Revival: Utopia, Identity and Memory

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Georgina Jarvis, an MA student of History of Design and Material Culture, appraises a recent conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Mariano Fortuny, dress, c.1920. Pleated silk, cord with silver, trimmed with beads. Museum number:T.739-1972.(c) Victoria and Albert Museum,London

We are living through a period of change; demonstrated in early 2013 as the last high street record store moved into administration, unable to keep up with the ways in which music can now be both distributed and consumed digitally. Technology is affecting our material world profoundly: increasingly goods that had previously been taken for granted are being replaced by intangible alternatives. With this kind of change it is possible to see what Raphael Samuel meant by the ‘fragility of the present,’ and why there exists a desire to borrow from, or retreat to the past.

This tendency is certainly not unique to our time; this was made clear at a November 2012 conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art called Revival: Utopia, Identity and Memory.  One of its described intentions was to generate new understandings of reworkings of the past in architecture and design. To achieve this a group of speakers with diverse areas of interest came together. The complexity of such a task was clearly illustrated by the glossary of terms, which had been compiled collaboratively by participants. Rather than editing or condensing each entry down to a simplified definition, individual responses were presented alongside one another in dialogue. This glossary was distributed at the start of the conference and served as a strong indication of the richness of discussion to follow.

A number of common threads ran throughout the event. Niccola Shearman’s paper, ‘German Expressionists and the Gothic – the case of a super-revival,’ highlighted her interest in the effects of revivalism on identity when mixed with contemporary influence. Through her research on the woodcut in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, Shearman analysed the various factors that trigger a return to that past; asking whether art reflects the spirit of the age, or contributes to it. She explained that revivals tend to come at a time of cultural questioning, and in doing so highlighted the way that seemingly very different periods of revival occur through time due to the same concerns.

It is also true however, that stylistically architecture or design may remain the same over time, the ideologies attached to them can alter. This was something highlighted as part of  Matt Lodder’s paper, ‘The New Old Style: Tradition, Archetype and Rhetoric in Contemporary Western Tattooing’. Here he described the cyclical nature of Western tattooing and the recurrence of a style that has become known as “American Traditional,” which is characterised by thick black lines and blocks of colour, typically depicting motifs such as anchors, swallows or portraits of women. Lodder was able to show that despite experimentation and innovation within the art, these traditional forms continue to be revisited and revived peridocally. By highlighting the repetition of imagery and form, Lodder was able to show how this style of tattooing has come to define our idea of what tattooing is and what it should be.

In a paper entitled ‘Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos Gown: a Pleating Together of Time(s)’, Wendy Ligon Smith directly addressed the question of metaphor within revivalism. The work of designer Fortuny (1871 – 1906) was informed by the past , through his study of art history and his famous Delphos gown, inspired by Greek sculpture. In order to create the pleats he invented a machine so effective that the pleats are still in place today and are often still stored in the way originally instructed; twisted, as shown in the image below. Although Fortuny refined the design over the course of his career, the design altered very little and is therefore at odds with Roland Barthes’s and Walter Benjamin’s theories that link changes in fashion to the passing of time. Ligon Smith cited Benjamin to highlight how the pleats in the Delphos gown could be seen as a metaphor for the layering effect of time. She argued that this continuity in style and technique contradicts the idea that fashion relies on forgetfulness for its newness.

This conference is not the only recent event to look at ideas of revivalism, memory and identity. For example, the Serpentine’s annual marathon (October 2012) brought together 60 participants over three days to present ideas on debates linked to memory in science, art and culture. Sustaining Identity, a November 2012 symposium at the V&A, saw architect Juhani Pallasmaa give an impassioned keynote, questioning whether newness is a relevant aspiration or represents a future without a past.  Pallasmaa argued that tradition needs to be re-invented with every generation. In fact many of Pallasmaa’s points were reflected in discussions that took place at the Courtauld, suggesting that a return to the past can be both a search for authenticity and a reaction to contemporary life.

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