Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art) is a collaborative work conceived in connection with the exhibition Parallel of Life and Art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1953, organised by Henderson and Paolozzi, the architects Alison and Peter Smithson (1928–93 and 1923–2003) and Ronald Jenkins, a civil engineer. The dialogue between life and art that the exhibition sought to stage is figured by Henderson and Paolozzi as a photocollage: an assemblage of black and white photographs, representative of the work of the two artists. These are fixed on a large rectangular panel along two parallel rows. Inscriptions on the far left of the panel, giving the last names of the artists, identify the upper row as the work of Henderson and the lower row as that of Paolozzi. The upper row represents ‘life’ and the lower row represents ‘art’.
In the upper row, Henderson’s collage of twelve images features several negative prints, including one of a boy kicking a football, and another of boys bathing, reminiscent of his ‘stressed’ photographs of bathers (see P79310 and P79311). Towards the left a distorted photograph shows a man’s face compressed abnormally, giving the impression of being squeezed between the two images on either side. Another presents a ‘stressed’ image of a motorcycle. This photograph has been mounted on its side to distort the view still further. Henderson also includes photograms in his composition, prints that capture the shapes of objects such as coiled string and wire that the photographer placed on the enlarger. Some of the images in the collage have an abstracted, organic quality, and appear to derive from the slide of a microscope. Collectively, the images on the upper row demonstrate the interest in markings, textures, and grid-like patterns noticeable elsewhere in Henderson’s work. His small Collage 1949 (T01915) is an important precedent for Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art). In this work Henderson combined collage with oil paint to create a raw assemblage of textures in an abstract design suggestive of the urban environment. Henderson demonstrates his interest in urban textures and patterning in many of his Bethnal Green photographs of the period 1949-53, including Bag-wash (P79305). In Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art) photographs showing figures seem to have been selected for the patterns they create when distorted and placed alongside non-figurative subjects.
On the lower row, an assemblage of thirteen photographs taken by Henderson show details of Paolozzi’s works. Included here are photographs of sculptures and reliefs in plaster and terracotta decorated with abstracted, frieze-like designs. Reduced to two dimensions by the photographic medium, the all-over patterns of the sculpted objects resonate as artificial markings when placed with Henderson’s photographs, in which traces of urban life become abstract patterns. Dating from the same period, Paolozzi’s large-scale Collage Mural 1952 (T12159) demonstrates his developing obsession with patterning. Using fragments of paper decorated in paint, ink and silkscreen prints of abstracted and geometric designs, Paolozzi abandoned distinctions in this work between foreground and background in favour of an all-over pattern of vertical and horizontal lines, rectilinear shapes and loose and uneven grids. Amidst the geometric shapes some dot and line patterns resemble simplified organic forms, evoking the kind of magnified – and abstracted – patterns revealed under the lens of a microscope.
Henderson and Paolozzi were participants in the Independent Group, a gathering of artists that met at the ICA to discuss and disseminate new ideas about art practice. The Independent Group was involved in discussion of, amongst other areas, the Brutalist aesthetic, which is has resonances with the modernist architectural design strategies of the Smithsons, and the visual rhetoric of the Parallel of Life and Art exhibition. Terming themselves ‘editors’ of the exhibition, Henderson, Paolozzi, Jenkins and the Smithsons brought together 122 photographic panels for the show. These images derived from a range of disciplines including newspapers, archaeological studies and scientific photomicrographs, as well as fine art. The ICA press release for the exhibition explained:
In this exhibition an encyclopaedic range of material from past and present is brought together through the medium of the camera which is used as recorder, reporter, and scientific investigator. As recorder of nature objects, works of art, architecture and technics; as reporter of human events the images of which sometimes come to have a power of expression and plastic organisation analogous to the symbol in art; and as scientific investigator extending the visual scale and range, by use of enlargements, X rays, wide angle lens, high speed aerial photography. The editors of this exhibition ... have selected more than a hundred images of significance for them. These have been ranged in categories suggested by the material which underline a common visual denominator independent of the field from which they image is taken. There is no single simple aim in this procedure. No watertight scientific or philosophical system is demonstrated. In short it forms a poetic-lyrical order where images create a series of cross-relationships.
(Dated 31 August 1953, Tate Archive.)
With its complex and unorthodox hang, in which images were displayed at different heights and angles, the Parallel of Life and Art exhibition aimed to disrupt conventional ideas about how an exhibition should look and in so doing encourage a new form of aesthetic more closely related to the contemporary environment. Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art) thus provides a visual summary for the wider ideas of the show.
Parallel of Life and Art, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1953.
Fiona Pearson, Paolozzi, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 1999.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced pp.110-1.