Modernist Mitzi

We were delighted to have recently been in touch with the daughter of a Manchester Modernist favourite and one time Didsbury resident Mitzi Cunliffe.

Mitzi’s daughter Antonia tells us of a forthcoming Mitzi Cunliffe exhibition at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds (opens 30th March 2016) - more details promised on their website soon.

Antonia was kind enough to send us a couple of images from her personal archive including this photo of a scale model for the mural at the Heaton Park Water Inlet Building and a picture of Mitzi Cunliffe in her studio.

images courtesy of the artist's estate

So, here we take the opportunity to re-post an article by Maureen Ward originally on our blogsite from 2012.

Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe 1918-2006

Her best known work (the BAFTA mask) might well be gracing the mantelpieces of Colin Firth, Natalie Portman and David Fincher but this modernist sculptor’s favourite commission was created not for the RADA or Hollywood elite but the hungry shoppers grabbing a bite in Liverpool Lewis’ Dept Store cafe, the largest pierced bronze screen in the world.

For this fact alone Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe has captured our hearts and earned our admiration. If we were the sort to award blue plaques or lobby for a Hollywood-style Wall of Fame scheme in our own city, Mitzi would top the bill. She epitomises the spirit of an exuberant, utopian partnership between planners, architects, artists and sculptors dedicated to rejuvenating the public realm after the chaos of the blitz; functional yet accessible, experimental yet egalitarian, international yet rooted in everyday surroundings. Just like Mitzi herself....

A native New Yorker, Mitzi Solomon studied Fine Art at Columbia University before moving to Paris’ progressive Academie Colarossi, famous for nurturing female students such as Camille Claudel. It was here, upon viewing the Chartres Cathedral statuary that she became inspired to be an architectural sculptor. Back in New York she began stone-carving, fairly traditional ones by all accounts (though admired by Corbusier himself who she met in 1946) until her marriage to the English historian Marcus Cunliffe suddenly brought her to Manchester in 1949, and a leap in direction.

Like many artists of this period, her break came with two large scale commissions for the Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank in 1951. Planned as a celebration of Britain’s history, achievements and culture the festival was a ‘tonic to the nation’, aiming to help put the trauma of war behind it and kick start reconstruction of morale and built environment.

Modern architecture was at the forefront of the whole enterprise – the Royal Festival Hall was one of Britain’s earliest post-war public buildings, a showcase for contemporary art, engineering and design, and still admired today. Mitzi created ‘Root Bodied Forth’ which showed figures emerging from a tree displayed at the entrance of the Festival, whilst a pair of bronze handles in the form of hands adorned the Regatta Restaurant. Significantly she was commissioned by Misha Black, Director of the Design Research Unit, who would later design the interiors for Manchester’s CIS and CWS towers.

Post war Manchester was also embracing the new, with bold projects such as Piccadilly Plaza, UMIST campus and the CIS all underway. This was an era that aspired to bring art directly to the people and the building boom created more opportunities for a new breed of sculptor/muralist, as modern architecture with its tower blocks and expanses of raw surfaces was literally a blank canvas for experimentation. And experiment they did – with new materials, styles, techniques, and increasingly with abstraction, a result of the demands of working in such huge scale and grappling with new materials like concrete ushering in an era dominated by organic, abstract and textural patterns.

This was Mitzi’s Manchester and she was passionate that her work be ‘used, rained on, leaned against, taken for granted’, declaring that her ‘life-long dream is a world where sculpture is produced by the yard in factories and used in buildings as casually as bricks’. Based in the garage of her Didsbury home, Mitzi took on a stream of large scale commissions, producing some of the North West’s most influential public artworks. Her decorative relief panel for the Pumping Station at Heaton Park bringing water from the Lake District is the only post-1945 building to be listed entirely for its sculpture. Other surviving pieces include ‘Man and Technic’, recently given pride of place at the new Manchester Health Academy but originally commissioned for Brookway High School in Wythenshawe, and ‘Cosmos I’, a fibreglass relief at the base of Owens Park Student Tower.

Like her contemporaries she was prolific, designing jewellery, textiles for Tootal Broadhurst and ceramics and tiles for Pilkington's, her meticulous qualities as much sought after in these media as for her monumental work. She continued sculpting for large buildings throughout the 1960s and her final large-scale architectural commission consisted of four carved stone panels for the Scottish Life House at Poultry, London, in 1970. Mitzi lived to the ripe old age of 88, though her later years were marred by ill health – first arthritis then later Alzheimer’s took its toll – but she continued to teach, inspire and write for many years. Now, as the post war landscape she so laboriously carved begins to fade away, its buildings making way for the new, much of her magnificent work, like that of so many of her contemporaries, is disappearing forever.

Mitzi might have been born in New York but her soul belongs firmly in the North West of England and her Didsbury garage – the Heaton Park Pumping Station might be a far cry from the glitzy backdrop of the BAFTA ceremony but it’s no less deserving of our Modernist Heroines Wall of Fame.

Maureen Ward (2012)