David Mabb’s Rhythm 69

Colin Darke

Since the early eighties, David Mabb has constructed his paintings through the juxtaposition, overlaying and mutual obscuring of complementary and contradictory elements. From his David Salle-like assemblages, with overtly political content, through his reworkings of Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower paintings, with their subject replaced by Tatlin’s Elegy to the Third International, to his defiling of William Morris designs, he has used painting as a dialectical process, exploring the historical significance of visual language.

            He has been using the work of English designer and revolutionary William Morris for a number of years now, prompted by what on the surface appears to be a contradictory double life. Morris is perhaps best known for his wallpaper and fabric designs, stylising healthy flora, and occasionally fauna, produced under conditions which challenged the modern and alienating methods of contemporary industry. The role for which the man should perhaps more justly be remembered, however, is that of revolutionary socialist, member of the Social Democratic Federation and founder of the Socialist League. Mabb uses Morris’s fabrics and wallpapers as canvas and paper for his painted copies of appropriated imagery.

            One of Mabb’s favoured artists for these combinations is Kazimir Malevich, who famously produced the iconic (in both senses of the word) Black Square of 1913. Malevich, for some time embracing Futurism and Cubism, developed what he called Suprematism, reducing painting to its simplest form, intended to remove its maker from any association with academic tradition and its conservative notions of the aesthetic and, through a heightened individualism in his relationship with the simplest of geometric forms, creates a means of painting which he believed brought the artist closer to nature.

            Mabb’s work with Morris designs has been dominated by his use of Russian Suprematist/Constructivist imagery in general. He has used, in addition to both cubo-futurist and suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich, many fabric designs by Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. Rhythm 69 appropriates sixty-nine images, made in 1970, which come from the storyboard of an unmade film by Hans Richter. This script was itself based on a film proposal for Richter by Malevich in 1927, after seeing the former’s Rhythm 21 (1921) and Rhythm 23 (1923).

            In Malevich, there are some sentiments with which Morris would surely have had some sympathy:

The masters of [antiquity and the Renaissance] depicted man in his complete form, both outward and inward.

Man was assembled, and his inward state was expressed.

But despite their enormous skill, they did not, however, perfect the savage’s idea:

The reflection of nature on canvas, as in a mirror.[1]

This assertion that over-reliance on skill separates humans from nature brings Malevich a little closer to Morris. John Ruskin, in his three-volume The Stones of Venice, which, according to E. P. Thompson, influenced Morris’s thought through to his adult life,[2] asserts an intimate relationship with nature in pre-Renaissance production, lost as a result of the perfection of modern technologies. Thompson summarises the argument thus:

     The very precision of the products of the modern engineering industry were―Ruskin asserted―the visible indications of the slavery of the modern worker; “all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel” upon which Victorian society so prided itself were the marks of the murder of the human soul by the exclusion of the worker’s moral and intellectual faculties.[3]

He goes on to quote Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice:

… gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors; examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being …[4]

Other views expressed by Malevich may have filled Morris with horror:

Idealism and the demands of the aesthetic sense are the instruments of torture.

The idealisation of the human form is the mortification of the many lines of living muscle.

Aestheticism is the garbage of intuitive feeling.[5]

The idealisation of natural forms was, of course, the first principle of Morris’s aesthetic. Talking not of the human form, but of the use of flora in his designs, he asserted that:

The geometric structure of the pattern, which is a necessity in all recurring patterns, should be boldly insisted upon, so as to draw the eye from accidental figures … Those natural forms which are at once most familiar and most delightful to us, as well from association as from beauty, are the best for our purpose. The rose, the lily, the tulip, the oak, the vine, and all the herbs and trees that even we cockneys know about, they will serve our turn …”[6]

            The designs for interior decoration which came out of Morris & Co express its founder’s ideal of a relationship based on the rationality of a modern human society unified with the ordered spontaneity of the natural world. This concurs with Malevich’s desire to mirror nature, but conflicts with his notion of intuitive aesthetics as garbage. Malevich’s internalised, individualised relationship with nature echoes his association with the revolution that surrounded him.

