Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 to 1965 @ the Barbican

Layout

The Barbican gallery is a big exhibition space, spread over two floors. On the ground floor, as you come in, there’s the ticket desk and shop, then you walk through a doorway on your right into the ground floor display space. This is divided into three successively larger ‘rooms’, the third and final one being a fairly big atrium. You then emerge from these into a corridor which runs back alongside the atrium spaces back to the shop, and off which are three alcove rooms or ‘bays’.

Back by the shop there are stairs up to the first floor gallery which runs round the walls and allows you to look down onto the atrium space you’ve just left, so you can see paintings and sculptures from above. You can walk right round this gallery but there are only alcoves or bays on along two sides of it, four bays on one side and four on the other. 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 = 14 distinct display spaces.

14 rooms, 14 themes

So when the curators set out to design this exhibition of post-war British art they had 14 spaces to play with and have come up with 14 topics or subject areas, accordingly. Starting in room 1, the visitor walks through 14 themed aspects of post-war British art, which are also arranged in a loosely chronological order, starting just after the end of the Second World War and ending in 1965.

‘Cyborg collages’: First Contact by John McHale (1958) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © Estate of John McHale

The new

The curators have made one key decision which defines the entire show: believing that post-war artists had to cope with the aftermath of ‘a cataclysmic war that called into question religion, ideology and humanity itself’, they have consciously chosen to focus on THE NEW ARTISTS of the period. They have ignored artists who’d come to prominence between the wars (so no Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, for example; no Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, no Stanley Spencer, Surrealists or Bloomsburyites).

Instead the curators have tried to catch the mood conveyed by The New Generation of young artists who emerged immediately after the war and set a new tone. The result is that, although the exhibition contains the huge number of 200 works of painting, sculpture and photography, by an overwhelming number of artists (48) it has a surprising unity of feel.

Leaving aside the (excellent) photographers, the paintings in particular demonstrate what you could call a kind of damaged abstraction. There’s a blurred, grey and brown, muddy quality to much of the work. There are lots of earth tones, earth grey, earth cream, earth browns.

West Indian waitresses by Eva Frankfurther (1955) Ben Uri collection, presented by the artist’s sister Beate Planskoy © the Estate of Eve Frankfurther

The war hadn’t pulverised a specific landscape, as in the images of the Western Front made famous during and after the First World War. It had ranged far more widely than that. Crucially, it had permanently damaged mankind’s view of itself.

It was hard to be optimistic about people or ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ after news of the concentration camps broke in May 1945, and then the atom bombs were dropped in August 1945. And then the H bombs and the start of the incredibly fearful and menacing Cold War. Many artists struggled to believe in anything positive and channelled their energies into devising novel ways to express their horror and despair.

With so many works by so many artists, there are some exceptions, but overall I’d say this is quite a grim, depressing exhibition, with much to be justifiably depressed about. If you put the (five) photographers to one side, then there’s hardly any figurative work, and when there is (Auerbach, Freud, Bacon, Bratby, Cooke, Souza) it is heavily stylised or deliberately distorted. There are certainly no landscapes. It is an accumulation of damaged psyches.

From murk to clarity

It occurred to me that you could arrange almost all the works along a spectrum from Murk to Clarity. Then you further could sub-divide these categories. What I mean is that the murky end of the spectrum could be divided into images which look like:

  • bodies melted in a nuclear blast (Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter King)
  • bodies eviscerated in some grotesque medical calamity (Magda Cordell)
  • people drowning in Holocaust concentration camp mud (Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff)
  • bodies blurring into hunks of meat (Francis Bacon)
  • bodies reimagined as abstract shapes, blots, drabs and dribbles of paint (Gillian Ayres)
  • bodies combined with inorganic materials such as metal to become ominous cyborgs (Lynn Chadwick’s semi-abstract sculpture of a demonic bird, John McHale’s robotic family, Elisabeth Frink’s menacingly humanoid Harbinger Birds and the St Sebastian sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi)

The murkiest of the murk

I’ve always heartily disliked the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Both applied unbelievable amounts of paint to their canvasses to create nightmare brown meringues of mud. They themselves in interviews claimed they were seeking to get at the essence of the subject or to capture the fleeting nature of reality or some such. They obsessively painted London scenes such as two big muddy paintings here, of the Shell building on the South Bank and Willesden railway junction.

