Independent Group - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Independent Group
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.
Due to the overlapping of artistic interests and theory, as well as the IG's emphasis on collaborative works, various artists in the group were simultaneously identified with both British Pop and Brutalism. The two movements shared the Independent Group's intent to "form a 'new attitude' responding to and repairing the psychological, social and physical scars of the nation" following World War II. This new art and architecture was, as Dyckhoff wrote of Nigel Henderson (one of the founders of the group), to be focused on "the 'real', as well as being angry, "anti-intellectualising" and "about the visceral experience of modern ordinary life. It would come from, not be imposed upon, the streets".
The Independent Group drew upon a number of influences, particularly Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut, Dada collages, the work of Jean Fautrier (which began Art Informel), and the consumer culture of the United States. Dubuffet emphasized the naïve technique of children's art, the art of those with mental health issues and self-trained artists as reflecting a raw sense of experience unmediated by notions of training and skill. Art Brut emphasized texture, rough surfaces, bold but crude outlines and simple shapes to convey a visceral materiality, attuned to the destructive effects of WWII and the resulting emphasis on survival. Fautrier began his Osages (1942-45), a series of paintings and sculpture in response to the executions of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, which he witnessed while in hiding. His depictions of human heads and body forms also employed highly textured surfaces but the amorphous shapes conveyed a sense of bodily dissolution and disintegration. The focus on texture and bold outlines would filter through to the work of the Independent Group.
Dada collages, a form which was pioneered by artists like Hannah Höch, used images from mass publications in response to the effects of World War I and its aftermath, which in turn influenced the IG's extensive use of collage in response to their own post-war period. However, as exemplified in the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, the collages of the IG used the advertising images of popular American magazines and new products to create a very different aesthetic vocabulary. Rather than Dada's focus on historical and societal absurdity, Paolozzi's loud, often humorous, collages celebrated the slick vitality of American culture, its emphasis on "now," and the latest gadgets and products. In a sense, two dominant and somewhat contradictory trends marked the work of the IG, as colorful collages conveying emerging consumer culture were displayed next to collages and sculptures that expressed the ruin and scarcity of post-war Britain.
Nigel Henderson has been called by art historian David Sylvester the "seminal figure" of the Independent Group, which adopted what Tom Dyckhoff called "his obsession with the leftovers of ordinary life [that] earned him the nickname "the John Betjeman of rubbish", referencing the popular satirical poet. After World War II, Henderson had turned to Street Photography, which he called his "saving life line", as a way of recovering from military service that had ended in a nervous breakdown. Studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in the late 1940s, he became lifelong friends and artistic collaborators with Eduardo Paolozzi, who would come on to become the other main personality within the Independent Group.
Paolozzi's work also followed on from his unique wartime experiences (he was detained for much of it, as an Italian living in Britain), as well as his later work in Paris, where he got to know significant European post-war artists like Alberto Giacometti. Paolozzi's knowledge of Surrealism and Dada that came out of this time would later influence his work as one of the most highly regarded British Pop Artists. His interest in comic strips, advertisements, and images from popular American magazines, and awareness of collage, led him to pioneer early pop creations such as "I was a rich man's plaything" (1947), a prescient piece for the work that came later out of the IG.
In 1952 Paolozzi led the first meeting of the Independent Group where he projected images from BUNK! (1947-52), a collection of 45 collages, introducing a way of making art that would prove revelatory to his assembled peers. 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."
After this, Henderson's work with photography continued to develop, and he began experimenting with what he called "stressed" photographs by stretching and twisting the paper to create new and abstract visual effects. He also made photographic collages, sometimes combining his own images with those from mass media. When Paolozzi gave him a photographic enlarger, the two began creating photograms (which Henderson called "Hendograms") of objects, which were often taken from bombsites. Restlessly inventive, his experimental approach and emphasis on collaboration became key qualities of the work within the IG more generally, as collaborative work was made by Henderson, the Smithsons, Richard Hamilton, Paolozzi, and others. Paolozzi was also friends with Jean Dubuffet and the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, becoming a kind of bridge between Dubuffet's Art Brut and the emergence of what Reyner Banham dubbed "New Brutalism" (a movement now simply referred to as "Brutalism").
