The postwar public art that became a symbol of the British modernist dream

The postwar public art that became a symbol of the British modernist dream

It’s not hard to determine where fine art photographer Simon Phipps’ expertise lies. With previous publications entitled Brutal London, Finding Brutalism and even a Brutalist London map under his belt, one could say his subject is somewhat cast in concrete. For his latest book, Concrete Poetry, Phipps has diverted his discerning lens towards prominent postwar public art and sculpture across the UK.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain began rebuilding its fractured, rubble-ridden urban landscape and reestablishing societal morale. The hope of a new breed of citizen emerged, one that was community-minded, liberal and embraced the largely uncharted territory of communal living spaces.

This was a municipal renaissance: 27 new towns sprung up across the British Isles and existing city centres were revived and remodelled. With it came an era in which the function of publicly owned art came to the fore as symbols of creative democracy, emblems of Britain in the midst of progression and in the Phipps’ words, totems for ‘shared social experiences’.

Marking the first photographic examination of modernist sculpture within a brutalist context, the book both rejoices in and laments for work commissioned and created during this period, much of which has since been lost, vandalised or destroyed entirely. ‘Many of these works have a sense of “rightness” in their location,’ Phipps reflects in his introduction, ‘a feeling of belonging that can sometimes mean a certain invisibility, often as a result of a normality engendered over time.’

Untitled Sculpture, 1967, by Jim Barclay

Untitled Sculpture, 1967, by Jim Barclay. Baths Hill, East Kilbride, Glasgow. Unlisted. East Kilbride was the first of five postwar new towns designated to alleviate housing shortages in Scotland. It was planned with a comprehensive programme of modern buildings augmented by public sculpture. Photography: Simon Phipps

The author visually dissects the role of this sculptural revolution and in turn, recognises the tangible impact of these offerings on the wider socio-political landscape. From County Durham to Glasgow, down to Leicestershire and West to Cardiff, the author traces a broad litany of work found in the nooks and crannies of urban and suburban Britain. These include British-German designer Bernard Schottlander’s vibrant 2MS Series No. 4 (1970), a quartet of chromatically vibrant structures sliced at sharp angles in situ in the Fred Roche Gardens in Phipps’ native Milton Keynes.

With an untitled work in 1968, British architect Peter Womersley foreshadowed the impending postmodernist era with his linear geometry fused with semi-circular motifs. This was commissioned for the world’s first purpose-built organ transplantation unit, documented by Phipps in Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital.

Three Obliques (Walk-In) is a 1968 work by British sculptural doyenne Barbara Hepworth for Cardiff University’s School of Music. The artist deploys her signature ‘pierced forms’ in this this harmonious trio of bronze slabs – a structure that demands active engagement, or as Hepworth herself artfully advised, ‘You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ramrod and stare at it.’

Phipps has compiled yet another weighty tome deeper than aesthetics and broader than brutalism. One thing Concrete Poetry resoundingly reaffirms is that brutalist sculpture continues to be as divisive as it is entrenched in the familiar landscape of postwar Britain. §

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