But for me the key fact is that both were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and, to me, all their paintings powerfully, oppressively convey the feel of the grim Polish winter mud in which so many of their fellow Jews were worked to death, starved to death and exterminated.

‘Drowning in the mud of the Holocaust’: Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach (1964) Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts © The Artist

Clarity

At the other end of the spectrum is what I’ve called Clarity, which can be sub-divided into maybe three rooms or artists:

  • artists in the Concrete room
  • Lucian Freud
  • Surface / Vessel room

In the room called Concrete are a set of surprisingly calm, clean, crisp, white abstract images. Victor Pasmore was a celebrate figurative artist when, in the late 1940s, he underwent a conversion to abstraction. By 1951 Pasmore had established a circle of younger artists who were equally committed to the cause of geometric abstraction, which they referred to variously as ‘Concrete’, ‘Constructionist’ or ‘Constructivist’ art, artists including Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Robert Adams and Denis Williams.

Concrete is right next to the death camp vibe of the Auerbach room, Scars, and I really needed it. The white geometric shapes projecting from the canvas as Modernist friezes reminded me of Ben Nicholson (famous between the wars and so banned from this show).

Lucian Freud may seem an odd artist to group under the heading of clarity, but the exhibition features three of his earliest works which do, in fact feature this quality. Edgy, though. Distorted. The curators put it well when they say that ‘Freud’s forensic attention to small details suggests an uneasy vigilance, revealing anxieties just below the surface.’

‘Neurotic clarity’: Girl with Roses by Lucian Freud (1948) Courtesy of the British Council Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman Images, photograph

The third ‘calm’ room is titled Surface/Vessel. It features the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. What they have in common is the withdrawal of all bright colours and a return to the colour of canvas and clay, textured surfaces and irregular forms. I might have liked them because 15 years later they set the tone for the kind of abstract prints you could buy at Habitat and Ikea and my parents decorated my childhood home with reproductions of these kind of gentle, cream and earth brown soothing shapes.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing two works by William Scott: Message Obscure I (1965) and Morning in Mykonos (1961)

Room guide

The themed rooms are:

1. Body and cosmos

The first three rooms are the three progressively bigger ones on the ground floor. Each is dominated by a big signature work. This first room is dominated by Full Stop by John Latham. This seems pretty meh in reproduction which doesn’t convey its size. It’s huge, monumental, 3.5 metres by 2.5 metres, a Mark Rothko of a painting, and a hypnotic image. Is it a solar eclipse, a black hole, an enormously magnified piece of typography. Something has ended – but what?

‘The death of colour’: Full Stop by John Latham (1961) Tate © the Estate of John Latham

Much smaller is the set of three prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, born in 1924 the son of Italian immigrants, so an impressionable teenager during the war. It’s impossible to make the prints out as heads because the images look eroded and decomposed as if by acid or, as wall label suggests, evaporated in the atomic blast so many around the world feared was coming.

2. Post atomic garden

The second room is bigger, contains more but is dominated by the mutant bird sculpture by Lynn Chadwick named The Fisheater (1951). It was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s set on a slender tripod and aerial assembly, a slender outline of a bird made from thin metal rods and sheets of metal, looking a bit like the skeleton of Concorde, very slightly swaying in the ambient air, beakily looking down at us soft and vulnerable humans.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing The Fisheater by Lynn Chadwick (1951)

Fisheater epitomises the combination of light, modern industrial elements with unnerving menace which is one of the threads which runs through the show, as in the Paolozzi robots and the robot-humanoid nuclear family grimly depicted in John McHale’s First Contact (above).

3. Strange universe

The third ground floor space is the biggest, lined with huge paintings by a variety of artists, but it is dominated by a signature work, three metal sculptures, about man-size mutant cyborgs made out of complex metal and engineering detritus, welded together and melting at the edges as if they’re robots which have been brought to a halt and slightly melted in the ultimate nuclear apocalypse. They’re by Eduardo Poalozzi who, I think, has more pieces than anyone else in the exhibition and emerges as its presiding spirit.

