Sylvia Sleigh, The Bride (Lawrence Alloway), 1949

Was postwar Britain as grey and dull as everyone thinks?

A new exhibition at the Barbican sheds light on the forgotten decade

Artillery Row On Art

First, the traditional narrative. Postwar Britain was a grey, austere, pinched, culturally barren, repressed and repressive little realm. Peopled by bugger-baiters and racists, it looked enviously upon a soon to be economically resurgent western Europe, wondering “where are the victor’s spoils?” Its redemption would arrive in the shape of sexual intercourse and the Beatles first LP.

There is an alternative story to tell — which Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 – 1965, a superbly curated and arresting exhibition bravely confirms — of a culture “more vital and distinctive” than is usually recognised, confident, open to new ideas and new peoples — from a shattered Europe and the shrinking Empire — but whose aesthetic was distinctive and exceptional.

The first great fruit of this artistic flowering was musical — Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), a modernist operatic masterpiece born of the land and seascapes of East Anglia premiered triumphantly at Sadler’s Wells almost exactly as the Second World War ended. The “land without music” had found its voice. But what of the visual?

The exhibition is, however, successful even when the art is not

It was marked by the same “rough poetry”. The opening room of Postwar Modern is dominated by John Latham’s Full Stop (1961), a Rothkoesque disc of black on grey that suggests the energy beneath the postwar austerity ready to be let loose and explode. A similar vitality marks Francis Newton Souza’s depiction of Christ as a “you looking at me” middleweight boxer wrestling with his agony, all pent up frustration. Both Latham, a northern Rhodesian, and Souza, from Portuguese Goa, were displaced products of empire. More famous artists, also represented, such as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, were Jewish refugees. 

John Latham, Full Stop, 1961, Tate

The curators were no doubt unaware that their room labelled “Post Atomic Garden” would prove horribly resonant in the light of the war in Ukraine — serendipity of a kind. During the 1950s the bombsites of the immediate past, still visible, and the nuclear threat of the new Cold War focused minds. William Turnbull’s stark, flat metalworks offer what may be a bird’s-eye view of the city of the future or remnants of a bombed out past. Lynn Chadwick’s sculpture, The Fisheater (1951) — a monumental and menacing image of a predator of the sky much acclaimed at the time — is one among many works that are engineering as much as they are art, created using industrial techniques. The pieces serve as a reminder, as the historian David Edgerton has recently noted, that the Britain of the 1950s remained a manufacturing and scientific powerhouse.

If anything defines Britain’s confidence in the future it is the creed of New Brutalism, a term coined by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson and the theorist Reyner Banham, which makes the Barbican the perfect host. In parts of Britain, Brutalism was almost reckless in its imposition, as the great postwar experiments of Birmingham and Coventry suggest  — and a reason why one notable omission from the exhibition is the revolutionary influence of the car. 

The exhibition is, however, successful even when the art is not.  Nothing dates like science fiction and “contemporary technological advances”. The Smithson’s futuristic, pod-like House of the Future is a ghastly, claustrophobic sub-Ikean structure, unveiled at the Suez-shadowed Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition of 1956 and intended as a vision of the year 1981 — ironically another uneasy Cold War moment. 

The hope, as Orwell suggested, lay with the proles

The exhibition is most successful the more intimate it becomes, dealing with the struggle of identity and tradition. A striking discovery is the work of Sylvia Sleigh, whose portraits of her much younger cross-dressing muse, Lawrence Alloway — Grayson Perry avant la lettre — are a rich and compelling mix of the sexually ambivalent, the Arcadian, and Laura Ashley florals which anticipate the gender-bending personae of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, and the myth-infused fantasies of Derek Jarman. These, along with Eva Frankfurther’s affecting depiction of West Indian canteen workers point to a more relaxed Britain, still some way off.

Sylvia Sleigh, The Bride (Lawrence Alloway), 1949

David Hockney and Francis Bacon offer contrasting views of homosexuality, necessarily furtive before the not wholly liberal Sexual Offences Act of 1967. The brooding figures of Bacon’s Man in Blue series of 1954, despite their formal business wear, are menacing and potentially murderous. Hockney, optimistic and more comfortable in his skin, offers colour and wit, even when inspired by toilet graffiti, as in his shadowy 1962 work, My Brother is Only Seventeen.

Heterosexuality in the 1950s was hardly a walk in the park, not if one takes the work of the husband and wife painters Jean Cooke and John Bratby as evidence. Cooke, clearly, the greater artist, depicts herself coldly in a self-portrait with a black eye, inflicted presumably by Bratby, who she depicts as an arrogant, entitled slouch in a dressing gown, symbol of the unthinkingly unequal domestic arrangements of the time. 

Cooke and Bratby may not be wholly representative, though. Bohemians tend to be rackety, hypocritical and self-indulgent: as Lucian Freud’s offerings here — depictions of the callous treatment of his wives — suggest. The hope, as Orwell suggested, lay with the proles. Roger Mayne’s photographs of the working-class communities of North Kensington are memorable for the cocksure cavaliers, young men and women, dressed to the nines amid the ruins of the postwar landscape, ready to assert themselves as the Elizabethan age matured amid the nascent fruits of consumerism and individuality: they could pass for ironic photoshoots in the next issue of Vogue, but they have a flair all their own, which would soon conquer the world, in sound and vision. Other photographs, of Brummie boys and girls playing on a bombsite, are similarly moving. The abject destruction is dignified by their smart, sassy dress, the physical embodiment of the veteran dandy George Melly’s Revolt into Style (1970). They would be the luckiest of generations: disciplined enough to tamper with the traditions they inherited and understood without wholly undermining them, products of prosperity and stability.

Francis Bacon, Man in Blue I, 1954, Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Estate of Francis Bacon.

One final round of applause. Not the least of Postwar Modern’s achievements is its willingness to allow the works to speak for themselves, to treat its audience as adults. The curators show, but do not tell. The captions are eloquent, informative and to the point. There is a noticeable lack of the pious, soon-to-date preaching that has infantilised some otherwise excellent recent exhibitions. For that and much else, reward them with a visit.

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 — 1965 is at the Barbican until 26 June 2022.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover