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.
During the 1960’s and 70’s the Czech Surrealist Toyen gradually abandoned painting and concentrated on producing exquisitely dreamy drypoints and double-sided collages notable for their visual wit, conciseness and razor sharp composition.
As I have noted in a previous post Toyen lived in Andre Breton‘s studio after his death in 1966. Located slap bang in the middle of the red-light district I always fondly imagine that the elderly but still subversive and transgressive creator of these collages and the illustrator of Edition 69 would have been quite content in such a spot.
As a young girl the British surrealist Eileen Agar travelled from her birthplace of Buenos Aires to England on a luxury liner accompanied by a cow and an orchestra. Her wealthy American mother believed that milk and music were essential in a child’s development and therefore had made the necessary arrangements so that she wasn’t deprived of them on the long ocean voyage.
After such a childhood it is no surprise that Eileen Agar belonged to the Surrealist movement. She had first met Andre Breton with her future husband, the Hungarian Jewish writer Joseph Bard in Paris in 1928 and was a member of the London Group from 1934.She was the only British woman artist to be featured in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 ( see John Deth) where she had a total of three paintings and five objects displayed. She had a passionate affair with the Surrealist artist Paul Nash and holidayed with Picasso, Dora Maar, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller (who photographed her several times, see Surrealist Women: Lee Miller), Nusch Eluard and the poet Paul Eluard, with whom she had a brief and intense fling with.
As well as being a painter, Agar experimented successfully with collages, ready-made and found objects; and was also a photographer, hat-maker and a writer. She exhibited with the Surrealists in New York, Amsterdam and Tokyo as well as having numerous one-women shows in the U.K. She published her autobiography A Look At My Life at the age of 89 in 1988. She died in 1991 at the age of 91.
Below is her masterpiece The Autobiography Of An Embryo from 1933-1934, which was acquired by the Tate Gallery for its permanent collection in 1989.