At our most recent Art Academy reading group we read a text about the Basic Design movement which developed in art education in the 1950s and 1960s. The article we looked at, by Richard Yeomans from the University of Warwick, compares and contrasts the methods and approaches of its two most famous advocates, the artists Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore who were both associated with King's College, Durham.
The text was suggested by Maurice Carlin, as Richard Hamilton is currently the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern, and Carlin had also seen a reconstruction of some of his installations at the ICA in London; in the 1950s, Hamilton was associated with the innovative Independent Group at the ICA, which rethought what was displayed in gallery contexts, how it was shown and how it was experienced, bringing outside influences such as science, technology, industry and psychology into the gallery, a cross-fertilisation that can be hard to imagine today.
One of Hamilton's pieces, Man, Machine and Motion (1955), which presents ready-made images from the history of man-made motion, has been recreated and is currently on show alongside archival material. Although members of the group were fairly familiar with Hamilton's work as an artist – such as his collages – we knew less about his parallel career as an educator and found this really interesting. Natalie Bradbury also saw the exhibition at the ICA, and really liked another recreated piece, an Exhibit, from 1957, in which Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton hung perspex sheets of different colours and consistencies horizontally and vertically from the ceiling of the gallery for viewers to wander through, with the accompanying exhibition posters encouraging visitors to see themselves as players in a game who were responsible for creating their own experiences. She was struck by how modern and forward-looking it must have seemed when it was first shown in 1957.
Unfortunately, we didn't feel the article presented the subject in the most interesting way, and would have benefited from some pictures. However, it did spark some interesting discussions. Of particular interest was the idea of the student and the artist as co-creator, with the art classroom acting as a 'laboratory' for the testing of ideas around line, form and colour. We thought it was important that those teaching art were seen as being practising artists in this way, who were part of a wider art world and knew about new developments. Parallels were drawn between this type of artist-student relationship and an older tradition of Old Masters handing down their skills and thereby perpetuating 'schools' of painting.
The article explains that the Basic Design movement influenced the foundation art courses we know today, and we discussed some of the similarities between Basic Design and our educational experiences as well as the dangers of rolling out something developed by two artists as part of their particular practice on a wider scale – for example, removed from its initial purpose and context this style of teaching could be seen to rely too much on a 'cult of personality', which could succeed or fail depending on the personality and style of the teacher in question. We also discussed the difficulties of assessing the kind of work undertaken on Basic Design courses, and how our experiences of art education showed that observational likenesses were often rewarded over experimentation or more personalised approaches to representation. Someone also made the really good point that in art educational movements such as Basic Design the literature always focuses on the teachers, and there is little sense of what the students achieved from it, and whether they went on to have notable careers (although in part this could be explained by Basic Design being an introductory course that students could have taken before undertaking more specialist study).
Read the article online at www.henry-moore.org/docs/yeomans_basic_design_0.pdf.