New Design

Independent Group

Independent Group Collage
Started: 1952
Ended: 1956
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I suppose I am interested, above all, in investigating the golden ability of the artist to achieve a metamorphosis of quite ordinary things into something wonderful and extraordinary.
Eduardo Paolozzi Signature

Summary of Independent Group

The Independent Group were a key part of the transition in the British art world from the grey austerity of the post-World War II period to the technicolor explosion of the 1960s. Their work laid out the pre-Pop basis for British Art in the second half of the 20th century by responding to new influences, most explicitly American-style advertising, movies, and new fashions. With the group committed to fresh and innovative expression, they produced art that referenced this culture shift extensively, particularly through collage, abstract sculpture, and architecture.

The group remained a close association of artists centered around the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London throughout the early 1950s, and included a number of influential artists that would go on to find significant critical and commercial success in later decades. These artists dismissed the elitism of the art world, and made work which reflected the changing emphasis of the era towards the young, creative and free.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of Independent Group

Independent Group Image

In 1952, Eduardo Paolozzi led the first official meeting of the Independent Group (IG). Influenced by Italian Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, the group's name emphasized its independent stance. As art critic Tom Dyckhoff wrote, "what they opposed was the establishment" and the existing tenets of British modernism, "whether the rarefied, elitist Bloomsburys or the modern-lite, democratic, Festival Of Britain consensus, whose sheen was already fading". The group instead emphasized the influence and potential of accessible popular culture, with their leading critic Lawrence Alloway writing that this consisted of, "movies, science fiction, advertising, pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically". They primarily reached the public through their immersive and collaborative exhibitions, beginning with Parallel of Art and Life in 1953.

Important Art and Artists of Independent Group

Eduardo Paolozzi: Dr. Pepper (1948)

Dr. Pepper (1948)

Artist: Eduardo Paolozzi

This collage is composed of cartoons and advertisements from American magazines, and is meant to convey the artist's view of America as an "exotic society, bountiful and generous." A new kitchen range, a man on a motorcycle, an attractive woman on a phone, a new car, and a bottle of Dr. Pepper, create a montage of the American post-War boom, as advertisements marketed new technology as part of an alluring lifestyle.

This work was included in his series BUNK! (1947-52), a series of 45 collages, which Paolozzi projected on a screen at the first meeting of the Independent Group in 1952. As art critic Frank Whitford wrote, "For most of his audience the juxtaposition of the weighty and trivial, the artistic and technological, were a revelation. The collages suggested a radically new aesthetic." Paolozzi had a childhood fascination with American advertising images, and the abundance and colour of such images in 1948 would have contrasted harshly against the dire state of the British economy after the devastation of WWII. While studying at the Slade School of Art, Paolozzi began using these images to make collages, cutting them from whatever popular magazines were available and combining them into riots of excess.

Graduating in 1947, and following the success of his first solo exhibit, he moved to Paris where he collected more images from American magazines, brought over by American servicemen, to make works such as this one. One of the images included in BUNK!, this collage conveys both the title's meaning as "rubbish," and Henry Ford's statement from which the title was taken that "History is more or less bunk.... We want to live in the present." Unlike the series' other collages, which often include advertising slogans, militaristic images or images from science fiction magazines, this particular work emphasizes the glamour of the American lifestyle, composed of cars, convenience foods, and cartoon characters.

Informed by his knowledge of Dada and Surrealist collages, Paolozzi's images compellingly portrayed the distinction between America's emerging consumer culture and his own poverty, which was exacerbated by the extreme rationing in London at the time. He described his collages as "where the event of selling tinned pears was transformed into multi-coloured dreams, where sensuality and virility combined to form, in our view, an art form more subtle and fulfilling than the orthodox choice of either the Tate Gallery or the Royal Academy' Collage." Paolozzi approached his work as a sculptor, by collaging various materials and ready-made objects into a single figure, a method which, as Whitford noted, "remained central to Paolozzi's methods, both as printmaker and sculptor, for the rest of his career. Everything he created began as an accumulation of unrelated images culled from a wide variety of sources which, when rearranged, achieved a new and surprising unity."

Peter and Alison Smithson: Smithson High School, Hunstanton, Norfolk (1954)

Smithson High School, Hunstanton, Norfolk (1954)

Artist: Peter and Alison Smithson

This building, which is made of assembled pre-fabricated components and based on a long rectangular plan, has two stories and draws attention to its predominance of glazed glass and its exposed structure. This includes its galvanized steel framework and its water tower's steel tanks. Known locally as the "glasshouse," the emphasis upon the raw and readymade materials used to construct the building led Reyner Banham to celebrate it as a pioneering example of New Brutalism. He noted, "the building is almost unique among modern buildings in being made of what it appears to be made of...One can see what Hunstanton is made of, and how it works, and there is not another thing to see except the play of spaces." Still open today, the school's website states, "the ground breaking design of our main building personifies the qualities that we still develop in our students today; strength, integrity and excellence." The Smithsons' design won a 1949 architectural competition for the school, which became their first major commission and effectively launched their careers. However, due to rationing and austerity in Britain at the time the building wasn't completed until 1954. The project would have required the county's entire steel ration until 1953, when more materials became available.

