By Francis Bamford
Concepts of liberty have been debated by political theorists, psychologists and artists for hundreds of years. This final exhibition room explores matters including revolution, the emancipation of women, Postcolonialism and the American dream, and how artists have considered and represented these ideas, as well as looking at the influence of the Liberty & Co. brand on art and architecture since its founding in 1875.
Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People (1830)
Oil on canvas, Collection of the Louvre, Paris
Eugène Delacroix’s painting has become the definitive depiction of violent, anarchic and ecstatic revolution. However, it is not a record of the French revolution of 1789, but of the Paris uprising in July 1830, known as the Trois Glorieuses ("Three Glorious Days") that led to the removal of Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France. Whilst his reliance on royal commissions prevented him from taking part directly in the rebellion – which saw middle- and working-class citizens barricading the streets and fighting the royal army – the artist may have been moved by the hoisting of the tricolore flag to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, evoking a nostalgia for the Napoleonic era. Delacroix, a man who was sincerely impassioned by Liberty, takes the role of a bystander, writing to his brother in October 1830: ‘I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her’. Delacroix was, as Jonathan Jones puts it, was ‘a disciple of the Baroque energy of Rubens’, and Liberty Leading the People is the heir to Eighteenth Century history painting, a romantic’s vision of glorious revolution. The painting was completed by December 1830, and first exhibited at the 1831 Salon, alongside 23 other revolution-inspired works.
The power of Liberty Leading the People comes from Delacroix’s vigorous, expressive brushwork, and use of a strong pyramidal composition, with the corpses along the base forming a pedestal on which the victors are supported. The allegory of Liberty has a Greek profile and straight nose with a yellow dress reminiscent of classical drapery, yet she is no idealised goddess. Her dress has slipped to reveal her breasts and muscular neck, and Delacroix divided critics by painting her underarm hair and greasy skin. She is mighty and colossal, but this sensationalistic interpretation of a very human Liberty – holding her red, white and blue flag which unfurls like a torch towards the light – a beacon of hope amongst struggle. The artist references classical figures such as Hector, the Homeric hero (here shown on the bottom left with arms outstretched and trousers missing) or the Phrygian cap on the head of Liberty, anchoring this struggle in history, yet the towers of Notre Dame – the symbol of French Romanticism, as established by Victor Hugo – situates the scene in contemporary Paris. To the right of Liberty is a boy reminiscent of Gavroche, Victor Hugo’s rebellious urchin, wearing the beret usually worn by students and brandishing pistols in each hand, and on the left is a bohemian – perhaps Delacroix or one of his friends – with his top hat skewed to one side, clutching his weapon. This is an energetic and frantic image of revolution, yet the red, white and blue of the Tricolore flag echoing around the composition creates a sense of unity in the churning chaos of bodies and smoke.
The Style Liberty (also known as the Stile Floreale or Stile Moderne) was a style of decorative art and architecture which flourished from around 1900 to 1914. It was particularly prominent in the Italian cities of Palermo, Milan and Turin, who were keen to establish a cultural identity distinct from Rome. It took its name from Arthur Lasenby Liberty, founder of the Liberty department store in London, which specialised in importing exotic ornaments, art and textiles from the Far East, bringing in a vogue for the decorative linear patterns of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. This Italian variant of the Art Nouveau style (seen at the Turin International Exposition of 1902) took inspiration from the British Arts and Crafts movement; the organic, sinuous lines of French and Belgian designers such Hector Guimard and Victor Horta; and the Italian Baroque – combining this with original sculptural forms and an eccentric use of colour. British Art Historian, Sir Kenneth Clark described the principles of the Stile Liberty’s as ‘a hunger for adventurous movement… the concepts of nature, liberty, change, power and emotion as an end in itself’.
Pietro Fenoglio designed what is now known as the Casa Fenoglio-Lafleur (after the French businessman who later bought it) in 1902 as a residence and studio for himself. It is located on the edge of Turin’s old town, at the intersection of the Corso Fancia and Via Principi d’Acaja, where the main entranceway is placed. The house – which also served for much of the Twentieth Century as an orphanage – is made up of threes floors with an attic story and a garden terrace at the back. Ornament is abundant, perhaps to the point of excess, and the building is wrapped up in phytomorphic shapes: intricate wrought iron balconies, bow windows with polychromatic glass, and the distinctive stone carving on the oriel window, creating a building that in many ways echoes the aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelites. Crowning the tower is a delicate glass canopy, or aedicule, reminiscent of Guimard’s Paris Metro stations. Despite the expressive and seemingly eclectic nature of the design, Fenoglio designed all the features of the house, from the beautiful sculptural doorways and staircase, to the cast iron radiators, ensuring a sense of balance between individual self-expression and stylistic coherence.
