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Curating Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945–1965

In this interview, Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican Centre, London, tells Sria Chatterjee, Head of Research and Learning at the PMC, about curating the major exhibition Postwar Modern (3 March – 26 June). The PMC is supporting a one-day conference, taking place this June at the Barbican, that will consider how art making and the art world were remade after the Second World War. This summer, the PMC’s own Summer Research Seminars will also have the theme “Liquid Crystal Concrete: The Arts in Postwar Britain 1945–65”.

Sria: I was wondering if you could start by telling us a bit about what prompted Postwar Modern. In other words, why stage this show now?

Jane: It seemed to me that the time was ripe to reassess the period. More of an intuition than anything else – certainly in the first place. I knew that there hadn’t been any shows of ambition on the postwar years in Britain for a long time, if at all, and I had a very strong sense that I could make an exhibition that presented it afresh, showing that the work produced was not as predictable or second rate as tends to be discussed. I was very aware of the Haus der Kunst’s iconic exhibition, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–65, which opened in 2016 and was curated by Okwui Enwezor, Ulrich Wilmes and Katy Siegel. So, I thought, how interesting it would be to look specifically at Britain. I am also a postwar baby – well, just! And for that reason alone, on a personal level, the subject and period fascinates me. I felt strongly that not enough attention had been given in art-historical terms to the impact of a cataclysmic, traumatic war, as well as the Cold War and migration after the demise of the British Empire – on the art being made; and how the art, in turn, would reveal something of the moment. Another reason the exhibition sprang to mind was as a result of working in the Barbican, an iconic piece of postwar architecture if ever there was one – emerging from this vast bombsite void in the heart of the City – a twisted beacon, a symbol of postwar reconstruction laced with anxiety. Brutalism is of course at the core of the period, so the exhibition presented this incredible opportunity to show a range of postwar work in an iconic postwar edifice. It was not until the exhibition was under development that the resonances with our current plight – what Abbas Zahedi, our Associate Artist to the exhibition, is calling an ‘age of many posts’ – became ever more pronounced. Nothing compares with the horror and magnitude of the Second World War, but there is no doubt that we are now living through multiple crises and having to find new meanings and ways of healing, and to shape a new kind of world. There is a comparable sense of being at sea, a discombobulation – what our exhibition advisor, Ben Highmore, has called a ‘thrown-ness’ – that you find in so much of the work in Postwar Modern.

Sria: Do you see the show as updating histories of British art?

Jane: Absolutely. It springs from this idea that the art scene may have been small in Britain, but artists, faced with crisis, produced work that is endlessly fascinating, vital, moving and revealing. I wanted to tell that story. Too much attention is given to questions around figuration versus abstraction, or negatively comparing work in Britain to Abstract Expressionism in America, or seeing the work made between1945 and 1965 as just a prelude to Pop, when Britain really, it is often argued, began to shine. Scale misses the point. And yes, sure, there was an interest in consumerism and a levelling out of so-called ‘high’ culture and popular culture during this period – but this misses the impact of the war, and tends to a reading of the period as entirely forward looking or just in conversation with America. The ‘Festival of Britain’ was staged as a salve and needed to be set to one side. The Independent Group was of course massively significant, but I wanted to avoid going down well-worn paths that resulted in an overemphasis on their output at the expense of others, and the inability to see artists in the Independent Group as individuals. Magda Cordell is a classic case in point. I think Ben Highmore is right in arguing for this period to be seen as utterly distinctive – marked by both shadow and horizon. This is what the exhibition seeks to capture. It comes from a desire on my part of really wanting to look at the art of this period and find out what it tells us. I believe that artists were uniquely placed to reveal something of the moment – in the midst of a society that was in denial. Reconstruction was a means to divert attention away from what had happened and the ongoing trauma. Modernisms were undoubtedly multiple. So, an early decision was made to think about what constitutes ‘the new’ in the postwar period, to look at art made by those people who had experienced the war and its global aftershocks – again to borrow Ben Highmore’s expression, ‘up close and personal’. I certainly love the work of figures like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland… but they were the establishment. I was interested in the vanguard. And there were lots of artists who simply had been overlooked or marginalised in this period. So much great recent research has been done into artists who came to Britain as migrants in the wake of the Second World War: Avinash Chandra, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Francis Newton Souza and Aubrey Williams, among others – the figures that Stuart Hall called ‘the first wave’ of artists who came from the colonies with hope and optimism. And, equally, there were a number of women artists whose work needed to be foregrounded: Gillian Ayres, Prunella Clough, Magda Cordell, Kim Lim, Mary Martin and Franciszka Themerson, among others. Equally, I was convinced that not nearly enough emphasis had been given to the contribution of those who arrived in Britain as refugees fleeing Nazism – their work lends a very particular quality to this period, a sensibility informed by their experiences. Of the forty-eight artists in the exhibition, twenty-one came to Britain from abroad either just before, during or after the war. So, the emphasis is on a transnational Britain, as opposed to ‘British Art’ – it is an important distinction.

