FROM DESTRUCTION TO ABSTRACTION BRITISH ART IN THE 1940S AND 1950S
- John Arthur Malcolm Aldridge
- Michael Ayrton
- Wilhelmina Barns-Graham
- Keith Baynes
- John Bratby
- Prunella Clough
- Sir William Coldstream
- Robert Colquhoun
- John Craxton
- Alan Davie
- Roger Hilton
- Peter Lanyon
- Robert Macbryde
- Rodrigo Moynihan
- Ben Nicholson
- Victor Pasmore
- Albert Richards
- William Scott
- Sir Stanley Spencer
- Graham Sutherland
- John Tunnard
- John Wells
- Bryan Wynter
In the 1920s and 1930s visual arts in England had been flourishing, much in exchange with a vibrant European art scene. With the onset of the Second World War in September 1939 this open creative sphere was disrupted. The attention of artists shifted to the events of the war and patriotic duty in the first instance, and scarcity of material had led British artists to work in collaboration with the government as official war artists. Rodrigo Moynihan's painting Barbed Wire - Cornwall of 1943 documents the reinforcements set up on the British Isles to prevent any further progress of the enemy. Similarly Albert Richard's depiction of an airstrip in Essex of the same year records the impact of the Second World War on British soil. With the exception of Albert Richard's painting, a much reduced palette echoes the lack of material. William Coldstream's London Bombed Site from 1946 reflects the destruction of the capital better than words could have done. At the same time it is an example for how well artists made use of the limited pigment available to reflect their surroundings.
This exhibition traces the development of British art after World War II. The destruction had caused a return to documentary more naturalistic modes of visual expression. After the Second World War, artists used their art more and more as a means of digesting the shock, re-establishing a shaken identity and finding hope. Victor Pasmore and John Aldridge painted scenes that had remained intact, suburbia on the one hand and the countryside on the other. Many artists left cities for the tranquillity nature had to offer. Several moved to St. Ives in Cornwall where they painted the 'essentially' English landscape.
However, there was also a great demand for tranquil pictures. Spencer's Bluebells, Cornflowers and Rhododendron from 1945 is an example of a work of art produced for sale, as World War II had left him at the risk of becoming destitute. Graham Sutherland, who had also served as an official war artist began to translate themes of suffering into landscape, a powerful example is Thorn Tree, which he painted immediately after World War II. John Tunnard's Monument, 1947 is another indication of how nature inspired artistic freedom and expression; perhaps here the flowing form is derived from textiles, which he and his wife worked with initially.
Artist communities were important in Britain from the late 1940s. Through discussion artists found their creative voices again. The Students by Robert Colquhoun dating from 1947 shows this. In his case this involved Robert MacBryde. While the work by the “Two Roberts”, as they came to be known, visually links with Cubist painting that of their friend Prunella Clough revisited and developed pre-war abstraction in the circle of St. Ives. Her colleague Ben Nicholson combines a landscape painting with a Cubist section in November 11-47. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and John Wells belong to the same circle of artists. Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton John and Bryan Wynter belong to the later generation, who looked at Abstract Expressionism, a movement where the expression of the internal response to landscape was expressed in painting.
Michael Ayrton, John Craxton and John Bratby on the other hand found their inspiration in urban spaces. A sense of alienation comes across in Ayrton's moonlit square, painted in 1948/9, while John Craxton's Galatas, 1947, shows early immigrants coming to Britain in the years after World War II, who were to crucially influence the multicultural society Britain is today. Bratby's scene of his circle of friends at the breakfast table is an example of paintings that were to be described as 'Kitchen Sink', simply because they showed everything, “even the kitchen sink”, as the innovative and most influential art critic of the post-war period David Sylvester, explained in an article published in 1954. He noted that the artists moved their focus from the studio to the kitchen, the kind of kitchens 'in which ordinary people cooked ordinary food and doubtless lived their ordinary lives'. The Kitchen Sink painters celebrated everyday life of ordinary people implying a social if not political interest.
In the selection of the art works in this exhibition alone, a great variety of styles manifests itself. This shows how artists in the 1950s had reclaimed creative production and had begun to find ways of expressing themselves more emotionally in their methods of painting and interpretation of the visual representation of their surroundings. From 1950 a greater lightness and enthusiasm can be detected. From the titles given to paintings, it is apparent that the content has become less important. Hilton's Painting 1954 conveys nothing more than the activity and the year of its creation. He relieves art of all responsibilities, other than creative expression.
To abstract means to remove, and in the art sense it means that artist has removed or withheld references to an object, landscape or figure to produce a simplified or schematic work. This method of creating art has led to many critical theories; some theorists considered this the purest form of art: art for art’s sake. Unconcerned as it is with materiality, abstraction is often considered as representing the spiritual.
