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British Art in the Cultural Field, 1939-69


Edited by Lisa Tickner & David Peters Corbett


Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012

 Paperback. 278p. ISBN 978-1118275849. £22.99 / 30 €


Reviewed by Charlotte Gould

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3



The decades which follow the Second World War are both a crucial watershed in the history of British art, a moment when practices and funding changed so radically that they transformed the way the British art world was to be perceived from then on, but also a period for which there seems to be a dearth of academic studies. Lisa Tickner and David Peters Corbett’s collection of essays, British Art in the Cultural Field, 1939-1969, aims at remedying this lack and at generating enthusiasm for the period on the part of young scholars now entering a moment of “consolidation” [10] in the analysis of the 20th century. While the authors have noticed that a newfound attention is today paid to the study of art in Britain, which, due to its newness tends to focus on the Britishness of the said art, they have also found that the diminished place of Britain in the post-World War II world might have made it less attractive than the ebullient pre-World War I intellectual scene.

The book therefore concentrates on the three decades between 1939 – marked by the arrival of remarkable immigrants who were to have a decisive influence on national culture (Megan R. Luke dedicates chapter 3 to Kurt Schwitters and describes how he offered a counterpoint to Henry Moore’s “chromium-plated conception of modernism” [41]) – and 1969, the year Charles Harrison mounted the British version of Harald Szeemann’s seminal exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” at the ICA. This particularly fragmented period was first one of post-war melancholy and uncertainty (all the more acute as it had been preceded by pre-war idealism) followed by the excitement of Pop. Of course, as Serge Guilbaut has demonstrated, Abstract Expressionism and American values inflected the way British art was perceived, and in the fifties made it almost impossible to discuss any other forms or trends. British art was accused of being derivative in a period when techniques and styles were bound to shifts in cultural dominance and ideology. The art of this former world leader was now dismissed as provincial, relegated to the outskirts. This difficult positioning accounts for the marginal place it occupies in art history books.

In 2010, these considerations prompted the Association of Art Historians to organise the “New Approaches to British Art, 1939-1969” conference from which the book is derived. Tickner and Corbett were bemoaning the fact that a very rich period was still under-explored and wished to approach it in an innovative manner and by focusing on up-to-date readings. Especially striking are therefore Jonathan D. Katz’s chapter on a queer reading of Richard Hamilton’s work (Hamilton’s use of cut out pictures from gay magazine Tomorrow’s Man, especially in What is It that Makes Today’s Homes… acts as an indictment of pre-war fixities), and Leon Wainwright’s study of the link between decolonisation and the Pop movement, making use as they do of more recent theoretical writings on gender and the post-colonial (Judith Butler, Donna Haraway and Nicolas Bourriaud are summoned). However, new concepts are not what these “new approaches” are necessarily about. The different title chosen for the publication is more descriptive, but introduces a clear theoretical framework by alluding to Bourdieu’s notion of an “autonomous cultural field”. Indeed, the new approaches invited by the editors do not refer to analytic concepts but concern new framings or neglected archives. The volume therefore makes the demonstration that current art historical analyses are syncretic ones, embracing the works themselves, their creators and their promoters within specific historical, social and economic contexts. It is no longer necessary to choose between a structuralist and a socio-historical approach and the model for art historical analysis is today much more comprehensive and dynamic, absorbing insights from other fields (feminism, Marxism, etc.) while at the same time allowing for a focus on the work itself, shaped as it is by the different instances and conditions that made it possible.

The thirteen chapters that make up the collection are varied in terms of focus, yet they all make the demonstration of this more consensual frame of mind in the discipline at the beginning of the 21st century. Also, they manage to conjure up a background and an atmosphere in which recurring references to the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the role played by the British Council, or to central figures such as Laurence Alloway or Herbert Read indicate what the major signposts of the period are. Chris Stephens, with “The Morrow we left behind”, opens the volume with the very central question of historical validation: why does art history choose to shed light on certain artists and groups as representative of their period and not on others who are simply considered derivative or belated. By looking at the Cornish landscapes of Peter Lanyon, symbols of post-war regeneration at a time when the planning of National Parks had become a central tenet of the Welfare State, Stephens does not wish to revise art history nor to claim a place for Lanyon in the canon, but merely wishes to promote a “more complex, layered, multi-locational idea of artistic modernism” [34]. What is at stake is a place granted to a British trend of modernism cleared of accusations of belatedness. By demonstrating that Lanyon’s concerns were national, but also tremendously current, Stephens opens the volume by ascertaining that “British modernism” is not an oxymoron.

