Sunday, 13 February 2011

Essay - Counter culture and psychedelic art – hidden in a veil of colours?

On the 13th April 1966 Time magazine described London as the ‘swinging’ city.  Fashion, style and counter culture had arrived both as a result of the middle class youth becoming dissatisfied with the ‘establishment ‘and  also following a move away from the conservative and modernistic fifties and early sixties.  The author Richard Hollis explains the term ‘underground’ which was used ‘to describe the anti-establishment attitude of many of the young middle class in the 1960’s who took an alternative cultural or political stance outside and opposite to conventional society’ (2001, P182).   
In his book, Subculture- The Meaning Of Style, Hebdige wrote that ‘the members of a subculture must have a common language. And if style is to catch on … it must say the right things in the right way at the right time’. (2003, p122)  The common ‘anti-establishment’ language for this group was the psychedelic style with a mantra from Timothy Leary of ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’.  In Graphic Styles, Steven Heller wrote that ironically the best definition for psychedelic is ‘Otto Wagner’s term gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art), for it connotes the hippie movements return to communal living, its attempts at arts and crafts production, and its union of art, music and literature.’ (1998, p210)    
This underground community was given a voice in the form of counter-culture newspapers, The International Times (IT), launched in October 1966 and OZ launched in February 1967. In the words of Nigel Fountain quoted in Tom McGrath’s obituary, the International Times ‘did signpost the moment when the decade turned and a subversive culture mattered’ (The Guardian, 2009)
The founders of IT, John Hopkins, Jim Haynes and Barry Miles had recently opened The London Free School,  providing a middle class education to the under-privileged;  a radical bookstore and gallery, Indica and went on to open the legendary UFO night club.  Tom McGrath was recruited as the founding editor and Mike McInnery as Art Editor.  Tom was influenced by the American ‘Beatnik’ poetry and literature and had been editor of ‘Peace News’ for two years.    A quote from the editorial sets the scene ‘one thing everyone connected with this paper agrees on is the need for change’… ‘and we have put out IT in the belief, that many other people, especially young people will agree with us’(1966, p2) This is said in the context of a CND supporter, afraid of atomic war between US and Russia, following two years into a Harold Wilson lead Labour government.  The new Labour government ignored the anti-nuclear feeling of many labour supporters and continued with the previous conservative policy.
Oz, first launched in Australia in 1963 by Richard Neville and Martin Sharp, was brought to London in February 1967.  Australian artist Martin Sharp influenced the psychedelic appearance of the magazine when he started experimenting with LSD.  The magazine, whilst trying to attract the growing counter-cultural hippies, was actually competing against Private Eye as a satirical political magazine; being published every other week to the fortnightly Private Eye.
The covers and content of IT and Oz were often controversial, political and included news of happenings and the latest developments in music and theatre.  A regular feature in IT for example was ‘The Interpot Report’ which recorded the price of marijuana around the world.  Some iconic and revolutionary figures contributed to both magazines including Germaine Greer, Allen Ginsburg and John Peel.
The IT cover (figure 1) illustrated by Mike McInnery, is promoting an IT benefit event ‘14 hour Techni-colour dream’ staged at Alexander Palace in 1967.  The image of silent movie actress Theda Bara, mistaken for the ‘IT’ girl Clara Bow by the team, was present on most covers as the logo.   The typeface of the masthead is deliberately lowercase to give a graphically raw feel.  The bright colours typical of many posters and art work at the time were influenced both by the stroboscopic lightshows and the visual experiences from mind altering drugs.  This together with the illustrative ink drawing and almost illegible lettering was typical of the Psychedelic style becoming so popular at this time.   The semi naked appearance of the person in the foreground leaves no doubt that this is a woman.  The ‘swirl’ appearing from her head connotes her experiencing a drug altering vision.  The other person in the background who appears to be blowing bubbles reinforces this; a feature of the lights shows which led to the morphing of graphic artist Colin Fulcher into Barney Bubbles.  
