IT IS entirely fitting that Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65, which describes itself as a major exhibition about the art of the period, is on show at the Grade II-listed Barbican in the City of London. The place is a sort of Vatican of Brutalism, that deliberately ugly school of architecture which rampaged through Britain in the decades after the Second World War to create some of the most inhuman and depressing precincts to be seen outside Soviet Russia. Naturally, a lot of lefties loved this ‘rough poetry’, as some of its early proponents described it. So much is Brutalism worshipped in the Barbican that its gift shop features pens, T-shirts, socks, mugs, bags, pencils, biros and fridge magnets all marked simply ‘Brutal’, in that blocky, sans-serif font that designers slather over everything these days with no idea of what a tiresome cliché it has become.
Postwar Modern 1945-65 is advertised as a ‘timely reassessment’ of the period’s art, which it says grew out of the horrors of the war, ‘the nuclear dawn, the Cold War and the waning of the British Empire’. It claims to feature artists who ‘experienced the war’ – but very few on show seem to have actively participated in it. None of the post-war work of painters who recorded the conflict for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee appears. A surprisingly large number of other well-known names from the period do not get a look-in either: thus you will look in vain for anything by, for example, Edwards Bawden and Ardizzone, Johns Piper, Minton and Craxton, Michael Ayrton, Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Carel Weight, Ivon Hitchens, Keith Vaughn, Joan Eardley, Graham Sutherland, Ruskin Spear, Peter Blake or Derrick Greave. Their presence would have added to a fuller picture of the period but might have spoiled the show’s premise, which really is to show art that continued so-called progressive politics by other means. Thus we have obligatory readings of work through the prism of the isms: postcolonialism, ‘marginalised voices’, feminism and so on.
Nonetheless, this is a very useful exhibition for anyone interested in the culture of the second half of the 20th century. By showing Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculptures of robot-like human figures and John Latham’s large canvas of a black ball, Full Stop, pieces that are said to explore the issues of life and death and the individual in the wake of war, the curators unintentionally remind of us of the dangers of this kind of reductionism, as well as its aridity and alienation: the less information, the less sympathy is evoked. In many of works the human being becomes a mere object – much as they were in the communist dystopias that intellectuals in the West had such a hard time facing up to.
Much is made of Victor Pasmore’s conversion to abstraction, and here the show is revelatory though, again, not in the way intended. Pasmore had produced atmospheric figurative paintings which seem to be in line with the work of Whistler and some of the Camden Town Group. In 1948, Pasmore, who was obsessed by theory, started making ‘relief constructions’, dry-as-dust rectangles and lines on surfaces. Anything human is shorn from proceedings; there is not so much as a curve. Here the programme is helpful. Pasmore and others producing such work were pursuing ‘geometric harmonies in the search for a democratic, universal language that could transcend human differences’. In other words this much-lauded form of art was really nothing much more than a sort of visual Esperanto, and how many people do you know who speak that? In fact one starts to realise that abstraction is as much a way of avoiding things as finding them.
The amount of abstraction and distortion on show serves to teach another unintended and unfashionable lesson: when you finally encounter sensitively produced figurative art it reinforces the superiority and durability of that now despised approach. The great discovery of the show, Eva Frankfurther (born 1930), fled Nazi Germany and trained at Saint Martin’s School of Art. She became disillusioned with the art world and supported herself by washing up at the Lyons Corner House, Piccadilly, in the evenings while painting by day. Three paintings by Frankfurther restore the dignity and character of human beings amid the anonymous hard lines of brutalism. Her picture of a mother and child is the most affecting work in the exhibition and West Indian Waitresses (1955) is a fascinating and gentle study of workers. Frankfurther killed herself in 1959 aged 28.
The paintings of Frank Auerbach, another child escapee from Nazi Germany, and Leon Kossoff, both pupils of the great David Bomberg, are turbid views of faces or buildings, clotted with astonishing masses of trawled oil paint. They take Bomberg’s ideas about form and mass almost to a reductio ad absurdum. Some of Auerbach’s work looks as if it has been painted by flinging cake mixture on to a canvas. Despite this they linger in the mind, and Kossoff’s small paintings of St Paul’s Cathedral are rather moving.
Works by the ‘kitchen sink’ painter John Bratby and his wife are shown largely, it seems, to demonstrate that Jean Cooke was a better painter than him – not hard – and that he treated her horribly. Cooke’s paintings have a great atmospheric quality and should be better known.
Quality shows with the big hitters that are included. Francis Bacon’s Man in Blue series (1954) is compelling and eerie, achieving the painter’s aim of producing ‘a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime’.
Lucian Freud’s bug-eyed and neurotic Girl With Roses (1947-8), a portrait of his then wife Kitty, sets out the familiar and always arresting Freudian vision in which accuracy is taken to a point that makes reality surreal.
Hockney’s ‘homosexual propaganda’ paintings – his description – are oddly inconsequential given their aim but seem to be included for thematic purposes.
Shirley Baker’s Fifties colour photographs, taken in lush Kodachrome 64, of working class neighbourhoods in Manchester just prior to mass demolition of their homes in slum-clearance projects are as affecting as Eva Frankfurther’s paintings, as are monochrome photographs of London streets by Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne. These works raise the question of what the people about to be moved into the new estates thought about the world the post-war planners gave them. It is not recorded in this exhibition.
The show never interrogates the future that the art on display is said to be working towards. Unlike some literary work produced in the period, such as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which raised troubling questions about morality and behaviour in the future society the intellectuals and bureaucrats were constructing, the curators here clearly see the trend as a revolution without losses.
It would be highly instructive to mount a follow-up exhibition about art between the years 1965-85 to show the unhappy results of many of the trends on display: the collapse of art into postmodern gobbledygook; the rationalising of the family; the downgrading of standards; the war on tradition; the move to replace liberty with license; the violence, drugs and social decay of inner cities.
Postwar Modern 1945-65 has one sore eye on a supposedly equitable future, and the other firmly shut.
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65; Barbican Art Gallery, until June 26.