The architectural Brutalist style enjoyed a brief heyday from the mid 1950’s to the late 1970’s across the globe, but particularly in the UK and the Soviet aligned countries of Eastern Europe. Frequently employed in state sponsored buildings: social housing, libraries, universities, and hospitals, Brutalist architecture become immensely unfashionable from the 1980’s onward, the subject of widespread scorn and derision due to its associations with totalitarianism (both Fascist and Communist), urban decay and perceived ugliness, which led to many notable examples of the style falling prey to the wrecking ball and demolition.
Brutalism derives its name from Béton brut (raw concrete), the material most frequently used in construction, however it cannot be denied that it was also brutal in the purest sense: hard, raw, severe, and monumental. Brutalist architecture is always serious, austere and intellectually rigorous, it is never twee, whimsical or ironic. Brutalism aims for the sublime, not the merely beautiful. Unrelentingly experimental and modernist Brutalism makes no concessions to good taste or common sense or timid sensibilities. Brutalism is a defiant middle finger raised against God, Nature and the small-minded.
As happens with most styles when they are on the verge of completely disappearing from the landscape, Brutalism has undergone somewhat of a resurgence in the last decade, with writers, photographers, artists and architects intent on rehabilitating its reputation. Below I have selected examples of Brutalist architecture, starting with the Atlantic Wall bunkers built by the Nazi’s during WWII, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, London social housing projects, war memorials and buildings in the former Yugoslavia, up to the present day collages of Neil Montier and Nicholas Moulin. Hopefully they capture one essence of Brutalism, as noted by the critic Jonathan Mendes, a sheer joylessness that thrills.
Dubbed ‘Queen of Chicago’ by her intimates, Gertrude Abercombie was a mid 20th Century bohemian, saloniste, jazz devotee and Surrealist painter. The weekly salons she held with her second husband, the music critic Frank Sandford, in a large house in Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago, was frequented by such jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, who was a particularly close friend.
The improvisational techniques of be-bop certainly seemed to have influenced her paintings, which feature a small number of elements and motifs repeated throughout her career in an unusual and innovative manner. Cats, snail shells, owls, doors, leafless trees and a solitary female figure, always a hypercritical self portrait, frequently recur against a somber night sky barely lit by the distant moon. The mood is usually mysterious and elusive with occasionally a hint of Southern Gothic, however Design for Death, which apparently was Charlie Parker’s favourite painting is quietly chilling in its representation of a staging for a lynching.
When asked why she painted in the Surrealist manner, Abercrombie stated, “Surrealism is meant for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see.”
Below are a selection of artworks from throughout Abercrombie’s career, hopefully some people will like her re-arrangements of reality as much as I do.
In 1931 the Armenian born (though he often told people he was Russian, his age also varied upon his mood) American painter Arshile Gorky saw Giorgio De Chirico’s 1914 painting The Fateful Temple. De Chirico’s painting featuring a portrait of his mother next to a head with a dissected brain which resonated with Gorky, who was working at the time on a mother and child portrait, and over the next three years he would produce two paintings and over eighty drawings in his variant series of The Fateful Temple; Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia.
Gorky and his mother had fled the genocide of Armenians instigated by the Ottoman Empire to Russia, where she died of starvation in 1919. He subsequently escaped to America and after experimenting with different styles embraced Surrealism in the 1940’s. His increasingly abstract paintings were a major influence on the Abstract Expressionists. In 1946 his studio barn burnt to the ground, he was diagnosed with cancer and his wife had an affair with the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. In 1948 Gorky was involved in a car crash that broke his neck and left his painting arm temporarily paralysed. His wife left with the children and Gorky hanged himself at his Connecticut home at the age of 44 (or 42 or 46).
In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.
However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.
Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.
The Dog is one of the fourteen Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings, see Painting It Black) that Goya painted in his house outside Madrid towards the end of his life. The Dog conveys a sense of sublimity, terror and an unbearable pathos with an enviable simplicity.
The painting is divided in two unequal parts: a dirty ochre above and a dark brown below. There has been much debate regarding the origin of the shadow to the right of the painting, and whether it is intentional, however it probably was the previous design on the wall which Goya painted over. Staring upward into the vastness of the sky is the dog, alone and apparently sinking into the quicksand of the earth. All the heart-break and despair involved in terrestrial existence is concentrated in the expression of mute appeal of the dog as he searches the heavens for a sign of a return of his varnished master.
The Dog has been called the first Symbolist painting and was held in particular high regard by Picasso and Joan Miro.