To the Wall: London's Murals and 'the Left', 1975-1986
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This thesis examines the relationship between Left-wing politics and a body of exterior murals made in London between 1975 and 1986. Across this period approximately three hundred murals were made on the walls of London’s streets. Funded by a complex amalgam of predominantly state patronage, many of these murals gave form to the politics of the radical and oppositional Left. While murals featured briefly in art critical debates of the late 1970s and have since been included within broader histories of community and public art, this is the first extended study centred upon this remarkable moment of cultural production. Applying diverse methodologies of the social history of art and Marxist art history to an analysis of seven case studies this thesis seeks to redress the murals’ neglect within art historical accounts.
The first chapter examines murals by Greenwich Mural Workshop and Brian Barnes, in Greenwich, Charlton and Battersea, focussing analysis on the emergent techniques by which the murals related to localised campaigns and struggles for democratic control of resources, between 1975 and 1978. The second chapter analyses two murals made in Tower Hamlets— by Ray Walker and David Binnington, Paul Butler, Desmond Rochfort and Ray Walker— focussing on the murals’ diverse modes of response and resistance to the rise of the Far and New Right between 1978 and 1983. The final chapter examines a Brixton mural by Brian Barnes and one in Hackney by Ray Walker, Anna Walker and Mike Jones, in relation to the deepening threat of nuclear apocalypse and hopes of the contemporary peace movement; analysing the murals’ place within Cold War iconography the chapter argues that the murals established a metonymic relation to wider-ranging resistances to Thatcherism’s ascent across the first half of the 1980s. Throughout, a focus on technique incorporates localised research, visual and iconographic analysis and a body of Marxist urban geography and theory to argue that the murals’ radical and innovative presence as sites of contestation across a period of profound urban, economic, social and cultural transition, constitutes a significant episode in the histories of British art and international muralism.
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