexually-charged creatures, are stylistically different to her later work yet many of the themes are present. The autobiographical references, such as her mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital and her uncle’s business of making prosthetic limbs (disembodied parts), also indicate how her early interest in mental illness and body parts would recur again and again.

The exhibition, which runs alongside one featuring the works of Danh Võ, is on until 28th September. Entry is free. 

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True to form: Exploring Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares (1961).

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares.

Characterised by a departure from straightforward representations of reality and with an emphasis on formal attributes such as shapes, colour and dimensions, abstraction has arguably been the most dominant force in the art world for more than a century.

But of course there are varying degrees of abstraction and this idea is examined in Somewhat Abstract, an exhibition which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month. Drawn from the Art Council’s extensive collection, and spanning a period of 70 years, it showcases works by both modern masters such as Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Gilbert and George, along with less well-known artists.

Chilldren's Games, Heygate Estate.

Chilldren’s Games, Heygate Estate.

For me, the highlight of this exhibition was a series of artworks displayed in Gallery 1. Walk into the room and you are soon greeted by Bridget Riley’s 1962 painting, Movement in Squares in which she creates an optical illusion of movement using her trademark black and white geometric shapes. But there is the suggestion of something more sinister; the painting is followed by a number of pieces which examine post-War housing, including Mark Lewis’ 2002 film, Children’s Games, Heygate [a now demolished 1970s housing estate in the Elephant and Castle area of London]. In this piece, a camera glides almost hypnotically along the walkways and we see children playing against the backdrop of this concrete ghetto. The juxtaposition shows how the ideals of modernist art and functionalism, where architects designed ‘walkways in the skies’ to connect inhabitants living together harmoniously in perfectly planned communities, were never realised. Instead, the walkways, coupled with a lack of aesthetic beauty, created fractured communities which were blighted by crime and isolation: a far cry from the original utopian ideals.

Another remarkable piece in this exhibition is undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s Head VI. With echoes of Munch’s The Scream, the painting depicts a pope trapped inside a box with an agonised look on his face, evoking a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Yet while he is acutely aware of his circumstances, the children on the Heygate estate play on, seemingly unaware of their confinement inside this modern ghetto created by those in a position of power.

Somewhat Abstract is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 29th June. Entry is FREE. For further details, including information on talks, tours and other events, visit the website

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