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1976 Signs of New Life

Explore the 1976 catalogue

On 7 May 1976, The Sunday Times reported that: “the Summer Exhibition is fresh, gay, even challenging. It is full of surprises, both pleasant and disconcerting.”1 Largely positive in tone, this report nonetheless raised some concern with its caveat of unease. Change always comes at a cost and nearly always causes controversy. Some established Academicians, like Ruskin Spear and John Bratby, found the new President Hugh Casson’s innovations difficult to stomach. Spear was reported as saying it “could do the Academy a lot of harm” and Bratby thought “the Academy should stick to its traditional identity”.2 The critic William Feaver felt nothing much had changed, suggesting quite simply that the more traditional Royal Academicians regarded any change as “the thin end of the wedge”.3 Perhaps Feaver’s observations cut to the heart of a divided Academy: one group wedded to existing values and reluctant to change, while another group forged ahead with fresh ideas to revive the Summer Exhibition.

Gallery I housed the work of recently elected Associates of the Royal Academy. And in what Casson called the “boldest of our experiments”, Peter Blake, one of those recently elected Associates, was asked to invite artists of his choice to exhibit in Gallery II (Fig. 1). It was controversial and completely new to invite artists to exhibit, rather than to undergo the selection process. Blake invited members of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, formed in the previous year, and other artists to exhibit. Both the work and the nature of its selection by Blake attracted criticism from several quarters. Senior Academicians such as James Fitton objected that it might create a precedent, allowing well-established artists a preferential way to exhibit.4 Yet, as Casson pointed out in an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme Kaleidoscope, the principle of the guest room was already allowed for in Royal Academy rules.5 The press, on the other hand, tended to focus on the nature of the work selected by Blake. Nicholas Munro’s fibreglass Dancers were called erotic and Jann Haworth’s Rainbow Cloak came in for particularly harsh criticism with one tabloid newspaper referring to it contemptuously as “Jann’s artistic little silk number”.6

Another recently elected Associate was Eduardo Paolozzi, who designed the poster (Fig. 2) and catalogue cover for the 1976 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a non-exhibiting Associate, this was his only contribution to the Exhibition that year. Paolozzi’s design shows a number of wheels, cogs, and other mechanisms seemingly fitting together and working in harmony. His colourful abstract artworks were a relatively recent departure at this time and while this particular design is signed and dated 1967, the majority of work of this nature emerged following his move to the Kreuzberg district of Berlin in 1974. The style of the design is consistent with Paolozzi’s work of the mid-1970s. It seems possible that it was newly designed and that he playfully transposed the last two digits of the date.

Poster designs such as this one for the Academy and another for the Edinburgh Film Festival in the same year, for instance, appeared in Paolozzi’s work as a response to two distinct influences. First, the book Mechanization Takes Command (1948) by Siegfried Giedion, whose ideas were initially taken up by many young artists, including Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and others at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London in the 1950s. Gideon’s work towards an understanding of the effect of mechanisation on humanity highlighted standardisation and interchangeability as key.7 Paolozzi interrogates the idea of interchangeability in his work of the mid-1970s as motifs are redeployed in multiple images, sometimes shifting in scale, medium, or colour, but always recognisable as repeated motifs. In this way, Paolozzi scrutinises humankind’s engagement with movement, rhythm, and sound in works that shift focus from the human body itself to the things it creates and engages with. Robin Spencer, the art historian and Paolozzi’s close colleague, observed: “Paolozzi is as much interested in the social context of culture, as he is in the artefact that is its bi-product. In his own art such concerns are reflected in an involvement with man’s relationship to the machine.”8

Another influence on Paolozzi’s work at this time was an interest in music and especially the sound collages of the American composer Charles Ives, whose piece Calcium Light Night was written for piccolo, clarinet, cornet, trombone, bass drum, and two pianos, although Ives suggested other instruments and players could be added. Like Paolozzi, Ives did not believe in neat categories and looked to popular music (civil war marches, hymns, and parlour songs, etc.) and commonplace everyday sounds to create his orchestral compositions. In the case of Calcium Light Night, Ives intended to represent the sounds of students enacting fraternity parades at Yale University and fragments of fraternity tunes were combined to suggest the sound of marching parades.9 This sort of collaging of everyday (ready-made) sounds was a familiar approach to Paolozzi, who collaged visual fragments in a similar fashion.

A busy year for Paolozzi, 1976 saw an Arts Council touring exhibition Eduardo Paolozzi: Sculpture, Drawings, Collages and Graphics (April 1976–February 1977), as well as the Summer Show at the Serpentine Gallery, where Paolozzi selected more than ten artists from open submission.10 Although little reported upon in the press, the exhibition included Pete Ling’s Mekano: a life of and Paul White’s Polarisagrid II. Ling’s work concerned fictional incidents from a novel of the same name, while White’s works, made in 1976, explored his preoccupation with geometry and polarised light. In their different ways, then, they both explored science and literature in similar ways to Paolozzi’s wide-ranging practice. Meanwhile, Marlborough Fine Art’s Eduardo Paolozzi: New Reliefs and Sculpture (23 January–6 March 1976) showed a range of works including Niigata-Turkoma (1975)—wood and resin versions—and the screenprint Türkische Musik (1974), both of which resonate with the harmonious mechanical wheels, gears, and other machine parts of the Academy poster.

Unlike Peter Blake’s controversial Gallery II, however, Paolozzi’s striking design for the poster and catalogue cover seems to have escaped unnoticed by the press that year. Still, one wonders if this was Paolozzi’s commentary on the Academy itself, that combination of Associates, Academicians, and exhibitions, the machinations of committees and councils, engaging with one another and seemingly working together harmoniously, despite the snorting of senior Academicians in the face of change.

  1. Terence Mullaly, “Plenty of Surprises at the RA Exhibition”, The Daily Telegraph, 7 May 1976.↩︎

  2. “Royal Academy Row Over ‘Rubbish’ from Invited Exhibitors”, The Daily Telegraph, 6 May 1976.↩︎

  3. William Feaver, “Detecting Signs of New Life”, The Observer, 16 May 1976.↩︎

  4. George Melly, “Hanging’s Too Good for ‘Em!’”, Punch, 19 May 1976, 887–888.↩︎

  5. See the transcript of review of The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition by William Feaver, which was broadcast on Kaleidoscope on BBC Radio 4 at 21.30 on 7 May 1976. Royal Academy Summer Exhibition press clippings, 1976.↩︎

  6. “A Hanging Matter—Jann’s Artistic Little Silk Number”, The Daily Express, 7 May 1976.↩︎

  7. Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955 [1948]), 49.↩︎

  8. Robin Spencer, “Looking Backwards to the Future”, in Eduardo Paolozzi: Sculpture, Drawings Collages and Graphics, exhibition catalogue, (London: Arts Council, 1976), 15.↩︎

  9. Antony Cooke, Charles Ives and his Road to the Stars: A New Interpretation, Assessment and Guide to the Music and the Man (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 112.↩︎

  10. Summer Show 1, Serpentine Gallery, London (5–27 June 1976).↩︎

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Explore the 1976 catalogue