John McHale Interview (cont.)
28. You mention the Senses panel at the This is Tomorrow exhibition. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
Yes, my father told me that he worked on the Senses panel and that he was assisted by Richard Hamilton. I am aware that Hamilton claims the Senses panel is his work, but I am not sure of the creative situation based on what my father indicated to me. Perhaps Hamilton assisted my father with the paste-up and enlargement of the work, or perhaps Hamilton did more than assist McHale with the work. All I can note for the record, knowing my father's life and work, is the following:
During the war my father was a trained medic responsible for the entire shipboard crew of a Flower class Corvette - over 60 men plus all the survivors found at sea during battle conditions. Part of his medical responsibility was to liaise with the captain, other ships, and to write dispatches to the Infirmary at Malta on every patient in his care. I mention this because almost every collage McHale has ever produced has a medical component to them. So when one views the Senses panel at This is Tomorrow, is it not curious and a coincidence that it refers to medical conditions?
John McHale (front row, third from left) among the survivors
of the Corvette "Samphire" on which McHale served as a Medic
(Photo copyright John McHale (Jr.))
Furthermore, you may note that McHale was a consummate artist in optical perception and pattern recognition. McHale's Pop Art collage poster design, and the whole of his contribution to the Team 2 installation at This is Tomorrow, and the Senses panel concerns optical perception and conceptual pattern recognition. To quote McHale on perception and the senses: "any change in man's environment is indicative of a change in man's relation to it. In his actual mode of perceiving and symbolizing his interaction with it... Therefore we are concerned with the underlining discrepancy between fact and the perception of fact... to provoke acute awareness of our sensory functions in an environmental situation."
The Senses panel, at first glance, appears to depict Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus fellow who McHale lectured on at the ICA and who he references in the This is Tomorrow poster design. On a closer examination the Senses panel is almost certainly an actual photographic depiction of Tito, the famous Yugoslavian leader. What connection, if any, did Hamilton have to Tito or Yugoslavia up to the time of the opening of This is Tomorrow? Both McHale and the Cordells summered several times in Yugoslavia prior to This is Tomorrow. Magda Cordell speaks fluent Serbian and monitored Serbian and Yugoslavian signals traffic for the British during the war since the British were covertly supplying Tito's independence group of fighters throughout the war. McHale's earlier Why I took to the washers in luxury flats collage has a large picture of Churchill who, in his famous Iron Curtain speech, refers to Tito.
To take this observation further, we can note that the visage of the man in the Senses panel is covered in vector arrows that are reminiscent of the arrow disquisition in Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook. We can check the record and find that McHale's colleague, Lawrence Alloway, gave a talk on Paul Klee at the ICA. I recognize that Hamilton used single arrows in a few of his works, but they were isolated without accompanying text or media context.. However, we can also check the record and discover that McHale produced a Communications collage that is crammed full of directional arrows with accompanying communications text depicting a multi-channel information flow diagram. Marilyn Monroe, the subject of one of the Pop Art readymades at This is Tomorrow, was mentioned on posters advertising All About Eve which were full of directional arrows. Then we can refer to McHale's Pop art poster design for This is Tomorrow and note yet another use of Klee-like arrows.
Two posters of All About Eve which feature curving arrows and a close-up of the image on the Senses panel.
Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? also included an arrow containing the
advertising claim "ordinary cleaners reach only this far" pointing to one of the stairs.
McHale also produced a collage titled Ev One and used Klee-like arrows in his automated electronic information switching panel located in a kiosk for his Air France ticket office clients in central London. The electronic kiosk was designed with display arrows and illuminated icons so prospective passengers could interrogate the computer for destination choices by telephone dial-up and arrow indicators of destinations would appear on the illuminated panel screen. McHale seems to have had an affinity with arrows and the Senses work - and later he reproduced an entire companion spectrum diagram in his World Facts Manual that was featured alongside the Senses panel in the catalogue for This is Tomorrow.