‘Humanoid figures assembled from electrical scraps and castoffs’: Installation view of Postwar Modern showing Saint Sebastian by Eduardo Paolozzi (1957)

This room also features some enormous paintings by Magda Cordell which are splashed with red and orange and look like the freshly flayed and eviscerated carcass of a humanoid life form.

Figure 59 by Magda Cordell (1958)

4. Jean and John

The first of the bays off to the side of the ground floor corridor contains 8 or so paintings by the husband and wife artists Jean Cooke and John Bratby. Bratby’s stylised but basically figurative still lifes of their home, with boxes of cereals on the kitchen table, were nicknamed ‘Kitchen Sink’ art, presumably before kitchen sink drama came along. Although figurative and colourful, these paintings somehow bespeak the horrible, pokey domesticity of English life and it came as no surprise to learn that Bratby was jealous of his wife’s talent, destroyed much of her work and beat and abused her. See what I mean by grim?

5. Intimacy and aura

This is the room with the neurotic early paintings by Lucian Freud which I mentioned above.

But it also features the first of the photographers, Bill Brandt. Photography, with its figurative realism, comes as a big relief after four rooms loaded with paintings of bleakness, despair, mutant robots and huge abattoir paintings. But it is even more of a relief to discover that Brandt is represented here by a series of photos of female nudes. It’s not that they’re nude so much as that they’re studies of people who are young, fit and healthy. It is a sudden oasis in a desert of radioactive despair.

Apparently Brandt had been renowned in the 1930s for his photojournalism (thus breaking the curators’ self-imposed rule that no-one from between the wars has a place) but 1945 saw a radical shift in his practice as he began experimenting with nude studies indoors. Not only indoors, but in spare, spartan uncarpeted rooms. So, although fully realistic, these studies also have a strange, spooky, spectral mood. Arguably these photos, although entirely naturalistic, manage to share the same sense of nervy ominous as so many of the paintings and sculptures.

The Policeman’s Daughter, Hampstead, London 1945 by Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

6. Lush life

This room is a surprise. One entire wall is a hugely blown up photo of the interior of a new model home designed by the visionary architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s a photo of their stand at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It was titled ‘House of the Future’ and the furniture was created using plaster, plywood and paint masquerading as the moulded plastic they’d like to have used but couldn’t afford, the kind of new super-slimmed-down ideals for living designs which were being pioneered and mass produced in America and which featured in the Barbican exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing the wall-sized photo of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1956 ‘House of the Future’, with just one yellow ‘egg chair’, made from moulded reinforced polyester, on the low dais.

The American theme is echoed in a series of humorous collages created by Eduardo Paolozzi (is he the most represented artist in the show?). It’s a series of A4 sized collages he created by cutting up images from glossy American consumer magazines, titling the series Bunk. Of course they’re meant to be ironic and subversive and whatnot, but what really comes over is the power and optimism of the original images. Particularly when set against the post-atomic, post-Holocaust nihilism of so much of the rest of the show.

Bunk! Evadne in Green Dimension by Eduardo Paolozzi (1952) Victoria and Albert Museum, © The Paolozzi Foundation

7. Scars

As described above, the Auerbach and Kossoff, drowning in mud, Holocaust despair room.

The room also has a little TV on which is playing a film of a 1961 event carried out by another Jew (the curators emphasis the common ethnicity of these three artists), Gustav Metzger. Metzger pioneered an art of ‘auto-destruction’ in the late 1950s, staging works that enacted their own disintegration, mirroring the violence he felt in a world hell bent on its own destruction. In the grainy old film Metzger is wearing a gas mask, with St Paul’s in the background, while he sprays acid onto canvas which promptly shrivels and dissolves. ‘Happenings’ had been happening in America among beatnik audiences art colleges throughout the 1950s. This appears to be Metzger’s variation on the idea which – as so often in this exhibition – accentuates the negative.

8. Concrete

As described above, a roomful of works by Victor Pasmore and his fellow ‘Concrete’ artists. I especially enjoyed the small-scale, abstract sculptures by Robert Adams. Calm and healing.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing works by Robert Adams, being: Divided form (1951), Rectangular bronze form number 7 (1955) and Balanced bronze forms (1955).

9. Choreography of the street

More photography, thank God. The black and white snaps of Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne who specialised in capturing children at play in the gritty, ruin-infested post war streets. Mayne’s most famous body of work was created between 1956 and 1961, capturing the working-class community of Southam Street in North Kensington, west London. One of his photos was used for the cover Colin MacInnes’s novel, Absolute Beginners (1959), a copy of which is here in a glass case.

Street scene 1957 by Roger Mayne © Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library

Reminds me a bit of the photo of young toughs in Finsbury Park, 1958, which marked the start of Don McCullin’s career.

The lovely and hugely evocative photos of kids playing in bomb sites are interspersed with a series of collages by Robyn Denny and Eduardo Paolozzi (surely Paolozzi is the most featured artist in the show?). And alongside these, collages and in the radical print designs created by Henderson and Paolozzi for their company Hammer Prints Ltd (1954 to 1962).

10. Two women

The two women in question are German refugee painter Eva Frankfurther and home-grown Mancunian photographer, Shirley Baker. Baker documented the changing face of Manchester in the 1950s and early 60s as the old slums were demolished and cleared for high rises and social housing. She walked the streets with a camera always in her bag, taking wonderfully evocative black and white photos of wretched slums and the old-style, working class inhabitants. In 1965 she started experimenting with colour photography and some of her colour photos are feature here.

I was lucky enough to go to the Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers Gallery a few years ago – none of the colour photos here are as good as her black and white ones. In a funny kind of way, colour shots of this kind of scene look oddly older, more technologically dated, than the pure black and white ones.

Anyway, the point is… look at the rubble! And in 1965! Twenty years after the war, large parts of England were still struggling to drag themselves into the modern age.

Hulme 1965 by Shirley Baker © Nan Levy for the Estate of Shirley Baker

11. Cruise

The wall label in this room informs us that:

Cruising, or looking for a casual sexual encounter in a public place, was central to the expression and exploration of male same-sex love and desire in the postwar years…

And so it is that one wall features a couple of early works by David Hockney, large browny-black background with all kinds of graffiti, words, lines and squiggles drawn across them:

The title My Brother is Only Seventeen (1962) was derived from graffiti that Hockney read on the toilet walls of Earl’s Court station, a popular cruising spot.

My Brother is only Seventeen by David Hockney (1962) © Royal College of Art

But the real revelation of this room is arguably the best thing in the exhibition. In 1954 Francis Bacon painted a series of seven huge paintings depicting a man in a dark suit sitting at the bar of a hotel, although the background has been stylised to become the slender bars of some kind of cage set against a very dark background. Three of the series are hung here, side by side.

Man in Blue I by Francis Bacon (1954) Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © The Estate of Francis Bacon

A photo like this doesn’t do the paintings any kind of justice. They are not only enormous but also, despite their stylised subject matter, have the depth and resonance of Old Master paintings. It took me a while to realise that, unlike all the other rooms in the show, the walls of this room are painted black, as if we are in a very old museum or gallery, and these three Man in Blue paintgins have the power and depth of Old Masters.

Black upon black, depths of blackness, inky impenetrability and ominousness. Possibly the best part of the entire exhibition was standing in front of these three enormous variations on a dark, baleful image and letting it soak right in to your soul.

12. Surface/vessel

As described above, a calming, peaceful room of the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.

13. Liberated form and space

Big colourful paintings by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Heron and Frank Bowling. From the reproductions I thought I’d like the Ayres, but in the flesh I found them a too big and I didn’t warm to her use of ‘dribbles, splashes and stains’ of paint, as the curators themselves describe her work.

‘A world of abstract shapes and dripping paint’: Break-off by Gillian Ayres (1961) Tate © the Estate of Gillian Ayres, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, London

By the same token, I didn’t warm to the press release photos of paintings by Patrick Heron, but in the flesh found them to be some of the very few genuinely colourful, vibrant and life affirming paintings in the entire exhibition. The wall label explains that, like Pasmore and other post-war artists, when he moved from figurative to abstract painting Heron experienced a great sense of liberation.

June Horizon by Patrick Heron (1957) Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection (The Hepworth Wakefield) © The Estate of Patrick Heron

14. Horizon

The exhibition ends on an oddity.

