Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 at Barbican Art Gallery review: suddenly of the moment


ust a week ago, an exhibition featuring bomb sites, mass displacement of people and traumatised refugees would have seemed remote from our time. But now, quite a lot of the content and much of the tone of Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65, the Barbican’s exhibition of the art of the twenty years following the Second World War, seem very much of the moment.

This is a large scale exhibition timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the Barbican arts centre – the Barbican estate itself being a product of the bombardment of Cripplegate. Yep, it’s forty years of the most alienating space in London. But this exhibition makes a merit of the unique character of the place; as the catalogue puts it, it’s “an opportunity to see Brutalist works in a Brutalist space and, more broadly, extraordinary postwar art perfectly sited in an iconic postwar edifice”.

It is in fact the perfect use of the huge space here: Paolozzi’s disturbing, massy bronze figures – St Sebastian as you’ve never seen him – are planted out so you can see the clear cut shadows cast on the ground as part of the piece. The huge swooping birdlike figure of Lynn Chadwick’s The Fisheater can be seen from above as well as below. There are small scale pieces as well as large: nearby are Elizabeth Frink’s unsettling, indeterminate bird figures in bronze, suggestive of menace; of carrion crows.

Curators have chosen to exclude figures established before the war: no Graham Sutherlands, Barbara Hepworths, Henry Moores. Rather the artists included are figures more or less created by the war and by what followed. Francis Bacon, who features here in three disturbing – well, which Bacon isn’t? – studies of a man in a business suit, whose indeterminate face glows white in a sea of black, seemed in 1945 most vividly to sum up the nihilism of the age.

Francis Bacon’s Man in Blue I, 1954

/ The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2021

There are 48 painters, photographers and sculptors, of whom 21 came to Britain just before, during, or after the war. Many are Jewish, some from British territories abroad, many women. Their lives register displacement, violence, exile, war, alienation. Elizabeth Frankfurther, who fled Germany aged nine, and whose tender portrait of two West Indian waitresses in the Lyons Corner shop where she worked is proper people’s art, took her own life aged 29.

We get Eduardo Paolozzi and John Latham and Francis Newton Souza in the first room: monochrome, black. Souza is outstanding: his Mr Sebastian, a contemporary St Sebastian, is a black figure in a business suit, pierced by arrows. His untitled Head of a Man, is all black: the outlines barely discernible. The room is dominated by Latham’s Full Stop… an enormous black circle with a fuzzy edge suggestive of… an atom bomb?

The arguments in the art world of the time between figurative and abstract art seem not so much unresolved as beside the point. Both elements feature here. Victor Passmore’s Red Abstract No 5 is bold, red and pure. Leon Kossof’s landscapes aren’t depiction of places so much as of movement and of mood. His Willesden Junction is all thickly smeared brown lines in motion converging at the skyline. In much of the work you can see external influence from Europe, not least Jean Dubuffet. Lucian Freud features here too, in portraits of his first and second wives; they seem ill at ease.

Big Bird, 1965 by Frank Bowling

/ Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021

But it’s not all alienating. The photographs here convey something of the gaiety and stoicism of the time; there’s a cheerful Passport to Pimlico aspect to Bert Hardy’s depictions of children playing on bombsites. But that’s postwar Britain: upbeat as well as fearful. The human condition, only more so.

Barbican Art Gallery, March 3 to June 26,

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