Franciszka Themerson, “Topography of Aloneness” (1962), oil on canvas, 48 × 72 inches (all photos Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

LONDON — We often think of stalwart names like Graham Sutherland or Paul Nash when we think of British War artists. Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945–1965 at the Barbican, however, was conceived by curator Jane Alison to examine the work of artists who directly experienced the Second World War during the formative part of their artistic development, whether serving in action like Nigel Henderson or Lynn Chadwick or having been displaced like Eduardo Paolozzi, who was interned in 1940 when his native Italy declared war on the UK. The exhibition also looks at the transnational nature of British art making during this period, and overlooked female artists. Add to this the concept that there can be no definitive encapsulation of war as an experience — that every individual reacts in a unique way — and you get an exhaustive show of 48 lesser-known and celebrated artists, 19 of whom were not born in Britain, and an overwhelmingly dizzying array of fantastically imaginative creation. These works not only break down previous technical notions of art making, but also revise the existing canon of war artists.

Such a wide scope, encompassing so many diverse artists, surely defies any traditional curatorial aim to make neat sense of it, such as grouping together “schools,” or arguing for stylistic or thematic development. Instead, Alison boldly groups the show into 14 categories with deliberately loose and funky titles, such as Body and Cosmos, Horizon, and Scars. In any other show this would raise some very arch eyebrows, but when dealing with the abstract concept of war — which equally defies neat categories — it is somehow fitting. Instead of prescribing how we should interpret the artworks, these titles provide a thematic starting point, rewarding open-minded viewers with a richer experience.

Leon Kossoff, “Willesden Junction, Early Morning” (1962), oil on board, 48 x 87 inches

For example, Scars contains a series of impasto paintings by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. When viewed through the prism of the title, the violence of the impasto technique becomes apparent; in “Willesden Junction, Early Morning” (1962) Kossoff’s brushstrokes swipe deep gouges into the earth, which resembles London’s Willesden area no more than if it were razed by shelling. The works also allude to the mental “scars” of war trauma, or the physical signs of healing post violence. The curatorial process mirrors that of the artists’ — how do you make sense of senseless destruction and loss of human life? The overall feeling throughout is one of catharsis.

The focus on lesser-known names also showcases some intriguing talent that is otherwise rarely on view. The section Jean and John, on the married artist couple Jean Cooke and John Bratby creating work in the 1950s, illustrates postwar anxiety and antagonism within a domestic setting, layering food and other supply issues faced by many families when rationing ended in 1954. Each painted the other in an unflattering and even savage light, setting the home as a domestic battleground. Bratby’s portrait “Jean and Still Life in Front of A Window” (1954) is a savage, violent rendering of a naked Jean, gazing out with saucer eyes, next to a table groaning with endless food packaging, painted coarsely and uniformly across the surface plane. Their unexpected presence in this survey represents a postwar experience within the homes of civilians.

Installation view of Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945–1965 at the Barbican Centre, London

Less successful is the small section Intimacy and Aura, which, for a title that hints at a much wider emotional scope for exploration, feels anaemic and underwhelming; Lucien Freud is for once not the most bombastic painterly presence. Sylvia Sleigh’s delicate portrait of her lover, the art critic Lawrence Alloway, dressed as a “bride” in Renaissance/Rococo garb visually pales compared with all the bold and provocative work in the show. The subject warrants a larger section than this thumbnail, or perhaps it is suggesting that postwar artists placed little importance on such frivolities as courting between partners when society was still reeling from monumental wartorn upheaval?

The more compelling Cruising addresses same-sex desire in the postwar years; sexual acts between men were only decriminalized in the UK in 1967. Three works from Francis Bacon’s Man in Blue series of 1954 (excitingly reunited here from disparate sources) feature a blurred figure looming out of darkness, a frequent and unsettling presence in Bacon’s work. More surprising however is a very early, angst-ridden work from David Hockney before his brilliantly colorful California years. “My Brother Is Only Seventeen” (1962), named from the graffiti he spotted in the toilets at Earl’s Court tube station, a popular cruising spot, is all blackness and impasto brushwork, graffiti-like letters skittering over the surface. These dark works are displayed in a room painted in near-black, conveying an ominous anxiety. The section’s inclusion demonstrates Alison’s determination to examine as much as possible of the human experience affected by war.

Installation view of Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945–1965 at the Barbican Centre, London

Postwar Modern’s main arena, entitled Strange Universe, particularly stands out. The section explores the visual weirdness and technical extremes artists employed to express their ideas. The human body is reduced to abstraction, or to its basic essence. As Alison notes, “disfiguration is [the artist’s] strength,” and humanity is stripped back to its fundamentals. Paolozzi’s bronze men are a gleaming organized chaos of limbs; Peter King’s “Head of a Woman” (1957) is composed of melting globlets of Ciment fondu. Giant, amoeba-like works of brilliant, weeping color by Magda Cordell are a revelation, combining the immiscible acrylic and oil mediums on Masonite in works such as in “Figure 59” (c. 1958), and the wild, Dubuffet-like impasto of Franciszka Themerson’s landscapes (for instance, “Topography of Aloneness,” 1962). The overarching impression here is one of positivity — the desire to explore a complexity of feeling following war’s devastation by experimenting with new ways of creating. This explosion of technical ambition and the ambition to redefine the human form suggest a desire for progress in both art and society.

Overall, this key arena space is uplifting. Clearly this was Alison’s intention, as there is a noticeable distinction between these galleries and the show’s opening room, which is populated by nihilistic paintings by F.N. Souza, including his 1958 “Agony of Christ” and 1965 “Head of a Man,” composed entirely of black impasto, and the monumental “Full Stop” by John Latham (1961). This first room sets a somber tone, which opens out into the brilliant and bold survey of the subsequent 13 “themes”; the contrast deliberately implies that rather than simply reflecting senselessness or depression, art has the power to help make sense of senseless acts — that it can be a unifying means to find our humanity again.

Peter King, “Untitled (Head of a woman)” (c. 1957), Ciment fondu

This last point takes on a topical urgency given the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Barbican itself celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; its Brutalist concrete structure was built on a site in London that was bombed to nothing during WWII. For this reason, it is especially moving to view these responses to war’s destruction within the venue’s looming, bunker-like concrete pillars; and, despite the exhibition hall’s scale, the low lighting creates a sense of intimacy for the viewer. As a similar, pointless hell bombards the people of Ukraine, we can try to find some solace and hope in the faith that art can help us unify and heal.

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945–1965 continues at the Barbican (Silk St., London, England) through June 26. The exhibition was curated by Jane Alison.

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...