Monday, 8 December 2008

'Envisioning Utopia' Conference

The Whitworth Art Gallery’s well-attended event on ‘Envisioning Utopia: Art and Socialist Politics, 1870-1900’ on December 5-6th was built around its 5000-piece Walter Crane visual archive, some of which was simultaneously on display in a fine exhibition entitled ‘Art and Labour’s Cause is One: Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915’.

Professor Tim Barringer of Yale University kicked off the conference with a learned overview of ‘Ford Madox Brown in Manchester’, demonstrating how consistently across his career Brown had sought to produce ‘history painting for the industrial age’. In a session on ‘The City’ Matthew Beaumont offered an astute analysis of ‘Socialism and Occultism in late-Victorian London’, in which the young W.B. Yeats turned out to be a crucial figure in mediating between William Morris’s Socialism and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy; ‘universal brotherhood’ was a central value for both movements, as Annie Besant would proclaim when she herself converted to Theosophy. Ruth Livesey followed up with a study of ‘Art and Socialism in Leeds: The Ford Sisters and the Leeds Art Club’, which persuasively showed what a slippery mode allegory was for political artists like Emily Ford, how it could be reinscribed by different verbal captioning in different contexts of reception.

A session on ‘The Country’ then had Michael Hatt celebrating Edward Carpenter’s enthusiasm for songs and singing. If democracy, for Carpenter, involves new somatic and sexual as well as political relations, then the act of singing, as it roots one joyously in the body, provides a utopian experience of what the desired political future might actually feel like, here and now. Anna Vaninskaya gave an illuminating analysis of the Socialist Sunday School movement, persuasively demonstrating that its stress on the cycle of the seasons, on Nature and fieldwork for children, was always kept in dialectical relation to the ‘human note’, to a concern for the social relations of rural life and agricultural labour.

In the final session on ‘The World’, Jo Briggs looked at the ways Walter Crane’s doubts during the Boer War about the political efficacy of his lifelong anti-imperialism found expression in, among other things, his Don Quixote illustrations of 1900; and Sarah Turner showed that Crane’s involvement with the India Society and the Festival of Empire in 1910-11 was part of his ‘cosmopolitan nationalism’, as expressed earlier in his India Impressions of 1907 and later in his designs for a ‘World Order of Socialism’ badge.

Pushing the story into the early twentieth century in this way reminded us that a whole new socialist visual culture was about to come into being, that associated with Bolshevism: the Tatlin Tower, Soviet posters and film, Constructivist design. And the more pastoral tradition of Crane and Morris, with its gently meandering stems and leaves, its winged figures and fruit trees, its slow rowing expeditions up the utopian Thames, was then shouldered aside by the leaner, meaner, more industrial and urban Soviet iconography.

For us in the early twenty-first century, both traditions are compelling, as is beautifully demonstrated in the contemporary visual work of David Mabb. In Mabb’s powerfully unsettling images, Morrisian pastoralism and Constructivist avant-gardism exist tensely side by side: there is no easy either-or choice between them, but no glib Hegelian synthesis of the two visual languages is possible either. In our environmentalist age, the Morris-Crane tradition has acquired new pertinence, but we shall also want our utopias to go through and beyond industrial modernity, not just to revert primitivistically behind it.

To what extent the Whitworth conference truly illuminated its overt topic, ‘Envisioning Utopia’, I’m not sure; the term ‘utopia’ didn’t actually get used a lot during the event. But it did abundantly demonstrate just how lively the oppositional visual cultures of the 1880s and 1890s were, and how much intense scholarly interest there is in this field today.

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