            Despite his support for the revolution, Malevich was, at heart, a spiritualist, making paintings for individual contemplation, like the Russian icons to which they refer. Black Square (1913), when first exhibited, was hung across a corner of the gallery space, just as religious paintings are traditionally placed in Russian homes. In Black Square, Red Square (1915), the two forms replace Mary and the infant Christ she holds (secularly re-identified in the painting’s original title, Painterly Realism. Boy with KnapsackColour Masses in the Fourth Dimension). His work aims to combine, paradoxically, the timeless innocence of the “savage”in tune with his natural environmentwith the knowing intellect of the modern.

            El Lissitzky, on the other hand, when appropriating in 1922 the black and red square for his interactive children’s book Suprematist Story of Two Squares in Six Constructions, gives the characters new materialist[7] identities, transforming them into signs for Menshevism and Bolshevism, carrying out the 1917 revolutions. The geometric forms of Suprematism and Constructivism, then, already contain within themselves opposing characteristics: for Malevich, spirit, individuality, immutability; for Lissitzky, materialism, collectivism, historical dynamism.

            Mabb’s marrying of these complexities with the designs of William Morris confuses things even more. Morris’s designs were ideologically constructed from a very different viewpoint. The Constructivists on the whole identified, from a modernist perspective, a positive potential in industrialisation, seeing the (pre-Stalinist) workers’ state as a vehicle for freeing the worker from the alienation of labour and breaking down the distinction between manual and intellectual production. Morris, however, was faced with nineteenth-century English industry’s dark satanic mills. His dream of dignity of and through labour, in a pre-revolutionary world, was centred in the medieval-style workshop, where both the design and production of beautiful goods emerged from the communion between human beings and their natural surroundings.

            In Rhythm 69, Mabb merges a Malevich-based storyboard, developed by the painter and filmmaker Hans Richter, with sixty-nine hand-printed Morris wallpaper samples. Politically, Hans Richter was closer to Lissitzky than Malevich. He was active in the Action Committee of Revolutionary Artists in Munich in 1918, and for a while retained his ideological position after abandoning direct political activity the following year. He, for example, aligned himself with Lissitzy in 1922, working with him and Theo van Doesburg on a manifesto for the arts.

            The origin of Rhythm 69’s storyboard lies in a visit made by Kasimir Malevich to Hans Richter in Berlin in 1927. This was to discuss collaboration on a film project, despite Richter’s by then effective abandonment of abstraction in his work. He was by then using figurative imagery, incorporating animation of objects, moving him closer to DADA and surrealism. Malevich approached Richter with the intention of working with him on a suprematist film, originally titled Die Malerei und die Probleme der Architektur,[8] which included an instructive history of modern painting since Impressionism.[9]

… the main concern that connected Malevich and myself, Richter later wrote, was to express his suprematist theory in continuity and in motion. He had seen my abstract films and found that we could or should proceed together in realising this dream.[10]

The project never, however, went further than Malevich’s script outline and Richter’s later storyboard.

            For Mabb’s translation of Richter’s narrative, the forms―squares, rectangles and circles―are painted onto the wallaper, attempting to obscure their floral designs. These, however, retaliate, pushing through and crawling over the shapes. The conflicting entities―flat, geometric, simple, architectonic, versus decorative, organic, complex, natural―struggle against each other, neither achieving dominance, so each painting is at the same time neither and both of its constituent parts. But we find, after some contemplation, a kind of unexpected congruence. The flatness of the printed colours now complements that of Mabb’s interventions. The painted squares and rectangles highlight Morris’s reliance on geometry to create the recurrence of pattern necessary for the printing of the wallpapers’ designs. So, even in Morris’s workshop-based production methods, repetition and geometry are determining factors in creating his natural forms[11], while Richter’s shapes are able to float freely from their central position. The harmonious relationship established by Mabb between these two ostensibly incompatible aesthetic languages might well be looked upon with some suspicion by Richter himself. To the man who wanted us “to forget about the leaf and to study the oval,” [12] and who relied so much on tonal contrast for his work, such an idea would be inconceivable.

            Richter worked with the Swedish constructivist Viking Eggeling at the end of the tens and beginning of the twenties on the development and realisation of their conception of a “universal language”. Historian Justin Hoffman describes the collaboration in these terms:

Because it was impossible to exercise any influence on contemporary socio-cultural conditions, they focused their interests on a utopian plane. Their premise was a new system of communication based on visual perception. Richter and Eggeling soon reached a point in their experimentation where they noticed that the elements of plane and line could assume a specific relationship to each other and thereby render a certain continuity. This continuity prompted them decisively to introduce the term language.[13]

Both artists turned to the structures of musical composition as the basis for achieving a harmonious and democratic means of visual communication, Richter looking specifically at the work of Johann Sebastian Bach:

I was trying to achieve a balance and counter-balance of the white paper with the black spots of ink I made my drawings with, a balance so that white and black were both part of the same work. … I studied in [the preludes and fugues of Bach] the up and down, the movements and countermovements all leading to a definite unity.[14]

The influence of musical composition on the attempted development of a universal language informed the formal structure of the constructivist drawings and paintings of both Richter and Eggeling. The “picture rolls,” as they called them, took on the form of linear narratives, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal in composition. Their combination of staged transformation of visual forms and the linearity of musical notation (which, indeed, bring to mind the scores of later avant-garde musicians, including Karlheinz Stockhausen), lent itself ideally to the medium of film animation. After, according to Richter at least, an unsatisfactory attempt by the two artists directly to animate their picture rolls, they moved on separately to make suprematist/constructivist animations.

            Mabb, then, has removed a fundamental aspect of Richter’s aesthetic. The dynamic between the equal and opposite extremes of black and white, and its colour-based variation in his later work, has been denied. Richter’s removal of the subject/object relationship between ink and paper has, on the one hand, been countered by the laying on of the forms onto a background untouched by Mabb, and, on the other hand, enhanced by the imposing strength of the William Morris designs beneath the marks. The delicate and disciplined musicality has been transformed into a kind of harmonious cacophony.

            In a recent hanging of Rhythm 69 in Belfast,[15] Mabb showed the paintings in a single, horizontal line, snaking through three gallery spaces. Logically (though rarely a realistic prospect), the work should be hung vertically, to equate with its eventual celluloid form (and, of course, to that of wallpaper). Mabb’s horizontal arrangement, in addition to effectively cutting the filmstrip into individual frames, contradicts the temporal narrative further, as each piece is made on its exclusive Morris design. While the storyboard implies a story in time, the sixty-nine individual patterns deny it.

            On the one hand then, by removing the all-important interplay between the two tonal extremes, and on the other, by changing a continuous, flowing narrative into a “step-frame” series of individualised and static images, Mabb has effectively vandalised Richter’s visual objective to the point of destruction. The audience, however, creates new balances between the two by alternating between the finding of points and areas of interplay between the two forms and “zoning out” either to see the individual elements as free agents.

            This interactivity is particularly pertinent in view of the fact that the aims of the Richter/Eggeling universal language expressed a utopian socialist agenda. During the Congress for International Progressive Artists, held in Düsseldorf in 1922, Richter joined with Theo van Doesburg and El Lissitzky to form the International Fraction of Constructivists. Contained within their declaration is the assertion that:

Art is a common and real expression of the creative energy that organizes the progress of humanity, which means that art is the tool of the common process of labour.[16]

This questioning of formal judgments is echoed at the ideological level, with the contradictions inherent in the suprematist form coming into conflict with the exposed paradoxes in the work of Morris. The utopian socialism of the latter clashes with the reality of the Russian Revolution, and finds a complex ambivalence when coming into contact with Hans Richter and his personal passion for, and disappointment in, the German revolutionary movement.

            The most apparent contradiction in William Morris is that thrown up by the revolutionary ideology to which he adhered and the reality of the nineteenth-century capitalist mode of production which surrounded it. This led me―erroneously and lazily―to conclude that Morris’s utopianism stemmed from his optimistic belief in the possibility of creating discrete pockets of socialism within the structures of the bourgeois market. Mabb put me straight by directing me to an essay he wrote about his work in 2006, in which he says:

My initial interest in William Morris arose from two apparent sets of contradictions. The first is the tension between Morris’s later politics and his business. He became Britain’s own indigenous Marxist, the Trotsky or Gramsci of London’s Hammersmith, but he was also the designer of interiors for the wealthy British. While there may be no easy reconciliation between these two aspects of his project, the utopianism of his designs makes the contradiction productive: there is no escape within capital, only its overthrow, something Morris came to understand later in his life.

The second, more sustainable, contradiction is that it is possible to be torn apart by the aesthetics of Morris: to like and be seduced by his designs while simultaneously finding the politics of their consumption unacceptable. When first produced the patterns were hand woven or woodblock printed to the highest technical standards possible, and were only affordable to the wealthy middle and upper classes. The meanings of Morris’s designs have changed over time; now widely available through relatively cheap Sanderson copies in Britain and the USA, they have come to represent the values of suburbia, the middle classes and the aesthetically conservative.[17]

            Suprematism/Constructivism, on the other hand, was formed in tandem with the movement towards, and the realisation of, the proletarian revolution. In the few years before Stalin’s counter-revolution, the nascent de-commodification of production was making itself visible through the work of Russia’s avant-garde. The forms, if not necessarily the ideologies, of art produced in Russia were exported abroad and embraced by artists of a broad range of political persuasion. Richter, in his early life, found no real distinction between his work as an artist and his activities as a revolutionary, seemingly regarding their relationship as symbiotic.

            In this respect, Morris’s and Richter’s lives can be seen as complementary, but inverted. While the utopianism in the designs of Morris preceded the intensity of his political activism, Richter pursued his belief in the psychological and spiritual democratisation of abstract constructivism in the face of the failed attempts, in 1919, of the Action Committee of Revolutionary Artists of Munich, a coalition of disparate groups with a broad range of political objectives. After the elimination of the 1919 Münchener Räterepublik, Richter’s approaches to socialism moved from the organisational and participative to the idealist.

            Mabb’s dialectical approach to art production reveals the duality of art as use-value and exchange-value through his clash of these stylistic and ideological practices. Just as eyes turn as the guest arrives wearing a striped shirt with tweed, the discordant Rhythm 69 focuses our attention on the substance of the aesthetic in its historical context.

Many thanks to the Golden Thread Gallery for granting Æ permission to reproduce sections of Colin Darke’s earlier essay on Rhythm 69, published in Commodity Form. Belfast: Golden Thread Gallery, 2008.

[1] Kazimir Malevich. From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism. 1915. Quoted in John E Bowlt. Russian Art of the Avant Garde. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988, 120.

[2] E P Thompson. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1955, 33.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] Malevich. Op. cit., 135.

[6] Thompson. Op. cit., 106-107.

[7] Despite the fact that they appear from outer space!

[8] Painting and the Problems of Architecture

[9] Justin Hoffmann. “Hans Richter: Constructivist Filmmaker” in Stephen C. Foster. Hans Richter, Activism, Modernism and the Avant-Garde..Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998, 86.

[10] Bernd Finkeldey. “Hans Richter and the Constructivist Internationalin Stephen C. Foster. Op. cit., 115-116.

[11] Morris addresses the dilemma thus: “What we have to do to meet this difficulty is to create due paper-stainers’ flowers and leaves, forms that are obviously fit for printing with a block; to mask the construction of our pattern enough to prevent people from counting the repeats of our pattern, while we manage to lull their curiosity to trace it out; to be careful to cover our ground equably.” William Morris. The Lesser Arts of Life, 1882. Quoted in Christine Poulson ed. William Morris on Art & Design. Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1996, 127-128.

[12] Finkeldey.  Op. cit., 94.

[13] Hoffmann. Op.cit., 75.

[14] Finkeldey.  Op. cit., 94.

[15] Commodity Form, a two-person show with the author, at the Golden Thread Gallery.

[16] Finkeldey.  Op. cit., 101.

[17] David Mabb, Catalogue essay for exhibition Art Into Everyday Life, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, 2006.

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