Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I don't know anything about this relief. Positioned high on the wall of a cinema in a side street in Oxford, it may be by Newbury Trent, who did many carvings for cinemas. Its subject is a cousin of the curvaceous and silvery women who adorn a former cinema in Cheltenham and who were the subject of one of my previous posts (that Cheltenham building is still empty and yet more unkempt since I posted it back in 2008).
It's not the greatest piece of carving. The hands, elegant as they are, don't quite work for me, and, if you will pardon the expression, the breasts don't repay close examination. But I like her face, which seems to me to be sensitively carved, and the way the film snakes its way around the figure, part frame, part secular halo. The simplified tripartite wave of her hair is perhaps a signal that we should take the whole carving as designed to be looked at from some distance without the assistance of the zoom lens I used to take the photograph.
The relief is a relic of a time, the 1930s I suppose, when cinema was the epitome of glamour and modernity and when old established arts like sculpture could be brought to its service. Cinemas of the 1930s – along with contemporary factories and other buildings – were often decorated with this kind of carving. Such decoration forms a reaction to the minimalist modernism of buildings in the tradition of Le Corbusier – and ultimately of the Central European architect Adolf Loos† who declared that ornament is crime – and shows how buildings can be modern and ornamented at the same time. And if buildings connected with the arts cannot be a bit showy, what can?
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† Loos was born in Brno, another of those with Czech origins (think Freud, Mahler, Rilke) subsumed into the all-embracing Austro-Hungarian culture.