In the 1920s and 1930s visual arts in England had been flourishing, much in exchange with a vibrant European art scene. With the onset of the Second World War in September 1939 this open creative sphere was disrupted. The attention of artists shifted to the events of the war and patriotic duty in the first instance, and scarcity of material had led British artists to work in collaboration with the government as official war artists. Rodrigo Moynihan’s painting Barbed Wire – Cornwall of 1943 documents the reinforcements set up on the British Isles to prevent any further progress of the enemy. Similarly Albert Richard’s depiction of an airstrip in Essex of the same year records the impact of the Second World War on British soil. With the exception of Albert Richard’s painting, a much reduced palette echoes the lack of material. William Coldstream’s London Bombed Site from 1946 reflects the destruction of the capital better than words could have done. At the same time it is an example for how well artists made use of the limited pigment available to reflect their surroundings.
This exhibition traces the development of British art after World War II. The destruction had caused a return to documentary more naturalistic modes of visual expression. After the Second World War, artists used their art more and more as a means of digesting the shock, re-establishing a shaken identity and finding hope. Victor Pasmore and John Aldridge painted scenes that had remained intact, suburbia on the one hand and the countryside on the other. Many artists left cities for the tranquillity nature had to offer. Several moved to St. Ives in Cornwall where they painted the ‘essentially’ English landscape.
However, there was also a great demand for tranquil pictures. Spencer’s Bluebells, Cornflowers and Rhododendron from 1945 is an example of a work of art produced for sale, as World War II had left him at the risk of becoming destitute. Graham Sutherland, who had also served as an official war artist began to translate themes of suffering into landscape, a powerful example is Thorn Tree, which he painted immediately after World War II. John Tunnard’s Monument, 1947 is another indication of how nature inspired artistic freedom and expression; perhaps here the flowing form is derived from textiles, which he and his wife worked with initially.
Artist communities were important in Britain from the late 1940s. Through discussion artists found their creative voices again. The Students by Robert Colquhoun dating from 1947 shows this. In his case this involved Robert MacBryde. While the work by the “Two Roberts”, as they came to be known, visually links with Cubist painting that of their friend Prunella Clough revisited and developed pre-war abstraction in the circle of St. Ives. Her colleague Ben Nicholson combines a landscape painting with a Cubist section in November 11-47. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and John Wells belong to the same circle of artists. Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton John and Bryan Wynter belong to the later generation, who looked at Abstract Expressionism, a movement where the expression of the internal response to landscape was expressed in painting.
Michael Ayrton, John Craxton and John Bratby on the other hand found their inspiration in urban spaces. A sense of alienation comes across in Ayrton’s moonlit square, painted in 1948/9, while John Craxton’s Galatas, 1947, shows early immigrants coming to Britain in the years after World War II, who were to crucially influence the multicultural society Britain is today. Bratby’s scene of his circle of friends at the breakfast table is an example of paintings that were to be described as ‘Kitchen Sink’, simply because they showed everything, “even the kitchen sink”, as the innovative and most influential art critic of the post-war period David Sylvester, explained in an article published in 1954. He noted that the artists moved their focus from the studio to the kitchen, the kind of kitchens 'in which ordinary people cooked ordinary food and doubtless lived their ordinary lives'. The Kitchen Sink painters celebrated everyday life of ordinary people implying a social if not political interest.
In the selection of the art works in this exhibition alone, a great variety of styles manifests itself. This shows how artists in the 1950s had reclaimed creative production and had begun to find ways of expressing themselves more emotionally in their methods of painting and interpretation of the visual representation of their surroundings. From 1950 a greater lightness and enthusiasm can be detected. From the titles given to paintings, it is apparent that the content has become less important. Hilton’s Painting 1954 conveys nothing more than the activity and the year of its creation. He relieves art of all responsibilities, other than creative expression.