Tobey is a humanist, a traditionalist, a lover of the body as a subject and humanity as a theme. Nevertheless – under the influence of modern existence rather than modern art – he was led to fragment, obscure, and ultimately to dematerialise the human form and image entirely, in search of a valid expression of the human spirit.
(William C. Seitz Themes and Subjects in Mark Tobey/Art and Belief page 25)
The latest issue of the National Trust’s magazine dropped through the letter box the other day. It has an article about William Morris‘ Red House, about which a book has just been published. What I didn’t expect was that reading the article, in the context of my ponderings on giftedness, would set my mind wandering down an intriguing trail through memories of Morris to Dartington Hall and a book on Mark Tobey that I have had since 1998 but never read till now.
The book on giftedness had unsettled me in any case, reminding me of my Cambridge days when I was immersed in literature, film and folk song, when the arts were at the heart of much of what I did and thought.
The William Morris hint brought other intimations back to mind. When I was teaching English Literature in the days of the 60s protest movement, Morris’ spirit drew me like a magnet. He combined craftsmanship, artistry, ethical integrity, poetry, story, and social action into a seamless whole.
I had forgotten, until these memories were unlocked just a few short days ago, how much he had influenced me then and was almost certainly shaping my sensibility still. His way of integrating the diverse aspects of his character, interests and skills into a world reshaping pattern of being in action is still a valid model for how that can be done. That he was born in 1836 and died in 1896, his life’s trajectory overlapping the period in which a world changing spirit of unity, as Bahá’ís see it, was being released into the world, makes his example all the more compelling for those of us within the Bahá’í community who yearn for a powerful model of how the arts can fuel the transformation of a culture and society rather than simply be the expression of a prevailing norm. Ai Weiwei‘s activities in China seem imbued with something of the same spirit.
. . . his highly original, painfully heroic progress through life impinges on us still, from old Socialists to new conservationists and ecologists. . . . Most of all he was concerned with proper human occupation, whether going under the name of work or play. In the early twenty-first century throughout the West this is our urgent problem. Technological advance and globalisation has made ordinary skill and modest pride in work redundant. But redundancy of people brings the threat of disconnection from real life.
And he was passionate about the need to link all manual work with genuine creativity and how this would form the foundation of a better society.
Not that the Bahá’í community lacks the beginnings of a sense of how this might be done. I have already published a post that includes a description of one Bahá’í poet’s career in brief.
Thinking of Morris reminded me of Stedall’s book, Where on Earth is Heaven?, and its passages on Cecil Collins and Dartington Hall. As my good friend Rob commented at the time, Dartington Hall has strong links with some Bahá’í artists. I’ve culled the next few paragraphs from their website.
A Bahá’í, Bernard Leach CBE, was regarded by some as the “Father of British studio pottery.” He set up the Leach Pottery at St. Ives, Cornwall in 1920. He was instrumental in organizing the only International Conference of Potters and Weavers in July 1952 at Dartington Hall, where he had been working and teaching.
Cecil Collins was an English artist originally associated with the Surrealist movement. In 1936 he moved to Devon, attending Mark Tobey’s classes at Dartington Hall. Collins held an exhibition in the Barn Studio (1937) and, after Tobey’s departure in 1938, he taught here (1939-43) alongside Bernard Leach, Hein Heckroth and Willi Soukop.
Mark Tobey, also a Bahá’í, was an American abstract expressionist painter. He sailed to England in 1931 to teach at Dartington Hall, in Devon. There, he was resident artist of the school. In addition to teaching, he painted frescoes for the school and became a close friend of Bernard Leach. It is intriguing that modern existence seemed to have forced him, as someone acutely conscious of the spiritual dimension, down the road towards the kind abstraction in painting that McGilchrist finds so symptomatic of over-logical left-brain zealotry.
The Thursday before last my wife and I managed to squeeze in a visit to Wightwick (pronounced Wittick for the uninitiated) Manor near Wolverhampton. I was expecting a small-scale experience with maybe, if we were lucky, a couple of interesting artefacts. We were more than lucky. The whole place was crammed with beauty. Mander, the manufacturer who had built it, was a devotee of Morris’ work and every wall hanging and piece of furniture, just about, was in that style. As a bonus the Oak Room was devoted to the exhibition of rare archival pattern books, wallpaper designs and printing blocks, a feast for the eyes indeed. In fact, the only frustrating aspect of the whole experience was that we were not allowed to touch anything and as someone who experiences the world more vividly through touch than sight this is the major drawback for me of almost all museums, historic houses and exhibitions. This would not have been so much of a problem for Morris from what I am reading in Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography which emphasises how strongly visual he was in his relationship with the world.