Black Eyes and Lemonade: Curating Popular Art at London's Whitechapel Gallery

By Ben Miller | 24 June 2013

Exhibition review: Black Eyes and Lemonade: Curating Popular Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until September 2013

An image of an illustration of a black and white eye against a yellow background
Black Eyes and Lemonade, British Popular Art. Whitechapel Art
Gallery Poster (1951). Design by Barbara Jones, print by Shenval Press
© Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive
In 1951, when Barbara Jones designed the poster for her groundbreaking display at the Whitechapel, her choice of an eye motif, whose designs are shown at the entrance to this show, symbolised both the skill of looking and the decadent strands of art lying within.

At its core, the “eyelashes” of the poster fan out in inked black words – broadsheet, doggies, rosettes, reading cards, music halls – extolling some of the surprising, ceaselessly quirky art audiences of 62 years ago were about to behold.

The effect is cleverly theatrical, and its yellowed paper and classic typeface now carries a retro elegance which simultaneously elevates the sense of showmanship and affirms the timelessness of Jones’ layouts.

Arrangement was her specialism. Playfully assembling red-haired clowns, illustrations of bonnets, wrought signs and twirling oaks side-by-side, Jones was a ringleader for something of a post-war creative revolution based around the art and joy of making beautiful things.

“Our reasons for choosing them are that they are efficient, well-made and, finally, simple and pleasant to look at,” explains one Council of Industrial Design booklet which Jones was asked to assist with, introducing a new era of thinking in wonderfully innocent, even faintly apologetic fashion.

Tiny wreaths, a tin bearing a bathing kitten, a pink, reflective spinning top and drawings of rural life – made to adorn butchers’ bags – are a few encased examples of Jones’ magpie intuition.

Gazing over them now, they seem the fodder of mass-produced kitschness. But back then they were the real miniature deal, with Jones a teacher at the dawn of a departure from rigidity.

Perhaps her legacy is as much an education for curators as it is for visitors. Her plans for a more elastic age of production found a surprising clash with her commissioners at the Society for Education in Art, who wanted their exhibition to reflect handmade skills.

But Jones also saw great relevance in machine-made works, negotiating an equal balance of both techniques. Decades on, this show of wonder justifies her conviction and demonstrates why her collaborators need not have fretted.

  • Open 11am-6pm (9pm Thursday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @_TheWhitechapel.

More pictures:

A black and white photo of people milling around a large indoor exhibition space
Black Eyes and Lemonade at the Whitechapel Gallery (1951). Installation view© Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive
A black and white photo of a man showing a piece of sculpted artwork to two kids
Model of St Paul's Cathedral, made by Senior-Aircraftsman Brown (1951). RAF School of Cookery, Halton© Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive
A black and white photo of the inside of a large exhibition space
Black Eyes and Lemonade at the Whitechapel Gallery (1951). Installation view© Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive
A photo of a sculpted cut out of a dog made of paper divided into square sections
Tile fireplace in form of an Airedale, Stuart Tile Works (1951)© Design Museum Collection
A photo of an illustration showing two eyes looking towards drawings of houses
Illustration by Barbara Jones for the design education publication This or That, published by the Scottish Committee of the Council of Industrial Design (1947)© University of Brighton Design Archives
A black and white photo of a sculpted head in the shape of a cloud on top of a bottle
Installation view of Idris talking lemon (1951)© Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive
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