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Jane Alison's personal highlights from Postwar Modern

Woman in front of Full Stop by John Latham
5 Apr 2022
10 min read

Our Head of Visual Arts and Postwar Modern curator Jane Alison talks us through a few of her highlights from the exhibition. She uncovers the stories behind the works, considers their importance to the period and reflects on her personal thoughts on them.

John Latham, Full Stop, 1961 

The work of John Latham was, I would argue, profoundly impacted by the Second World War. Serving  in the Navy, the artist witnessed the sinking of HMS Hood, where over a thousand lives were lost. With all ideologies having failed to stop the loss and horror of the war, Latham was intent on finding a way to fuse art, science and philosophy – to forge a new beginning. 

Cosmic and poetic, Full Stop was painted in 1961 the same year as the astronaut Yuri Gagarin made a circumnavigation of the earth; this incredible work is the most enigmatic of punctuation marks. It invites us to speculate whether it represents an eclipse of the sun, a black hole or an explosion. Radically for this time, Latham made the work with a spray gun: for the artist, each individual dot mirrors creation itself. I find it extraordinary – not just for its monumental scale, but also its experimental singular form and stripped-back monochrome aesthetic. It is unlike any other art work created in Britain at this time. For me, it is emblematic of a postwar sensibility: marked by a post-nuclear dawn, and suggesting both the aftermath of war and the promise of the future. This work dominates the exhibition’s opening room, and there is a beautiful connection with Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment which fills the exhibition’s final room.  Both relate to a search for renewal, underpinned by postwar anxiety. This is postwar Modernism in Britain – but not as you know it. 
 

Mr Sebastian

Francis Newton Souza, Mr Sebastian, 1955

This utterly memorable proxy self-portrait, first shown in Francis Newton Souza’s sell-out show at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One, is undoubtedly one of the most arresting and powerful works in the exhibition. I love how radical and challenging it is, and I am thrilled we were able to borrow it from India’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Turbo-charged psychologically, a hypnotically strange and defiant individual dominates the canvas.  He wears a jacket, suit and tie but bares his teeth like a hyena, his neck and cheeks are shot with arrows, and his head is like a bottle stopper or baton. Most disconcertingly, his eyes sit at the top of his head and look out at us like search lights directed both left and right, for surveillance. This is Mr Sebastian, also a play on the Christian saint, an archetypal martyr figure of suffering and survival.

Souza was born in colonial Goa India andc ame to Britain in 1949, already a successful artist and activist. He was brought up speaking English and received Catholic schooling in India – something that, he said, ‘divided my tongue and minced my words.’  The painting is a comment on British conformity but also alludes to his own desire to fit in and how that made him feel, the suit like a straitjacket.

Writing about a very similar self-portrait drawing, Souza explained:

'The eyes in the brow the better to see with the brain  

Stars in the face are the scars of smallpox

Arrows in the neck like flies mean affliction

The grinding of teeth is not in the day of Resurrection, but today

The jacket, tie and stiff collar are signs of respectability'
 

 

Postwar Modern installation shot

Lynn Chadwick, Fisheater, 1951

This awe-inspiring aerial sculpture epitomises a postwar sculptural aesthetic that critic Lawrence Alloway called Britain’s ‘new iron age’. Constructed out of welded and carefully balanced sheets of metal and iron rods, it was like no other sculpture seen in Britain up until that moment - very different, for instance, to the carved forms of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.  

Commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain, this swooping predator of the sky and waves is telling of Chadwick’s own experience of RAF flying. When you understand that Chadwick’s flying career came to an end when he crashed his plane in the sea, it lends a whole different emphasis to reading this work. Filled with menace but also graceful and delicate, his Fisheater – when seen from a certain angle – is unmistakeably a fighter jet. 

To see this work being unpacked and assembled was an absolute highlight of the exhibition installation. As a result of Covid, I hadn’t been able to view the work in person ahead of time – and it was both nerve-wracking and magical to see it emerge and take its place here. It lends a distinctly predatory grace to the ‘post-atomic garden’. Its presence is enjoyed, I think, by all visitors – who are able to view it from absolutely every angle, including from above and below. My tip is to pay particular attention as you climb the stairs. Watch out too for the unmistakeable erect penis that gives this predator a sexual charge. 
 

