Much has been said of the ‘spirit’ of the Second World War, particularly during the pandemic – but comparatively little of what came afterwards. The collapse of empires, Cold War, and looming threat of nuclear conflict, all fostered a great sense of fear, uncertainty, and dislocation, managed by some through complete hedonism, and the kind of ‘cruising‘ we tend to associate with Francis Bacon.
Chronophobia, a simultaneous fear of past and future, may characterise post-war Britain. But by focusing on its uncertainty alone, we risk overlooking how this period was more constructive than catatonic – and how the bombsite became both the location and canvas for art.
The Barbican in London’s latest exhibition bridges this gap, showing 48 artists who created out of the war and its international aftershocks. Titans like Bacon, Auerbach, and Freud feature alongside the collages of Paolozzi, Henderson, and the Independent Group – none dominating, but anchoring a space which pays due attention to their lesser-known contemporaries.
Startling in range, Postwar Modern reflects artists’ diverse visions of future, many of which are surprisingly optimistic. Rather than grouping artists by ‘school’, medium, or geography, its fourteen rooms focus on common experiences. There’s no contradiction, only conversation, between the clean, near cubist works of Victor Pasmore, the ‘Coalface’ urban fabrics of Henderson and Paolozzi’s Hammer Prints, and the ceramics of Austrian potter Lucie Rie.
Migration is implicitly front and centre, with great emphasis on the art produced in the escape from Nazi Germany – whether Eva Frankfurther, or Polish and Ukrainian-Jewish emigres Franciszca Themerson and Leon Kossoff. Room seven is expertly curated, alternating Auerbach and Kossoff as artists in dialogue. Beyond impasto, it’s impossible not to see their oil-lashed boards like scar-laden flesh, especially Auerbach’s Head of Leon Kossoff (1954).
Other artists like Aubrey Williams comment on – and critique – contemporary British culture from an outsider’s perspective. We see the full complexity of colonial experiences, eschewing strict racial categories.
A child of Portuguese-administered Goa and British colonial India, Francis Newton Souza’s haunting black oil works confront these dark realities – in the words of Stuart Hall, they seek to ‘look Britain in the eye, and, if possible, conquer it.’
After the bombsite, new battlefields arise in the home. Jean and John, the exhibition’s fourth room, uses the domestic space to contest the notion of post-war peace. This intimate expose of the husband-and-wife relationship reveals how some felt a burden – not relief – from the end of rationing, and post-war consumer boom. Once bare tables heave with an uncomfortable excess, as Bratby’s Still Life sits directly opposite the disturbing (and ambiguously bruised) stare of Jean Cooke’s own Mad Self Portrait (1954).
Futurism, sci-fi, and technological advance also serve as foils for the ‘ecstatic rebirth’ of the post-war period. Hybridity is key, in the egg-shaped chairs in ideal homes, the great apes of Paolozzi’s 1971 Bunk collages, and Alan Davie’s amalgams of American abstraction and jazz music, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Buddhist forms.
Pakistani artist Anwar Jalal Shemza similarly offers up a lyrical hybrid of ornate Islamic architectural design, and Western modernism. Despite their soft appearance, his works are a strong force against the Slade School of Art, and Western-centric view of Islamic art as somehow ‘less sophisticated’.
The Barbican plays the perfect host to this ambitious exhibition. Its linear architecture, open spaces and dark corners comfortably accommodate these diverse works of art. Targeted during the war, it is the archetypal once-bombsite, and emerged too from this post-war landscape.
Brutalism emerged, in part, as a utilitarian response to Beveridge’s Five Evils. In its own war on Want, the Barbican promised to deliver the basic standards to those most in need. But this forward-looking architecture bears the scars of its past, wearing its unearthed Roman ruins, Victorian basement and bricks like medals of wartime resilience.
Perhaps the Barbican itself is Postwar Modern’s primary, and most striking, artwork.
With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic for this review. Jelena (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks. All images courtesy of The Barbican.