Parallel of Life and Art - 1953
The Independent Group's Parallel of Life and Art exhibition opened in 1953 at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, organized by Paolozzi, Henderson, and the Smithsons. Many of the works shown were the result of artistic collaboration between the artists of the group. This was also true of the exhibition itself, which was presented as a kind of collage, with images hung as if randomly placed to create a non-hierarchal but immersive space. Critic Tom Dyckhoff described the effect of the environment, "You were assaulted on all sides by a seemingly random assembly of images, held up by invisible fishing twine, forcing you to make analogies between, say, Dublin's modernist bus garage and Machu Picchu, the tribal tattooing of an Eskimo bride and mud patterns on Grimsby's shoreline. It was like entering someone's head." The juxtaposition of images from a wide range of cultural sources without any particular rationale was meant, as the Hepworth-Gallery later described, to emphasize "the importance of photography, mass-produced imagery, architecture and design to avant-garde art."
Man, Machine, and Motion - 1955
The Independent Group took inspiration not only from consumer culture and mass media imagery, but also from new technology, science, and industrial design. Richard Hamilton and Nigel Henderson took an early lead in pioneering the use of this imagery. In 1951 the two artists held a Growth and Form exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, emphasizing what they called the "super-real" resemblances between their Hendograms and images taken by electron microscopes or from film. In 1955, Richard Hamilton organized a project and exhibition, 'Man, Machine, and Motion' that debuted in a Newcastle gallery before also showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Along with some of his paintings the show included 176 photographs mounted on 54 panels, meant, as Hamilton wrote, as "a visual study of man's relationship with moving machines". The images were divided and displayed in four categories: Terrestrial, Aerial, Aquatic, and Interplanetary.
Peter Reyner-Banham shared Hamilton's interest in machine design and collaborated on the catalogue for the show, originally titled 'Human Motion in Relation to Adaptive Appliances'. Hamilton had become a professor at the University of Newcastle, where he played a leading role in establishing the intellectual framework of the Independent Group, as an influential teacher and artist. As he wrote, "all art is equal - there was no hierarchy of value. ...TV is neither less nor more legitimate an influence than, for example, is New York Abstract Expressionism", a tenet that became central not only to the IG but to the subsequent British Pop art movement.
This is Tomorrow - 1956
The group's last meeting was held in 1955. The following year, its final exhibition, This is Tomorrow, featuring the collaborative works of architects, artists and designers at the Whitechapel Gallery in London was met with near-universal acclaim. The show was divided into sections, presenting a number of immersive environments. Each section was organized by a distinct team of collaborators. The show launched the work of the Independent Group into public consciousness, while, at the same time marking the launch of British Pop Art. Richard Hamilton's What is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956), used as the cover image for the exhibition's catalogue, was seen as "the first real work of [British] Pop art". His Fun House (1956), a section of the show created in collaboration with architect John Voelcker, which used monumental images of Marilyn Monroe and robots taken from cartoons, and a model of a bottle of Guinness, has also been referred to as the first pop environment. Though This is Tomorrow marked the official end of the group, collaborative efforts among the artists continued into the early 1960s without being under the banner of the IG.
Concepts and Styles
Collage and collage aesthetics are one of the most easily identifiable characteristics of the work of the group. From the first official meeting in 1952, where Paolozzi's shared collages from his BUNK! series (many of which used advertisements and images from American magazines), conversations were oriented around combination and recontextualization of existing visual elements. Paolozzi's collages suggested an entrancing and vital reality apart from everyday London life, which was a city still very much recovering from the destruction and scarcity of World War II. The emerging consumer culture in the United States, driven by a post-war boom in technology fascinated not only Paolozzi but also Richard Hamilton and John McHale. Collage was a way to exemplify the disorienting emergence of media and advertising as seemingly innocuous imagery that nevertheless communicated a powerful ideological message.
Contemporary critic Hal Foster described the IG's complex relationship with consumer culture, writing that "even as its critique of art tilted toward an advocacy of capitalist technology and spectacle, the Independent Group did point to a historic shift from an economy centered on production to one based on consumption, a shift that entailed a repositioning of the postwar avant-garde as well." By repurposing these images, artists like Paolozzi, Hamilton and McHale were able to make the drive to consume, conform and compete contained with the advertising more explicit, whilst still borrowing the engaging and striking bright aesthetics of the materials they used.
The Independent Group is most commonly associated in architectural terms with the concept of "Brutalism" which was first used in a 1953 issue of Architectural Design (where work and writing of the group was often featured). The description reflected the group's rejection of any arbitrary or hierarchal distinctions between art, commercial design, and architecture. Subsequently, in "The New Brutalism," an essay in a 1955 issue of Architectural Design, Reyner Banham, a leading theorist of the Independent Group, defined the movement, writing that it "has two overlapping, but not identical senses." He described the first as architectural, exemplified by the designs of Alison and Peter Smithson, and the second as visual art, informed by Dubuffet's Art Brut, and including the works of Cordell, Paolozzi, and Henderson. He also included a number of international artists, including Alberto Burri, Karel Appel, and Jackson Pollock.
