Jthere is no better place to hold an inquiry into post-WWII art in Britain than the Barbican in London. Like much of the painting, sculpture and photography on display, the arts center itself grew out of the ravages of World War II. Literally built on a bombing site in the City of London, it was also an ambitious attempt to come to terms with the destruction of the past and imagine a new future.
The mid-1940s to mid-1960s are well known as the years when painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach came of age; when vividly realized photojournalism documented a battered and broken Britain, and brutalist architecture – of which the Barbican remains a legendary example – continued to define the modern cityscape. But for curator Jane Alison, the period is due for reassessment. The “raw poetry” – to use a phrase coined by brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson – found in the art that emerged during those decades came, she says, from a much broader base that has generally been recognized.
While artists who had fled Nazi Europe, such as Auerbach and Gustav Metzger, have long been included in the canon, Alison argues that the contribution of artists from the disintegrating empire who came to the UK needs a closer look, just like the place of women artists in an often very macho scene. It is important to note that this is an ‘art in Britain’ exhibition, not ‘British art’.
“In some ways the art world was welcoming then,” says Alison, “and foreign artists” – Frank Bowling, Francis Newton Souza and Aubrey Williams are among those on display – “arrived with a sense of optimism. and the desire to participate. But just like in society at large, the art world was also infected with racism, anti-Semitism and sexism. Artists have too often found themselves marginalized, pigeonholed and excluded from big shows.
Many of these struggles and stories are reflected in individual works of art such as Souza painting himself as Saint Sebastian or Magda Cordell’s proto-feminist focus on the female body as a subject of trauma. But Alison also sees continuities between artists operating in the same place at the same time. The ‘raw poetry’ of their work has often manifested itself in a concern for the vulnerabilities and resilience of the body, and a sense of creating something new after the destruction of war. More temptingly, there was an all-pervading sense of “disconnect,” as Alison puts it. “All the old ideologies had been discredited and people were a bit at sea – everything was open to reconsideration.”
There are clear parallels between a sense of crisis then and now, as we grapple with the pandemic as well as emergencies related to climate, refugees, equality and even the return of the war in Europe. During the course of the exhibition, contemporary artist Abbas Zahedi will seek to establish links between the art on display and current anxieties through a series of works drawing on his projects in the fields of social practice, performance , writing and moving image. “There is a discomfort comparable today to the convulsion that we see in the series,” explains Alison. “There is again a feeling of tumult that we have again been thrown off balance. This exhibition is indeed a project for our time.
Postwar Modern: Five Key Works
Break-off by Gillian Ayres, 1961 (main image)
Female artists of the time struggled for recognition, and Ayres was encouraged by tutors to take up traditionally female activities such as teaching sewing. This work sees lighter, more colorful art emerge as we move into the 1960s – but, says Barbican curator Jane Alison, “there is always a sort of disconnect with the shapes sliding off the edge of the paint “.
God Save the Queen (Hampden Crescent, Paddington) by Roger Mayne, 1957
Mayne, a self-taught photographer, made a name for himself capturing scenes of working-class children unconsciously adapting to the degraded environment around them. Its austere monochrome realism graphically illustrates the scars of war as well as the prospects for building a new tomorrow.
Monsieur Sebastian by Francis Newton Souza, 1955
Souza was born in Goa in 1924 and grew up in Mumbai, where he was educated by the Jesuits. His work is full of Catholic images. Here is a kind of self-portrait of him as Saint Sebastian, painted after his installation in London. Souza has struggled personally and professionally in the UK and he describes himself as not only beset by arrows but constrained by that most symbolic element of Western conformity, the business suit.
Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach, 1964
Auerbach is known for working with a small group of portrait models, including his cousin Gerda. His painstaking process, involving multiple removals and reapplications of paint, results in a visceral and intense depiction of his subjects. Auerbach was only eight years old when he was sent to London from Berlin in 1939 – his parents remained in Germany and were later murdered in concentration camps.
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, until June 26.