Postwar Modern  

Featuring 48 artists working in a range of different mediums, Graham Hooper was enthralled by this collection of postwar artworks and urges you to visit.

The Barbican’s latest landmark art exhibition – “Postwar Modern, New Art in Britain, 1945-1965” – is a magnificent and timely undertaking. Encompassing painting, sculpture, studio ceramics and installation, I am almost tempted to suggest it should remain as a permanent show, as an ongoing reminder of the effects of war. It is magnificent for its sheer scale and scope; never before can a range of such masterworks have been gathered together and shown alongside each other for comparison and context. It could not have been better scheduled, with fighting and killing happening as I write, not so far away in Ukraine, not that anyone would ever wish for war. My grandparents grew up in the era of austerity and rationing. I heard the stories and learnt about it at school. Students today will be seeing the shocking and frankly terrifying events as they unfold in real time on their televisions and mobile phones.

After that, if it doesn’t sound crass, this is a show that many an art teacher will have dreamed of seeing. The list of artists represented is long and comprehensive, and to see these paintings alongside their contemporaries, and collated with such thoughtful and poignant placement is a delight. I cannot urge you enough to go and visit whilst you can – this will not happen again.

All the wall text, captioning and background surrounding and introducing the exhibition situates the works on show as responses to war in all its iterations: social, economic, technological and artistic. War led to, and still leads to, waste, suffering, and death but then, hopefully, with luck and in time, a resurgence, a re-evaluation, a rebalancing and reappraisal, new hope and optimism. The Barbican gallery has set out its stall stating that it has rejected old notions of ‘schools or movements’ in art and instead looked for shared concerns or approaches, so each of the many spaces, both upstairs and down, are brought together thematically, and on the whole, it works very well. 

to see these paintings alongside their contemporaries, and collated with such thoughtful and poignant placement is a delight

The first is a room that centres on the impact of war on migrants to Britain (from such diverse locations as Italy, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Goa and British Colonial India. This very first space introduces the new mood in the depiction of the human figure, the exploration of innovative materials and processes, the tendency towards abstraction. Very quickly we are given a sense of the work to come.

The next space focuses on the way notions of landscape were radically and suddenly altered in 1945. London as documented by the Picture Post Photojournalist Bert Hardy was a bombsite, that functioned as a playground for children and a storehouse for materials for artists. The physical space, all craters and burnt-out buildings, would appear in the paintings of Frank Auerbach (later viewed upstairs) and the found objects would feature in the sculptures of Eduardo Paolozzi. William Turnbull’s bronze works are at once purely abstract reliefs, all prongs and plates, and then 3-dimensional ordnance maps as seen from his aeroplane (he was a fighter pilot during the war). Similarly, Prunella Clough’s abstract canvases (‘Bypass 1’, from 1960 and ‘Electrical Installation 1’ from 1959) portray a world that flicks between the micro and macro, and reward being viewed from afar and up close, and on my visit (early mid-week) it was certainly possible to look at these beautiful paintings at both distances to really understand how they function so cleverly.

Another space looking again at the human body, draws our attention to the extreme contrasts that are ever present, if just under the surface. There is the victim and the survivor, fear and fascination.

After the Second World War there appears to have been both a recognition of how modern warfare resulted in a new kind of destruction of life and limb, but also a new kind of human, in the face of technological advance; the machine age. There is an uncomfortable eroticism as well as a strange enchantment with the distorted and dismembered human body. Eduardo Paolozzi’s life-size sculptures are as much robots from an American science fiction comic as the dug-up remains of a scorched soldier from a bunker or trench.

One of the most affecting and effective rooms in the gallery was the space devoted to the Jean Cooke and John Bratby (a very unhappy and troubled husband and wife couple) whose portraits of each other, alongside the objects and interiors of their domestic life, are paired in tragic and heart-breaking fashion. She appears battered and bruised by her jealous and possessive partner. He went on to steal her limelight for the next seventy years.