William Turnbull's Relief 5

William Turnbull, Relief 2 and Relief 5, both 1955

Like Lynn Chadwick, the Scottish-born and London-based artist William Turnbull had also fought during the war as a pilot. He was struck by the beauty and strangeness of viewing the world from above, laid out before him while alone in the sky, saying: ‘Suddenly you looked down and there was just endless abstraction… it was a new way of seeing the world…. you just felt in the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful.’ As placed in the exhibition on a low plinth, these two relief works are therefore best seen from above. They evoke a world in miniature, only half-seen from great distance. Is it perhaps a ruinous terrain after attack, or an archaeological site – the foundations of a lost civilisation? Their very ambiguity and uneasiness is a sign of a postwar sensibility at work. For me, these incredibly unusual works resonated closely with the churned and rubble-encrusted earth of bombsite Britain as pictured in Bert Hardy’s documentary photographs taken in Birmingham around the same time.

Install view of Magda Cordell

Magda Cordell, No 8, 1960
 
This outstanding painting by the unforgivably marginalised artist Magda Cordell belongs to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York. I am so glad we were able to borrow it: it’s the first time it has been shown in a major exhibition here in Britain. In person, it’s breath-taking. Unable to actually travel to see the work due to COVID-19, you can imagine our excitement when we took the painting out of its crate and were able to fully appreciate its scale (more than three metres high!), saturated colour and the complexity of its radiant painted surface, the paint pooling and bleeding in rivulets.

Cordell escaped the Holocaust, coming to Britain after having fled  Hungary and spending the war in Egypt and Palestine. For her, making work was a way to ‘approach the new’ and ‘erase the old’. The erasure was hard, she said, given ‘the images left in our minds and souls in the aftermath.’ Cordell drew inspiration from the body, which she found wondrous in its ability to renew itself over and over again. 

The critic Lawrence Alloway, a champion of Cordell’s work, used the following words to talk about her output: ‘Solar, delta, galactic, amorphous, fused, far out, viscous, skinned, variable, flux, nebular, iridescent, hyper-space, free-fall, random, circulation, swimming pool.’  To this list, I would add: hallucinogenic, cyborg, engorged, irradiated, sexual, sci-fi, embryonic.  It is totally at home in the ‘Strange Universe’ of injured hybrid and fantastical bodies at the centre of Postwar Modern, among the most telling embodiments of trauma and Cold War anxiety. This work reminds me of an alien life form in the process of becoming.

Frank Auerbach, Head of Gerda Boehm, 1964

Frank Auerbach, Head of Gerda Boehm, 1964

I find Frank Auerbach’s Head of Gerda Boehm one of the most profoundly moving works in the exhibition. The critic Andrew Forge said, on reviewing one of Auerbach’s shows in 1962, that his paintings amounted to the ‘most rigorous demonstrations of the mystery of the painted surface.’ And this painting convincingly illustrates his point. I never tire of looking at it. But more than just the mystery of the painted surface, it also captures the mystery of human experience itself – with all the complexity and uncertainty that comes with that. 

Auerbach came to this country as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Gerda Boehm was his aunt and a favoured subject. His work is characterised by the piling on and taking away of heavy impasto oil paint - great dollops of it - while eventually finding an exquisite point of resolution. He also famously re-visits the same subjects – perhaps out of that intimacy comes meaning and certainty. I think of this face as being like a lunar landscape or a galaxy of stars, bursting with a vital life force. It invites us to contemplate it, to get lost in its painted surface – and ultimately, feel it rather than understand it. 

 

Eduardo Paolozzi, St Sebastian III (Figure with words), 1958

Eduardo Paolozzi, St Sebastian III (Figure with words), 1958

In late ‘58-early ’59, Paolozzi showed an army of extraordinary bronze figures in Erica Brausen’s cutting edge Hanover Gallery. Nobody had ever seen anything like them, and for me, this larger-than-life work – like the other two from the exhibition shown here, ‘St Sebastian IV’ and ‘The Philosopher’ – exemplifies a postwar sensibility. They embody both vulnerability and menace and typify what I think of as the central subject of postwar art: the injured survivor body.  This one has a distinctly hollowed-out, architectural feel about it – a veritable shanty town of a personage. I think of it as exuding a battered masculinity. Paolozzi described them as a ‘hollow Gods’, Christian imagery reinvented for the atomic age. It’s a particular pleasure to see these figures against the concrete pillars of the Barbican – a symphony of Brutalist forms and surfaces. 

Paolozzi was born into a migrant Italian family in Edinburgh. His war was a traumatic one: a picture of Mussolini hung in the back shop of the family’s confectionary shop and when war broke out with Italy, it was ransacked by an angry mob.  Paolozzi, still a teenager, was jailed as an enemy alien and his father, uncle and grandfather were all killed when the ship that was deporting them was torpedoed. Looked at with this awareness, we can read ‘St Sebastian III’ as yet another proxy self-portrait.  In war the body can be annihilated, but in art it could be reinvented for a new era. 

Somehow the present was as uneasy as the past during these troubled years. In 1958, the same year this work was made, Britain successfully tested its own hydrogen bomb, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament held its first rally and the Notting Hill riots exploded on the streets.

Eva Frankfurther's Waitresses

Eva Frankfurther, West Indian Waitresses, c1955

Postwar Modern is an exhibition that celebrates multiple modernisms; it deliberately rejects the tired discussion around figuration versus abstraction. Sometimes work that is seemingly conventional can be a form of social activism. I think this is the case with the extraordinary paintings by the little-known artist Eva Frankfurther, who came to Britain aged nine, a refugee from Nazi Germany. She attended Saint Martin’s School of Art alongside the likes of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Tragically, she took her own life in 1959, only 28 years old. 

In 1951, Frankfurther started working at the very large and bustling Lyons Coffee House in Piccadilly, as a counter hand and pot washer. She worked evenings so that she could continue to paint during the day. Her fellow workers were among her most important subjects, and she once said ‘I feel as though in my head, or you would probably say in my heart, there is a long queue of human beings, who all insist on being painted.’  West Indian Waitresses (c. 1955), in the collection of the Ben Uri museum, shows Frankfurther at her most accomplished. The painting captures two women, evidently recent arrivals from the West Indies, shoulder to shoulder, their bodies mirroring one another. They are caught in a moment of quiet repose and there is a sense in their demeanour of both strength and softness.     
 

Man looking at Francis Bacon's Man in Blue I

Francis Bacon, Man in Blue I, 1954

I find Bacon’s seven paintings in the Man in Blue series from 1954 among his most seductive and coolly modern works. They were painted while the artist was staying at the Imperial Hotel in Henley. At the time he was in love with Peter Lacey, a glamorous ex-fighter pilot who dressed well and had a tendency to be brutally violent in his relationship with Bacon. For a while they couldn’t live with or without each other.

So, is this painting - the first in the series - a reflection of Bacon’s obsession with Lacey?  Or, is it an image of an anonymous pick-up at a bar? The Imperial Hotel was known as a place where men might stay alone and that casual encounters might ensue. The repetition in the series seems to suggest this to be the case. But Man in Blue I could equally represent Bacon himself – a projection of his own state of mind. The choice is yours… but then, perhaps, all these interpretations are correct, the essential point being that Man in Blue I is a formally exciting exploration of same-sex male desire at a time when it was still illegal to act upon such feelings.  

In these works, Bacon has stripped painting back to essentials, creating a perfect fusion of the monochrome and figuration. The face of the man shines out of the canvas but is also distorted, his scumbled features held in tension with the surrounding stillness.  Originally, we hoped to borrow all seven canvases in the series, but it proved to be impossible to bring together more than three. Falling short allowed us to conceive the perfect juxtaposition with early works by David Hockney. Sometimes ‘failures’ can turn out for the best.
 

Jane Alison posing

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