Rhythm 69

David Mabb

(William Morris Block Printed Pattern Book, with Hans Richter Storyboard, developed from Richter’s Rhythmus 25 and Kazimir Malevich’s film script Artistic and Scientific FilmPainting and Architectural ConcernsApproaching the New Plastic Architectural System)

Rhythm 69 appropriates (and by this I mean it confiscates, deforms, transforms and re-contextualises) works by William Morris, Kazimir Malevich and Hans Richter. During their lives the work of these three artists was considered, in different ways, to be artistically and socially radical, but today their practices are seen as somewhat “dead” and lacking in critical potential. In Rhythm 69 I see if it is possible to create a new burst of energy and life out of their work.

Practical

            In 2004, Jennifer Harris, Curator of Textiles at the Whitworth Art Gallery, gave me a Morris & Co. 1960s block printed wallpaper sample book produced by Arthur Sanderson and Sons. I had just finished curating Ministering to the Swinish Luxury of the Rich at the Whitworth and the book was being donated to the Gallery, but the Whitworth’s collection already contained examples of the same book. Harris kindly asked the donor if she could give the book to me. I was really pleased since after displaying pages from a 1920s Morris pattern book in the Whitworth exhibition I had already decided I wanted to work with a pattern book. At the first opportunity I set about dismantling it and by sawing through three large rivets and extracting some very large staples that bound the book together I was able to remove each page, destroying the book and leaving three circular holes and numerous smaller gashes and tears down the left hand side. In displaying these signs of the book’s destruction, I was flagging the violence of the pages’ transition from their “collector’s item” status. I then glued the 69 pages of wallpaper in sequence onto separate canvases and painted images from a Hans Richter storyboard onto them, completing their destruction as objets d’art. During this process, I also painted a different ‘heritage’ Morris & Co. colour onto the border of each canvas in the order they appear on the Morris & Co. colour chart, which gives the work another sequence in addition to the wallpaper and storyboard. The ‘heritage’ colours’ modern “recreations” of Morris’s palate evoke the nostalgia with which Morris is often now associated; they contrast with the black, blue, green, red, orange and yellow acrylics used for the Richter storyboard, which still signify a form of Modernist contemporariness.

            The paintings can be hung in two different grid formats that bring forth different readings of the work. If the paintings are hung horizontally across the wall, the installation emphasises the bookness of the work as the pages are read left to right. However, if the paintings are hung vertically down the wall, the work is read from top to bottom and the hang emphasises the filmic qualities of the work. The decision as to  how to hang the work will be informed by the space and context in which it is to be hung. Either way, the formalist grid represents a rationalist order and discipline, which can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the regulative practices of industrialised society.

Historical

Morris

            William Morris thought that interior design had a fundamental role to play in the transformation of everyday life. This essentially political motivation―a commitment to the radical potential of design―is behind much of his work as a designer and craftsman and the setting up of Morris & Co. In English political life, he was known firstly as a member of the National Liberal League. As he moved leftwards he became a leading member of the Social Democratic Federation, and in 1883, he founded the Socialist League. This political work was an extension of his project of social transformation, as he increasingly recognised (with the help of Marx’s Das Kapital) that social change could not be achieved by design alone but required the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist industrial society by the organised working class.

            Morris’s designs constituted a radical break with the orthodoxy of neo-Gothic of his time. They are highly schematised representations of nature, where it is always summer and never winter; the plants are always in leaf, often flowering, with their fruits available in abundance, ripe for picking, and with no human labour in sight. This is a Utopian vision, an image of Cokaygne―but one easily acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Today his work is seen as safe and comfortable, and his wallpaper and fabric designs are widely reproduced in machine printed form. They can be found in an array of domestic environments and uses, from furnishings in the bourgeois and conservative semis of middle England, to the Willow Boughs tea towel my grandmother used to have in the kitchen of her council house, to the mugs with crude Morris patterns transferred onto them in my local ‘greasy spoon’ in New Cross.

            Although a form of democratisation of Morris’s designs, their wide availability is also a debasement, as a compromise is made whereby what Morris called “beauty” is sacrificed for cheapness. These mugs and tea towels would have horrified Morris. He opposed industrialised production for both political and aesthetic reasons, and researched Medieval forms of manufacture that used traditional craft skills, which he then developed to the highest technical standards; ironically, of course, this meant that only the wealthiest could afford his work.

            The seeming contradictions between his designs, the economics of production and his political project are exemplified in the block printed wallpaper pattern book. It shows Morris’s individually handcrafted wallpapers which are still produced, now retailing for between £600 to £800 per roll, depending on the complexity of the pattern― rather expensive compared to the contemporary machine-produced equivalent. The pattern book presents each wallpaper cut down to a 15” x 19” page, irrespective of the individual patterns’ repeats; it functions as a miniature shop display that can be borrowed and taken home, from which middle class customers can browse, select and purchase wallpapers for their homes. This book is the point where Morris’s handcrafted wallpaper enters the marketplace.

