Glory, turmoil and freedom?

Postwar Modern opens with an unofficial announcement of the end of war: the unforgettable photograph of Lee Miller taking a bath in Hitler’s tub. On arriving in Munich, she and her fellow war photographer David Scherman had wrangled a billet in a house where the 45th Division had set up a command post. Apparently, the house inside and out looked very ordinary; only small details, such as the silver cutlery embellished with a swastika and the monogram AH, indicated that it was Hitler’s abandoned home. The photograph was taken on the day that Hitler’s suicide was announced. At first sight it seems a piece of sheer chutzpah, although a bath must have been for Lee a much-needed treat, after three weeks traveling with GIs through war-torn landscapes. But it is the boots, left prominently on the edge of the bathmat, that denotes the tragedy. In these she had witnessed, earlier that day, hell on earth when she and Scherman were among the first to enter the Dachau concentration camp. The photographs and text she sent British Vogue magazine, in her role as its official war correspondent, were accompanied by a cable: “I implore you to believe this is true.”

As the war passed into history, memories of its darkness were inevitably revived by awareness of the atom bomb, the nuclear arms race and the Cold War. Meanwhile loss and dislocation, as experienced by those who had fled Nazism or who began arriving from a crumbling Empire, combined to give the immediate postwar era the label “the age of anxiety”. But equally prevalent was the desire to forget, to “get back to normal”, to block out the horrors of war with the sweetness of Hollywood movies or the black comedies in which the Ealing Studios now specialized. These contrasts, tensions and ambiguities recur in this exhibition, in, for example, Franciszka Themerson’s painting “Topography of Aloneness”. The picture speaks of her experience as a refugee: violent incisions, scratched into the paint, almost cancel out the fragments that lie beneath. But after a while the eye perceives in this grubby monochromatic mess a playfully distorted image of a young woman, firmly smiling, pushing herself forward as if to assert a better future, her lively spirit balancing the surrounding despair.

This exhibition rests on the idea that we are less familiar with the postwar period than we might think. Its ambitious intent is to recast the twenty years that followed the Second World War in a way that encourages us to experience them afresh. Given that the arts center at the Barbican was itself built on a City of London bombsite, it makes an inspiring setting that shows how destruction can be turned into creative use. It reminds us that Frank Auerbach found “glory” as well as “turmoil and freedom” in postwar London, and made bombsites the subject of major works. It finds aerial views mirrored in a series of reliefs by William Turnbull; and it brings in the photographers Bert Hardy, Shirley Baker and Roger Mayne to show how life continued amid extreme urban deeliction. In addition there is a new ingredient in this postwar landscape, owing to the decision to weave in contributions made by diasporic artists, among them Frank Bowling, Francis Newton Souza and Aubrey Williams. And in keeping with the reawakening of interest in women artists, attention has brought to the fore more of those who, like Themerson, Magda Cordell and Prunella Clough, were pushed to the margins.

To make way for new material it was decided to exclude artists who had established their reputations in Britain before the war. This cut out the old guard – Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and, surprisingly, John Minton, who was a generation younger than the rest and, before the war, had exhibited only at student exhibitions. There is some loss here. Moore’s pursuit of the helmet theme, and its allusions to both protection and power, would have resonated purposefully in this show; and Minton’s urban romanticism might have played into the organizers’ interest in “the choreography of the street”, as would Joan Eardley’s paintings of children playing in Glasgow’s slums.

Impossible to overlook, however, is the consensus that regards Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, first exhibited in London in April 1945, as the definitive statement of the postwar period, with its emphasis on the recurrence of human brutality. Even the curator of this show, Jane Alison, and her team cannot ignore it. It is illustrated and discussed in the catalog but not shown in the exhibition. Instead, three paintings have been chosen from Bacon’s Man in Blue series, in which a tense, isolated figure is shown waiting at a bar in an empty black room. Perhaps helped by repetition, these paintings are more inward-looking and hint at the desire for intimacy. Nearby hang two early David Hockneys, both also dark in color and representative of queer desire. Together these two artists create the section titled “Cruise”, giving voice to what Geoffrey Salter, one of the contributors to the catalog, calls the “emerging, shifting position of homosexuality in national consciousness”. The fact that all five paintings make strategic use of black further evokes underlying awareness of the shadow of war.

Postwar Modern is full of recurrent surprises. Somehow I had not expected the agile art critic Lawrence Alloway, who deftly shooed in Pop Art with his invention of the “fine art-pop art continuum”, to be equally skilled at cross-dressing, finessing the choice outfits in which he posed for his wife Sylvia Sleigh’s portraits of historical beauties. Further insights into the reality of John Bratby and Jean Cooke’s marriage, as indicated by Cooke’s bruised face in one self-portrait, also suggest the instability of conventions in the postwar era. Most of the surprises, however, were things normally hidden from view. Lynn Chadwick’s “The Fisheater”, for instance, will be new to many, although it was widely acclaimed in 1951 during the Festival of Britain and gifted to the Tate by the artist in 1999. Made with iron and sheets of copper, at a time when Chadwick was bent on creating Kafkaesque imagery suggestive of snares, teeth and claws, it broods over the center of one of the downstairs galleries with macabre elegance. Nearby is another Tate treasure that needed an airing: a large aquatic collage by Nigel Henderson, “Cycle of Life and Death in a Pond”, immersive, surreal, teasing and disturbing. It was originally made for the “Patio and Pavilion” section in the This Is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. With works of such interest and stature appearing at intervals, it is hard to accept the catalog’s claim that the 1945-65 period was at one time regarded as no more than an interval leading up to the outbreak of Pop Art

Two major works by Alan Davie signal the liberating impact made on British artists by American Abstract Expressionism, yet very little is made of this game-changing historical shift, which was effected through exhibitions of American art shown at the Tate and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery . Still more surprising, given the strong socio-political content in this exhibition, is the scarcity of attention given to John Berger, a painter as well as an art critic, interested in realist theory and practice. His two Looking forward Exhibitions, which promoted various forms of realism, could have formed part of the narrative behind this exhibition. Instead, the multiple sectional divisions, though never uninteresting, follow, at times, a slightly listless and wayward course. The timeline also credits all the achievements of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton in the North East to the University of Durham, whereas they famously took place in Newcastle, under the aegis of King’s College, Newcastle, then part of a federation linked to Durham University. This timeline draws attention to the larger cultural and socio-political scene for each year; it mentions the founding of the literary magazine Le Temps modernes in 1945, but why omit the impact made in June that year by the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes?

The black walls and low lighting in the first room at the Barbican plunge the visitor into brooding darkness. Among its remarkable exhibits are two portraits by Francis Newton Souza. Born in Goa and educated by the Jesuits in Bombay, he arrived in England almost penniless, yet filled with hope as to what decolonization could achieve. But his self-portrait, “Mr Sebastian”, shows him harshly constrained by the rigidity of his working-man’s suit and shot through, like the saint, with piercing arrows. Nearby is Souza’s portrait of the crucified Christ, also glimmering in the dark and offering another cry of rage and pain. There is no doubt that, although Postwar Modern could have achieved tighter focus, this is nevertheless an exhibition that challenges orthodoxies and will leave a lasting imprint in the public mind.

Frances Spalding is an Emeritus Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge. her book, The Real and the Romantic: Art in England between two world wars, will be published this year

The post Glory, turmoil and freedom? appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment