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I smell the blood of an Englishman

  • April 22, 2022
  • 6 min read
I smell the blood of an Englishman

by Sophie Pretorius

If anyone can be said to have benefited from the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, and the English reaction to it, it is those with a stake in the reception of the Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 show at the Barbican. The exhibition opened just a week after Putin first announced he had decided to launch a ‘special military operation’ in eastern Ukraine. Of course, the organisers could not have predicted this, but the critics were unanimous; this show is timely. The combination of Russia’s emerging threat to both Ukraine, and all that lies west of it, and the opening of the ‘heinous’ and ‘devastating’ work in the exhibition, in which artists can be seen reacting to the horrors of World War II, together show us how good we, have had it.

In this half century of relative peace in Europe, it symbolises the perfect ‘take’ for any and all who feel they have people waiting in anticipation of their views on geopolitics; serious, chastising, cultured and inclusive. It is interesting that exhibitions with a similar theme, and which contained very similar, often the same, works and artists – think of Martin Harrison’s 2002 show Transition:

The London Art Scene in the Fifties, for example, also at the Barbican – were not received so favourably; Harrison’s show being labelled ‘too brown’ and ‘pessimistic’. Two reasons for the popularity of this show, may be viewed as follows, and both have to do with the ‘Western male’. With war this past month seeming closer to the English doorstep than it has been for a long time, pre-emptive indulging in dread and fear feels virtuous; soon the blood of the men in the West could be spilled once more.

Secondly, this exhibition’s politics are that of identity, which takes the Western male as its foil. First, a caveat to my criticism. The scope of this show is huge, and very difficult to curate and write about cohesively. Over 200 pieces from 48 artists have been brought together: the range is so broad as to almost allude a unifying theme entirely. The unhappy solution settled on by the curators at the Barbican is that of pluralism; identities, masculinities, experiences. One can see from the art on display that, obviously, all the artists had a personal reaction to the war: but the wall text and the catalogue for this show drill this fairly banal point into the audience with condescending monotony.

Each of the 14 rooms has been given a title, as is usual for a big exhibition, but they are so discordant as to be almost useless. The room titles range from the vague: ‘Strange Universe’ and ‘Body and Cosmos’ (though the concepts of a universe and a cosmos is never expanded upon meaningfully, nor are they relevant to the work in these rooms in any but the broadest sense), to the tediously undergraduate: ‘Surface/Vessel’ and to the outrageous, ‘Two Women’. Two women?! A show which claims to ‘celebrate the work of women artists whose practices were frequently marginalised then and since’ puts two remarkable and overlooked (especially in the case of the latter) artists, Shirley Baker and Eva Frankfurther (who did not work together, or know each other socially), in a room and calls their desperately interesting work, which has a long list of thematic linkages that could have easily been used for a room title, ‘Two Women’? It seems like a parody!

Out of place too, is the ‘Jean and John’ room. Not because of the work, which, in its roughness (a quality Hilary Floe, in the catalogue, quotes art critic, David Sylvester as identifying as the closest thing to a universal feature of post-war art as one is going to get) fits with the other work exhibition well. However, taking the Christian names of these two, you must forgive me for saying, relatively minor artists, as the title for a room in an exhibition, where no other room bears the name of anyone else, is unseemly and strange. As is putting John Bratby on blast (however accurately) for emotional abuse of Jean Cook in an exhibition which uniformly praises all its other artists.

The three most-mentioned names in the catalogue are all Western men. Francis Bacon (+200 times), Eduardo Paolozzi (+170 times), and Nigel Henderson (+130 times). Further, this show cannot avoid the influence of that giant Englishman, David Sylvester. He is mentioned by name 85 times in the catalogue. He practically invented many of the artists in this show (though is chastised for how ‘Western male’ those he championed were) and is credited in the catalogue with creating a language for discussing it. The catalogue argues that this era has not, before this show, been seen as a distinct one, with its own qualities, and instead has been seen as only the ‘prelude to pop art’. This is simply not true, but that is too long a discussion to get in to here.

I have not said enough about the actual art on display at Postwar Modern. It is very good. The general tone is nowhere near as dire and scary as the newspapers have made out. There has been a very conscious effort in the curation to tease out stories of hope and rebuilding. The pieces chosen to broaden the scope of knowledge of artists creating at this time is of excellent quality.

Artists such as Franciszka Themerson (whose reputation Jasia Reichardt has been carefully building for years) and Denis Williams, who have been tragically under-exhibited, hold their own amongst the more familiar names. Others such as Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams, who have recently been getting well-deserved attention elsewhere, continue to prove to be impressive and affecting.

The short of it is, go see the show, avoid the wall text, read only the first three lines of the labels, if you do not know who the work is by, or what year it was painted. Avoid the catalogue, except Michal Goldschmidt’s very interesting chronology.

It is worth noting that of the 48 artists shown, only seven of them actually fought in World War II (all Western men, and of them none were soldiers). The rest were either refugees or one of the vast too young/too conscientious/too delicate set. One ought to remember too, if we were to go to war again, it will be largely Western men, of whatever race, who will once more pay the ultimate price.

Sophie Pretorius

Postwar Modern:

New Art in Britain 1945 – 1965

Barbican Centre Art Gallery

Silk Street,London EC2Y 8DS

020 7638 4141

Eventbrite

3 March – 26 June 2022

Image: Francis Newton Souza, the Agony of Christ, 1958

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Sophie Pretorius