Mon. May 23rd, 2022

During sleepless nights in postwar London, the unknown and impoverished artist Frank Auerbach panicked that he could no longer afford paint and would have to stop working. The possibility seemed real enough, given the lavish volumes of pigment slathered on, piled up, solid yet mysteriously animated, in his dizzying configurations of beams and planks, towering scaffolding and deep pits, carcasses of old buildings, skeletons of new ones. “Shell Building Site” and “Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square” dramatize London’s emergence from the ruins of war, its upheavals and regeneration. “There was a curious feeling of liberty about because everybody living there had escaped death. . . it was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London, ”Auerbach recalled. Yet “the atom bomb hovered over all our heads. Very few of us thought we had many years to live. ”

The Barbican’s fascinating yet constrained Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 fixes this exhilarating / pessimistic moment through works by scores of artists starting their careers, with the gallery itself both star exhibit and resonant setting. Plans for the Barbican estate, to rise on the scorched earth of bombed-out Cripplegate, were drawn in the mid-1950s, and the first stone was laid in 1963. The show draws parallels between the Barbican’s lumpen, idiosyncratic, audacious architecture, “ a hybrid child of prewar Utopianism, postwar wonkiness and urban reconstruction ”as curator Jane Alison describes it, and the artists’ inventiveness – their commitment with materiality, urge to construct, spirit of creation from destruction.

Gustav Metzger’s film of throwing acid at dissolving fabric on the South Bank, allowing fragmentary views of the city, in “Auto-Destructive Art”; William Turnbull’s totemic bronzes of endurance, with ravaged skins, “War Goddess” and “Standing Female Figure”; Francis Newton Souza’s schematic, assertive black characters reimagined as Christian martyrs “Mr Sebastian” and “The Agony of Christ”: the works form a desperately timely picture of a nation emerging from trauma only to face fresh horrors – the cold war and atomic age – amid austerity and flares of hope to build back better.

Francis Newton Souza's 'Mr Sebastian' (1955)

Francis Newton Souza’s ‘Mr Sebastian’ (1955) © Grosvenor Gallery

That many – and the majority of the best – pieces are by immigrants, from India, the Caribbean, or European refugees, gives the optimistic subtext of a new society in formation, though fragile. Indeed, throughout, brutalism is tempered by a sense of vulnerability, embodied in the opening giant sculpture, Lynn Chadwick’s welded iron and copper “The Fisheater”, half bird, half machine, predatory yet delicate, a forlorn aftermath of a creature.

The opening painting, John Latham’s “Full Stop”, a large, ragged black circle, or black hole, created with a spray gun, seems to be about endings, and frayings. Yet a few blurry dots haloed against the pale backcloth also suggest light reflected off planets in a dark galaxy: an expanding universe.

Lynn Chadwick's 'The Fisheater' (1956)
Lynn Chadwick’s ‘The Fisheater’ (1956) © Tate / Tate Images

William Turnbull's 'War Goddess' (1956).  .  .
William Turnbull’s ‘War Goddess’ (1956). . . © DACS 2022

.  .  .  and 'Standing Female Figure' (1954)

. . . and ‘Standing Female Figure’ (1954) © DACS 2022

So too with Leon Kossoff’s tour de force “Willesden Junction, Early Morning”: flowing ocher / umber / gray impasto railway tracks meet a streaked creamy dawn sky, luminous despite its weighty surface, hefty as sculpture. From this derelict sprawl, nicknamed “Wilderness Junction”, Kossoff conjures urban ground zero. “Like lava in a volcanic crater. . . the great furrows of paint rush away to some vanishing point over the edge of a strange, tipped world, ”wrote Terence Mullaly when this gritty, sensual painting debuted in 1963.

A strange tipped world provoked – demanded – strange new approaches. “It’s going to be more and more difficult to do what used to be called figurative painting,” said Francis Bacon, the show’s oldest painter. “Reworking the image will demand more and more profound, sensational and evocative ways.” Unravelling how the generation born in the 1920s / 30s responded to that challenge is one of Postwar Modern‘s most rewarding veins.

