Roberts, William: 'The Control Room, Civil Defence Headquarters (1941)

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The arts themselves split on this issue. Writers tended to see machine- life as a horror, whereas visual artists viewed it more favourably, perhaps because the happy view is probably easier to sustain on visual terms. Mechanical activity can be a beautiful, patterned, choreographic spectacle. The painter Fernand Léger made a film called Ballet Méchanique, a great celebration of repetitive forms and rhythms.

Things come to a crunch in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, where the visuals say one thing and the human story says another. A contemporary critic noted 'the contrast between that exhilaration of imagination one finds in the mechanical forms... and the wooden deadness of the drilled workers'. There's a similar, but softer, clash in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. The slapstick mime around the giant cogs is lovely in its swimming precision, as well as being no way to treat a human being.

In modern painting the mechanised body is generally straight idealisation. The steel tubular figures of Léger, the bobbin-headed figures of the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, are not meant as ugly robots. We're to feel that they're smoothly operating, integrated creatures, unconflicted, at one with themselves, not split between body and soul. They are innocent and unfallen. Mechanisation is a form of primitivism, and, in fact, these sturdy creatures can trace their artistic lineage to the way Paul Gauguin depicted Tahitians.

Occasionally the geometrised human does have a negative meaning. Wyndham Lewis is a counter-example to the general trend. Even then, the visual appeal of geometric form and design is so strong that the effect is never less than ambivalent.

The issue turns up in an odd context: Penguin book-cover-illustrations. In the 1960s they started to put modern paintings on the front of the Modern Classics series (in a light pea-green livery). The designers were good at fishing out odd pictures, and cooking up creative combinations of image and text. Sometimes the link was literal, sometimes it was lateral, and sometimes frankly dissonant, as when a dystopian novel was fronted with a utopian painting.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, for example, got one of Léger's semi- abstracts, Mechanical Elements. The connection was clear but clashing. Huxley's nightmare of total genetic engineering was pictured by Léger's happily interlocking machine parts. Meanwhile, on the cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, there was a picture by the English painter, William Roberts " The Control Room, Civil Defence Headquarters.

It was an excellent find. Like the book, it's a work about social planning, and there's a further link, in that both works emerge from the Second World War. Roberts shows an office full of maps and telephones and reports, in which people are organising the defence of and Britain.

It is plain enough that The Control Room offers a very friendly view of a planned society, whereas Nineteen Eighty-Four certainly does not. Everything in the painting is made to feel 'safe'. The figures are a version of the modern-art mechanical body, but a particularly rounded and cuddly version. For instance, you notice the way that, a couple of times, the head is bent so as to be smoothly contained within the outline of its body, giving it even more of a solid unity. And the two wall maps, of greater London and Great Britain, have a corresponding tubby roundedness to them.

There's a general theme of mapping. The layout of the whole image is like the maps on the wall, all divided up into clearly bounded shapes. The contours of the maps and of the figures echo one another " see how the north coast of Wales humps snugly over the head of a pin-sticker. And the figures have a way of hugging one another's boundaries, fitting together like pieces of land.

That goes with the other general theme: coordination. Coordinated activity is expressed by coordinated visual design. The picture is full of alignments and parallels. The edge of one thing leads into the edge of another in a straight line (the step-ladder, the chair frames). Diagonals bank up: look at the slopes of the shoulders of all the men on the left of the picture. Shapes and objects are repeated in sequences. The composition is non-hierarchical. The central gesturing man is presumably in charge, but his leadership is not separate from the whole, calm, collective operation of the scene. (Efficiency requires leaders, but the leader is not special.) Everyone is working together for the nation's defence. The planners are themselves part of an embracing plan, and at one with the territories they oversee. It is an enormously affirmative image of bureaucracy, busy but without frantic urgency or crisis-feeling " surprising in wartime, but just for that reason especially reassuring. The sweetshop hues of the background make it sing.

This is all clear enough. But, when it's stuck on the cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the picture can't help being infected by the association. The totalitarian link takes hold of its power and beauty, and gives them a negative force. True, The Control Room could never look like a nightmare vision itself. But it could well suggest the beautiful ideals with which a nightmare world justifies and disguises itself. It could look like euphemistic propaganda for the monster state, a little too cheerful in its vision of a perfectly running social machine. And, of course, it is, just a little.


William Roberts (1895-1980) was a reclusive, public-spirited modern artist, a Londoner, an urban, secular, sane Stanley Spencer. He was part of the 1914 British avant-garde movement, Vorticism, with its punchy, choppy, geometric manner. His best-known work today is probably The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel " a memorial image, painted almost 50 years later. In the interval, Roberts's style had changed somewhat. He favoured solid but friendly figures, and positive, celebratory images of everyday life. He may be the only modernist to have painted the Changing of the Guard and a London double-decker bus.