It would be hard to imagine a more devastating coincidence of art and life than the opening of Postwar Modern in the same week that Ukrainian citizens are murdered by Russian troops. There is no image in the first half of this exceptional exhibition that does not to speak directly from the past into our present.
Helmet heads and shattered faces; scarred canvases that resemble wounded bodies; etiolated bronze figures, fragile and on the verge of collapse: British art of the immediate postwar decade fills the lower galleries at the Barbican. Lynn Chadwick’s metal sculpture swoops down from on high, exoskeletal, somewhere between arrow, fish and ruthless missile. Elisabeth Frink’s harbinger birds, headless and sinister, perch along the walls.
A suffering Christ, by the British Asian painter FN Souza, is like a Rouault icon all ruined and degraded, with barbed wire for thorns. Two vast canvases in oil and wax encaustic resemble flayed bodies, dripping blood red, nuclear orange and yellow; by the Hungarian artist Magda Cordell, a refugee from Nazi persecution, they appear neither dead nor yet quite alive.
The Scottish-Italian artist Eduardo Paolozzi, interned as an enemy alien in 1940, was conscripted to the Pioneer Corps three years later, only to end up camped out for impotent months on a football pitch near Slough. Many of his muckle machine-man hybrids stride through this show. But far stronger, and more surprising, is a small, blackened bronze form that lies beached on its back, like a turtle, yet bristling with lethal nodes – a vulnerable creature doubling as unexploded ordnance.
There are revelations all through the show, works of art as well as postwar British artists whose names have been all but forgotten. A gnarled and craggy grey sculpture, which looks as if it has been blasted by a bomb, morphs between the head of a long-haired woman and a Jewish menorah overturned and suspended, horrifyingly, downwards. Intensely affecting, it is by Peter King, a sculptor whose prodigious gifts ceased with his shocking death of sepsis at the age of 29.
The excellent team of curators, led by Jane Alison, have also rediscovered Franciszka Themerson, a Polish refugee who made films, published books and designed marionette productions. Her paintings alone have such a poignant tragicomic potency it is astonishing that they are not better known. Some of the canvases carry their burden of paint in slabs, scored and incised like words urgently carved into a wall or a tree. Others are delicate elegies, such as Eleven Persons and One Donkey Moving Forwards, where frightened figures flee headlong through a red-tinged terrain and the donkey is just another number at the back. Made in 1947, it irresistibly calls to the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine today.
This is an art that shows what Europe had suffered: the sound of air-raid warnings, the rationing of clothes and food and human happiness, the living with the horrific memories of the past, through the Nuremberg trials and the commemorations of the Holocaust. The show is anything but an encyclopaedic anthology of two decades of British art; its focus is very much the coincidence of art with social history.
It is Bert Hardy’s photographs of children playing in the dusty light of Birmingham bomb sites, the contact sheets as damaged as the landscape. It is William Turnbull’s haunting bronze slabs that turned flattened playgrounds and miniature cityscapes into strange board games with rules that could not be deduced. And it is John Latham’s early spray paintings, including an abrupt jet of spreading black paint upon a white canvas – a violent full stop.
Of course the establishment names are hardly neglected: Bacon, Freud and Auerbach, Kossoff, Ayres and Clough, whose abstract painting of ice-blue fractal patches twinkling against a kind of chilly whiteness seems to suggest lights on the blink in a concrete jungle. A fearful vision, it is one of many tremendous highlights, judiciously selected as a sign of the times.
Freud, in the nightmarish Hotel Bedroom of 1954, is ousted to the window’s edge by the vast bed in which his wife, Caroline Blackwood, lies, eyes heavily swollen. He looks at us, a dark and anxious shadow; she looks away. It is an impasse of guilt and irreversible misery. They had been married for barely a year.
There is a dramatic weight to this show: a heavy buildup of emotion, anger and fear, of marked brushstrokes and scored bronzes, of surfaces thick with nameless substances. A famous black-and-white film from 1960 shows Gustav Metzger burning nylon canvases with hydrochloric acid – his so-called auto-destructive art – though he is also represented with a liquid-crystal light show of the sort he used to create for Cream concerts at the Roundhouse, equal parts fetching and monotonous. It was among the world’s very first immersive installations.
For there is a secondary narrative at the Barbican, a history of Britain’s avant garde, running through the show like an underground river. There are early pop paintings by Richard Hamilton and David Hockney, one of the Filipino artist David Medalla’s revolving contraptions, mechanically and randomly furrowing sand into circular shapes (auto-constructive art: an antidote to Metzger).
A room full of 1960s abstract reliefs by artists such as Victor Pasmore and Mary Martin comes as a happy surprise. These works look at a distance as if they are going to be all clinical, precise and European, but they have a kind of off-kilter Britishness about them. Precise edges have been painted freehand, with all that implies, and reliefs that body forth in glass, wood and duct tape are like hard-edged abstractions coming apart in DIY pieces, slightly haphazard, tongue-in-cheek deconstructions.
The complicated network of open-sided galleries at the Barbican has never been so well used. Each space is a self-contained show, involving one or two artists. Freud is paired with Bill Brandt’s tense black-and-white nudes; German refugee Eva Frankfurther’s tender paintings of tired London waitresses with Shirley Baker’s photographs of worn-out mothers minding exuberant children in Manchester.
Most startling is the violent art-and-life relationship of the married painters Jean Cooke and John Bratby. Cooke portrays herself with a black eye; or with her brush-hand literally fading out. Bratby would let her paint for only three hours a day.
He portrays her with all the brusque and aggressive realism that won him critical praise and the “kitchen sink” soubriquet. She sits cornered behind a table strewn with groceries – vulnerably, brutally naked.
This is an enthralling exhibition, bringing Cooke and many other overlooked figures back before the public eye and connecting all of these artists in the context of a cataclysm that overshadowed the country for decades. It is also a magnificent antidote to the cultural triumphalism of the government-sponsored 1951 Festival of Britain. Nobody here is pretending that everything is all right, the future is bright, that humanity isn’t altered or diminished by war. Not many shows can deepen your understanding of a whole era in art, through the lessons of history, and vice versa, but so it is at the Barbican Art Gallery with Postwar Modern.
• Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 26 June
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