Galileo Chini: Fruit Bowl with Fishes and Roses (1906/1925)
Polychrome majolica and lustres, d: 36 cm, h: 23 cm, Robertaebasta Gallery, Milan.
The Italian painter and ceramicist, Galileo Chini (1873-1956) produced some of the finest earthenware pottery and fresco paintings of the Stile Liberty. He taught decorative arts and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and in 1897 set up his first workshop called ‘L’arte della ceramica’ there with his partner Vittoria Giunta. As well as producing ceramics, Chini was great friend of the opera composer Giacomo Puccini, designing sets for the European premiere of Gianni Schicchi in Rome in 1919, and the world premiere of Turandot in Milan in 1926. He was also in demand as a muralist, and his work can be found in Brandini Chapel at Castelfiorentino, the church of San Francesco de' Ferri in Pisa, and the Palace of the King of Siam in Bangkok, where he lived from 1911 to 1913.
This bowl was designed between 1906 and 1911, and made between 1919 and 1925. It has the marking ‘Chini and Co. Mugello’, the name of the small factory he set up with his cousin in 1902. It has a hemispherical body over a large base, with peacock feathers and roses in groups of five in the centre, and a wreath around the edge. It is a beautiful piece with rich colours and nature-inspired decoration that shows the influence of early tin-glazed earthenware, far eastern pottery and the paintings of Art Nouveau artists such as Gustav Klimt.
James Abbott McNeil Whistler: Three Figures – Pink and Grey (1868-78)
Oil on canvas, Tate Collection
The artists and designers known as the Pre-Raphaelite circle changed the face of Victorian fashion, rejecting the restrictive clothing worn by women for much of the Nineteenth Century designed to create a uniform female shape and instead emphasising elegant, flowing dresses with loose waistlines. This was accelerated with designer and social activist William Morris’ Art and Crafts movement and the opening of the Liberty store in 1861 and 1875 respectively, bringing in a greater emphasis on natural decoration, materials and skills, as well as influences from the Far East. These new and unconventional fashions liberated women, questioning their position in society and challenging conventional ideas of female beauty. The artists behind these trends became known as the Aesthetic Movement.
Three Figures – Pink and Grey derives from one of six oil sketches produced in 1868 as part of the plan for a frieze, commissioned by the Liverpool ship owner F.R. Leyland. Only one work, The White Symphony: Three Girls was finished, but later lost. This painting was intended to replace the lost one, and closely follows the original sketches – though a number of pentimenti indicate that it is not simply a reproduction of the lost piece. Though three women are depicted tending to a blossoming cherry tree, the focus is primarily on colour and atmosphere, a ‘harmony’ of pink and grey, punctuated by the brighter pink of the flowers, the red of the pots and bandanas, and the turquoise wall in the background. Like the sketch, there is elegantly depicted drapery, though the women are effectively disrobed due to the diaphanous nature of the dresses. As was fashionable with the aestheticists, Whistler includes deliberate signs of Japonisme, notably the cherry tree and the parasol held by the right-hand figure, and one can also see how the composition is partitioned like a Japanese screen.
Grayson Perry: Flo Liberty Fabric (2008)
Print on Liberty Tana Lawn cotton, Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden
Turner Prize winning artist, Grayson Perry CBE RA, is best known for his ceramic vases which often take classical forms but are decorated with witty, nostalgic or angry depictions everyday life. His work tackles subjects including identity, gender, social status, sexuality and religion, with autobiographical references relating to his childhood and experiences with transvestism. His pots feature sgraffito drawings, texts, photographic transfers and rich glazes in complex and eclectic compositions, using a conservative medium to convey dark and challenging ideas. Similarly, in his tapestries, Perry uses a grand art form associated with myths, religion and battle scenes to depict the dramas of life in Britain.