We met Gustav Metzger in the Scars room, represented by a film of one of his auto-destructive events. Here, at the end of the exhibition is a blacked out room with half a dozen film projectors projecting onto two walls a series of abstract swirling shapes, which were to become super familiar in the Psychedelic movement and subsequently in the lava lamps of millions of suburban bedrooms. Metzger had moved away from the ‘auto-destructive art’ of the 1950s and towards what he now titled ‘auto-creation’, in which the work of art takes on its own life. This immersive room, complete with bean bags (but no spliffs) is titled Liquid Crystal Environment and was created in 1965 using heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides in a projector.

It’s an odd piece to end on because it seems so out of synch with the rest of the show. It feels like a little bit of the Psychedelic Sixties which has got lost in an exhibition which is overwhelmingly about the grim psychic damage, the anxieties and angst of the early Cold War, with the long memory of the Holocaust festering under the shadow of nuclear apocalypse.

Maybe it’s meant to feel cheerful but it doesn’t, which might explain why the two or three times I walked past I didn’t see anybody on the numerous beanbags.

Immigrants

An impressive number of the artists were refugees from Nazi Europe (Auerbach. Kossoff, Metzger, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Eva Frankfurther, Magda Cordell). But the curators go out of their way to include artists from colonial backgrounds, non-white immigrants from what was still the British Empire. These include:

  • Francis Newton Souza (India), with his intimidating, highly stylised black Christs (1958) in the first room
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (Pakistan) with a series of Islam-inspired abstracts in the same room as Heron and Ayres
  • Kim Lim (Singapore Chinese) with her delicate abstract sculptures

The Barbican’s birthday show

The curators point out that the exhibition has been timed to coincide with the fortieth birthday of the Barbican’s opening, for it was in the grim post-war period that the Barbican Estate was first conceived, to occupy what was at the time an enormous bombsite in the heart of London.

The Barbican itself, a grim, forbidding, concrete bunker, on an oppressive grey, rainy day, was the perfect setting for an exhibition about the damaged lives, damaged psyches and damaged country which – despite occasional bursts of colour – is what comes over so powerfully in this show.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Every room in Tate Modern

Tate Modern, housed in the famous converted power station building on the South Bank near London Bridge, contains six levels. But as levels 0 and 1 are shops and cafes, and 5 and 6 are, respectively, the members’ level and restaurant, that leaves only 2, 3 and 4 to actually display art. Level 3 is given over to temporary exhibitions (currently Alexander Calder and The World Goes Pop) and some small, one-room displays (currently George Baselitz) – which leaves floors 2 and 4 to house the permanent collection.

Each level is divided into two wings, west and east, grouped around a broad theme and housing 10 or 11 rooms: thus level 2 west is Citizens and States, level 2 east is Making Traces; level 4 east is Energy and Process and level 4 west is Material Worlds.

So Tate Modern contains about 42 rooms, plus 3 or 4 one-room displays between each wing, say 46 in all.

Audio guide

The audio guide costs £4.25 (£3.75 for concessions eg students). It has audio commentary on a relatively small number of selected works. The woman selling it said it lasts 45 minutes but that can’t be true. My one had one or two minute-long items on 38 works, and half or more of the entries consisted of more than one track eg 90 seconds on the art work, with an additional quote from the artist, and then maybe some music (the Mark Rothko item has two pieces of music, one of which was five minutes long). Surely more than 45 mins – and very useful…

Personal highlights

As with my recent trips to the British MuseumNational Gallery and Tate Britain, the following are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note.

I used to think I knew about modern art, but this visit confirmed my feeling that I have been completely overtaken by the explosion of post-modern art since the 1980s. There has been a vast expansion in the numbers of artists and artworks and types and styles of practice over the last thirty years, as well as a massive expansion in the types of discourses available to make sense of new movements and artists from around the world.

Also there has been a significant movement to reconsider and revalue the past, especially as regards rediscovering or rehabilitating women artists – a process exemplified by the current The World Goes Pop exhibition, which is designed to promote hitherto little-known artists from around the world, and goes out of its way to foreground women artists and gender issues.

So this attempt to visit every room at Tate Modern felt like it shed a bit of new light on some old favourites and familiar faces, but mostly introduced me to new names. A lot of new names.

