Art for Export
By NEVILE WALLIS
THE moment when Lord Beaverbrook, converted perhaps by Graham Sutherland, ordered the cease-fire and actually allowed a bouquet for the Fine Arts activities of the British Council is remem- bered still with wry thanks- giving in the Euston Road. But press attacks are less crushing, I suspect, to Lilian Somerville and her associates than the general neglect of an effort rewarded by eight major foreign prizes going to our artists exhibit- ing in Sao. Paulo, Paris, Japan and Yugoslavia since only last April. London critics may be too closely identified with these cargoes, or more often too suspicious of art oflicialdom, to com- ment freely on the particular problems in further- ing the recognition of our art overseas. They are scarcely encouraged, anyhow, by the Fleet Street notion that a championship event in London or Liverpool makes news while an English champion in Ljubljana signifies almost nothing.
The more the British Council's efforts in art centres abroad are studied, however, the more clearly anyone must recognise the efficiency of this propaganda machine in the international set-up, where works of art are counters in the battle for prestige and reputations become geared to the gold standard of awards fixed in the bargaining of polyglot panels. What keeps our organisers sane and even sanguine? It is the knowledge, I suppose, that the tonic effect of foreign acclaim on such young painters as Alan Davie, David Hackney, Allen Jones and Gillian Ayres (all 1963 prize-winners) is matched by un- rivalled opportunities for our major sculptors, unthinkable not many years ago. At present Moore is working on a monumental two-piece reclining bronze figure twenty-four feet long on a level with ornamental water at the new Lincoln art centre in New York. For its UN building Hepworth is rearing a memorial as high to HammarskjOld, a visionary bronze symbol with an aperture opening to the skies.
Commissions as important-as these in the art capital of the world can fairly be credited to the continuous drive to enhance the standing of British sculpture to an extent that it still provokes a greater buzz abroad than our painting. This prestige continues to surround our bronze image- makers who made their disquieting advance in the early 1950s, fatigued though we may judge them to be at home. It has alerted foreign atten- tion also to the young brood associated with St. Martin's School who are re-examining the relationship of sculpture to life today. At the Paris Biennial for rising talents in 1961, William Tucker, David Annesley and Brian Wall drove their sculptural points home with effect.
This strong position overseas ought, 1 think, to stimulate the Council to risk more, even an heroic failure. It shrinks from misfits. Self- obsessed painting which reveals experience as intense as Burra, Collins or Aitchison may exhibit in their visionary art is always considered too eccentric for international competition. No attempt is made officially to test its spiritual refreshment, say, in Germany, and to create an awareness of kinds of mystical experience un- matched in home-bred art frequently so devitalis- ing in touring pot-pourris from other lands. With the general recognition of the nimbleness and confidence of our younger contenders engaged in current and international trends shifting every year, it is time to reconsider our contemporary painting which in its nature summons deeper feeling and more enduring qualities. Of course, no dealer's enterprise can carry abroad the cachet of the Council's choices given the imprimatur of Sir Philip Hendy's panel. But one must fairly admit that their selection, circumscribed as it tends to be, has created an image sufficient to induce many German dealers to fly over here now to discover the diversity of British art and make their own exhibition selections. The results could be enlightening to our arbiters.
The Council's habits of mind, nevertheless, appear less rigid than they seemed to me a decade ago when 1 prefaced an occasional overseas catalogue. Until recently the perceptive critic of The Times, David Thompson, has been especially valuable in nudging official notice towards those artists who really signify in new figurative and abstract modes. More mature achievement is not ousted by the claims of the latest avant-garde. It was a seasoned triumvirate which brought us honour at Sao Paulo last year, with Paolozzi's inscrutable altars to a technological age, the heroic charcoal nudes of Keith Vaughan, and Alan Davie's demonic painting which netted his award.
About the plans for the Venice Biennale next June 1 feel much less enthusiasm. Roger Hilton's untidy, groping painting and Bernard Meadows's eclectic bronzes are very predictable, if scarcely uplifting entrants for the British Pavilion's main space. Joe Tilson's coloured wood reliefs and Gwyther Irwin's collages, in a room apiece, will speak for the coolly refined taste of younger artists giving a fresh look to their techniques. In the feverish, jobbing atmosphere of Venice you never can tell, of course, what product may steal a million or two lire. But the sibyls shrouded in the Euston Road are at least the best diviners of the lot. In June they may well murmur again 'I told you so' to a public which shrugs its shoulders and turns the page.