Searching for Healing in Post-War Art

Franciszka Themerson, “Topography of Aloneness” (1962), oil on canvas, 48 ​​× 72 inches (all photos Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

LONDON — We often think of stalwart names like Graham Sutherland or Paul Nash when we think of British war artists. Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 at the Barbican, however, was conceived by curator Jane Alison to examine the work of artists who experienced World War II directly during the formative part of their artistic development, whether they served in action like Nigel Henderson or Lynn Chadwick or whether they were displaced like Eduardo Paolozzi, who was interned in 1940 when his native Italy declared war on Britain. The exhibition also looks at the transnational nature of British artistic creation at this time and neglected female artists. Add to that the concept that there can be no definitive encapsulation of war as an experience – that each individual reacts in a unique way – and you have an exhaustive spectacle of 48 lesser known and famous artists, including 19 were not born in Britain. , and an incredibly dizzying array of fantastically imaginative creations. These works not only break down previous technical notions of artistic creation, but also revise the existing canon of war artists.

Such a broad field, encompassing so many diverse artists, certainly defies any traditional curatorial aim to give it a neat meaning, such as grouping ‘schools’ together or advocating for stylistic or thematic development. Instead, Alison boldly groups the show into 14 categories with deliberately loose and funky titles, such as Body and Cosmos, Horizon and Scars. On any other show, that would raise some very arched eyebrows, but when it comes to the abstract concept of war — which also defies neat categories — it kind of fits. Instead of prescribing how we should interpret the works, these titles provide a thematic starting point, rewarding open-minded viewers with a richer experience.

Leon Kossoff, “Willesden Junction, Early Morning” (1962), oil on panel, 48 x 87 inches

For example, Scars contains a series of impastos by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Seen through the prism of the title, the violence of the impasto technique becomes apparent; in ‘Willesden Junction, Early Morning’ (1962), Kossoff’s brushstrokes carve deep gashes in the earth, which looks no more like the Willesden area of ​​London than if it had been leveled by bombing. The works also allude to the mental “scars” of war trauma or the physical signs of healing after violence. The curatorial process mirrors that of the artists – how do we make sense of the senseless destruction and loss of human life? The general feeling throughout is one of catharsis.

The focus on lesser-known names also showcases some intriguing talents that are otherwise rarely seen. The Jean and John section, about married artist couple Jean Cooke and John Bratby creating work in the 1950s, illustrates post-war anxiety and antagonism in a domestic setting, the layering of food and d other supply problems faced by many families when rationing ended in 1954. Each paints the other in an unflattering, even savage light, making the home a domestic battleground. Bratby’s portrait “Jean and Still Life Before a Window” (1954) is a savage and violent rendering of naked Jean, staring with saucer eyes, beside a groaning table with endless food wrappers, painted coarsely and evenly on the plane surface. Their unexpected presence in this survey represents a post-war experience in the homes of civilians.

Installation view of Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 at the Barbican Centre, London

Less successful is the small Intimacy and Aura section, which, for a title that hints at a much wider emotional scope for exploration, feels anemic and underwhelming; Lucien Freud is for once not the most pompous pictorial presence. Sylvia Sleigh’s delicate portrait of her lover, art critic Lawrence Alloway, dressed as a ‘bride’ in Renaissance/Rococo costume pales visually in comparison to all the bold and provocative work in the exhibition. The subject merits a larger section than this vignette, or perhaps it suggests that post-war artists placed little importance on such frivolities as courting between partners while society was still in shock war-torn monumental upheavals?

The most compelling Cruising tackles homosexual desire in the post-war years; sexual acts between men were only decriminalized in the UK in 1967. Three works by Francis Bacon man in blue series from 1954 (brought together here in exciting fashion from disparate sources) feature a hazy figure rising from the darkness, a frequent and unsettling presence in Bacon’s work. More surprising, however, is a very early and agonizing work by David Hockney before his brilliantly colored California years. “My Brother Is Only Seventeen” (1962), named after graffiti he spotted in the toilets of Earl’s Court tube station, a popular cruising spot, is all black and impasto, graffiti-like letters sliding across the surface. These dark works are exhibited in a room painted almost black, conveying a disturbing concern. The inclusion of the section demonstrates Alison’s determination to examine as much of the human experience affected by war as possible.

Installation view of Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 at the Barbican Centre, London

Post-war modernThe main arena, titled Strange Universe, particularly stands out. The section explores the visual strangeness and extreme techniques used by artists to express their ideas. The human body is reduced to abstraction, or its fundamental essence. As Alison notes, “Disfigurement is [the artist’s] strength”, and humanity is brought back to its fundamentals. Paolozzi’s bronze men are an organized and brilliant chaos of limbs; “Head of a Woman” (1957) by Peter King is composed of melting globules of molten Cement. Magda Cordell’s giant, amoeba-like, brilliantly colored, weeping works are a revelation, combining the immiscible acrylic and oil mediums on Masonite in such works as in “Figure 59” (circa 1958), and wild impasto à la Dubuffet. landscapes by Franciszka Themerson (for example, “Topography of Aloneness”, 1962). The overriding impression here is one of positivity – the desire to explore a complexity of feeling after the devastation of war by experimenting with new ways of creating. This outburst of technical ambition and the ambition to redefine the human form suggests a desire for progress both in art and in society.

Overall, this key arena space is uplifting. This was clearly Alison’s intention, as there is a notable distinction between these galleries and the exhibition’s opening room, which is populated with nihilistic paintings by FN Souza, including his “Agony of Christ”. from 1958 and “Tête d’homme” from 1965, composed entirely of black impasto, and John Latham’s monumental “Full Stop” (1961). This first room sets a dark tone, which opens with a brilliant and audacious overview of the following 13 “themes”; the contrast deliberately implies that rather than simply reflecting absurdity or depression, art has the power to help make senseless acts meaningful – that it can be a unifying way to reclaim our humanity.

Peter King, “Untitled (Head of a woman)” (c. 1957), Molten Cement

This last point takes on a topical urgency given the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Barbican itself celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; its brutalist concrete structure was built on a London site that was bombed to oblivion during World War II. For this reason, it is particularly moving to see these responses to the destruction of war in the place’s menacing concrete pillars, similar to bunkers; and, despite the scale of the exhibition hall, the dim lighting creates a sense of intimacy for the viewer. As a similar and unnecessary hell bombards the people of Ukraine, we can try to find some solace and hope in the faith that art can help us unite and heal.

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 continues at the Barbican (Silk St., London, England) until June 26. The exhibition was curated by Jane Alison.

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