1. Citizens and States

  • Who doesn’t love Piet Mondrian? But I didn’t know he was a theosophist nor that the calm grids of black lines dividing rectangles of white or red or yellow or blue are representations of an ideal society. A psychologist was interviewed to say they’ve done experiments turning Mondrian squares onto the diagonal and people really don’t like them: there’s something powerful about horizontal and vertical lines, our brains react to them more deeply than to diagonals. Compare the impact, the pleasing sense of order and clarity in any Mondrian, with that of fellow De Stijl member Theo van Doesburg’s Counter-Composition VI (1925). Not nearly so pleasing.
  • Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935 The cool structured grids can be interpreted as a way of establishing order on a chaotic world. That aim reminded me of the images I saw recently in the British Museum, the wall paintings of Nebamun hunting and the friezes of king Ashurbanipal of Assyria’s lion hunt. In both, hunting is a way for aristocratic or royal man to establish order out of nature’s chaos and the painting re-enacts that function. Striking that the same impulse links painting from 800BC and 1940AD.
  • The movement he belonged to in Holland, de Stijl, is pronounced ‘dare stale’.
  • When Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall, ovals replaced circles in her work, which gave them two centres or focal points, instead of one, making them more complex and interesting. Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958
  • Tate had an exhibition of Hélio Oiticica back in 2007, which I was fool enough not to go to. The three abstracts by her here, from the 1950s, show not quite perfect geometric shapes jostling and balanced on plain backgrounds, creating a lovely impression of jazzy movement. Metaesquema 1958
  • Tate also had an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair a few years ago, another show by a woman artist which I should have gone to. In room two I liked Composition with Two Ovals 1951. On the audio guide we hear her insisting her work comes from Islamic, not Western, sources of inspiration. A couple of her works were included in 2015’s Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitechapel art gallery last year, where I liked Poem (1965).
  • Joseph Beuys was one of the dour Germans who put me off contemporary art in the 1970s and 80s. There are not one but two whole rooms devoted to him at Tate Modern, mainly documenting his tireless activities as an educator, organiser of student events, giver of marathon interviews, supporter of alternative political parties, green enthusiast and so on. How tiresome all that 1970s student politics looks now; how ultimately futile. The main artwork is the massive Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85). The audio commentary usefully explained Beuys’s cryptic personal mythology: the metal sheet is the lightning, the ironing board is the stag, the clay lumps represent lumpish unintelligent creatures.
  • A lot more up to date, Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) is a tapestry made of vertical strips taken from the fire hoses which were turned on civil rights protesters in the deep south of America in May 1963. Reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture made of steel poles salvaged from the wreckage of schools destroyed in the Szichuan earthquake. A similar sense of unimpeachable righteousness.
  • Artur Zmijewski (b.1966) has made various films, including the one featured here, Democracies (2009), splicing together footage shot at a variety of political rallies in his native Poland, from feminist and environmentalist campaigners, to right-wing nationalist rallies. Watching the Catholic nationalist rallies, I recall political commentators interpreting last October’s election of the Law and Justice Party to government in Poland as a ‘lurch to the right’. Zmijewski’s film shows you why. It is an interesting documentary film but, like all film and video, I wonder about its relevance as ‘art’.
  • A room devoted to Latin American Photobooks, testament to the turmoil in Latin America throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, collected by British photographer Martin Parr.
  • I saw Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen (1981-3) in Tate Britain’s recent Fighting History exhibition. The audio commentary here made the neat point that the patterns the dirty protesters made with their own faeces on their prison walls echoed the patterns of Celtic designs – although what Celtic art is turns out to be hard to define, as the British Museum’s exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity showed. How genuinely subversive it would have been it Tate had bought an actual prison wall covered in IRA prisoner shit, and exhibited it, smell and all.
  • Sheba Chhachhi b.1958, was represented by Seven lives and a dream, photos inspired by the rape of an Indian woman in the 1970s, and other large b&w photos of Indian women.
  • Teresa Margolles (b.1963) is represented by Flag I, a big flag coloured with blood, earth and other matter from the murder sites of various people killed in Mexico’s bloody drug wars, a death rate which currently runs at around 20,000 a year.

