Other Conferences

Material Meanings

Third Biannual conference of the 

European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies (EAM) 
University of Kent, Canterbury, 7-9 September 2012


Peter Cunningham

Art in the Curriculum and Art on the Walls: Primary Education in the 1950s

This paper’s setting is the newly built primary schools of the post-war era in England. The schools’ architecture was interpreted in Saint’s classic study as ‘the coming-together of many things: the Modern Movement, a puritan strain in British philosophy and design, the needs, constraints, opportunities and organization of post-war reconstruction, and the triumph of fresh thought about childhood, teaching and learning’. Andrew Saint (1987, viii) Saint described how ‘One of the great ambitions of the 20C has been to find ways of sharing the proceeds of material, technical and cultural development equitably among all. In architecture, this was the driving social dynamic behind the Modern Movement, at constant odds with issues of style, meaning and appearance.’ (1987, viii-ix)

Hertfordshire Local Education Authority became renowned for its innovatory school buildings, and its Chief Education Officer John Newsom also promoted the commissioning of impressive mural paintings for some of these schools (currently being documented in an interdisciplinary collaborative funded project). Newsom may have been inspired by the example of his mentor Henry Morris principle in the pre-war village colleges of Cambridgeshire, and ‘bringing art to the people’ was a keynote of post-war national culture epitomised in the 1951 Festival of Britain.
The paper seeks to explore the sometimes paradoxical relationships between the buildings, the paintings, and art that young children were encouraged to practice. Saint saw the brief flourishing of these murals in the early 1950s as something of a ‘flash in the pan’.  Architects were ambivalent in their attitude to the paintings, as completed murals appeared to contradict the architectural principle that schools were to contain nothing that could not be developed. The policy could degenerate into getting a famous name, and artists with established reputations were not normally much interested in collaboration or in addressing themselves to children. For these reasons, the interested architects favoured a more anonymous, collective approach, for example by painters with left-wing inclinations or groups of art students. We might also perceive a dissonance between the modernist architecture that made strong statements about form and functionality, and murals designed to appeal to the imaginations of young children.

Children’s self-expression through art had been encouraged by a few pioneers during the inter-war period, and the arts became central to the progressive primary school curriculum. It was argued by some that the catastrophe of the Second World War was due to ‘the failure of man’s sensibilities to temper the use of the forces placed at his disposal by his highly developed intellect.  It is undoubtedly true to say that in the schools, we tend to teach what can be tested and memorised to the neglect of the more civilising subjects of and activities of which Art and Music are two.’ However, a dominant aesthetic in the art curriculum was that of the arts and crafts movement, personified by the influential work of the influential school inspector and etcher Robin Tanner.  This work might seem at odds with the modernist aesthetic of the new primary school buildings in which the art curriculum was often pursued.

Curriculum history, history of art and architecture are combined in seeking to assess the significance and impact that these murals had in the life of the schools and on the children who attended them.

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