Postcard from Yale

6th April 2024

John Wyver writes: In November the distinguished art historian Lynda Nead (link to her page at Birkbeck, where she is now Emerita Professor), who is also a friend, gave the prestigious Paul Mellon Lectures at the V&A. In four original and wonderfully rich presentations titled British Blonde about aspects of the visual culture of post-war Britain, she explored the images and meanings associated with four iconic blondes: two actors, Diana Dors and Barbara Windsor; Ruth Ellis, who murdered her abusive lover and was the last woman to be hanged in Britain; and the artist Pauline Boty.

She also kindly persuaded the Paul Mellon Centre to commission academic and filmmaker Catherine Grant and me to respond to her ideas by making two short films each about her subjects, which were screened with a panel discussion on a fifth evening. Mine were made as close collaborations with colleagues Ian Cross, for Blonde Noir about Ellis, and Todd MacDonald, for the visual essay on Boty. Ian, Todd and I worked together on our two documentaries Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today, 2020, and Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain, 2021, and to some degree, on a much more modest scale, these 5-minute shorts extend our interest in working creatively with archive images and films, and in developing distinctive screen languages for this.

The lectures will be published, but this past week, thanks to the generous support of the Yale Centre for British Art (YCBA) in New Haven, Lynda reprised the Pauline Boty lecture, and Catherine, Lynda and I screened the films at Yale and spoke about them on a panel. (We hope to arrange another such event in London, and I’ll post details of that once it is organised; currently the films are not otherwise available, but eventually we intend to remedy that too.) Our hosts could not have been more welcoming, the discussions both formal and informal have been stimulating, and we were also able to spend time amongst the glorious art collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. Currently supplemented by selections from the YCBA, which is closed for renovations, the Art Gallery’s holdings are extraordinary.

Here’s part of the information about Lynda’s lectures posted online when we did the event before Christmas:

The lectures look at post-war Britain through changing styles of femininity that expressed many of the key concerns of the nation in the twenty-five years that followed the end of the Second World War. In the 1950s, American glamour was exported to a war-torn Britain, part of a larger passage of commodities that crossed the Atlantic in this period. In the process, however, something important happened, blonde became British, Marilyn Monroe became Diana Dors. The lectures capture this process as it evolved through the 1950s and 1960s and was subjected to the changing definitions of class, social aspiration and desire that shaped the post-war nation.

The films that Catherine and I created are not in any sense illustrations of the lectures, but rather responses to and extensions of their ideas and issues. Catherine authored two immaculate, elegant, rigorous, delightful video essays, in a form that she has developed in such a fascinating way over the past decade. Using precisely selected clips from a decade of Diana Dors’ early performances, in Yield to the Blonde she traces the actor’s changing image, its embrace of forms of glamour, and its rejection of that in Yield to the Night, 1956, a film with strong but apparently coincidental echoes of the Ruth Ellis story. And employing selection, split-screening, repetition, colourising and more, including a brilliant use of audio, in Carry on Barbara – Anatomy of Ambivalence she explores the profound misogyny in the nine Carry On… films in which Barbara Windsor appeared.

In Blonde Noir (above and below), Ian and I attempt to understand the the material production and circulation of images of Ruth Ellis, in the press at the time of her arrest and execution, and since then as they live on in the digital archives of photo agencies.

And for our film about Pauline Boty (below), Todd and I worked with some of the sequences that feature the artist and her work in Ken Russell’s film for Monitor about four British Pop painters, Pop Goes the Easel, 1962 [link to the edited version on BBC iPlayer]. Again, using repetition, framing, slow-mo, an innovative form of colourising that Todd brilliantly conceived, and audio, we ‘make strange’ Boty’s performance in the film, revealing its tensions and troubles, but at the same time – I hope – respecting and celebrating her paintings.

Downtime in New Haven included, in addition to the exceptional hospitality of our hosts, the opportunity to spend a long morning in the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), which has great collections of African art, Asian art, American decorative art, Indo-Pacific art and more – and is free and welcoming to all. It also has a very good Collections database online. For our visit we concentrated on the painting collections. YUAG’s holdings up the late 19th century are strong, but they are currently enhanced brilliantly with selections from across the street. Closed at present for restoration, and also with a really good Collections database, the Yale Centre for British Art was established by Paul Mellon (Yale Class of 1929) and opened in 1977 in the last building designed before his death by the great architect Louis Kahn. As for the 20th century and beyond, the YUAG hang needs no guests and is simply stellar. Enjoy the following tiny selection of a dozen highlights:

Thomas Gainsborough, Mary Little, later Lady Carr, c. 1765, from the YCBA collection.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1829, from the YCBA collection.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, 1831-32, from the YCBA collection.

Paul Cézanne, The House of Dr. Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1872-73, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Edgar Degas, The Ballet Rehearsal, c. 1891, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Fernand Léger, Éléments mécaniques (Mechanical Elements), 1924, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery;

Arshile Gorky, Untitled (Head), 1932-34, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery; © Arshile Gorky / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pierre Bonnard, Interior at Le Cannet, 1938, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery; © Pierre Bonnard/ Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP (Paris)

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, 1951, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Hans Hofmann, Fortissimo, 1956, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery; © Hans Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society.

Kenneth Noland, TRANS FLUX, 1963, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009, from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery; © Kerry James Marshall/Jack Shainman Gallery

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