Reflections on Citizens and States – ie the failure of radical politics

It is my belief that the forces for radical change have everywhere been comprehensively defeated and, in fact, that even moderately liberal bourgeois democracy is itself under attack from religious extremists at one end and home-grown nationalists at the other. Neo-liberal capitalism defeated and buried not only the communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe but the very idea of any kind of socialist / communist alternative.

The student radicalism of the Joseph Beuys rooms, and in evidence throughout the Pop Art exhibition from the heady 1960s, is irrelevant to the world of Putin, growing right-wing forces in eastern Europe, to the Refugee Crisis, to the permanent collapse of big parts of the Middle East and the state of terrorist threat which we are going to have to live with indefinitely.

The economic engine of the world, China, whose meteoric industrialisation has been underpinning rising standards of living throughout the West for the last generation, is coming stuttering to a halt. If you haven’t done well over the past twenty years, that was a one-off golden age and chances are you’re going to get a lot worse off in the coming era.

And underlying everything is evidence that man-made climate change is kicking in now, unchangeable and unavoidable, with unforeseeable but potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to avoid thinking that much of the art in this section is trivial or, at best, irrelevant. Nothing is going to stop Mexicans (or Colombians) murdering each other over drugs. President Nixon announced his nationwide War on Drugs as long ago as 1971: how’s that war progressing? Nothing is going to stop Indian men raping Indian women. Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs were sparked by rapes in the 1970s but gang rapes by Indian men have been in the news for the past few years. And Theaster Gates’s sentiments about historical injustices in the Alabama of the 1960s might be impeccably correct, but seem irrelevant in light of the ongoing inability of American police to stop their officers beating up and shooting dead a seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men.

Activists have been protesting these issues for decades and not only has nothing changed, lots of things have got worse. Considered as political activism, then, most of this art is a complete failure. Considered as art, it relies so much on the worthiness and impeccable liberalism of its credentials, that the failure of its causes in the real world makes it almost comical. Nice flag. Shame even more Mexicans will be murdered his year. Nice hoses. Shame even more black men will be shot by police.

It was a relief to emerge from the politically charged, fraught, upsetting and ultimately depressing Citizens and States wing and cross over to the less contentious Making Traces.

2. Making Traces

  • Magda Cordell (Hungary 1921-2008). Woman artist, her Figure (Woman) is, according to the wall label, ‘an image of heroic femininity’.
  • Korean woman artist Lee Bul’s Untitled (Craving White) (2011) is a gargoyle assembly of sacks of fabric, with wood and steel, twisted into weird shapes. She wore it to do performances, the weird bulges and squiggles intended to ‘deconstruct ideals of the female body’.
  • Avis Newman, woman artist born 1946, is represented by The Wing of the Wind of Madness (1982).
  • Lee Krasner, woman artist apparently overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now being rediscovered with works like Gothic Landscape (1961).
  • Woman artist Hilla Becher (1931-2007) spent most of her adult career travelling with husband Bernd around Europe and America taking series of b&w photos of industrial buildings eg Coal bunkers (1974). I wonder whether they inspired the b&w photos of abandoned nuclear bunkers and wartime defences by Jane and Louise Wilson?
  • Woman artist Hedda Sterne made lovely semi-abstracts, including NY No. X (1948).
  • Joan Miro is a big name from the modernist mid-century and represented here by the large and colourful Letter from a friend. After the post-modern works in the previous gallery, this type of Modernism looks reassuringly old-fashioned.
  • At the heart of this display is the big room showing Mark Rothko’s Seagram paintings (1958-60). Rothko was commissioned to decorate the restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York and was half way through making them when he went along to the restaurant himself, and was horrified to find it full of ‘rich bastards’, as he described them, eating dinner. What did he expect? He turned down the commission, returned the money and was contacted by various museums who wanted to buy them, of whom he favoured Tate because of a sentimental fondness for British art. He committed suicide the same day in 1970 that the paintings arrived in London. The audio guide plays Perilous Night by John Cage, favourite composer of so many modern artists. Of the 8 or so works here, my favourite was Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4 (1959).
  • By complete contrast, woman artist Rebecca Horn (b.1944) specialised in making strange imaginative extensions of the human body, for example Cockfeather Mask (1973). A room is devoted to her strange inspiring creations. A film shows cockfeather being used to do a sort of fan dance-cum-striptease over a man’s penis, a rare appearance of the male member in these galleries.
  • Simryn Gill (b.1959) has a whole room devoted to a series of large colour photos he took in the Malaysian town of Port Dickson, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999–2000) showing its citizens in normal or portrait style poses but with large fruits concealing their faces. I liked number 5, number 34, number 24.
  • The American artist Mark Bradford (b.1961) is represented by Riding the cut vein, an entrancing large image, owing something to the street layout of Los Angeles where, according to the wall label, freeways cut through the city dividing rich neighbourhoods from poor ones.
  • The last room in this mind-bending tour of 20th century art is devoted to six massive paintings by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) Cage I-VI, named after the American composer and philosopher John Cage, ever-popular with the avant-garde. Prepared for them to be dirty smears, I was in fact entranced. There’s a film showing Richter at work using a metre-wide squeegee to smear the paint across the surfaces, which sounds unpromising, but the results are actually full of countless details, imperfections, unknown unnameable elements, insights and peculiarities. Close up.

