The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians

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The lifestyle and cultural production of the rural organisation the Kibbo Kift (‘proof of strength’) has been chronicled in a new book The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, written by Annebella Pollen and published by Donlon Books.

We are well rehearsed in post-war twenties culture through art and literature; a disenfranchised population numbed by loss and ignorant of vitality. The Jazz Age city: the self indulgence, the self destruction and the carefree disregard of consequence has since become the defining state of rebellion of the decade. However, the scarcely documented gatherings of the Kibbo Kift offered an alternate ideal escapist fantasy, a pursuit of utopia founded on the principles of nature, self sufficiency and spirit.

The Kift was a group of influential individuals of various genders, ages and classes that congregated in the English countryside to pursue an ideal lifestyle away from industrial modernisation and the mechanised deaths of the war, ‘away! Away! From men and towns’ they chanted. Their philosophy was dominated by complex ideologies of health, myth, magic, education, handicraft and art.

In Intellectual Barbarians Pollen focuses on the artistic and spiritual aspects of the movement. The group itself would have been aesthetically arresting; ceremonial parades of men, women and children marching in cloaks and jerkins with banners and carved totems, painted tents evident of the influence of Modernism and practicing theatre in the style of Classical poetry in fields and atop stones. As founding leader Hargrave wrote in 1924, ‘the method of the Kibbo Kift is based upon a direct appeal to the senses by means of colour, shape, sound and movement, that is, by every form of symbolism’.

The art produced is symbolic and bizarre, featuring a haunting series of images taken by Angus McBean of cloaked members amongst the stones of stonehenge and saluting to the sky, small figures before the natural stage they lent their ideals to. There’s portraits of the members in their handcrafted costumes that range from the perverse to the practical to the primitive. There’s the Kift’s individual handcarved totems based on their woodcraft name (a 1922 newsletter suggests Little Canoe and Leather Stocking): a sperm fertilises an egg, a wolf gnarls and a skull are paraded ceremoniously in a curious act of symbolism and propaganda that the Kift’s legacy lies in.

We spoke to the book’s author Annebella Pollen about the Kibbo Kift’s visual imagery, legacy and the concept of collectivised communities.

 

Why did you choose the title ‘intellectual barbarians’? Intellectual, definitely so, but I’m curious as to why you’d consider calling them barbaric, ‘uncivilised’?

This was a description Kibbo Kift used about themselves in the 1920s. After having served as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, John Hargrave, Kibbo Kift’s founder and leader, had seen the terrible effects of battle and he believed that the modern, urban, Western world was collapsing. He’d read a lot of history and at this time it was thought that civilisations and empires of the past had always been toppled by incoming hoardes of barbarians, who were wilder and stronger than the soft, settled and sophisticated so-called civilised people. He established Kibbo Kift to be that band of barbarians, but to combine elements of what he saw as ‘primitive’ culture – physical fitness, skill in crafts and hardiness to living outdoors – with the latest thinking in art, science and philosophy. Together these elements made the ‘intellectual barbarian’.

(You can see the use of the term in this short newsreel film about Kibbo Kift from 1923 https://youtu.be/uko6ppVRWDE)

 

Could you tell me a little about Kibbo Kift’s use of symbolism?

Symbolism was very important to the group. It was seen as a system of communication that was more ‘primitive’ – to Kibbo Kift this was seen as better and more authentic – and it also demonstrated their spiritual beliefs. These beliefs were a bit of a grab-bag of elements from a range of historic and geographic cultures, and they included Ancient Egyptian, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic styles as well as motifs from contemporary people living outside Europe, especially Native American and Pacific groups. Kibbo Kift members weren’t well-travelled but they were well-read, and they took most their symbolic knowledge from books. They were encouraged to read about mythology, folklore and world religions, including the occult. This explains why you see skulls and mythological birds, alongside fertility symbols – such as the Egyptian ankh – and symbols of conception on their tents, totem staffs and personal insignia. After the devastation of war they venerated life with symbols of nature, renewal and resurrection.

 

I’m curious about the involvement of Angus McBean. How did he come to photograph the group? He was a Surrealist and a theatrical photographer famed for his set design. How did this work with Kibbo Kift’s natural ‘open air’ ideal?

Angus McBean joined Kibbo Kift through his wife, Nellie. They were only married for a short time but her interests in alternative spirituality and alternative education had a great influence on him. They had both been members of a group called the Healthy Life Society so Kibbo Kift’s camping and hiking appealed. McBean worked in the textile department of Liberty’s in London during his years in Kibbo Kift. He hadn’t yet set himself up as a professional photographer. It was through Kibbo Kift that he developed his artistic skills. Hargrave, Kibbo Kift’s leader, had always encouraged members to make all items of their kit, even clothing and tents. Artistic production was a key group activity. McBean made lots of craft items, including costumes and sets for Kibbo Kift open air theatre, puppets and masks for performance. He became the official Kin photographer in the late 1920s. He had yet to develop the ‘surrealised’ style for which he later became celebrated, but his Kibbo Kift photographs are still strikingly modernist.

