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ART REVIEW

'Morris' Illuminates Arts and Crafts Style

November 06, 1996|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Of all the massive changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, no one was more fundamental than its transformation of our concept of time. Natural benchmarks like night and day were largely nullified for urban people. A few grasped the implications of what amounted to a worldwide work speed-up and put their foot down. In the arts one of the most important was the British polymath William Morris, key founder and inventor of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Huntington Art Library reminds us of all this in an exhibition marking the centenary of his death in 1896, "Celebrating William Morris: Selections From the Sanford and Helen Berger Collection." Organized by UC Berkeley curator Margaretta Lovell, it consists of about 180 drawings, woodcuts, stained-glass and tapestry designs, illustrated books, typefaces, letters and other objects related to Morris' prolific career as artist, poet, novelist, printer and thinker. It's an exceptional event on several counts.

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For one, the Berger collection is regarded as the finest Morris holding in this country. Numerous works are on public view for the first time. The fact that the Bergers reside in Northern California is telling. It suggests that the exhibition is no simple exercise in Anglophilia. Arts and Crafts had profound influence on the California sensibility in both aesthetics and philosophy. Their ramifications continue to this day.

To underline this point, the Huntington took the occasion to open a new installation of furniture in a gallery dedicated to the work of the Southland's leading Craftsman designers, the Pasadena architect brothers Charles and Henry Greene.

The connection naturally raises a question. Was the Craftsman style just an arbitrary overlay of an essentially alien style or is there affinity with the California spirit? Viewing the Greene gallery, one is reminded that a key difference between British and California Arts and Crafts stems from this area's absorption of influence from Japan.

An unconfirmed story of some direct influence from Morris on a revival of a once-revered, then-decaying Japanese crafts tradition makes the possibility even richer. Were England, California and Japan all responding to a similar impulse?

Morris is often bum-rapped as the nostalgic revivalist of an imagined medieval world. He did originally belong to the second generation of the romantic Pre-Raphaelites. But Morris was a promoter. The companies he formed, Morris & Co. and then the Kelmscott Press, employed artists such as Edward Burne-Jones. Morris conceived art with a patina of the past, but his spirit was entrepreneurial and modern.

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Morris was a preservationist. A couple of letters on view find him writing to a continental scholar soliciting help in retaining the purity of St. Mark's in Venice.

But he called himself in very modern accents an "international revolutionary Socialist" and banged off a letter to California in defense of its Chinese laborers.

History credits him as a direct influence on Art Nouveau and a bellwether pointing the way to the Bauhaus. Add that all up and Morris sounds like a slightly confused fellow with his head in two places at once.

I think that's inaccurate. I think Morris always addressed the very fundamental question of how humans can best spend their time. He decried modern society's separation of work from joy, and art from craft. He rejected the notion of "fine art" as a status-building luxury commodity and defined it as an expression of human pleasure taken in labor.

His position comes clear in the work. A workshop watercolor sketch for a tapestry design no more than 8 inches in each direction is so finely wrought it must have cost the artist something like eight hours per inch. Appended is a handwritten note to the effect, "Think this might do for so-and-so's wallpaper?"

Morris' own sensitive figure drawings linger lovingly over drapery as if unwilling to conclude savoring the pleasure he took in the act. A tiny child's Morris chair is as exquisitely detailed as a full-size model. Books like the famous Kelmscott edition of Chaucer remind us that the act of reading a book was once a multilayered aesthetic experience.

Taken together, the work offers a double reading. At one glance it's like something out of a serene, imagined past. At the next look it feels tight, compulsive and driven like the modern world.

But its ideal use of time reaches for a combination of the laid-back life Californians aspire to and the magical timelessness of Asian art. In a way Morris was addressing the issue that makes all artists seem a little odd to people these days. They get stereotyped as bohemians, outsiders and rebels when the real difference usually is that they are simply among the last groups of people willing to ignore time to do the job right.

* "Celebrating William Morris: Selections From the Sanford and Helen Berger Collection," Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, (818) 405-2141. Tuesday-Friday, noon-4:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 5.

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