Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain, 1945-65 exhibition review

This ‘enthralling’ exhibition is an in-depth exploration of post-war British art

Full Stop (1961): paved the way for conceptual art
Full Stop (1961): paved the way for conceptual art
(Image credit: The Estate of John Latham/Tate )

The “cataclysm” of the Second World War overshadowed life in Britain for decades, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. By its end, the country had been all but bankrupted and its big cities lay in ruins. Shortages were rife and “the rationing of clothes and food and human happiness” remained in place for years after 1945. “The sound of air-raid warnings” and “horrific memories of the past” were still fresh in the mind; the Nazis’ atrocities loomed large in the collective imagination. Against this grim backdrop, a new generation of British artists emerged, commemorating the bleakness of the era in a multitude of different styles and media. This “enthralling” exhibition at the Barbican – itself an icon of brutalist postwar architecture – brings together the work of around 50 artists, encompassing painting, photography and sculpture to give an in-depth overview of British art in this period. It features both “establishment names” – Bacon, Freud, Ayres and Auerbach are all present and correct – as well as many artists who “have been all but forgotten”, it is packed with “revelations” and eye-opening snapshots of social history. “Not many shows can deepen your understanding of a whole era in art.” This is one of them.

The predominant mood is unremittingly downbeat, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. The works here are characterised by “shattered, misshapen forms, a monochrome or dingy palette, and a generally downbeat air”: Frank Auerbach paints his friend Leon Kossoff’s head as if it were “a flayed skull”, while Lucian Freud’s portrait of his first wife, Kitty Garland, sees her “throttling a rose”, looking for all the world like a “psychiatric patient suffering from PTSD”; needless to say, “the marriage didn’t last”. These macabre highlights aside, much of what we see is decidedly patchy. A selection of paintings by the “kitchen-sink realist” John Bratby is uniformly “horrible” and “ham-fisted”, while pictures of “despondent women” by Eva Frankfurther, a Jewish refugee, are “insipid”. There are some notable omissions, too: where, for instance, is Henry Moore? If this show proves anything, it is that British art of the postwar era “tended to plod, not soar”. I left “disappointed, feeling glum”.

What do you expect, asked Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. “The show looks back at a notoriously glum epoch in British art.” The opening stretches of this exhibition powerfully make the point that “dark times spawn dark art”; “the worst aesthetic moments” of the show can be blamed on the era in which they were produced, rather than on the artists who created them. And many of the gloomiest works are very impressive. Lynn Chadwick’s pterodactyl-like sculpture The Fisheater “looms over the space like a scary skeleton”, while Elizabeth Frink’s Harbinger Birds resemble “creepy mini-ostriches, cast in bronze”. With the sombre mood firmly set, the show goes “poking about in different corners of postwar Britain”. There’s a section on Bacon and Hockney, while John Latham’s “huge and powerful” picture Full Stop – “a looming black circle” which “has begun to blur at the edges as if in the early stages of disintegration” – paves the way for the conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. “Bleak” as it is, this is a “masterfully curated” exhibition which “rubs our noses in the moods and textures of war and its aftermath”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (020-7638 4141, Until 26 June.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.