Both the architecture and the visual art that Banham categorized as Brutalist emphasized the use of readymade and ordinary materials, such as concrete and prefabricated frame structures. This allowed buildings or sculptures to be 'collaged' out of readymade or precast components, and exhibiting a raw materiality. He wrote that the movement was " part of a world-wide revolution of the young against the accepted conventions of Life and Art, a reaction against the categorised responses of the connoisseur or aesthete, a reaction in favour of direct physical and emotional experience and involvement in the creative process."
Though the Smithsons completed few projects in the following decade, their designs, writing and theory made them the leading figures in British architecture for the next two decades. Perhaps most famously they designed and built Robin Hood Gardens, a Brutalist housing complex that was completed in 1972 and rapidly became a flashpoint of architectural debate and complex social critique well into the 21st century. Among the Smithsons' later projects were the "TECTA Landscape,", the TECTA Factory, and the Cantilever Chair Museum, built for the German furniture company in the hope of carrying on the Bauhaus tradition.
Writing for Architectural Review in 2012, Steve Parnell noted that the Smithsons' in particular made a "considerable and influential contribution to architectural culture." Their concept of Urban Reidentification, a form of urban architecture based upon intuitive spatial connections, derived from children's play, and can be seen as a theoretical underpinning of the work of Assemble, a British cross disciplinary collaborative that won the Turner Prize in 2015.
Many artists of the Independent Group used sculpture (usually in abstract form) to similarly explore their key ideas of a changing society, the psychological trauma of war and consumerism. William Turnbull was the most notable sculptor of the core group, drawing on his technical skill to create work which echoed the architectural ideas of the "brutalist" designers. This led to him using a wide range of materials to create his abstract works, which were often loaded with emotional significance tied to trauma or conflict. Turnbull was focused on the breaking down of cultural hierarchies through the engagement with other aesthetic histories, often drawing on ethnographic or historical objects from other cultures that he was able to access in the British Museum.
In the late 1950s Paolozzi also turned to sculpture, creating abstract figures with a similarly 'ruined' texture, collaged with readymade objects. In the 1960s he began to teach sculpture and ceramics in Germany and the University of California at Berkeley before focusing on silkscreens in the mid-1960s. His sculpture had an impact on later artists, including Stephen De Staebler and Peter Voulkos.
Turnbull later followed an idiosyncratic path, visiting New York in the late 1950s and becoming friends with Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Learning how to weld, he turned toward a more minimalist abstract idiom in his sculpture. In the 1960s, he began working in fiberglass and other new materials, and as a result of traveling in Japan and Singapore became influenced by Buddhist religious art. He went on to become one of Britain's most critically acclaimed sculptors.
Later Developments - After Independent Group
Following This is Tomorrow, the Independent Group continued collaborating, but increasingly individual artists and architects followed their own independent pursuits. Richard Hamilton began teaching at the Royal College of Art, where he become a leading practitioner of British Pop art, teaching new artists who would go on to be synonymous with Pop, including Peter Blake and David Hockney. He also began collaborations with German artist Dieter Roth and a number of American Pop artists, including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol following a visit to the United States in the 1960s. His work continued to be influential within popular culture, perhaps most notably his cover design for the Beatles' White Album and his Swingeing London 67 (f) (1968-9), a screenprint based on a newspaper photograph of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser during their arrest on drug charges. Hamilton's affinity for spectacle and kitsch influenced the Young British Artists of the 1990s, with Damien Hirst later dubbing him "the greatest."
The Independent Group continues to have an influence today as the precursor for several other movements in visual art and architecture and as the movement through which many now highly critically regarded artists were introduced to the art world. Many of the ideas that they pursued and the styles of work they engaged in creating have proven to be prescient of later trends and activities.
Recently several of the group's artists experienced renewed interest. Richard Hamilton's work had major retrospectives at the Tate and the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2014, and he was the subject of Liam Gillick's film Hamilton (2014). William Turnbull's solo exhibition of his sculptures was held at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2005, and he was the subject of the documentary Beyond Time-William Turnbull in 2011. Whilst the individual practices of the artists involved tend to be better known than the efforts of the group as a whole, there is no question that the Independent Group made a major impact on the development of contemporary art in the UK.