With Postwar Modern. New Art in Britain 1945-1965, the Barbican reappraises the art that was created on these shores from the end of WW2 to 1965, a time when artists were grappling with the devastation of WW2 and its aftershocks. UK industrial cities had been badly bombed and the wholesale destruction of Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, was still fresh in people’s minds. Artists started to imagine what awaited society. What was life going to be like in the new era in the public space and at home? Science fiction became a popular genre and both painters and sculptors started to explore the idea of what it was to be human, beast or plant and then to imagine strange alien mutants.
Putting on such a show covering twenty years of British art is a tall order, but Barbican has a lot of space to fill. Two hundred works of painting, sculpture, and photography are spread across fourteen themed rooms. That means plenty of art to peruse and plenty of opportunities to discover lesser-known artists that the Barbican curators have been keen to showcase. Among the forty-eight artists represented, some are home-grown British, others, refugees of Nazism, and the remainder from the former British Colonies.
Room 1 entitled Body and Cosmos thrusts us, as the title suggests, into post war questioning of religion and man’s place in the world. Francis Newton Souza’s Agony of Christ, painted in black and Art Brut style, sets the ominous tone. Christ’s head, resembling an African mask, is crowned in thorns of barbed wire. On the opposite wall, John Latham’s Man Caught up with Yellow Object 1954 is intriguing. Over a whitewash paint, Latham has used a spray gun of blacks and greys and out of the gunmetal hues emerge a truncated torso and gun. A yellow orb of light suggests a new dawn however.
The destruction of UK cities was well covered in photo reportage. In Room 2, Post Atomic Garden, Bert Hardy’s photograph, demonstrate street life in Birmingham where the ruins of WW2 have become the playground of the young. On the second floor in Choreography of the Street, we are treated to Roger Mayne’s much starker street image. God Save the Queen was part of a series of photos he took in Bermondsey, London in the late fifties. The charred walls and sheets of corrugated iron boarding up the windows, show that even a decade after the end of the war, London’s neighbourhoods needed attention. On the central wall, several words and letters appear: ‘God’ ‘The’ and ‘Q’. The rest of the painted script is illegible, perhaps obliterated by Mayne’s harsh, heavily contrasted, black and white printing. Whatever it is, it reinforces the atmosphere of poverty and neglect. A girl lies back across a window ledge looking out listlessly at us. It’s an unforgettable image and made me wonder whether the Sex Pistols had poured over it before writing their 1977 hit song.
I enjoyed the science-fiction section of the show in Rooms 2 and 3. Mutant beasts and plants or cybords, half beast/man-half machine appear in paintings and sculpture. The sculptures were particularly inspired. Lynn Chadwick’s arrow bird, Elizabeth Frink’s decapitated birds with human legs and Eduardo Paolozzi’s beautiful embossed bronzes of humans with boxy heads.
Most fascinating was Magda Cordell’s carcass canvas. Painted in beautiful vibrant orange, red oils on a brillant Mediterranean blue background, I mistook it for a human heart. Avinash Chandra’s Fun and Games 1961 painting of two orange humanoids conversing – their genitalia swinging back and forth, was enchanting and full of humour.
On a more serious note, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, explored human angst. Lucian Freud’s Hotel Bedroom 1954 which depicts his ill-fated elopement to Paris with lover Lady Caroline Hamilton Temple Blackwood, stopped visitors in their tracks at the show, and for good reason. It resonates with all romantics. How often have a couple been to Paris only to end up rowing bitterly in a beautiful setting. Freud’s dark brooding presence in the hotel room draws the eye. His dark figure seems to suck out all the light from the elegant building outside and is the reason why Caroline, ghostly pale in bed, has despair written over her face. Meanwhile Bacon’s Study of a Portrait shows a suited man in a dark room, screaming. Interrogator or victim? Impossible to tell – so clever and so chilling.
This is a rich show, and it succeeds admirably in showing the immense variety of British art being produced during this important period of recovery and renewal.
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 runs until the 26th June at the Barbican Art Gallery, London.