3. Energy and Process

The wall labels explain that this suite of rooms is based around the 1960s Italian art movement, Arte povera, which used industrial by-products, or found materials, to create large, generally abstract sculptures. It was deliberately distinct from the grandiosely ‘heroic’ American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, but also different from the American Minimalism of the 1960s, which is smooth and cerebral. The main works are in the big, well-lit room 3:

  • Lynda Benglis Quartered meteor (1969) This woman artist’s lump of dull lead is a deliberate riposte to the smooth geometric shapes of American minimalism.
  • Kishio Suga’s Ren-Shiki-Tai
  • Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres (1980–2)

According to the wall labels, Arte Povera ‘upset traditional ideas’ about how art should be distributed and displayed. Well, here they are being displayed in an international art gallery. Doesn’t seem to have upset or challenged that pretty traditional idea.

  • Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a groovy French woman artist whose website shows the full range of her colourful imaginative oeuvre and who is represented here by one of her ‘shooting paintings’. She filled bags with colour pigment, attached them to a canvas and covered the lot in white plaster, hung the canvas outside on a wall and then invited friends to shoot it with .22 rifles. The colour bags exploded and spurted colour over the work. Shooting Picture (1961)
  • Michael Baldwin is represented by a board with a mirror attached, Untitled Painting (1965). The commentary tells us with a straight face that this work is ‘questioning a long-held action of painting transcending reality’. OK.
  • In a similar radical, subversive, revolutionary etc vein is the anti-art tea tray of Július Koller (1939-2007), Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text) 1969. Here it is in a major art gallery, subverting away like mad. Funny in its way, but also funny in its quaint utopianism.
  • Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) experimented with lots of slits in otherwise untouched canvas. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960).
  • In room ten is the rather marvellous motor engine covered in crystals of copper sulphate, known as Untitled 2006 by Roger Hiorns, born in 1975.
  • Nicholas Hlobo is a gay black man, born in 1975 in South Africa. I enjoyed the works where he’s used embroidery or sewing using pink ribbon onto canvas to create shapes and flows, although I was disappointed that the curators instantly say this work ‘challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour’. Does it? Really? Ikhonkco (2010)
  • A small room is devoted to Emilio Prini (b.1943), who took countless experimental b&w photos in the 60s and 70s. According to the label, ‘Throughout his career Emilio Prini was engaged intensively with photography and photographic processes.’ Not ‘experimented with photographic techniques’, but was engaged with… And not just engaged. Engaged intensively. Lots of photos of parts of his body.

In these rooms, as in various other exhibitions of 20th century art, you get a powerful feeling from the wall labels and commentary of the curators’ nostalgia and regret for an era when art really meant something, when it was part of wider social movements genuinely upsetting old traditions and assumptions.

Now, when there is more art and more artists than ever before, more women artists, more artists from around the world, working in every conceivable medium, all trying to establish a marketable brand which can be sold to Saudi oil and Russian mafia and Colombian drug lord investors, it is impossible to recapture the heady idealism of, in particular, the 1960s and early 70s.

These galleries reek not of revolutionary exhilaration, but of the mournful nostalgia for, and the comic over-excitement about, the truly ‘revolutionary’ art of a bygone era, on the part of a generation of curators and critics born too late to experience it.


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