 

In the same way that jazz age cities possessed writers such as Waugh and Hemingway, why did the Kibbo Kift attract writers and artists of the opposing pursuits? Did the Kibbo Kift world ever infiltrate their work like that of Hemingway etc? 

Kibbo Kift attracted many creative practitioners, alongside members who were spiritual seekers, outdoor enthusiasts and political reformers. The creative element was no doubt inspired by Hargrave’s own artistic and literary skills. He had begun to make money as a commercial illustrator and a cartoonist while still a teenager and he had been the official artist to the Scouts before he founded Kibbo Kift. In the 1920s he worked for an advertising agency. His advertising background helps explain the presence of graphic, futurist and cubist elements in amongst the so-called primitive styles of the group. Hargrave also wrote novels, some of which were experimental and did away with punctuation and conventional narrative.

Although Kibbo Kift membership never was much more than a thousand, they did attract a lot of press in the 1920s, in part because of their outlandish appearance. Some of the public attention they received was mocking but artists, writers and campaigners who were interested in finding new solutions to post-war problems were interested in what they did. H. G. Wells was a prominent supporter, and other writers including W. H. Auden and D. H. Lawrence followed Kibbo Kift’s progress although neither actually joined. It has even been claimed that D. H. Lawrence based the notorious character of Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover on Hargrave.

 

The futility and fragility of the present is arguably the reason behind the hedonism of 20s art and culture. Could you consider the Kibbo Kift hedonistic in that they disregarded contemporary culture in favour of personal preference? 

Not at all! They were really rather puritan. They disliked many elements of modern life including jazz music and socialite party culture. They promoted hard living, hard bodies and hard minds. Although they would have a celebratory annual party at midwinter, with cakes and ale, they usually they promoted plain food, long walks and sensible shoes. Some elements of their practices were experimental but other parts were rather respectable. In terms of sex and gender, for example, they were quite conventional. Men’s and women’s roles were strictly defined. Hargrave encouraged members to have only heterosexual relationships, to marry young and to have lots of children.

Where does their legacy lie? Since their inception, where has the influence of their philosophy or art been evident?

Kibbo Kift are largely forgotten, so in some ways their direct legacy is small. One clear influence has been on youth education. A group of socialist members split from Kibbo Kift in 1924 after a disagreement about Hargrave’s leadership. From these defectors, a new group, The Woodcraft Folk, was founded. This group educates children for social change and 90 years on, they are going strong with around 15,000 members who still camp out and campaign on social issues. Other elements of Kibbo Kift thinking have resonances in the present day. Their attitude to economic reform, for example, where they believed that bankers controlled profits at the ordinary person’s expense, clearly has contemporary relevance. Some of their pioneering ideas about outdoor living and nature education can still be felt in green politics. Until the current renaissance of interest in Kibbo Kift, few knew of their style but those who had stumbled across them include creatives who have been inspired by their mix of protest and aesthetics. In the mid-2000s, contemporary artists Olivia Plender and Steven Claydon both – separately – remade elements of Kibbo Kift culture as art objects and performance pieces. More recently the London fashion designer Liam Hodges produced a menswear collection for Spring / Summer 2015 based on Kibbo Kift imagery.

 

Whilst reading about the Kibbo Kift, I couldn’t help myself comparing them to our contemporary online communities. They were a group with collectivised beliefs, interests and a desire for change who had a tangible, physicalised meet up. These types of social, politicised groupings have transcended to online foundations like those of Tumblr and forumsCould the Kibbo Kift, or a similar organisation, exist in this digital age? 

That’s a really interesting question. In the 1920s Kibbo Kift banned gramophones from camp so they can seem rather anti-technology at times. They could have become anti-digital resistors, living off-grid in the woods and banning mobile phones. On the other hand, Hargrave was a great self-promoter and used the methods of the advertising industry to get the Kibbo Kift message across. He also had a great talent for creating provocative slogans. Both of these points suggest that he could have had a huge following on Twitter! Overall, I think we need to remember that to be a member of Kibbo Kift demanded a lot of active participation. Although most Kinsfolk had nine-to-five jobs, they were expected to devote all of their free time to the cause – which was nothing less than to create and lead a new world peace. It is hard to see how the casual ‘clicking’ and ‘liking’ of social media could fit with this total dedication.

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians is available to buy from Donlon Books here.

An exhibition of Kibbo Kift photographs, woodcarvings and costume is currently part of an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, London. 
More information here. 

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