Banham described the architects as "the bell-wethers of the young throughout the middle Fifties." As architectural critic Steven Parnell explained, they were seen as, "the architectural equivalent of the 'angry young men' of the Kitchen Sink social realism art movement, determined to break down the barriers between high and low culture and to establish themselves ahead of institutions such as the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and The Architectural Review." The Smithsons saw Brutalism as "an ethic, not an aesthetic," as they wanted to focus on functionality connected to ordinary life in the post-war era. As Alison Smithson wrote, "My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use", a focus that prioritizes those using the building rather than outside observers. As Steve Parnell wrote, the design "was a rare glimmer of hope for architects wishing to reconstruct a post-war Britain in the modern idiom."

As active theorists and writers as well as designers, the Smithsons played a leading role in the Independent Group, providing much of the conceptual basis of the architecture attached to the movement. They also played a role in other architectural developments, particularly as core members of Team 10, which described itself as "a small family group of architects who have sought each other out because each has found the help of the others necessary to the development and understanding of their own individual work." In 1956 the Smithsons designed a 'House of the Future' prototype for the Daily Mail Ideal Homes Show that primarily used molded plastic in order to create what they called an impression of "glamor," while also emphasizing consumer culture, and the technological innovation that drove it. The concept of the 'House of the Future', echoing their molded plastic fittings and fixtures and bright colour pallet has become an enduring archetype in modern British architecture.

William Turnbull: Head 3 (1955)

Head 3 (1955)

Artist: William Turnbull

This bronze abstract sculpture is ovoid in shape, emphasizing its skin-like texture that, by being deeply slashed and violently gouged, evokes the ruined features of a human head. Lying on its side and disembodied, the form takes on the suggestion of an artifact, subjected to destructive forces but persisting. In the mid 1950s, Turnbull began exploring the motif of the disembodied head in his paintings and sculptures, as he said that the word "head," "meant for me what I imagined the word 'Landscape' had meant for some painters - a format that could carry different loadings." He added, "The sort of thing that interested me was - how little will suggest a head, how much load will the shape take and still read head, head as colony, head as landscape, head as mask, head as ideogram, head as sign, etc." Head 3 is a clear example of this exploration of the shape, its damaged silhouette suggests threat or the aftermath of violence. The emphasis upon the form's raw materiality and the inclusion of the violent marks of the artistic process was seen by Reyner Banham as an artistic expression of Brutalism.

Born and raised in Scotland, Turnbull first worked as a laborer before beginning to study illustration and then turning to sculpture. Whilst studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, he became friends with the fellow Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi. Art critic Michael McNay described how, "The two discovered their mutual enjoyment of comic book images - Paolozzi was probably the first artist to employ them directly in his work - and, from Paolozzi, Turnbull learned the direct approach to sculpture, modeling in cement or in wet plaster around an armature, neither of them methods encouraged by the Slade at that time." Incising and gouging the wet plaster with ordinary objects like pencils and pen points, before casting the shape in bronze, Turnbull said he wanted "texture to invoke chance, to create random discoveries, not elaborate the surface, but to accentuate that it was a skin of bronze." At the same time he adopted the non-hierarchical artistic approach of the Independent Group and left the display of the sculpture to chance, encouraging viewers to handle the objects. The simplicity of Head 3 echoes the work of Constantin Bracusi, whose Paris studio Turnbull visited in the late 1940s when he was studying at Slade. It's primary influence however may be that of Jean Fautrier's Otages (1942-45) series, produced at the end of World War II, which were described by art critic Andre Malraux, as, "A hieroglyph of pain."

By the mid 1950s, Turnbull had become interested in ethnographic objects that he studied in the British Museum. As art historian Toby Treves wrote, "Turnbull...shared...a specific interest in the theme of the abstracted, assembled head and a more general desire to break cultural hierarchies. While Paolozzi's challenge to the traditional separation of high and low culture involved the direct incorporation into his work of elements from the mass media and the technological world, Turnbull's work, which fed off an equally wide range of cultural sources, among them tribal art and natural forms, did so only obliquely."

Useful Resources on Independent Group

Books

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Independent Group Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 26 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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