John Latham's 'Full Stop' (1961)

John Latham’s ‘Full Stop’ (1961) © Tate / The Estate of John Latham

Lucian Freud made cold, linear realism so lucid that it shocks: pallid deathly skin, frightened eyes, powerful rhythms of forms, suffocating atmosphere. Portraits of his first wife Kitty in “Girl with Roses”, petal motif repeated in her tucked skirt, twisting lips, curtain folds, and of his second wife Caroline, shuddering under the sheets after he broke the window to let in more light, in “Hotel Bedroom”, while he stands by, a malignant specter, earned Freud the sobriquet “the Ingres of existentialism”. “I was terribly restless and Caroline was terribly nervous,” he said: a portrait of the times, as well as of a disintegrating marriage.

Frank Bowling’s marvelous “Big Bird” – two swans, one soaring, one falling, with bright shots of color bleeding through beating white wings against a sky patterned into cubes – owes its pictorial construction of a central blurred, violent image to Bacon, but Bowling’s independent vibrant style and warmth surges. The analogy, he said, was “the dying swan. . . people who had broken lives – if you do not straighten up and fly right, you’re going to end up in the gutter. ”

Frank Bowling's 'Big Bird' (1965)
Frank Bowling’s ‘Big Bird’ (1965) © Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool

Partly based on his sadistic lover Peter Lacy, Bacon’s own foreboding series here, “Man in Blue” (1954), featuring a jowly, unsympathetic businessman with fiercely smeared face, imprisoned in a cage – isolation, alienation, closeted desire – is paired, brilliantly, with young David Hockney’s scratchy figures, cryptic codes, graffiti, thrusting phallic towers in “I’m in the Mood for Love” (1961) and “My Brother is Only Seventeen” (1962). Virtuoso, richly textured comedies, they throw off Bacon’s high seriousness, play fast and loose with figuration / abstraction, and are frank about gay love. They anticipate 1960s epochal social shifts, and pop art’s freedoms.

As a two-decade survey, the show’s weakness is its halfhearted attention to this changing moment. Rationing ended in 1954, Britain became richer, perspectives widened, but you would scarcely know it here. One small section, “Lush Life”, features Richard Hamilton’s sinuous, ironic convergence of curvy woman / car bonnet “Hers is a lush situation” and Eduardo Paolozzi’s “Bunk” collages, critiques / celebrations of consumerism, but other key emerging voices expressing the early 1960s burst of energy are absent. No Bridget Riley – On Art’s shimmering dots, pulsating movements. No Howard Hodgkin – portraits reinvented as high-color playful semi-abstraction.

Eduardo Paolozzi's 'Bunk!'  (1952)

Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Bunk!’ (1952) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The abstract painters included instead – Alan Davie, Gillian Ayres – are less original and much less fun. And the aim of excavating “previously marginalized” artists yields, among painters, scant interest: exhibited alongside Freud, Sylvia Sleigh’s cross-dressing portraits look puerile and inept, and it’s hard to get excited about Prunella Clough’s repetitive cellular shapes.

But among photographers, a standout revelation: Shirley Baker’s color shots from the back streets of Hulme, Manchester, in the summer of 1965 – prams around an ice cream van, women scurrying through demolition wreckage, a laughing black family perched on a crumbling step, an old woman, monumental, hieratic, staring out from a doorway amid graffiti and smashed glass. Spontaneous yet supremely well-composed, they leave memories of sun on broken stone and children’s long shadows across urban wastelands, of ramshackle, homey interiors glimpsed through dilapidated doorways, or quotidian joys and survival. Baker’s humane vision lights up a show whose sombre tone, sadly, feels absolutely right for now.

An ice cream van on a terraced street in Manchester, 1965, by Shirley Baker
An ice cream van on a terraced street in Manchester, 1965, by Shirley Baker © Mary Evans Picture Library

To June 26,

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