29. What artwork was your father actually responsible for at This is Tomorrow?
McHale's Duchamp style Pop Art readymades at the This is Tomorrow included:
Robby the Robot
the Marilyn Monroe poster
the poster of Marlon Brando
the film projector and the endless reel of film depicting the Royal Navy fleet at sea
the oversized Guinness beer bottles
the endless playing pop music electric juke box
the rotodiscs accessed by McHale while in New York directly from Marcel Duchamp
the poster of Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflower painting
the film poster of the Moulin Rouge can-can dancers
The Moulin Rouge can-can dancers poster and Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers link to Toulouse Lautrec's Moulin Rouge dancers and relate to McHale's interest in the colour perception paintings of the Impressionists. It also relates to McHale's Pop Art theories on juxtaposing Pop and so-called "fine" art images and kicking out the high/low fine art dichotomy and replacing it with an artistic continuum. The can-can burlesque This is Tomorrow theme was consistently continued into McHale's Pop Art collage mural design, located behind his juke box Pop Art readymade. There was a very large Pop Art 'collaborative' inspired mural covering most of the wall behind the juke box at This is Tomorrow. The mural contained a large picture of a woman whose face was remarkably similar, if not the identical picture, of a woman McHale also had displayed on his studio tack board. The central figure of the Pop art mural was a woman performer showing off her high step legs reminiscent of Paolozzi's Take Off skater and the central athletic figure in Hanna Hoch's photomontage Kitchen Knife Dada and was visually linked to the burlesque image depicted in McHale's Pop Art poster design for This is Tomorrow.
In addition McHale designed and implemented the Space theme along with the 3-D collage interactive space capsule, and also designed and installed his large Op Art Dazzle panels. I believe he may have included an essence dispenser to perfume the air with some smelly sensory effect. Frank Cordell on his own initiative installed the first artistic proto "happening" in Britain with the elegant inclusion of the microphone and electric amplifier to provide ambient sound and cybernetic audience feedback.
30. Were films shown at the exhibition?
At the portals to This is Tomorrow McHale had requested Frank Cordell to access and position a movie film projector in order to project an endless reel of film of the Royal Navy Fleet at sea. McHale had been a wartime Royal Marine and I think the idea partly was a joke about "join the navy and see the limitless horizons of the world of tomorrow." Also the Suez crisis was brewing at the time.
31. Did McHale do any other films?
Yes, he did a number of experimental films. He had read Arnold Hauser's work on film, knew of Grierson and McLaren's work, and regularly visited film houses including the Everyman up near Hampstead. He realized from his numerous discussions with Frank Cordell about film production, and from studying film carefully, particularly the Russian work of Eisenstein, that movie film was intrinsically a collage medium of cutting and splicing diverse juxtaposed sequences together. One of his first collage films consisted of splicing disparate sequences of very old 8 millimetre pre-shot film that he requested people donate to him for an "Art" film. Some of the "readymade" sequences were of 1920s garden parties in silent black and white and run backwards and forwards like an early Chaplin film. One lot of film that was donated to him was so old that the nitrate film stock almost exploded on him in the cutting room in the downstairs film studio at 52 Cleveland Square.
McHale and Frank Cordell collaborated on the script, filming and editing of an architectural promotional film for the Smithsons' submission for the redesign of Berlin called Haupstadt Berlin. Some of the sequences with handheld cameras panning along London buildings shot from Frank Cordell's moving Ford convertible car actually predate similar shots seen later in Blow Up. Other shots consisted of slow aerial pans over the original Smithson architectural site plans for Berlin as though one were flying over the site in an aircraft. The Haupstadt Berlin film is still currently available through the British Film Institute. It may be credited to my father but it was actually a joint McHale/Cordell effort just like at This is Tomorrow. I believe the Smithsons designed a set of drawings of a modern house for the Cordells in exchange for the film.
McHale also did innumerable collage films for commercial clients including Talkie Strips in London. Many of these film collages resemble the format of McHale's Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? poster design. An industrial promotional film McHale did for Frigidair involved a lot of very innovative freeze frame and stock shots, and disjointed sequencing. He drove the professional British film crew insane because they thought he was fooling around, not knowing what he was doing, and they were waiting to run the cameras like normal, but he never did because most of it was shot in long freeze frame sequences to highlight the client's product features. McHale also worked on a TV commercial film involving spoons suspended in space. The professional photographer could not figure out how McHale had achieved the effect, until he explained he had used laboratory clamps like his old pre-war days as a lab technician in Glasgow Medical School. Later it became common practice to use laboratory clamps in London commercial camera work.
We also made an elaborate surrealist dream sequence 16 mm colour home movie with Frank Cordell and my father about his three sons Evan, Julian, and John. It was shot on vacation in Yugoslavia near Split at the Hotel Jadrin on the Adriatic in 1957. I mentioned before that McHale's friend, Arnold Bittleman, visited us from Yale and he did all the costuming and very elaborate body painting for the cowboys and Indians sequences. I think there is still a copy of the 30 minute film in the family archives.
32. Did you actually go to This is Tomorrow?
Yes. As a young lad I had previously visited in 1951 the Festival of Britain where my father had proudly exhibited his early artwork. Again, in 1956, I visited him with my mother, Evelyn, on site at the Whitechapel Gallery where he was preparing his large Dazzle Op Art panels for the portals to the This Is Tomorrow exhibit. I recall Magda was blocking in some of the black paint on Dazzle where my father had precisely penciled his design work indicating where to place the paint stripes. If you examine my father's poster design, you might detect some of the humorous linkages to McHale's other important exhibits. These include the Festival of Britain, and my father's later "Man versus Machine" exhibit at the old automobile show room at the Building Centre,15 and to This is Tomorrow.
Some may recall the theme of the Festival of Britain was "Britain Can Make It" which some astute wags had appended to read "Britain Can Make it... But Can't Have It" because in post-war Britain everything was for export, credit was tight and domestic consumption was rationed, and nobody could afford to buy new products. McHale flipped this theme around in his collage design and featured the British government's worst consumer nightmare: an English stylish International Modern household crammed full of the latest American consumer products! To add artistic insult to injury, McHale included in his design a reference to Hoover which also previously exhibited its show stopping products at the Festival of Britain, where McHale had also exhibited his work. Similarly, with McHale's Constructivist work built on automobile principles of interchangeable parts and plexiglas exhibited in the former Automobile Show Room at the Building Centre on Store Street in 1954.
33. Did you attend the opening of This is Tomorrow?
Yes, I was at the opening with my mother Evelyn, who was my father's first wife. the This is Tomorrow exhibit had been announced ahead of time several times on the radio in a fanfare of publicity and there was a long queue of young art students waiting to get in. So to expedite matters in the August heat we dodged round the side tradesman's entrance and entered together into the section where Robby the "Scots" Robot was intoning his introductory speech to an enraptured crowd of young onlookers. If I recall correctly, behind Robby there was a film poster on the wall depicting a Moulin Rouge row of can-can dancers. This was a visual reminder of several events. The initial suggestion for This is Tomorrow originated with overtures made by Paul Vezelay from the French Group Espace. It was also a personal reminder of McHale's Paris days and also an intended artistic reference to the previous nineteenth century era of the Impressionist's Salon des Refuses.
