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Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965

  • Art
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
John McHale, First Contact, 1958. Collection Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo. Copyright Estate of John McHale. Photograph: Benda Brieger,.
John McHale, First Contact, 1958. Collection Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo. Copyright Estate of John McHale. Photograph: Benda Brieger,.

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

This exhibition is a premonition, a warning. In all the heaving, dark, post-apocalyptic paint and steel created by the artists in Britain in the wake of World War II, you see a roadmap for how our own lives could be after war today, and it’s brutally harrowing.

It starts with a void, a huge black abyss on white canvas by John Latham, surrounded by bodies riddled with arrows by F N Souza and exploding heads by Eduardo Paolozzi. Everywhere you look: emptiness, violence, death. 

Britain was a bombed-out husk of a place in the 1950s. You can see it in photos of kids playing in wastelands by Bert Hardy and stark relief sculptures by William Turnbull. The war looms over Lynn Chadwick’s bird of prey/jet bomber sculpture, and Paolozzi’s little egg blob/organic grenade. Peter King’s concrete head melts toxically into itself, Magda Cordell paints bodies that are splayed and gory. These opening three rooms are a dizzying, nauseating, dark, awful depiction of trying to live in the radioactive afterglow of war. It’s heinous, but it’s brilliant.

Then you turn a corner and everything changes. Suddenly, you’re in a house, dumped into domesticity via the paintings of Jean Cooke and John Bratby. But these still lifes and portraits aren’t cute and quaint, they show a home riven with abuse, Cooke painting to reclaim her identity and escape the violence of her husband Bratby. The war’s impact was societal, and personal too. 

It’s heinous, but it’s brilliant

Upstairs, the rest of the exhibition is broader in focus, looking beyond the more obviously war-ravaged work to explore the wider art of Britain at the time. 

It was a country full of immigrants, refugees, women and gay people, all trying to carve out spaces for themselves. There are impossibly thick, unctuous paintings by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, ultra-stark 3D minimalism by the Constructionists, blitzed street photography by Eva Frankfurther, unbearably tense works of homosexual desire by Francis Bacon, and perfectly subtle, simple ceramics by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. Best of all is the chance to lose yourself in the amazing psychedelic maelstrom of Gustav Metzger’s staggering ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’.

Across all these works you find pop, minimalism, abstraction, expressionism and the seeds of countless other ideas, all because life in post-war Britain was wild, difficult, weird and oppressive. These artists were fighting to express their trauma, to find their place in a broken world. 

Today, as war cleaves Europe apart again, you might look to this art for answers. Don’t. Art doesn’t give you answers, it just helps you look at the world, helps you parse the violence and pain and trauma. It helps you understand. And right now, we all need as much help as we can get.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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