Whereas IT were striving for a ‘hot off the press’ revolutionary feel, OZ had a more art directed, sophisticated style.  The cover of Issue 3, figure 2, was designed by Martin Sharp. The masthead of OZ, typical of the psychedelic style is only just readable, as the ‘O’ has been illustrated with an eye.  The eye and the message ‘we are watching big brother’ denotes these underground journalists are keeping an eye on the establishment on behalf of its readers.  Graphic invention was to become a trademark of OZ.  Every issue employed a different masthead in a different position on the cover thus breaking with the industry standard of set recognizable logos.
Sharp has included a pastiche of the ‘classic’ Mona Lisa smoking a cannabis joint in the same vein that in 1883 Sapeck painted her smoking a pipe and in 1919 Marcel DuChamp added a moustache.  This was done as much for humour as to challenge academic tradition.  The bananas are suggestive of phallic symbols, which were common in art signifying the freedom being experienced during this period of sexual revolution.  Both ‘What makes hippies happen on the psychedelic bus?’ and ‘Love me I’m an ugly failure’ are cover lines for articles.  The whole piece is printed in ‘day-glow’ pink and other bright colours.
Psychedelic art is not only recognisable for its anti-establishment form of expression it was also influenced by art from the turn of the 19th century.  Mulcha, Beardsley and the Pre-Raphaelites iconography can all be detected in the psychedelic style.  Lesley Jackson defines two types of revolution in design, which was occurring in the 1960’s.  The first was a revolution in the sense ‘wanting to change the world’.  As People began to tire of the ‘modern’ they began to rediscover the Victorian design, which had been out of vogue.  The second a ‘revolution in the more literal sense of ‘rotation’.  Historical revivalism after three decades of modern and forward-looking designs.’ (1998,p 9)
   Hapshash and The Coloured Coat, a partnership formed between Michael English and Nigel Weymouth in March 1967, also contributed to OZ and IT.  They produced some of the most memorable silkscreen posters of Psychedelic London and following their popularity, IT and Joe Boyd opened a poster production company called Osiris Visions.  When Malcolm Barnard explores the relation between graphic design and art he proposed, ‘posters, packaging and logos on this account can be more expressive of an age or culture than oil paintings and sculptures.’ (2005, p166).  
British Psychedelic art was over by 1968 only to be copied and tainted by advertisers in the commercial world.  In Sixties – Art of the psychedelic era, Christophe Grunenberg director of Tate Liverpool explains this is one reason psychedelic art ‘has not only been neglected but virtually excluded from the serious histories of the sixties’  (2005, p7).  He goes on to say ‘Its aesthetic, political and social radicalism, it seems, have been obscured by a veil of bright colours’ (2005, p13) The style in fact was a complex interaction between art, drug culture, music, film, technology and counter culture.  As demonstrated earlier with examples from IT and OZ, the style embodies the strong feeling of change and freedom to experiment being experienced over this period.
In the Tate publication, Sixties, American art and culture critic, Dave Hickey defines ‘psychedelic art as ‘anti-academic ‘’ and the reasons for this are the prioritisation of  ‘complexity over simplicity’, pattern over form’, repetition over composition, feminine over masculine’.   He goes onto explain anti-academic styles ‘signify a dissent from their own present’ (2005, p64).  This reinforces the argument that psychedelic style is a form of aesthetic protest and signifying freedom. 
Steven Heller also references psychedelic style several times in his discussion of how graphic design shapes pop culture.  He not only recognises psychedelic style but also states it was ‘a revolutionary graphic language used as a code for a revolutionary generation.’ (2010, p21)
 Oz and IT continued to print into the seventies however the use of radical material meant both faced closure more than once and also prosecution from the authorities.  Issue 28, ‘School kids’ Oz put together by young people aged 14-18 years old led to the longest obscenity trial in 1971.  Anderson and Neville were found guilty and faced heavy fines, sentences and deportation.  At the trial John Mortimer QC said the trail ‘stood at the crossroads of our liberty’. Following protest marches led by John Lennon the convictions were overturned when the trial went to appeal.  The trial sparked a major corruption enquiry at Whitehall which resulted in the conviction of several senior officers.  Counter culture left a marker in history, the divorce between two generations.
   This essay has provided the counter culture context of psychedelic art and tried to demonstrate, despite only recent academic reference, the style was a response to the freethinking, revolutionary and proactive attitude of this visionary generation.   
Figure 1  The International Times vol. 1 Issue 12

Figure 2 OZ issue no. 3

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