The term ‘Documentary’ was not coined until the 1920s, and then used by the British film-maker, John Grierson, to refer to moving pictures. It has a long and continuous history in British photography, reaching back to the invention of the medium. Many critics claimed that the documentary impulse, which can perhaps be best defined as the systematic recording of visual reality for the purpose of providing information and encouraging understanding of the world, is inherent in the medium itself. It was this view which came to be known as the realist paradigm - the belief that a photograph represents a ‘slice of reality’ easily understood by the viewer. This belief governed understanding of photography from the moment of its invention in the era of positivism in the 19th Century, until it was itself subject to interrogation in the 1980s.
Early British practitioners included John Thomson whose visual essay Street Life in London (1876) documented the life of the London poor, and Hill and Adamson who portrayed, in the mid 1840s, the customs and way of life of the fisher folk of Newhaven near Edinburgh. In the early 20th century, following the emergence of documentary film-making and Mass Observation (a study undertaken in the North of England by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson), this new aesthetic found its most persuasive outlet in the mass circulation weekly magazines, such as Picture Post and Life. In time, however, pressure from advertisers combined with the restrictions of group journalism and curtailed the independence of creative photographers, with only exceptional individuals such as Bill Brandt able to survive as both a photojournalist and an independent photographer. His images of Britain’s class-ridden society along with his more experimental nudes, portraits and landscapes had a profound influence on a younger generation and established Brant as a major creative force in the development of modernism in Britain.
Mass Observation was designed to emulate the radical achievements of the worker-photography movement which had arisen in Germany during the 1920s. It proved influential on the evolution of British documentary, especially on those photographers associated with the Side Gallery in Newcastle. The gallery fostered a regional, community-oriented form of documentary practice. Its philosophy was rooted firmly in the notion that an authentic document can only be generated by those familiar with the local community. Photographers associated with Side Gallery included Sirkka Konttinen, Isabella Jedrecyck, Graham Smith, Peter Fryer, Chris Killip and Julian Germain.
It was, however, across the Atlantic that the more enduring legacy concerning the ethics and status of documentary was to be found in the work of the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration to document the plight of the American rural poor during the Depression. One of its outstanding photographers was Walker Evans whose use of signs and symbols (such as billboards and advertising hoardings) as images of desire created a text or narrative to accompany the careful sequencing of images. The direct inheritors of the photograph as social sign were the American photographers of the ‘social landscape’, namely Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus whose unsympathetic vision of the American landscape reflected the anxieties of urban life during the booming consumer decade - store fronts, billboards, graffiti and advertising. They chose to portray people, situations and artefacts in a casual and objective way that allowed the viewer to interpret the work freely; a strategy that became known as the ‘snapshot aesthetic’. One of those who experienced many of these developments first hand was the British photographer Tony Ray-Jones. His work was widely reproduced in the 1960s and his book A Day Off (1974) proved a particular inspiration for the generation of documentary photographers who developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The work of early documentary photographs can be found in the collections of the Royal Photographic Society www.rps.org)
The Mass Observation archive is held by the University of Sussex www.sussex.ac.uk/library/massobs/
The work of the Side Gallery can be seen at www.amber-online.com/gallery/
The archive for the Farm Security Administration is now in the Print and Reading Room Collections of the Library of Congress in Washington www.loc.gov/rr/print
Landscape is one of the principle genres of Western art. In early paintings the landscape was a backdrop for the composition, but in the late 17th Century the appreciation of nature for its own sake began with the French and Dutch painters (from whom the term derived). Their treatment of the landscape differed: the French tried to evoke the classical landscape of ancient Greece and Rome in a highly stylised and artificial manner; the Dutch tried to paint the surrounding fields, woods and plains in a more realistic way. As a genre, landscape grew increasing popular, and by the 19th Century had moved away from a classical rendition to a more realistic view of the natural world. Two of the greatest British landscape artists of that time were John Constable and JMW Turner, whose works can be seen in the Tate collection (www.tate.org.uk). There can be no doubt that the evolution of landscape painting played a decisive role in the development of Modernism, culminating in the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . Since then its demise has often been predicted and with the rise of abstraction, landscape painting was thought to have degenerated into an amateur pursuit. However, landscape persisted in some form into high abstraction, and has been a recurrent a theme in most of the significant tendencies of the 20th Century. Now manifest in many media, landscape no longer addresses solely the depiction of topography, but encompasses issues of social, environmental and political concern.
Work of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is a tightly stretched piece of canvas, paper or a wooden panel. Painting involves a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's intellectual concerns effecting the content of a work.
Syria, Damascus, University Of Damascus
- 24 March 2008 − 14 May 2008