(Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

An incomplete history of the Swinging Sixties

Any history of the 1960s that neglects mass culture is not to be taken entirely seriously

When Henri Matisse’s “The Snail” went on display at the Tate Gallery in 1962 it was to a howling chorus of tabloid outrage. How could the powers that be have let this random, rainbow-hued, cut-and-paste abstract – a stamp collection in a windsock – disfigure a great institution? The country’s going to the dogs! The five-year-olds at my local primary could have done better! My child HAS done better! We must be mad!

And yet, a mere six years later, the Tate’s Roy Lichtenstein retrospective had them rolling up and busting the block. All of a sudden, Lichtenstein’s literally dotty enlarged comic strips and ads were the season’s must-see. How to explain this astonishing turnaround in taste? Here to help is Lisa Tickner’s London’s New Scene, a deeply excavated account of how the metropolis sloughed off Britain’s postwar sag and slouch – all those putatively realist kitchen sink paintings and plays – and became the swinging culture gulch it remains.

But for all its depth, London’s New Scene is narrow in range. The book is subtitled “Art and Culture in the 1960s”, though it is far from offering a full historical purview of the decade. An art history professor at the Courtauld, Tickner’s focus is understandably enough centred on painters and paintings. Still, if an art book on London in the sixties can encompass an extended discussion of Blow-Up, then surely it ought to have time to discuss the Beatles and Beyond the Fringe.

No history of the 1960s that misses out on mass culture is to be taken entirely seriously

Instead, we get a series of year-by-year essays that focus on one particular show or gallery or – that very sixties word – happening. Not even every year gets a mention. Tickner covers 1960 and ‘61 in a brief prologue, with her narrative properly beginning in 1962 and ending in 1968. Even if you don’t buy Arthur Marwick’s Hobsbawmian argument that the 1960s was a long decade (Marwick says they actually began in 1958 and only came to a close in 1973 or ’74), this is a severely truncated account of the period. No book can take in everything, but a book as big and heavy as this ought surely to have taken us up to the end of the decade it covers. It was 1969, after all, that gave us Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

London’s New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s
By Lisa Tickner
Yale, £35.00

Don’t get me wrong. I hold no candle for Monty Python as entertainment. I’ve had colonoscopies more comical than the cartoons of Terry Gilliam. Nonetheless, Python matters – and matters in the same way that so much of what mattered in the decade did. Like a great deal of sixties art, Python introduced the mass audience to the hitherto recherché ideas of modernism. Just as the Beatles helped popularise serialism and atonality and the sexy side of surrealism, so Python made amenable to a mass audience the cubist cut-up, the Dadaist drone, the wilful vacuity of the theatre of the absurd. No history of the 1960s that misses out on mass culture is to be taken entirely seriously.

Still, what Tickner does cover she covers well. She starts with “Pop Goes the Easel”, a Ken Russell documentary for the BBC’s Monitor series, though calling the show a documentary doesn’t do it justice. Russell’s film doesn’t just depict the pop art being produced in London – it evokes it. Having become “infected with this new spirit,” Russell said, he wanted to do away with “the old documentary heritage”. So it was that he intercut his interviews with the pop artists Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier and Pauline Boty with scenes from Hollywood westerns and musicals. He even worked in a couple of dream sequences.

Naturally enough, not everyone loved it. Tickner, who has mined the archives thoroughly (her notes occupy just shy of a quarter of the book’s 400-odd pages), quotes the reactions of several unimpressed viewers. “Couldn’t make head nor tail of it”, says one; “far too much flashing here and there”, says another. Still, like so much of the modernist art it aped, “Pop Goes the Easel” worked its way into mainstream culture. Sixty years on, with viewers of even the tamest TV shows habituated to peripatetic camerawork and slice-and-dice editing, “Easel” would likely come over as slow and lumpen. At the time it first went out it felt like the opening night of The Rite of Spring.

The Kasmin Gallery upset the applecart too. Opened in 1963 by John Kasmin, this New Bond Street space was a revolution to Londoner’s eyes. Until then, most art houses had aspired to the look and feel of the country house – a kind of Brideshead revivified get-up of rooms off rooms off rooms. Tickner quotes John Russell’s remark that the average gallery aimed to suggest there was “a gun room off the hall and huge dogs, still warm from the chase” somewhere near about. Kasmin put an end to this, importing from New York the idea of the gallery as large, unornamented white cube.

He helped put an end to the idea of figuration too. Though David Hockney made Kasmin’s fortune, Kas – as he liked to be known – was more interested in what he called “pure painting”. Sixty years ago, no gallery in Britain – and especially not the Tate under Sir John Rothenstein – had much interest in abstraction. Kasmin changed all that. He it was who introduced the post-painterly colourists – Stella, Noland, Louis, as well as the English-born Richard Smith, Bernard Cohen and Howard Hodgkin – to eyes unaccustomed to looking at paintings of anything but lords and landscapes.

That quote about country houses comes from Private View, a lavishly produced book put together in 1965 by the aforementioned Russell, Lord Snowdon and the brilliant young gallerist Bryan Robertson. It was, Russell told the American edition of Vogue, “a new kind of book about a new situation”. If the first half of that claim was comically overblown, the second half emphatically wasn’t. By the mid-60s, as Tickner makes plain, London had taken over from New York as the locus of the global art world.

So much so that when Michelangelo Antonioni decided to make his first movie outside Italy it was to the swinging city that his eye was drawn. Eyes being drawn to something or other – or, indeed, to nothing at all – was the subject of Blow-Up, the movie Antonioni shot in London in the Autumn of 1965. A Hitchcock-style tale of a David Bailey-style snapper who fancies himself caught up in a murder plot, the movie was in reality Antonioni’s most accessible expression of his great theme: the way human beings are forever trying to impose meaning on a meaningless world. Art, Picasso once said, is a lie told in the service of truth. Not so fast, says Blow-Up, contrariwise, a movie that unsettlingly suggests that everything we concoct is a way of evading the truth.

Certainly, the movie seems to have disturbed Tickner, who is markedly less assured when outside her art historical bailiwick. She claims that Blow-Up is “about the erotics of looking”, yet though nudity abounds in the picture – I think I’m right in saying that it was the first mainstream film in which pubic hair can be glimpsed – her nervous, catch-all description (what movie isn’t about the erotics of looking?) is well wide of the mark. If anything, Blow-Up is about the neurotics of looking, about the way we see what we want to see, the way we tease our lives into drama for fear they might not amount to much.

But by far the book’s weakest section is that on 1968, in which Tickner treats us to an extended – for which read way too long – disquisition on the sit-in at Hornsey College of Art in the spring of that year. Tickner, who was herself a student at Hornsey at the time, believes that this absurd protest (part, of course, of wider protests around the world that May) “deserves attention as one of the more sustained attempts to question the social values and political import of art”.

But sustained aside (it was intended to last a day but in fact went on for six weeks), the sit-in achieved little beyond helping ensure that later generations of art students have been encouraged in the belief that it doesn’t matter that they cannot draw. Little wonder, perhaps, that the British art boom, like the British boom in general, didn’t survive the sixties. By the end of the decade, New York was back at the top of the contemporary art world.

What has lasted, of course, is rock and roll. Stolen from the Yanks it might have been, but this designer-primitive art form has always been used best by the Brits. A fuller account of art and culture in 1960s London would have to start by acknowledging that the tumult around Cork Street was as nothing next to the continent-straddling revolution the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks wrought on the world of popular music. The cliché about the 1960s is that if you can remember them you weren’t really there. Lisa Tickner really was there, but her memories of the decade are so partial they prove the rule regardless.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover