Matrix – Novelty and the Sense of Continuity

This article by Olive Cook appeared in Issue 20 of Matrix and in it she shows her vehement distaste for contemporary art and architecture and the ‘shock of the new’, making a temporal leap to compare modern trends with her perceptions of how the ‘new’ was expressed and experienced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


In a review of the Exposition Universelle of 1855 and of the work of Delacroix, the artist as a force that excites a sensation of the new. The whole history of art can indeed be seen as a chronicle of innovative creativity. But during the century and a half that have passed since Baudelaire’s article was first published the new, which he rightly recognised as the unsought by-product of a great imagination, has become the object: of a deliberate and ever more frenzied quest and of a demand which has crescendoed into a deafening roar heard from New York to London, Paris, Tokyo and beyond. ‘The point is’, as one of the characters in the trendy film Trainspotting says, ‘you’ve got to find something new.’ And after more than a hundred years of ‘isms’, of leap after leap from vanguard to vanguard, we are confronted at the dawn of the third millenium by sliced and pickled animals, a grubby and disordered condom-strewn bed, casts of the underneaths of chairs, a twenty-foot-high bronze cast of a popular animated toy and a crude representation of the Virgin partly painted with elephant dung and decorated with cut-out images of genitals, all masquerading and acclaimed as outstanding works of art. We are dismayed rather than stimulated by buildings of Brobdignagian proportions and materials, more alien than concrete, like those of Canary Wharf and the many similar developments and by structures which like the museums at Bilbao and Stuttgart, the one a giant glittering sculpture rather than a work of architecture, the other defying tradition and gravity alike with its lurching walls and eccentric manipulation of space, seem at odds with the purpose for which they were commissioned and impinge on their surroundings like objects from outer space.

It is not only the dull-witted who greet such manifestations of the new with scepticism: they are dismissed by art lovers and artists who acknowledge and rejoice in the novelty of genius, who delight in the energy and fecundity of Picasso’s endless, exhilarating transformations of visual experience, in the charm of Klee’s exquisite waking dreams, in Chagall’s astonishing formal variations on recurring themes and poetic surrealism and Howard Hodgkin’s ravishing juxtapositions of colour.

Perhaps some light may be cast on the controversial new of the present time by a glance at an age distant from our own but akin to it in its preoccupation with novelty, memorable for the splendid vitality and daring of its creative endeavour In every field and of exceptional interest because it was then that men’s minds turned away from the contemplation of the eternal and the absolute towards the particular and the ephemeral which are now our chief concern. During the sixteenth century the mediaeval world, Its all-embracing celestial vision and the security of its ancient limitations, came to an end. The discovery of a new and unsuspected continent, the establishment of a new Church, revolutionary political, social and economic upheavals, the pioneer work of physicists like William Gilbert of Colchester, of mathematicians like Napier, the inventor of logarithms, of astronomers like Thomas Digges and John Blagrave, of geographers like Hakluyt and of the cartographers Speed, Norden and Saxton; the setting up of the new iron and copper mining industries, the development of the already existing industries of coal mining and brick and glass making, and the introduction of many new technical devices such as the stocking making machine and the water closet all laid the foundations of life as we now know it.

The extraordinary rush of energy that gave rise to these reasoned, practical achievements was also the source of a miraculous outburst of great works of art. This was the age of Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe, of a glorious upsurge of both religious and secular music and of the emergence of the new arts, born of a heightened sense of personality, of the portrait miniature and the life-like effigy. Agreements of that period for sepulchral sculptures often specify ‘exact similitude’ or ‘a resemblance as he was in life’. These figures seldom lie, like mediaeval divines and nobles, in calm resignation with hands clasped in prayer: alert and bugle­ eyed, painted to counterfeit the hue and freshness of living flesh, they turn on their stone cushions, kneel, stand and take up familiar attitudes, eagerly proclaiming their zest for life. Elizabeth Williams, dressed in the height of fashion and wearing a large, becoming hat, leans on her elbow gazing at passers by in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral; the young, muscular Grissell Barnardiston is informed with such vigour that she seems about to rise from her knees as she stares boldly into the nave of the church of St Peter and St Paul at Kedington in Suffolk; John Farnham stands, clad in armour, against a realistic relief of a battlefield with cannon and cannon balls; Dean Boys sits at a table covered with a fringed cloth in a marble reconstruction of his own library in Canterbury Cathedral.

It was in this charged, electric time too that the word ‘architect’ made its first appearance in the English language. It occurred on the title-page of the only book on architecture to be published during the reign of Elizabeth I, John Shute’s The Firste and Chief Groundes of Architecture used in all the ancient and famous monyments; with a further and more ample discourse upon the same, than hath been set out by any other. Published by John Shute, Paynter and Archytecte. Imprinted at London at the Flete-strete near to Saint Dunstans Churche by Thomas Marshe, 1563. The publication marked the beginning of the momentous distinction between the designer of a building and the master craftsman of the Middle Ages who planned and directed the work from the masons’ yard and the carpenters’ shop. When Robert Smythson, the inspired author of Wollaton and probably of Hardwick, Longleat, Fountains and Barlborough died in 1614 he was called ‘Architector’ on his tombstone. And while industry was already making its impact on the landscape, that landscape was transfigured during the sixteenth century by an explosion of domestic building.

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