In 2008, Perry was invited to design prints for the Liberty Department Store in London, whose fabrics he had used to make dresses for his female alter-ego, ‘Claire’. There are four designs in four colourways: ‘Cranford’ (after the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Novel), ‘Philippa’ (after his wife), ‘Sissy’, and ‘Flo’ (after his daughter). The Flo Liberty Fabric shows hell in toyland, featuring bare allotments, windmills, dollies, teddies and prams, cars and aeroplanes, polluting factories, burning houses and gravestones. It was inspired by a Japanese screen, but Perry replaced the attractive cloud patterns with neon pink oil slicks that swamp the scene. This is a cruel and sardonic take on the attractive, decorative – ‘prissy’ as Perry describes them – designs often associated with Liberty fabrics. Perhaps this is fashion for less innocent times?
Pablo Picasso: Deux femmes courant sur la plage – la course (Two women running on the beach – the race) (1922)
Gouache on plywood, Musée Picasso, Paris
Picasso’s figures jostle with each other in this chaotic and confusing display of energy and freedom. The title suggests that we are witnessing a race, yet it is not clear who is winning. The nearest figure is the smallest, and the left foot of the larger figure is closer to the pictorial plane meaning that she appears to be at once in front of and behind her rival, completing the whole race in a single giant leap.
When working for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Picasso spent time observing and drawing the dancers, one of which, Olga Khokhlova, he married in 1918. This small gouache painting was enlarged and put on the curtain for the ballet Le Train Bleu (1924) by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud and featuring costumes by Coco Chanel. These women are probably inspired by sea bathers that Picasso saw when he travelled to Dinard with Olga and his son Paul in the summer of 1922, and they are wearing the knee length bathing costumes that were new and fashionable at the time. However, there is also a clear reference to the Maenads, or Bacchantes, the female followers of Dionysus. The Maenads enter into a trace in the woods that makes them run and dance furiously, and indeed, Deux femmes courant sur la plage shares many characteristics with the Prado Museum’s Roman copies of Greek reliefs, dating from the 5th Century B.C, which depict the Dance of the Maenads. In both pieces, we see women with breasts exposed and heads at dramatic angles, running and dancing and a confused tangle. The figures in Picasso’s painting are both the powerful and mysterious females of ancient mythology, and the liberated, emancipated women of the 1920s, and though this work is in a neoclassical (and so arguably more conservative) style, it is very much emblematic of the confident and progressive nature of its time.
Wifredo Lam: Nativité (1947)
Oil on hessian, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Wifredo Lam was the postcolonial Surrealist, creating art that addressed his own multicultural heritage, social justice and spirituality during some of the most turbulent times in modern history. He was born in Sagua La Grande in Cuba to Ana Serafina Castilla, the daughter of a former slave mother, and Yam Lam, a Chinese immigrant. Lam studied painting at the Escuela de Bellas in Havana, before moving to Madrid in 1923, where he continued his studies with Fernando Alvarez de Sotomayor, Director of the Museo del Prado (and teacher of Salvador Dalí). In 1929, he married Eva Piriz, though she and his young son both died of tuberculosis two years later, which may explain the dark palette of much of his later work. Lam’s early paintings are heavily influenced by Surrealism, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, with whom he became friends following a move to Paris in 1938. The same year, he also travelled to Mexico, staying with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. However, it was Picasso that had the most significant impact on Lam, introducing him to some of the leading European artists including Fernand Léger, Georges Braque and Joan Miró, as well as encouraging his interest in traditional African art. Following a brief escape to Marseille at the start of the Second World War, Lam returned to Havana with fellow Surrealists André Breton, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Victor Serge to find that the descendants of slaves were still suffering oppression, and their culture exploited for the sake of tourism.
Nativité is part of a series of works that explore the myths and rituals of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion that grew out of slavery in which Yoruba beliefs merge with elements of Roman Catholicism. Lam’s paintings of this period are characterised by the presence of part human, part animal and part vegetal forms, reflecting his interest in tropical plants, traditional African imagery, and the influence of Surrealism and Cubism. The horse-woman, snake and bird in Nativité were popular subjects with the Surrealists, and the sombre palette with sharp, fragmented, ‘primitive’ forms foreshadows his later work.
Ed Ruscha: Standard Station (1966)
Screenprint on commercial buff paper, 1/50 (MoMA, New York City)
The phrase ‘American Dream’ was coined by James Trunslow Adams, who defined it in his 1931 bestseller The Epic of America as ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’. However, for many it manifested itself as the ‘consumerist idyll’ – the land of personal and – crucially – economic liberty.
Ed Ruscha describes himself as an ‘abstract artist… who deals with subject matter’, and is often associated with the Pop Art movement. His vibrant style combines words, images, objects and landscape in a ironic, witty and sinister ways, often referencing commercial illustration and comic books. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Ruscha focused on more traditional print-making techniques such as screenprint, lithography and etching, and he has completed more than 300 prints and 20 artist books to date.
Gasoline Station is perhaps Ruscha’s most iconic work, a tribute to a banal feature of the American vernacular landscape. He began his exploration of the subject in the artist’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), which was indeed a series of monochrome photographs of exactly that, taken along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. Next to each photograph was a caption indicating the brand and location, but there was otherwise no text – the artist saying ‘I want absolutely neutral material. My pictures are not that interesting, nor the subject matter’. Ruscha wanted to create a cheap, mass produced commodity (deliberately making re-prints to keep the value down) with a sober design and deliberately mundane images, a humorous response to the highly aestheticized photography of the first half of the Twentieth Century, and a combination of the literal nature of early Pop Art with minimalist notions of seriality. This project culminated in the painting Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, a monumental work where any roadside clutter and human presence that might give some specificity to the image has been removed, and the ‘Standard’ brand illuminated by three beams of light – reminiscent of klieg lights – against a uniform black background. There is great irony in the use of the ‘Standard’ brand, as although the title indicates the location of this gas station, it has been reduced to a moveable, interchangeable icon, a standard piece of roadside architecture. This screenprint, based on the painting, features the dramatically foreshortened gas station receding into the bottom left corner to create a strong diagonal line, a trademark of Ruscha’s work. The background of seamlessly blended blues and oranges, like a warm, smoggy Texas sunrise, was one of the first fine art applications of the commercial ‘split fountain’ printing technique. The dynamic composition was inspired by moving train sequences from classic movies.
“It seemed like all movies would have a train in them. Invariably, they had the camera down on the tracks and shot this train so it appeared as though it was coming from nowhere, from a little point in the distance, to suddenly zooming in and filling your total range of vision”.
Standard Station captures that drama with its exaggerated perspective, perhaps giving the viewer the impression of speeding past in a car, a flash of bright, loud roadside advertising on the way to somewhere.
The Statue of Liberty is a monument to the American brand of liberty, representing the western values of democracy and free-market capitalism. It is the universal symbol of the promise of the American dream: of freedom, happiness and prosperity. However, for many American liberty is an artificial construct, and Danh Vo’s We The People – which takes its name from the first three words of the US constitution – allows us to consider the global impact of American cultural values since the dedication of the statue in 1886, and to reflect on the meaning of liberty from multiple perspectives.
We The People is a recreation of the Statue of Liberty at 1:1 scale, displayed in fragments at galleries and museums across the world. Some components are clearly recognisable, figurative forms such as a hand or an eye, but other become minimalistic abstractions – a fold of drapery, an eyelid or the links of a chain. Interestingly, Bartholdi’s original monument was also initially exhibited in parts in order to attract funds for its completion. The torch and right hand were first shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and then in New York’s Madison Square, and the head was an attraction in Paris. In We The People, it is possible to see the delicate construction of thin copper sheets (the width of two copper coins) bolted together over a basic scaffolding, and so we are not made aware of the statue’s immense physical and symbolic presence, but rather – as Vo notes – the fragility of this colossal icon and the fragility of the values for which it stands. The Statue of Liberty also has a personal significance for Vo. It was conceived and built as the French colonisation of Vietnam was gaining momentum, and a miniature replica was erected on the roof of the Tháp Rua temple in Hanoi – staying in place until 1945 when the US began to finance the French military. Vo was born in Vietnam but fled with his family to Denmark at the age of 4 to escape the tyranny of the Americans, who were supposedly fighting to preserve democracy but in doing so imposing a sociocultural system on the Vietnamese as European colonial powers had done to populations across the world. The liberty represented by the statue did not exist for the people who were caught up in this self-interest driven US intervention, and in allowing the elements of his work to travel freely, Vo creates a powerful metaphor for the global circulation of American cultural values.