Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Omega Workshops Limited: an Unfollowed Insular Modernist British Experiment

Living in Paris I discovered last week in the bookstore at the Louvre Museum, a book entitled Beyond Bloomsbury. Designs of the Omega Workshops 1913-19. It corresponds to the exhibition held at the Courtauld Gallery which closed on September 20 2009. It focuses on textiles and presents for the first time many coloured drawings of carpets derived from the 1958 donation by Fry's daughter, Pamela Diamand to the Courtauld Institute of Art (www.artandarchitecture.org.uk). In addition three rugs were also illustrated. The interest in this, the first British Modernist experience, has increased mainly due to the reference book of Judith Collins The Omega Workshops, published in 1984.

The Omega Workshops Limited, was a company created by Roger Fry in 1913 with the financial support of intellectuals and artists, and was located at 33 Fitzroy Square, London. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf, were two of the set of major actors in this laboratory of ideas, as were other members of the Bloomsbury Group. Fry had been influenced by the French initiative of the fashion designer Paul Poiret who created the Atelier Martine in 1911, and was the first to design fabrics after drawings from young girls who had not followed a classical artistic education. To this new, fresh and spontaneous approach to artistic creation, Fry added a collective, if not a socialist dimension, as all the products would bear the Omega sign as a signature instead of the names of the artists. This was the result of other artistic experiments on the Continent like the French community of artists called Abbaye de Creteil initiated by the poet Charles Vildrac in 1906-08.

Illustration from the 1914 Omega Workshops Descriptive Catalogue. The rug featured has not yet been identified.

Fry wanted to influence British art and design, which he felt had been imprisoned by the Edwardian Arts & Crafts style, and to create a break with the past, giving the artist a new approach. In the foreword of the Omega Workshops catalogue of 1914, Roger Fry writes: The Artist is the man who creates not only for need but for joy. By this sentence Roger Fry positioned his experience on a different level to that of the other movements in Europe like the Wiener Werkstatte or the Bauhaus group. These were much more concerned with the questions of ergonomics, research of functionalities, architecture and finding new materials and techniques of production. Omega productions covered all aspects of applied arts: ceramics, textiles, clothing, furniture, wallpapers, book design and toys. Major events that the Omega Workshops were involved in were the Ideal Home Exhibition of October 1913 and the Allied Artists Association Exhibition of June and July 1914. The activity of the company ceased in 1919.

What are the reasons for the closure? The early separation in 1913 of three initial members, including Frederick Etchells, who created the Vorticist movement and its corresponding workshop The Rebel Arts Centre, had weakened the credibility of Fry's initiative and brought confusion to the message he wanted to carry. Secondly, we can also estimate that the courageous pacifist stand taken by the Bloomsbury Group during World War I prevented Omega from attracting governmental support and acceptance from the general public. The fact that Fry was more of an artist than an organiser or a businessman, has also contributed to that final situation. To be objective, we must also state that the movement appeared prematurely in a completely unfavourable historical context. If it had been selected to represent Britain in the 1925 International Exhibition, we can estimate that Omega would have had a much better chance of survival.

How can we evaluate the influence of this experiment today? After 1919 most of the major artists of the group continued as painters attached to the Post Impressionist movement. Few articles concerning the Omega Workshops can be found today in comparison with what was produced, this was partly due to the low production quality of the Workshops. Contrary to other artistic movements, the Art Nouveau, Bauhaus or Art Deco for example, there were no architects in the group, and for that reason there are no buildings or large collections of work to express the theories and aims of Fry in the form of a manifesto. The collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Courtauld Gallery are representative of what remains. They can be viewed in part, on the web. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant kept on producing decorative arts, sometimes using styles that were much more conventional and floral. Their Charleston home in Sussex displays much of their work. Finally, the result is uneven, and for that reason some specialists in design remain sceptical and reluctant to give any major credit to this experience. It seems clear that Continental European design of the twentieth century and even the British Modernist movement of the 1930s have almost forgotten the Omega Workshops. Nevertheless a certain proportion of their work is original and unique. We will develop this in the next post which is devoted to Omega rugs.

Written by Jean Manuel de Noronha


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