Friday, 25 September 2009

manchester modernist society's feature of the month - all things mural!

some of you might recall that i am involved with the fledgling manchester modernist society and have been quite busy helping arrange their monthly get togethers and researching and updating their website and facebook page. our recent trip to urbanism09 was inspiring and great fun - i shall report back on this soon, i promise, as it offers many pertinent parallels for our own canalside renewal plans.

but in the meantime here is the latest of the mms website monthly features, a lament for manchester landmarks needlessly lost and much missed. this month we highlight a recently lost all about it below.

then visit the mms website and read more, contact us with your thoughts and ideas - and to join our mailing list! get involved, join in but most of all, love the city warts and all!

manchester modernist society feature of the month:

welcome to our regular rollercoaster rides of emotions, of disappointments, lamentations, rants and despair, of jubilation and over enthusiasm, as we select for your delectation three structures each month, one demolished, one at risk and to lighten the mood, a classic modernist icon, an undisputed favourite like the CIS or the Midland Bank....

this section comes to you straight from the front line of the built environment to report on the ever changing fortunes of the structures and buildings of 20th century manchester great and small, tracing the unpredictable journey from flavour of the month, through passe, unloved and neglected, to the wrath of the bulldozer.

nb - readers of a sensitive nature might wish to look away at explicit scenes of mindless violence against helpless architectural rarities...


the Barkat sign,
Dale St.

Wait a minute I hear you say? I thought we were talking about post-war murals, ‘street’ art in a sense but still legitimate art by proper reputable artists. So what’s an old battered door sign doing here…?

Well fear not modernistas, there is a connection, I promise, a twisty train of thought linking our three features this month. Here it comes….

Like so many post war muralists Hans Tisdall was a polymath, his work crossing the divide between fine art and commercial art and back again, respected not only for his paintings and public art but also his body of book jackets for JonathanCape and his fonts and lettering. Like his contemporaries this was populist work for a populist era; one that was challenging the role of art and the artist in society. This popularism and everydayness however has since had the effect of being underappreciated from all sides, ignored not only in the academic field but fading in the landscape to a subliminal backdrop - just more background noise in the cityscape.

If our aim at mms is to ‘stimulate debate and gently provoke’ (see our aims…!) then what we have here is the perfect case study. Initiating any discussion of this battered old sign presents us with a long overdue opportunity to broaden the art historical canon. Times change and so should our perception of art….

Our post war murals are in effect treated no differently to the vernacular street signs adorning so much of the city like Barkat Knitwear, perhaps the boldest and most colourful example of the genre which lit up Dale St for god knows how long until being unceremoniously, criminally painted over by its new owner /property developer. Like our commissioned murals it brightened up the daily trudge to work, school or the shops come rain or shine, a landmark, an icon, an everyday fresco for the common man.

A quick perusal of flickr shows that the Barkat sign was until very recently a much loved fixture in the landscape, admired for its colour, exuberance, the rugged textures of its surface; appreciated as an invaluable slice of social and cultural history; as much a historical artefact as anything dug up on an excavation, a window into the day to day life of the twentieth century city, as valuable as a wall of Latin graffiti in Pompeii.
The Barkat sign was situated on the boundary of Ancoats and the outer edge of Northern quarter, once the heart of the textile, food and commercial district, a bustling labyrinth of workshops, showrooms and factories. These buildings – their sides, facades, doorframes - were literally billboards for products, signposts and adverts in an era before PR and marketing departments, television or internet publicity campaigns. Sign writers were skilled artists and their work was detailed, meticulous and in great demand. Though the industries declined and the businesses disappeared their memories remained, faded peeling apparitions, relics and remnants of former glories.

And whilst they share many of the attributes of post war murals, the fragility of their materials, their commercial nature and inherent anonymity renders them even more vulnerable to the threat of regeneration, demolition or eradication. From modest pieces such as the Barkat to lavishly painted adverts promoting everything from universal products to local services and businesses, they are both visual treasures and social/cultural documents, multiple narratives of the city past and present enriching the built environment.

Perhaps the time has come not only to challenge our notions of what art is but to broaden the boundaries of what constitutes the archaeological object. Every time we paint over, dismantle or jet clean one of these images we erase a crucial element of the fabric of the city, a little bit more of our history and yet more of our archaeological record, the story of ourselves. Furthermore, Bristol council’s decision to consult the local population on the fate of graffiti art covering the walls of its city buildings demonstrates the beginnings of a welcome reassessment of the ‘canon’, one that reflects and acknowledges the value and importance of art and design in the public realm, beyond that which is traditional or officially sanctioned. Perhaps it’s also time to include an anonymous oeuvre that paved the way for the banksys of today. These quotidian frescoes embody art, social document and historical artefact. If we can accept graffiti as art then why not sign writing and graphic design?

Reimagined as a vast open air Tate Modern minus the exhibition fee and restrictive opening hours, bursting with paintings, murals, sculpture and pop art from every era, the city becomes a living canvas, a vibrant and thought provoking backdrop to our everyday lives, reflecting like all major collections, media and styles of every period. But this is a collection that boasts artwork from the famous to the unknown, reflecting the times and cultures of the changing city, always thought provoking, visually stimulating and a pleasure to visit and to live in.

RIP - barkat door sign, needlessly erased, 2009....

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