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Near Hemel Hempstead.

Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, Whitechapel Gallery, 10 October 2015-13 March 2016 Annebella Pollen, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, London, Donlon Books, 2015; 35 [pounds sterling] paperback

The exhibition of materials relating to the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift at the Whitechapel Gallery represents a return to the venue for some of the items. The visitor can, like those visiting the KK's Educational Exhibition there in 1929, peer at the costumes, totems, banners, heraldic devices, and photographs of rituals and marches of Britain's most colourful and eccentric social movement, now mostly archived at the Museum of London. The exhibition is accompanied by Annebella Pollen's well-researched and beautifully-illustrated study, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, which documents the movement's founder, the charismatic John Hargrave (aka White Fox), and the twists and turns of his organization throughout the twenties, resurrecting a lost history. While the Kibbo Kift appear to be part of the story of modernism--and Hargrave did see them as akin to contemporary national movements for cultural revival like those in Dublin, Prague and China--the story is more complex, permeated by forms of cultural eclecticism and radical nostalgia for a past that never was.

Hargrave was a Quaker who had his first art exhibition in London while still a teenager (memorably sketching Joseph Conrad, who recommended Moby Dick). He served as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli, and entered the scout movement as the originator of 'Lonecraft', a DIY method for scouts. He soon fell out with the militaristic and imperialistic Baden Powell, and started his own woodcraft movement, which grew to a membership of several hundred (though with various mass defections and ejections) and attracted high profile supporters. The Kin met, camped, exercised, carved and sang; they marched in their green cowls in a wedge formation, and drove to Neolithic sites with their totems. Their rituals were Native American, Anglo-Saxon, and pure invention. At the end of the 1920s they transmigrated into the more sober Social Credit Green Shirts, following their founder into a politics that nevertheless continued to be based on a heliocentric vision of renewal and plenty. Their oddness is everywhere manifest in their ceremonies and publications, though often tempered by a vein of self-mockery, tom-foolery and the production of outsider art which is part of a recognizably English tradition: officers of the KK took names like 'Will Scarlet' and 'Old Mole'; they produced mummer's plays and puppet-theatre; many of their heraldic devices look as much like pub signs as modern logos. The fact that the fabricated skull of Piltdown man was one of their venerated ancestors signals that eccentric tradition, and signals their kinship with the equally radical literary Diffusionists in the period--in a loose collocation of writers which includes Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Wyndham Lewis, whose draftsmanship Hargrave has some affinities with.


The Kibbo Kift were always small (though attracting plenty of attention from the press, newsreels, and even from MI5), and as their detractors pointed out, largely lower middle-class in makeup. But Hargrave's vision was of a seed group which, in its creativity, would help engender a new kind of human, dynamically attuned to the modern world but with the eugenic fitness of primitive 'man' (women had a matching but lesser role, though interestingly Pollen notes that many former suffragettes made their way to the movement). His grandiose vision even included specialised KK air squadrons and, ultimately, the establishment of a world state as predicted by H. G. Wells (one of the 'names' drafted in for the Advisory Council). But there was a tension in the movement between his hopes for a broad cultural impact, on the one hand, and a tightly-organized avant-garde unified by a secret teaching on the other. 'Tribal Training' involved woodcraft skills, recapitulation of the stages of human evolution, ritual, and at the highest levels an esoteric initiation in Hargrave's own lodge kept from other members. One of the strengths of Pollen's book is that it looks for the first time in detail at Hargrave's mysticism as detailed in his Lodge of Instruction, derived from an eclectic mix of sources including Theosophy, Aleister Crowley, Bergson's vitalism, the rituals of rebirth in The Golden Bough, and English folklore. Hargrave was curiously bookish for a cult leader who stressed outdoor life and 'doing': he published a number of reasonably successful novels including the 877-page Summer Time Ends (1935), planned a movie based on Beowulf, as well as his outpouring of designs, leaflets, plans and guides to his philosophy, all from a quiet back lane near Hemel Hempstead.

The Kin's artefacts, crammed in a relatively small upstairs room at the Whitechapel, make for a rather claustrophobic experience, though the artefacts even in their names create a mysterious world: the Kinlog, the Bok Scamel, the Skald, the Kist; the Kistbearer's tabard. One longs to join them out in the fields at the Althing (gathering) at Dexter Farm or Ricksmansworth; but as Pollen reports, even the dressed-up rituals there could have their longueurs. The exhibition assembles what is inevitably a graphic version of the movement, stressing the visual appeal of its brightly-coloured sigils, staves, fabrics, and tents; the embossed cover of the Kin Psalter, the Tid Sang, and other great books; the circular pattern of the Althing. Hargrave's training as a visual artist who worked in advertising and his overall creative control is evident everywhere, but so too is his encouragement of aesthetic experiment in others. The Kibbo Kift were lucky to have among its membership a brilliant photographer, Angus McBean (Aengus Og), whose photographs of camps and of posing Kinsmen, clothed or naked, at the White Horse of Uffington, at Old Sarum and elsewhere nicely aestheticise its preoccupations (as well as pointing towards his later Surrealist innovations in fashion photography). Pollen claims that 'the articles of Kin art, craft design and dress stand not as empty reminders of a failed project but as evidence of Kibbo Kift's greatest cultural production' (p.122). That is perhaps a historical judgement: Hargrave genuinely wished to change minds, bodies and ultimately the world, and anything less was a disappointment. In the thirties he campaigned tirelessly for Social Credit, even going to Alberta in Canada to advise its Social Credit government, though remaining in some ways outside the movement's mainstream. For a while he was Ezra Pound's main English correspondent, and Pound's idea of a charismatic leader, until they fell out over Pound's Fascism--though they met in Venice many years later, and Hargrave left a remarkable caricature of the elderly Pound in his papers at the LSE.

Pollen's coda on 'Resurrection' has a certain poignancy. Judge Smith, of Van der Graaf Generator, became fascinated with the movement and produced a musical about what he saw as an anticipation of 1960s youth movements, The Kibbo Kift: A Rock Show, in 1976, to which the still-living Hargrave came. Smith almost single-handedly ensured that the artefacts and memories of the movement were saved. Annebella Pollen has contextualized the movement with skill; and Donlon Books' designer Roland Brauchli has done an inspired job in marrying scholarship and the KK's visual elan in a book crammed with photographs and set in an arresting typeface. It is only fair to say that 2015 represents something of a resurrection for the KK: as well as Pollen's book, Cathy Ross and Oliver Bennett have published Designing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift (London, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015, 25 [pounds sterling], paperback ), another fine study.

DOI: 10.3898/NEWF.88.REV01.2016
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Title Annotation:Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred
Author:Armstrong, Tim
Publication:New Formations
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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