My father told me he intended the Team 2 installation to be a total visual optical and sensory overload of Optical art and Pop art stimulation. I remember the cacophony of noise of the music jukebox and Frank's microphone feedback of ambient audience sounds, and Robby the Robot rumbling away like a mechanical Churchill, plus the deliberately disorienting feeling of traversing my father's Op Art panels. There was also a waft of smelly essence in the air that assaulted one's senses. A similar cacophony of sounds and disparate optical effects are evident in McHale's poster design for the This is Tomorrow Exhibit, with the bagpipe drone of the vacuum cleaner, the TV lass teleconferencing on the phone, the bodybuilder vacuuming his lungs, the burlesque artist gesturing and chattering, the comic book characters conversing, the Jazz Singer Al Jolson intoning Kol Nidre and singing "Mammy" and the unwound Scotch reel-to-reel tape recorder blaring away in the living/sitting room at 52 Cleveland Square. According to my father, they were all part of the intended artistic experience as the audience were subjected to a barrage of stimulus of multi-channel overloading within the environmental envelope. So as I traversed the show everything was a bit of a blur. I seem to remember at the This is Tomorrow show there was a collage mural behind the juke box with another high kicking show girl showing her legs like the dancing can-can girls poster, leggy Marilyn Monroe in the breezy readymade poster, and the burlesque image in McHale's Pop Art poster. In retrospect trying to remember the show girl in the collage mural, it reminds me of other elements in McHale's Why I took to the washers in luxury flats collage of scantly dressed women, and of Paolozzi's Take Off work. My father, after all, was both a Royal Marine wartime sailor and a modern artist, so it is not surprising he had a proclivity for leggy and chesty women when at liberty with his POP Art installations. I suspect the This is Tomorrow collage mural and his POP art poster design are also McHale's deliberate humorous multi-references to Paolozzi's Breezy collage and Take Off work. Probably it was also a personal in-joke linked to McHale's life, since he was good friends with Bucky Fuller at Yale, and Bucky was reputed to have been kicked out of Harvard as an undergrad for graciously inviting a line of chorus girls to tea at university.
I also remember Lawrence Alloway and his boyish face in the crowd totally enthralled by the robot science fiction event and the photographers' flashbulbs documenting the proceedings and my father's Pop Art readymade of the large oversized Guinness beer bottle guarding the portals to This is Tomorrow.
34. What was the significance of the beer bottle?
The personal significance of the Guinness beer bottle to McHale was the fact that it is referred to as a "Black and Tan" in England and a Murphy in Ireland, and it pours with a large Crown head like the Crown image with the Ford icon in his poster design. Guinness was a personal reminder that McHale's father was also part of the Independent Group since he had fought for Irish Independence with the IRA and Collins against the Black and Tans, the IRA had blown up the Crown Post Office in the Easter Uprising, and also the fact that Mammy McHale was a Murphy from Waterford and County Cork, Ireland.
There were other events I remember when I attended the opening of This is Tomorrow. I recall meeting my father, with Magda in her Cardin styled hat, and Frank Cordell who were looking on watching Robby the Robot, along with Paolozzi. I seem to remember my father's sculptor friend, William Turnbull, being there. I had previously met Turnbull, who was like a kind quiet giant, and also Alloway, very briefly back in 1951 at my father's #8 Randolph Mews studio in Maida Vale. Albert Tucker, the Australian "Angry Penguin" was another of my father and mother's great friends in the late 1940s who I also met, but he was not at This is Tomorrow, although I think his artistic ghost and perceptive critique may have resonated among my father's work at This is Tomorrow.
At This is Tomorrow McHale humorously implied Pop Art was Space-like and Heavenly, whereas those damned souls in the audience that passed over the deliberately POP/OP disorienting threshold were destined for a different artistic brutal experience: viewing Turnbull's sculptures interred in an archaeological futurist grave site along with the rest of the Brutalist artistic Hell. The symbolic give-away are the bottles of Guinness with the lyre logo placed at the ticket counter and guarding the portals to This is Tomorrow. This may be interpreted as McHale's gesture of providing coins for "steerage" to Charon and sops to Dapper Dan and Cerberus at the portals to Hell. The ICA group never realized this extended artistic joke at their expense since they probably associated it with socializing and imbibing at the ICA bar. What I suspect McHale did was symbolically link the This is Tomorrow portal experience to a similar mythic poetic experience of Orphee with his lyre crossing the bar of Styx and descending into Hades, and related this to Cocteau's Surrealist Orphée film about the mirror portals to the senses and subconscious hell.
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