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Introduction
1981

A Certain Sensibility, Cerith Wynn Evans and John Maybury, ICA

For many, the New Romantics were those 'Bright Young Things' packing the pop charts in the early 80s with their energised brand of funked-up synth-pop. The term is thus ineluctably bound to such names as Spandau Ballet, Visage, Human League, et al. However, away from the feel-good shine of Radio 1, another strand of New Romanticism was emerging to explore a darker, dare I say it punkier, vein.

This strand, associated largely with the work of John Maybury and Cerith Wyn Evans, employed film to capture the scene's more marginal, 'underground' energies in a style that owed much to the pop-decadence of American filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Jack Smith, as well as the excessive aestheticism of Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Schroeter and the German Expressionists. As such, the New Romantics, who had their first major show, A Certain Sensibility, in 1981 at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, were ultimately rejecting the more ascetic turn taken by a number of Britain's avant-garde filmmakers in the 70s. If that decade was concerned primarily with problematising notions of representation, illusion and pleasure, then the beginning of the 80s saw the New Romantics taking what some would inevitably see as a reactionary about-turn by exploring the 'myriad permutations of how beautiful one could make [an] image.' Al Rees has consequently described this turn as a 'return of the repressed in the form of the post-Cocteau baroque.'

Innovative in its use of Super-8 technology, New Romantic film concerned itself with 'images of untrammelled excess: using rich colour, superimposition and an elaborately theatrical mise-en-scene.' Later films such as Wyn Evans' Epiphany (1984) define this approach; circulating around a collage of images saturated in colours that bleed across the frame and a style of homoerotic display influenced by the work of performance artist Leigh Bowery.

Whilst a number of the filmmakers associated with the Structural and Expanded film movements moved into the university system, promoting their ideas via the lecture theatre and academic publications, the largely anti-theoretical New Romantics concentrated on establishing themselves within more commercial sectors. Maybury, Wyn Evans, Richard Heslop and Christopher Hughes would work with Derek Jarman (a keen supporter of the movement) on his promo film for The Smiths, The Queen is Dead, as well as on his feature film The Last of England (1987). Maybury would later go on to win awards for his promo film accompanying Sinead O'Connor's hit single Nothing Compares to U before moving on to direct the feature films Love is the Devil (1998) and The Jacket (2005). Wyn Evans would move increasingly towards other media, including sculpture, photography and installation. His work has featured in the Sensation exhibition at London's Royal Academy of the Arts and has since gained an international reputation (representing Wales at the 2003 Venice Biennale)

The filmmakers associated with the A Certain Sensibility exhibition marked a radical turn within British avant-garde film: by embracing aspects of popular culture they helped to reunite two spheres that had been effectively severed during what Maybury has described as the 'intellectual death' of the 70s.

Lucy Reynolds

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