Sria: Could you describe your curatorial approach to laying out and presenting these histories?

Jane: I employ an intuitive curating practice that always begins with the work – and a belief that the staging of work will reveal new insights. So, the task then became about exploring universal ‘postwar’ preoccupations and to group artists thematically according to those. All kinds of new, generative juxtapositions came to light – for instance: Lucian Freud, Bill Brandt and Sylvia Sleigh in a section that explores intimacy and the gaze; or a room that brings together the paintings of Eva Frankfurther and the photography of Shirley Baker to highlight community, friendship and human dignity. At the heart of the exhibition is its largest section, entitled ‘Strange Universe’, which explores the fantastical postwar body. It includes paintings by Avinash Chandra, Magda Cordell, Franciszka Themerson, Alan Davie and Aubrey Williams; as well as sculptures by Peter King, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. Disassembled and reassembled, I love the fact that we have here a motley crew of cyborgs, hybrids and mutant body parts; disfiguration is their strength. This is the realm of the survivor body extraordinaire. The period is announced, in my telling, by the incredible photograph that Lee Miller staged, along with David Sherman, of herself in Hitler’s bath at the close of the war. I think this was an extraordinarily brave and audacious work, that can be understood as the first work of performative art of significance by a woman in the postwar period.

Sria: What do you think will surprise visitors about this show?

Jane: I think, first and foremost, they will be surprised by the selection and the groupings of work. There are household names to savour, like Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Eduardo Paolozzi, but also figures almost entirely unknown, such as Robert Adams, Eva Frankfurther and Peter King. I hope visitors will be moved by the works chosen and that the installation will allow the works to really speak. I think they will be surprised by the amount of figurative work in the show – for me, the body, and more specifically the injured and resilient survivor body, is the most significant subject in postwar art. The body could be annihilated in conflict, but recuperated by artists. That is not to say that abstraction or the move to abstraction isn’t important here – we have some wonderful nonfigurative works in the exhibition – but somehow the body is always present, as an undercurrent of sensuousness or anxiety that reveals the maker of the work as an active agent in its making. There is also a prevalence of ambiguous forms, hybridity, a sublime feeling for the inherent expressive qualities of materials to denote form and an embrace of imperfection. A wary vigilance pervades this figurative art, as though artists are seeing the world for the first time. These are all signs of a defining postwar sensibility.

Sria: Did the show end up taking any directions you had not expected?

Jane: Everything changed when I fully understood the extraordinary contribution of those artists who came to Britain from the colonies and how there hadn’t been an exhibition of this ambition that included their work in an integrated way. That dictated the direction of the exhibition. Right at the beginning, I thought I might make a show about the intersection of art and design. But, ultimately, you need to make choices. And for me, by far the most exciting, timely story was the one I am telling. An obvious and massively exciting start would have been Bacon and Souza together, but the Bacon show at the Royal Academy being pushed back to this spring and Tate’s own plans to re-hang their collection, meant moving to a Plan B. I also always had this idea of a black or shadow room at the beginning, which is what I returned to, and I think the juxtaposition of works by John Latham, Eduardo Paolozzi and Souza that resulted is massively exciting and surprising. For me, there is this beautiful connection between the first room and the last. Latham’s Full Stop (1962) in the opening room is suggestive of a monumental cosmic horizon – a new beginning – and that is also how I read Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment (1965) that ends the exhibition. As bookends for the exhibition, these two works are both surprising, exhilarating and poetic – which broadly is how I view the art of this period.

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