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  • The “Medieval Modern” Underground: Terminus of the Avant-Garde
  • Michael Saler (bio)

Few would consider today’s London Underground one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but that is how it was appraised by a Danish architect in 1935. 1 He was not alone in his admiration for a transport system that was widely seen as efficient in its operation, progressive in its treatment of employees, and—perhaps most notable of all—boldly modernist in its corporate appearance, from the architecture of its buildings to the design of its wastebins. During the interwar period the London Underground was praised for its patronage of modern artists, architects, and designers, as well as for introducing modern art to a wide public. “The art galleries of the People,” wrote the art critic for the London Sunday Times, “are not in Bond Street, but are to be found in every [Underground] station.” 2 And when the renovated Piccadilly Circus station was reopened in 1928, one reporter declared that it had been “utterly transformed by modern architecture and modern art into a scene that would make the perfect setting for the finale of an opera.” (figs. 1 and 2) 3

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Before renovation: Piccadilly Circus Station Booking Hall, 1928. Photo courtesy of The London Transport Museum.

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After renovation: Piccadilly Circus Station Booking Hall, 1929. Photo courtesy of The London Transport Museum.

“Opera” is an apposite term. During the interwar period the London Underground was consciously designed to be a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a union of the arts that would consolidate a public divided by industrialism and materialism, and provide a new source of spirituality in an increasingly secular age. Frank Pick, the executive officer of the Underground who initiated and directed the Underground’s design and publicity, certainly admired Wagner. Even more than Wagner, [End Page 113] however, Pick admired the two nineteenth-century English proponents of the integration of art and life, John Ruskin and William Morris. Selected elements of Ruskin and Morris’s social and aesthetic ideals inspired Pick to transform the Underground into a work of public art. Indeed, the Underground of the interwar period should be considered as the culminating project of the nineteenth-century English arts and crafts movement, a union of the arts designed for the pleasure and the use of the common individual. Pick intended the transport system to match Morris’s description of art as “a joy to the maker and the user,” and this was an apt description for the Underground during the interwar period. 4

Pick’s achievement poses far-reaching questions for what has come to be one of the most widely accepted paradigms in discussing modernism and the avant-garde, Peter Bürger’s distinction between a formalist and autotelic “modernism” and a socially engaged “avant-garde” that opposed it during the early twentieth century. For Bürger, the distinctive feature of the avant-garde was its critical practice in which “art was not to be simply destroyed, but transferred to the praxis of life where it would be preserved, albeit in changed form.” 5 Implicit within this argument is the notion that the avant-garde, in its aim to [End Page 114] change bourgeois society and culture, must exist in tense opposition to the prevailing cultural milieu, and will express this opposition in provocative, if not overtly shocking, ways—Bürger cites the infamous Fountain by R. Mutt created by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 as a representative avant-garde “work.” The efforts of Pick and his numerous associates discussed in this essay corresponded to similar attempts by contemporaneous avant-garde movements on the Continent such as the Berlin Dadaists, French Surrealists, Russian Constructivists, and Italian Futurists to challenge autotelic conceptions of art. 6 The most successful embodiment of the interwar avant-garde’s aim to reintegrate art with everyday life (including “mass culture”) was not Duchamp’s ironic and provocative reinscription of a ready-made urinal into an “artwork,” but in fact the “Earthly Paradise” of the London Underground during the 1920s and 1930s. What a transport system might contribute to current debates about modernism and the...

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pp. 113-144
Launched on MUSE
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