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Postwar Modern

Barbican Centre (3 March – 26 June, 2022)

Review by Colin Grant


Historians don’t only write history; they curate history, creating a narrative for their theses. The truth of that construct is evident in museums and galleries when curators, aided by art historians, bring together a collection of artists marking an era in ways that haven’t previously been envisaged. Such is the ambition of the Barbican Centre’s Postwar Modern, celebrating new art produced in Britain between 1945 and 1965. Many have argued that the era was defined by the unheralded arrival of Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’, a hideous yet enticing triptych of deformed, blindfolded brachiosaurus-like creatures with violent vengeful teeth.

Bacon emerged from nowhere, a ruffian alongside the more mannered artists of the previous generation. And much of the 50s and 60s modern art on show at the Barbican, in tune with Bacon, exhibits the ‘rough poetry’ (in the memorable phrase coined by architects Alison and Peter Smithson) of Brutalism, aptly mounted in the Barbican’s raw concrete Brutalist building.

At times, the title of the exhibition seems ironic. Modern Britain? No, the country looks down-at-heel at best; more honestly it resembles a ruin, courtesy of the relentless bombing by German war planes during the Blitz. 

Roger Mayne’s black-and-white photo ‘Children in a Bombed Building, Bermondsey, London, 1956’ captures the post-war mood of resignation and hope springing from the ruins. Children in a derelict three-storey building stand in the gaps where doors and windows once were, indifferent to the dangers of unexploded bombs, buckling walls and splintered timber.

Material change was not yet in evidence a decade later in Hulme, a working-class area of Manchester, when Shirley Baker roamed the streets with her camera. Experimenting with colour, Baker evokes, in bold primary hues, a kind of stoicism and ennui, revealed in the dour, stony-faced woman sitting arms crossed in the doorway from which she seems never to have moved; a smashed window pane above the lintel arches over her.  

The warmth and empathy in Baker’s framing of the woman, born of the shared experience of artist and subject, as it were, is echoed in the paintings of Eva Frankfurther whose work, Frank Auerbach recalled, was ‘full of feeling for people’. Of the 48 artists featured in Postwar Modern, eight, including Auerbach and Frankfurther, were refugees, having escaped Nazism. 

Frankfurther took menial jobs (a counter hand and dishwasher in Lyons tea rooms) and embedded herself in the lives of her fellow migrants whom she painted with a tender brush. Her portrait of two elderly West Indian waitresses, leaning into each other after a long shift, amplifies their dignity and grace, undimmed by the monotony of their labour.

After the war, thousands of displaced Europeans settled in Britain; their arrival coincided with the thousands of migrants who set out from the British colonies, encouraged by the welcoming Nationality Act of 1948 which confirmed their status and their right to live and work in Britain.

Among them were eight of the artists in the show, including Aubrey Williams (from British Guiana) and Francis Newton Souza (from India) who arrived with a chutzpah and fearlessness that the cultural theorist Stuart Hall saw as a desire to ‘look [Britain] in the eye and, if possible, conquer it’.

Souza’s work is a critique of how British colonialism was advanced and prolonged through Christianity, a tool of subjugation and social control. ‘The Agony of Christ’ depicts a punky, skeletal black man who appears to be wearing an African mask. The painting is raw and unsettling, and when I first saw it, I did a double take believing a work of Jean-Michel Basquiat had snuck into the show. This feeling of the art as a familiar stranger, anticipating the future, comes up repeatedly in the exhibition.

The Barbican’s curators seem animated by examples of artistic cross-pollination and resonances, especially articulated in the alignment of Franciszka Themerson and Frank Bowling’s paintings.

Themerson’s work hovers between the abstract and figurative in a piece titled ‘Eleven Persons and One Donkey Moving Forwards’ where a line of people (simple cutout-like blocks), fleeing Europe’s violent conflagrations, are akin to birds about to take flight and escape. The work seems in dialogue with ‘Big Bird’, Frank Bowling’s broken, thwarted swans; their wings flap furiously but they can’t take off. Bowling’s birds are stand-ins for the formerly enslaved in the Caribbean, still oppressed by their colonial masters, and the tantalising thought of freedom.

Without exception, the artists lined up at the Barbican were warriors on the frontline, reflecting societal change. But they were also vectors for hope and love, as exemplified in Richard Hamilton’s collage for the 1956 groundbreaking Pop art show ‘This is Tomorrow’: a celebration of gaudy consumerism with a bicep-popping bodybuilder and a reclining semi-nude woman with a lampshade for a hat. 

Playful and witty, such work has often been cast as a dress rehearsal for the later explosion of popular art. But Postwar Modern is particularly refreshing in its subtle demonstration of the plurality of artists weaving a new tapestry of British hybridity that skewers the notion of the homogenous culture promulgated in the classrooms of my youth. 

Most of all, it’s heartening to see the way that artists embraced experimentation in the aftermath of WW2. In unleashing their unruly ambition, for both the sensuous and formal possibilities of art, Britain was never the same again.