Narrative of Creativity

The 1930s desire for the tabula rasa, for an erasing of historical memory, is eloquently prefigured by earlier happenings at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square: “’When Charles Holmes became director of the National Gallery 80 years ago [1924], he hated its ornate, Victorian decor. And, like a new home-owner keen on a clean sweep, he got rid of it. Whitewash obliterated the intricate decorative scheme of JD Crace, interior designer to 19th century royalty and aristocracy. Sheets of white and grey marble were mounted on top of the original green and pink in the imposing entrance hall. Every hint of late Victoriana was wiped out. … This rather ornate opulent interior was done in the 1880s and then Charles Holmes becomes director in the 1920s and didn’t like Victorian things and just got rid of it all,’ said Charles Saumarez Smith, current head of the NG.”
The Independent, 14 June 2004, p16, ‘A Victorian masterpiece emerges from beneath the whitewash’, by Louise Jury.

In 1931, Salvador Dali produced The Persistence of Memory in which slithery clocks drape themselves over surrealist forms. In the chronology I have suggested, this marks the moment of subduction, when conscious mourning failed, the Great Depression set in, and the subconscious began its journey towards reconstitution of itself through memory. It is as if historical time is melting away and memory is insisting on itself.


Five years later, in 1936, the English poet WH Auden commands:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.

In the same year, one of the founding fathers of the Modern Movement, Walter Gropius, flees Nazi Germany for London. He moves into the Lawn Road flats in Hampstead. Concrete, pared down, white, surrounded by Victorian red-brick bourgeois homes.

The destruction of the past was gathering pace around him, as the fate of the English country house showed. “If [economic change] predicted the end of the country house as a fulcrum of power and society before 1914, few realised it during that last hot glorious Indian summer of civilization. All those heirs who sipped their gin and lime on lawns bathed in sunshine were to be mown down like blades of grass on the fields of Picardy or the beaches of Gallipoli. … Can one comprehend what this means? … The country house blitz from 1920 to 1955 [barring WWII] accounted for an average of 13 houses a year. The ‘20s, ‘30s, late ‘40s and early ‘50s are black decades in our architectural history. Month after month occurred that dreadful series of demolitions and smash-ups. … We had no national pride then and this artistic destruction will long remain a reproach on the English conscience. It was comparable to the Reformation, and the sadness is that it was not necessary.” Strong, R, Binney, M, Harris, J (1974) The Destruction of the Country House. Thames and Hudson, London, p16.

The architecture critic Jay Merrick has summed up the early British Modern Movement by starting with Patrick Gwynne’s The Homewood, in south-west London. Built in 1938, he writes that it “reeks of the ‘hermetic individualism’ of early British Modernism.
“The Homewood is part of the birth of the British Modernist cool that spooled out the design codes and the vibe – a ‘poetic strangeness’ as the historian Alan Powers put it – that turned hundreds of fillets of Britain’s towns, cities and countryside into architectural and artistic hot-spots. The mid-1930s, thanks to champagne socialists and an influx of European architects, was when the British Modernist movement took root.
“British Modernism’s ground-zero moment came in an unlikely place, when Peter Behrens designed and built New Ways at 508 Wellingborough Road, Northampton, in 1925. He wasn’t kidding. The house was a tabula rasa affront to an Edwardian Britain startled by the General Strike, baffled by ‘traffic lights’ at Piccadilly Circus, and smugly assured by the tasteful Finsbury Circus of Lutyens. New Ways wasn’t political though. Nor was it part of a radical architectural project. By the time of Gwynne, Modernist architecture had been hot-wired by the tenets of the Bauhaus schools of design, whose diktats sought to rid buildings of any decoration or ‘language’ that suggested a social hierarchy. The result: pared-down architecture, often almost detail free, lots of glass and stucco, a sense of flowing horizontality in reinforced concrete. Here was health and efficiency for the masses, a technically experimental and, sometimes, utterly graceful architecture. Britain’s take on this new, ‘scientific’ architecture was often brilliant but it sent mixed messages. By 1933 there were only 39 so-called International Style houses in Britain. Exclusivity, rather than equality, was the deal … All 600 Modernist houses are part of an extraordinary Modernist distillate that was once shocking and original – and then something to rebel against, if not despise. Cue the so-called New Brutalism.”
Independent on Sunday, 18 January 2004. Jay Merrick on the Homewood.

In music, one can see parallels with the architects’ tabula rasa in the emergence of figures such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern. Their music’s wholesale jettisoning of time-worn forms played its part in the new mood. The music critic Norman Lebrecht (Evening Standard, 7/8/2005) wrote of Webern: “To composers coming of age in post-war Europe, he was the perfect hero and patron saint: a composer who liquidated the cultural past with a clinical solution, his death an act of martyrdom” [reminiscent of Proust's surrender to the demands of his cork-lined room]. Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ 4th Symphony, written in 1930-35, is both derived from his horrific experiences in Flanders and prefigures the rise of Hitler. Adrian Boult said, on VW’s death, that “he had foreseen the whole thing”. As such, the 4th is rooted in unresolved conflict – it’s grinding dissonance was a shocking departure for the composer – while looking to the future darkly.

1943: Ayn Rand publishes The Fountainhead, a novel that follows the career of an egoistic architect, Howard Roark, loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright. In thrall to the idea of the great man who bestrides his world like a creative godhead, Rand’s thinking, which she collated into a theory called Objectivism, fitted with the post-Great War weakness for dictators and gurus. Her novel could as easily have been fitted around Hitler or Stalin, Le Corbusier or Freud, as around Wright. Serendipitously, the last line could have been written of Le Corbusier’s end, by drowning, in 1965: “Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.”

Confirmation of the withering away of historical time comes when Samuel Beckett writes En Attendent Godot in Paris in 1949 (first produced in English in London in 1955 as Waiting for Godot). In a wasteland reminiscent of no-man’s-land, or TS Eliot’s poem, Estragon and Vladimir are condemned to being trapped in an eternal present, unable to remember what has happened in fifty years but still held in thrall to what might have gone before, if only they could remember.