Avant-Garde Art and Alternative Lifestyles

Bruce Wilkinson, John Rylands Research Institute researcher, writes his fifth blog post on the amazing Dave Cuncliffe Collection, acquired earlier this year:

Dave Cunliffe spent 1958–62 in the capital where he met writers, artists and radicals in Soho coffee houses, the Peace Café and a West London scene around Eel Pie Island. Cunliffe attended the Committee of 100 anti-nuclear protests meeting the artist Gustav Metzger, gaining a fascination in the avant-garde and a passionate belief in its transformative power. Metzger developed Auto-destructive art, painting with acid to reflect the violent threat he felt from nuclear weapons. Although Metzger isn’t now particularly well-known, his influence did reach mainstream pop culture through his art college tutelage of Pete Townsend, his theories lying behind The Who’s on-stage guitar trashing. Cunliffe certainly acquired a keen interest in burgeoning art movements, following with interest Austrian ‘Actionism’. The Actionists believed that static art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) was tainted by commercialism, the only pure culture being that created spontaneously at events or happenings. Otto Muehl took this a stage further by creating Vienna’s Friedrichshof Commune where residents lived out this philosophy under his control.

Cover of the AA Kommune Manifesto, 1973. Dave Cunliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.
‘The AA Kommune: two points of view’, article by Ian Ross in Peace News, 23 January 1975. Dave Cunliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.

The next objects from the Dave Cunliffe archive are a 1973 manifesto from what had become the AA Kommune and a Peace News article by Cunliffe’s Blackburn friend Ian Ross about his 1974 visit to the collective. This blog then is about two documents relating to a traditional element of the counterculture – alternative lifestyles (Cunliffe having lived self-sufficiently, growing vegetables, brewing his own beer and cultivating ‘exotic’ plants for around forty years). Although there’s a long history of communal living in the UK (for which I recommend Communes Britannica by Chris Coates) it was in the 1960s and 70s that many new groups sought a future outside mainstream society by living collectively, often giving up possessions and even money. R D Laing’s Philadelphia Society group at Kingsley Hall in which patients and staff lived together, seeking new ways of looking at mental illness, was an important pointer towards the Viennese group. At the AA Kommune Muehl espoused regular Freudian therapy and psychoanalysis based on the teachings of Wilhelm Reich, no private spaces, access only to culture they created for themselves and, when his partner left the group, he inevitably decreed that no formal pairing be allowed. Evenings usually involved theatre, dancing and, after the acquisition of film equipment, the making of actionist movies.

Photograph of the interior of Amamus radical bookshop in Blackburn. Photographer unknown. Dave Cunliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.

Ian Ross managed Blackburn’s Amamus radical bookshop selling underground magazines, literary journals and political tracts while hosting the offices of countercultural groups and a poetry, music and theatre performance space in a room above. With Cunliffe he launched alternative newspaper the Blackburn Barker, using it to attack the activities of neo-fascists after their election to the town council. Although his article claims that he enjoyed his time with the AA Kommune the reality was somewhat different – he found the daily analysis gruelling, living without privacy intrusive and that Muehl became increasingly autocratic – the artist later convicted of abusing residents and consequently spending seven years in prison.

Blackburn Barker, no. 2, alternative newspaper. Dave Cuncliffe Collection, University of Manchester Library.

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