Malevich

            In the years leading up to the Russian revolution, Kazimir Malevich’s experiments in painting led avant-garde artists into pure abstraction, a language of geometric forms that rejected any recognition of nature. The works he called “Suprematist” are based on the idea of painterly realism as opposed to painterly illusionism. He was concerned with the material properties of art as its primary content, seeing painting as a thing in its own right―a radical materialist concept. Later, Malevich seemed to see no contradiction between broadly supporting the revolution and developing his own form of Utopian mysticism, as he and his followers dreamed of overcoming gravitational forces for an ascent into the infinity of the cosmos. These ideas seem eccentric now, but aeroplanes had just been invented and workers had overthrown the state; anything seemed possible. This has enabled viewers of Malevich’s Suprematist work to see it as materialistic and spiritual simultaneously, a dualism which remains of interest to critics today.[1]

            Malevich’s three-page film script Artistic and Scientific Film – Painting and Architectural Concerns – Approaching the New Plastic Architectural System was produced for Hans Richter in 1927, after he had seen Richter’s work at the Bauhaus and recognised its similarity to his own early Suprematist paintings. In this script Malevich uses written notes to set out a historical narrative that leads directly to Suprematism. He follows this with a mixture of written notes and drawings to represent some of his earliest Suprematist paintings, in order to illustrate his ideas for an “artistic-scientific” film[2] in anticipation of his collaboration with Richter.

Richter

            Hans Richter was one of the originators of experimental avant-garde film, producing the abstract films Rhythmus 21 and 25, but he was also a painter, sculptor and writer who was influential in many Modernist developments including Expressionism, Constructivism and Surrealism.  He was a participant in the short-lived Bavarian Republic of Workers Councils as Chairman of the Action Committee of Revolutionary Artists, a position for which he was sentenced to five years imprisonment. I make a point of this in order to demonstrate the association of revolutionary politics with abstract avant-garde art. Such a claim might seem rather fanciful now given the co-option of abstract art during the cold war, and given that it is now sold on the art market as an utterly harmless accessory to designer living; but the association was strong at the time.

Malevich and Richter

            It is unclear to what extent, if ever, Malevich and Richter actually collaborated. Kent Mitchell Minturn suggests that they were working together in 1927 to develop a film from Malevich’s script.[3] But, according to Margarita Tupitsyn,[4] it is not clear if Richter was aware of Malevich’s script in 1927, or only encountered it when it was first published in Germany in 1962. For Rhythm 69 I have used storyboards drawn by Richter in 1970 for a proposed but never completed animated film[5]. They were developed from Richter’s own very similar drawing for Rhythmus 25 (1925)[6] and Malevich’s script, and synthesised the concerns of Richter’s earlier abstract Rhythmus films and drawings and Malevich’s Suprematism.

            Richter’s 1970 drawings, unlike Malevich’s script, are more conventional storyboards with images running down the pages vertically in strips, in imitation of frames from a reel of film. Many of the individual drawings or frames in the storyboard are formally very daring. There are examples of extreme marginal composition, large vacant spaces and single vertical strips as well as different sized squares, circles, rectangles and crosses. They look a lot like American Avant-Garde painting and sculpture of the 1950s and 60s, which at the time had begun to be associated with the values of American freedom and democracy during the cold war. This renewed currency might perhaps indicate a reason why Richter returned to his earlier Rhythmus work; it again looked contemporary. In the context of 1970s America these images would probably have been read very differently, no longer being associated with the radicalism of 1920s Europe.

Rhythmical

            My title Rhythm 69 borrows from the early works of Richter; his Rhythmus series were numbered after the years in which they were produced. The number 69 was arrived at by the number of wallpaper samples in the pattern book, but it can also be interpreted as a sexual innuendo, suggesting the form of dialogue between Morris’s now safe, comfortable and conservative patterns and the now safe, comfortable and conservative politics associated with the abstract images in the Richter storyboard. I sometimes painted the Richter images over Morris’s leaves, fruits and flowers, leaving the background of the design to show through; at other times I painted onto the background of the design, letting the leaves, fruits and flowers show through. In either case, the Morris pattern is always allowed to emerge through the overlaid Richter image. The decisions were made according to what would most effectively draw Morris’s and Richter’s designs into dialogue, resulting in an unstable picture space that is never fixed, and in which Morris’s patterns and Richter’s formalist Modernism never fully merge or separate. As a result, a charge of energy is produced that supersedes and resuscitates the corpses of Morris’s and Richter’s works―which, of course, makes me Frankenstein and Rhythm 69 a beautiful monster.

A version of this paper was first given (alongside a PowerPoint presentation which sequentially showed each painting from Rhythm 69) at the William Morris Research Seminar, University of Northampton, 2007.



[1] See T J Clark, “God is not Cast Down” in Farewell to an Idea. New Haven:Yale University Press,1999, 254.

[2] An English translation can be seen in Oksana Bulgakowa, ed. Kazimir Malevich, The White Rectangle: Writings on Film. Berlin and San Francisco: Potemkin Press, 1997, 51-58. A reproduction of the original script appears in Margareta Tupitsyn. Malevich and Film. New Haven:Yale University Press, 2002, 58-59.

[3] Kent Mitchell Minturn. “Seeing Malevich Cinematically.” Art Journal. December 22, 2004.

[4] Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film. Op. cit., 62, 89, 91.

[5] The drawings are reproduced in Tupitsyn. Op. cit., 90.

[6] The drawing is reproduced in Stephen C. Foster ed. Hans Richter: Activism, Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: MIT Press.1998, 87.
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