In 1971, an artist couple from Mexico, Martha Hellion and Felipe Ehrenberg, moved with their two children to the English countryside to escape the brutal politics in the their home country. They managed to rent an idyllic manor house, Langford Court South in Cullompton, Devon and, over the next five years, friends from around the world joined them to form a community of artists, writers and printers. Along the way, they also established Beau Geste Press (BGP) whose slogan was: ‘Our Press is not a business, it’s a way of life.’
Luckily, the art historian, artist and fluxus expert, David Mayor, became their head of public relations and kept meticulous records of the press’s numerous activities. Alice Motard, the curator of this fascinating show, has tracked down hundreds of publications, flyers, posters, photographs, poems and books for the first major survey of the collective. Much to my shame, I had never heard of BGP but, after seeing the exhibition, it’s hard not to agree with Motard’s claim that it was ‘one of the most productive and influential publishing ventures of its generation’.
During the five years of BGP’s life, the group printed eight issues of their in-house magazine, Schmuck, devoting six editions to the art of Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland and Japan. The magazine was put together by a group of artists, many of whom are associated with fluxus, such as Robert Filliou, Kristján Gudmundsson and Takehisa Kosugi; its intentions were laid out in issue one, in which Mayor declares that the publication will include ‘feedback from the humming wires of global activity’ – a description that pre-empts the networking models of the internet.
I can’t remember when I have laughed so much in an exhibition. Trawling through the dizzying range of material, it quickly became obvious that the collective shared not just a home but a sense of humour. Piece for Four Different Tastes 1971 is a photograph in Schmuck Iceland (no.2) (1971) of an unsmiling young man who, we are helpfully told, ‘has four different sauces in his mouth’; a mimeograph, Banners Nation (1972) by Opal L. Nations, is an image of a boomerang fashioned from a piece of cured bacon; one long poem berates bad waiters (‘bad waiters shirk their allotted responsibilities, bad waiters carry pencils behind their ears’) and the cover of Hungarian Schmuck announces that their only firm belief is ‘in a lack of understanding’.
There is tenderness, here, too. A short play-cum-concrete poem by Mayor, Clues (1973), is an affectionate portrait of these cohabiting friends: ‘martha is looking out the window / felipe reads aloud from the newspaper / takako is making paper boxes / much of our time we spend thinking about each other / pat is typing’.
Despite the fact that BGP folded over 40 years ago, its intentions – to protest rigid thinking, to engender a sense of community and to foster an international network of fellow travellers – are as alive today as they were back then. It makes sense, then, that the young French artist Xavier Antin responded to the archive with a group of witty ‘sculpture machines’ interspersed through the show that play with the form of reproduction devices, such as printers and scanners (all works 2016). A series of workshops run by collectives from the New Aquitaine region, titled ‘Something of Beau Geste in Common’, runs concurrent to the main exhibition.
When I visited the show, Hellion, now a youthful 80, had arrived for the opening but paused in her reminiscences to make a print in the workshop. Over lunch, I asked her where she was headed to next: ‘I’m off to Buenos Aires to tango,’ she said, laughing. Everyone should tango!’
Main image: Ay-O, cover of Japanese Schmuck, No. 8, 1976 edited by Taii Ashizawa, Takehisa Kosugi, and David Mayor. Courtesy: Beau Geste Press
Jennifer Higgie is editor at large of frieze, the presenter of the frieze podcast Bow Down: Women in Art History and is currently writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, The Mirror & The Palette.
First published in Issue 186