Last Updated on March 6, 2022
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 -1965 Review
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945–1965 is a timely reassessment of art produced in Britain during the twenty years after the Second World War. This exhibition brings together 200 works of painting, sculpture and photography which are either little known or exhibited for the first time from 48 artists. Drawn from public and private collections both international and in the UK, Postwar Modern focuses on the ‘new’ work in this period created by artists who were shaped by their direct experiences of the war, its global impact and aftershocks, at a formative stage in their development.
The aftermath of a cataclysmic war called religion, ideology and humanity into question as a consequence of conflict. This period was also marked by continued austerity (rationing in Britain continued for 9 years after the end of the war), the Cold War, nuclear threat and the dismantling of the empire. The amalgamation of past horror, continued anxiety and future promise gave rise to new imagery, forms and materials as artists in Britain sought to establish meaning and purpose with some seeking to reimagine the world around them. For those who fortunately haven’t lived through the war, it is an eye-opening experience to see the various experiences and perspectives which emerged during this period.
Jane Alison, exhibition Curator and Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, says: ‘The postwar period in Britain was crying out to be revisited. I had a strong sense that art in the twenty years that followed the war was more vital, distinctive and important than has been previously appreciated. I hope that Postwar Modern, which so resonates with a Britain struggling to overcome crisis, will be a revelation. It is certainly an exhibition for our time.’
To highlight the variety of work created, the exhibition is divided into fourteen thematic sections. ‘Body and Cosmos’, the opening room, is devoted to three very different artists: John Latham, Eduardo Paolozzi and Francis Newton Souza. However, all three have been impacted by either the war or its global aftershocks. As a result, what their artworks have in common is a lack of colour, which not only invites the viewer to consider what is seen and not seen but also to engage with questions of life and death.
‘Post-atomic garden’ highlights bomb sites as an ever-present reminder of suffering and loss in the postwar era, but it is also symbolic of societal hopes for renewal. Bert Hardy presents heartbreaking photographs of derelict landscapes while Lynn Chadwick’s The Fisheater is an iron predator which is vulnerable yet threatening at the same time.
‘Strange Universe’ reimagines the body as distorted, dismembered and subjected to all manner of inquiry. Scavenged materials were also fashioned into futuristic bodies like the cyborg which is a fusion of human and machine. ‘Jean and John’ represented the home as a symbol of stability and reconstruction in postwar Britain as well as the emphasis on traditional family and marriage to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, the paintings of Jean Cooke and John Bratby demonstrate the troubling reality of domestic violence that lies behind these ideals.
‘Intimacy and aura’ contains nudes by Bill Brandt which reflect an existential search for meaning which many sought through intimate relationships. Using a turn-of-the-century Kodak wide-angle camera for the first time, Brandt discovered a ‘new eye on the world’. This is contrasted against Lucian Freud’s early portraits of his wives and Sylvia Sleigh’s little-known portraits of her lover, Lawrence Alloway as a ‘bride’.
‘Lush life’ depicts the ideal futuristic home of the time and collages that portray the affluence enjoyed in the United States with regards to wall-to-wall fitted kitchens and appliances that did all the work. On the other hand, ‘Scars’ contrasts the former room with art that was potent and impassioned, reflecting scars in the urban landscape that became sites of reconstruction. Kossoff’s paintings of St Paul’s Cathedral speak of the city’s endurance through wartime onslaught, while Auerbach’s building site studies focus on the raw geometry of new structures rising out of chaos.
‘Concrete’ depicts the works of Victor Pasmore and a circle of younger artists committed to geometric abstraction while ‘Choreography of the street’ depicts London’s destruction and neglect reflecting the ruins of austerity Britain. ‘Two Women’ shows the works of Eva Frankfurther and Shirley Baker capturing the marginalised lives of their local communities with warmth and humour. At a time when women were discouraged from becoming photographers or artists, they blazed a trail.
‘Cruise’ explores works by Francis Bacon and David Hockney which reflect male same-sex love and desire in the postwar years, while ‘Surface/Vessel’ contains works of the later 1950s and early 1960s which often conveyed a dreamlike sensuality and tactility. ‘Liberated form and space’ reflects works inspired by American Abstract Expressionism as well as non-Western and pre-modern visual sources. Finally, ‘Horizon’ reflects the 1960s as a decade often characterised by hedonism, psychedelia and brilliant technicolour in Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment (1965). This was my favourite piece of the exhibition and the artwork was created using heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides in a projector.
Postwar London, with its emerging arts scene and pockets of progressive attitudes, was an obvious destination for many artists featured in Postwar Modern. It was during this period that the Barbican Estate was first conceived, to occupy what was an enormous bomb site in the heart of London.
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965
Barbican Art Gallery
3 March – 26 June 2022
Looking for something different? Check our review of Titanic: The Exhibition