Demobbed dreamers bring back the zing – Postwar Modern review | Art and design

Sixty years after he painted it, you can still catch the reek of cheap oil paint and linseed oil coming off Leon Kossoff’s 1962 Willesden Junction, Early Morning. With its glutinous and heaving sea of wrinkled paint, Kossoff’s city is the colour of sludge under a filthy sky, the view slewing away, a tower block lurching on the horizon. All that’s needed is the tang of the soot that caked the buildings, the smells of tobacco smoke, wet newsprint, coal gas and sulphurous yellow smog to bring us back to postwar Britain, a period that didn’t seem to end till some time in the 1970s, if it ever entirely did.

Angry young men, armchair existentialists and young male sculptors in hefty jumpers, demobbed dreamers and conscientious objectors, artists arriving from the colonies or who had escaped the Holocaust and the ruins of Europe, made the British art world of the postwar period much more cosmopolitan, and, incrementally, less class-bound, than it had been previously. But we keep being dragged back.

One of William Turnbull’s low reliefs, called Playgound, shows stele-like forms on a low slab. Maybe they’re figures. Giacometti’s influence is obvious. Further reliefs, viewed from above, are dotted with buildings or ruins. Turnbull had been an RAF pilot and it is difficult not to think of reconnaissance flights and bomb damage. They’re juxtaposed here with Bert Hardy’s photographs of mothers and children sitting around and playing on a vast, inner city bombsite in Edgbaston, Birmingham, in the early 1950s. The sun is shining and it’s probably better to be outside than in the 19th-century industrial slum where they live.

An awful tenderness … Eva Frankfurther, West Indian Waitresses, c 1955. Photograph: © The Estate of Eva Frankfurther, photograph by Justin Piperger, courtesy Barbican Centre

Roger Mayne’s photographs of children in a bombed-out building in Bermondsey, looking out through the empty spaces where the windows once were, continue the theme. Shirley Baker’s photographs of working-class women in Manchester during the mid-60s slum clearances, and Eva Frankfurther’s paintings of exhausted mothers, female workers and West Indian waitresses have an awful tenderness.

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain at the Barbican takes us from 1945 to 1965, and it’s worth saying from the start that the task is impossible. It’s OK on paper – and in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue – but the confines of the Barbican’s gallery don’t provide room for the show to fully realise itself. Nevertheless this is a fascinating show, and is likely, for those that didn’t live through the period, to be filled with surprises. I grew up with all this stuff, and still found it compelling.

Near the start, John Latham’s 1961 Full Stop – a black circle, spray-painted on to a white canvas, appears both as an end-point and a beginning. Pffftt, it goes, swimming on the canvas like a black hole, swallowing everything. It makes Lynn Chadwick’s angular welded The Fisheater, with an Alexander Calder-ish mobile hanging from it, and made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, look both whimsical and utterly old-fashioned in its aching attempt to be modern.

A lot of British art of the period plays catch-up, from Elisabeth Frink’s dalliance with French sculptor Germaine Richier to Alan Davie’s Jackson Pollock-influenced paintings, and Gillian Ayres’s attempts to paint on the scale and with the looseness of Helen Frankenthaler. Ayres invariably wearies me. Patrick Heron’s Rothko-like stacks of banded colour, in a painting from 1957, look much more suave and with it, in a knowing sort of way. But that’s also Heron’s weakness, one that he shares with the abstracted tabletop still-lifes of William Scott, with their furtive sexual subject matter, and the protestant austerity of his pots and pans.

Terrific portraits of her lover … Sylvia Sleigh’s painting of Lawrence Alloway as a cross-dressing Renaissance bride.
Terrific portraits of her lover … Sylvia Sleigh’s painting of Lawrence Alloway as a cross-dressing Renaissance bride. Photograph: © Tate

Postwar Modern goes on to take us from the geometry of fear (lots of ferocious claws and damaged bodies) to the kitchen sink. John Bratby painted his wife Jean, naked at the breakfast table, crowded out by the Corn Flakes and Shredded Wheat packages, the cruets and bowls. Hard to know how to read her expression. Does Bratby know that he has captured a look both of cowed fear and dislike on her face? He probably didn’t care. Bratby was a domestic tyrant. A far better painter, Jean Cooke records her own unhappiness, and a black eye, on her own canvases.

As an antidote, it is a relief to find Sylvia Sleigh’s terrific portraits of her lover, the young critic Lawrence Alloway. In 1949, Sleigh paints her future husband cross-dressed as a renaissance bride, and as a more modern spouse in a patterned dress, holding a petunia. Both costumes were sewn for him, or for his alter ego Hetty Remington, by Sleigh. The show’s catalogue is full of such human details. Sleigh went on to paint other male subjects in female guises. Lucian Freud’s portrait of his soon-to-be-estranged wife Caroline Blackwood, who he had eloped to Paris with in 1954, has Freud hovering by the bed.

The Imperial Hotel in Henley-on-Thames was the unlikely setting for Francis Bacon’s trysts with his ex fighter-pilot lover Peter Lacy, and where Bacon painted a series of portraits of a lone man in a suit at a darkened bar in 1954. The setting is theatrically dim and somehow menacing, and a more modern, sleek interior than the Imperial, with its mock-tudor exterior, probably provided. Nearby, David Hockney goes to New York in 1961, where a painted sign reads QUEENS UPTOWN, and he paints himself as a little lipsticked devil.

In 1959, Alloway wrote of the “anti-modernism which is never far from the surface of the London art world”, calling British critics and journalists “contentedly fogbound”. He moved to the US with Sleigh, the same year as Hockney’s first visit, where Sleigh went on to become a leading figure in the feminist art movement.

Like exuberant disembowelments … Magda Cordell, Figure 59, c 1958.
Like exuberant disembowelments … Magda Cordell, Figure 59, c 1958. Photograph: © Estate of Magda Cordell McHale, photograph: Brenda Bieger for Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Through the 1950s, Alloway had also been a key member of the Independent group, which included brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson, architectural theorist Reyner Banham, Turnbull, Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, John McHale and his Hungarian wife Magda Cordell, whose large-scale paintings are one of the great surprises of this show, as are those of Polish-born Franciszka Themerson. Themerson’s paintings are delicate, violent and funny. In one, a man wears a dinky ball and chain and his insides are all a mess. Cordell’s big paintings are like exuberant, oozy disembowelments and eviscerations, in gorgeous colours.

Eduardo Paolozzi’s colossal figures stand about, with their boxy heads and embossed forms, part human, part cyborg. With time, visions of the future remind us as much of the period they spring from as the future they predict. This can make such objects and images ridiculous or tragic. Paolozzi’s figures look to me like ruins. The Smithsons’ futuristic House of the Future, constructed for the Daily Mail’s 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia, with its moulded plastic bucket chairs and other aerodynamic, soft-edged furniture and fittings, might almost be a pastiche of itself, both futuristic and retro, knowing and innocent. The Smithsons even had live models in there, acting all modern.

The calm, clean lines and rational constructivism of Mary and Kenneth Martin, Anthony Hill and Victor Pasmore might also be taken as an escape from all the messiness elsewhere, but I have always found this whole strand of British art too earnest and goody-goody to care for, a bit too cultish and superior for its own good. It is also worth remembering how unhealthily cliquish and factionalised and generationally divided the British art scene was, and continued to be, well into the 1980s, much more so than it seems to me to be now. But at least it seemed to be about ideas, was argumentative and spirited. Some of that seems to have been lost.

  • Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 is at the Barbican, London, until 26 June.

Anita Shire

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