Design is not usually something that is shown at Timothy Taylor Gallery. But in the current show ‘The Tightrope Walker’, curators Emma Dexter and Oscar Humphries deftly combine art and design as a visual elaboration of their discussion about the particular spirit of the avant-garde in Paris after the Second World War. And in so doing, they also offer the London audience a rare opportunity to see some beautiful works from this period in a cohesive art-historic context.
Taking its name from an essay by Jean Genet, this elegant show’s starting premise is one that readily asserts post-occupation Paris’ pre-eminence as the hub of European intellectual and artistic life in the late 1940’s. Thinkers, artists, writers, philosophers and designers all flocked to the city and engaged in varying ways with trying to come to terms with the horror of war, the nazi occupation and its concomitant genocides that undoubtedly pushed European life into a new mindset demanding the abandonment of old values and visions.
As the exhibition amply demonstrates, many artists and designers sought to create private interior worlds in which simplicity and humanistic scale were a riposte to the bombastic and bellicose qualities of design in the preceding war-torn decade. A certain simplicity and organic lines replaced the angular forms of modernism tainted by its appropriation into the canon of design directed towards nationalistic and expansionist ends.
Similarly, artists looked to a certain spontaneity, coincidently shadowing the contemporaneous development of Abstract Expressionism that would ultimately become the signature of the post-war era on the other side of the Atlantic. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the work of Hans Hartung, a German-born immigrant who lost a leg fighting with De Gaulleʼs forces for his adopted homeland. Hartnung’s abstract works are meant to represent specific existential moments and are clearly akin to the movements that would confirm the New York art scene as an international centre of attention in the 1950’s.
Artists also looked to the natural world and primitive forms, seemingly untainted by the politics responsible for the horror of war and totalitarian states. This was something that was a kind of reprise of developments after the First World War where the heritage of the primitive aspect of Expressionism was drawn into idealistic new visions of a future after apocalypse.
Perhaps one of the key differences in the examples emanating from Paris in the 1940’s was that artists no longer drew these influences naively from an Orientalist or colonial set of references, but instead looked to the more primitive traditions arising on European soil. For example, the exhibited sculptor Germaine Richier looked to the folk traditions of Provence drawn from her childhood memories to develop her work.
In the case of the Parisian post-occupation developments, it was not only content and the style of painting itself that sought this primitive quality, but process and materials too. In the case of Jean Dubuffet, for example, it involved eschewing the traditional use of oil on canvas in favour of building up a textured surface by adding gravel, dust or even string to paint and then cutting his Art Brut-influenced images into the created surface in order to arrive at a painting.
The echoes of these ideas and approaches are equally present in the furniture and design objects arising from the city at the time. The show pays particular attention to designers and architects connected with Steph Simon’s gallery opened in 1957, showcasing the radical design work of ‘The Great Reconstruction’. Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Serge Mouille and Georges Jouve all share a certain vision for simplicity and an honest use of new materials that signifies a significant shift away from the pre-war vernacular. Materials become of particular significance.
For example, in case of Charlotte Perriand – no stranger to leather and chromed tubular metal during her collaborations with Le Corbusier- wood could even be taken as a subliminal rejection of the materials she originally championed as a pre-war modernist that were eagerly appropriated into Alber Speer’s décor for the Third Reich. Perriand’s own move to the more organic material of wood actually took place in the late 1930’s during the period in which the Nazis consummated their fusion with the identity of the German state.
It might be a little dramatic to suggest that Perriand’s shift towards the material represented a disillusion with what the industrial materials of modernism had acquired ideologically during the late 1930’s. But certainly, by the early 1950’s, it is clear to see that she, together with other designers and architects influenced by Parisian thinking of the era, saw in this organic traditional material a new opportunity for formulating a pro-social aesthetic that persevered the social tenets of modernism whilst freeing itself of associations with the contamination of its earlier aesthetics at the hands of fascist architecture.
The exhibition includes works by Anna-Eva Bergman, Bernard Buffet, Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung, Georges Jouve, Mathieu, Matégot, Serge Mouille, Alexandre Noll, Charlotte Perriand, Jean Prouvé and Germaine Richier. It will remain open to the public throughout August.