A room themed “Intimacy and Aura” brings together the bizarre photographs of Bill Brandt with the paintings of Lucien Freud. Brandt had acquired an old police camera used to objectively record crime scenes, with an ultra-wide angle (and distorting lens) and deep focus. Freud painted his female muses with detail that emphasises their power and fragility. Both sets of figures appear in odd poses, uncomfortable and staged, frozen in time and ethereally symbolic. Brandt’s soft black and white counters well with Freud’s weird palette of olive green, straw yellow and Prussian blue. In both the photographs and paintings, it is the eyes that seek us out and haunt us.

“Lush Life” is a room that examines Britain’s emerging attraction to American consumerism. Whilst the UK faced shortages of essentials let alone luxuries, in the United States, it seemed daily life was opulent and seductive. Collage, painting and even design enjoyed referencing new, electric household appliances and the very latest domestic conveniences.

Upstairs the mood changes again, with the paintings of Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach whose work is so dense with oil paint, literally inches thick, that it is a wonder they don’t fall off the wall. They are landscapes in themselves. Likewise, the ‘auto-destructive’ public performances of Gustav Metzger (spraying acid onto large canvases) are documented here as archive footage. What looks like skin, bubbles and splinters, eventually splitting open like a fresh wound. I was captivated and horrified in equal measure.

I have written here quite recently about Freud’s work in a retrospective at the Royal Academy, but I’ll also mention quickly here that a rare show of Auerbach’s work is currently open just north of Chichester at Newlands House Gallery and has been very highly reviewed.

In contrast the room that follows on from the thick, encrusted, subjective canvases is the space entitled “Concrete” which seeks to demonstrate a wholly different approach to making art that emerged after the war. This time painters and sculptors hoped to construct rather than abstract from the visual work. Using mathematical principles their pieces are shamelessly geometric and betray their scientific underpinning.

We then move to the street as a location for artistic observation. Graffiti, old and dilapidated advertising hoardings and the general tired and worn housing stock provides the backdrop for the playful collages by Nigel Henderson and photographs of Roger Mayne. 

Contrast in the next space is very evident again where the photographs of Shirley Baker (charming pastel shades recording inner-city family life with early Kodachrome) are paired with Eva Frankfurther’s soft, tender portraits of working woman in domestic and vocational settings. Both sets of images succeed in capturing and celebrating otherwise forgotten lives.

The room titled “Cruise” looks at two very different attitudes towards homosexuality (still illegal until 1967). Francis Bacon’s large, dark paintings (with those gold frames again) have men, half-hidden, seeking out illicit sexual encounters whilst David Hockney’s pictures celebrate same-sex relationships with joy and freedom.

“Surface/Vessel” compares and contrasts the paintings of William Scott (which often feature domestic pots and containers) with the actual ceramics of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. It’s as if the thrown earthenware objects have literally provided the inspiration for the canvases behind. It’s simple and clever. 

One of my favourite rooms (I kept going back to it) was the corner space that featured two paintings by the late Gillian Ayres (‘Nimbus’ and ‘Break Off’, both from 1961). They are such euphoric and exhilarating images (the colours and the shapes, every drip and splatter) that I stood for some time taking in every detail. The more geometric renderings of Patrick Heron, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Kim Lim provided interesting juxtapositions. 

The very last room is a multi-panel film installation (Liquid Crystal Environment,1965) by Gustav Metzger again, but this ‘auto-creation’ making ingenious use of projectors shining hot light through heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides. The result is an immersive three-wall, floor-to-ceiling piece of endlessly changing psychedelic patterns that pulse and dissolve with dazzling colours. There are bean bags to slump into and lie back to feast your eyes. 

The exhibition guide suggests that for all its beauty there is the evocation of nuclear destruction in the installation, and the ever-present threat of the Cold War, and soured Anglo-Soviet relations. The parallel between the Europe of sixty years ago and today’s new era of the socio-political and economic shifting landscape are powerfully created in stunning richness here.

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965

To Sun 26 Jun 2022, at Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS  

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