Catherine Jolivette explores the fascination for and fear of the bomb at a time when many artists took part in the 1958 Aldermaston March. She demonstrates how this involvement in the different protests of the period was also reflected in their works, giving a new meaning to the phrase “atomic culture” [55]. In her study of architects James Stirling and the Smithsons (Alison and Peter), Claire Zimmerman makes clear how thin the line was between late and post modernism, the exact moment of transition from one to the other being a disputed one. Catherine Spencer considers how the late 1970s tag “Fathers of Pop” to describe the Independent Group, a notion which jelled with the 1979 eponymous documentary directed by Julian Cooper, may now be reassessed to consider the Group in its own right. This is precisely what Alex Potts does when he redefines Richard Hamilton’s and Eduardo Paolozzi’s positionings towards Pop. Martin Hammer shows how a sustained “human condition” approach of Francis Bacon’s paintings has meant that he did not feature in the 2007 Hayward exhibition “The Painting of Modern Life” about the use made by painters of photographs since the 1960s, when painters started addressing the competition between painting and photography.

Hammer, who is preparing a book on the subject, looks into the many pictures which have inspired some of Bacon’s canvases, and, quite disturbingly, the many images of Nazi propaganda which he used. Also looking at Bacon, Andrew R. Lee addresses the difficult question of the persistent figure in post-war painting. While figures were dismissed by Greenberg as “vulgar” [174], both the American De Kooning and the British Bacon were championed by David Sylvester specifically because they had not discarded it. Their embattled position was indeed considered either reactionary or advanced, but in any way makes clear “the post-war development of an oppositional figurative stance under the visual regime of gestural abstraction” [176]. Lisa Tickner, in her chapter “Export Britain”, presents trade magazine The Ambassador edited by distinguished émigrés Hans and Elsbeth Juda. The publication was instrumental in creating the new “creative Britain” brand for a country which was perceived abroad as a strange mixture of heritage and modernity, creating a coherent narrative to demonstrate to the world that a once parochial scene was now that of the vibrant “swinging London”.

Andrew Stephenson also concentrates on the political economy of art by demonstrating how central the “Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, ’54-’64” exhibition was in transforming the country’s exhibition culture. The late fifties witnessed a rise in government funding for British art organisations (which was also effective abroad thanks to the British Council). Actors and agents had bemoaned for some time the lack of both State and private patronage, as well as of suitable spaces for exhibiting modern art. The Gulbenkian Foundation, helped by the Tate’s trustees, played a determining role in the financing of “Painting and Sculpture of a Decade”. But it is not simply the scale of the event which Stephenson deems crucial, but also the new curatorial strategies adopted, and especially the gallery design created by the Smithsons. The exhibition sparked a new national media awareness of art with specialised television programmes dedicated to young practitioners (Monitor), or Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel documentary broadcast in 1962. The success of this specific Tate retrospective demonstrated that the temporary exhibition had become “the very breath of modern art” [229] and was to become an enduring fixture of national curatorial practices. However, this new fashionability and the patronage that went along were cut short by the 1966 depression.

The last chapter, by Leon Wainwright, explains the strange phenomenon taking place at the Royal College of Art in the fifties in which the demographics of students had changed thanks to the new input by the State. The first generation of mostly Northern working-class students was both aware of its outsider status and about to take over in terms of influence (Blake, Hockney, Caulfield, etc., the shapers of Pop). Wainwright shows how this strong outsiderness left no room for any other outsiderness, and especially for that of Frank Bowling’s status as a child of the Empire. In Wainwright’s demonstration, Bowling becomes a case in point for reading Pop as a “half-told tale” [255], a narrative which rests on a specific historical basis, in which the Empire was synonymous with the past and which was marked by social and racial exclusions responsible for excluding one of the Caribbean contributors to the movement from posterity. Still, the aim of this last chapter is not to retrieve a name from the margins of art-historical remembrance, but to transform its process: “an attempt to decolonise the history of British pop art cannot be achieved by adding to its roll call of artists’ names or expanding its frame of reference to ‘include’ the (post-)Empire. The most pressing challenge is to change the structures of art-historical remembrance themselves and to expose its arbiters of value” [262]. This closing remark in itself shows the anxiety that gripped the tastemakers of the period and which focused essentially on the notion of belatedness (from which other notions were derived such as provincialism, derivativeness, etc.), a notion responsible both for pressing artists and patrons to vitalise British art in the face of American domination, but also for excluding from the canon the works which did not fit this hegemonic narrative.

This collection of essays does not simply shed light on lesser-known figures or events of the period going from the end of the war to the Pop movement, it is a coherent and fascinating demonstration that writing the history of art is indeed a historical process. The strong hierarchies of late modernism are here exposed and explained, and, without the authors ever being anachronistic, they are also deconstructed. Although made up of many chapters with very different foci, British Art In the Cultural Field is a very coherent collection, beautifully illustrated with rarely-seen documents and artworks. It takes a refreshing look at a somewhat neglected period by bringing together up-to-the-minute contributions by very knowledgeable specialists of the subject. This rich book will enchant art historians, scholars of late modernism, as well as anyone interested in the cultural history of 20th-century Great Britain.


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