Essays by James Hyman

Fifty Years of Hurt: The legacy of the Battle for Realism

Fifty Years of Hurt: The legacy of the Battle for Realism


James Hyman
The Guardian
Saturday, 22 September 2001

They called it the battle for realism, and it wasn't a pretty sight. James Hyman follows British art's trail of violence from the tormented Bacon to the butcher Hirst

The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain During the Cold War (1945-60), by James Hyman, is published by Yale University Press at £45.

An exhibition to coincide with its publication was held at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London W1.


Why is it that the greatest art is also so often the most horrific? For every Vermeer interior, serenely suspended in time, there are hundreds of bloody crucifixions, violent rapes and terrible massacres. In Britain, horror was at the heart of two of the most important exhibitions of the past half-century. In 1949 the now defunct Hanover Gallery in London was filled with painting after painting of unremitting pain, in an exhibition that announced the arrival of Francis Bacon and heralded one of the most extraordinary success stories in 20th-century art. Despite the revulsion, Bacon would soon be feted as the most important British artist of the postwar period, and go on to exhibit at the Venice biennale. Soon, too, his paintings would be hung in elegant drawing rooms, and his personal torment celebrated as an artistic revelation of the human condition.

It was to be 40 years before another exhibition, Modern Medicine, even approached that visceral impact of Bacon's first one-man show. The venue was Building One, a rundown Bermondsey warehouse reminiscent of the sets for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. And the artist was Damien Hirst, who showed a rotting cow's head infested with maggots and surrounded by flies that were being zapped by an insect-o-cutor.

It is no coincidence that two of the most important artists since the second world war should both dramatise extremes of violence in an attempt to heighten our awareness of our own mortality. In fact, you could argue that the most important British art of the past 50 years has been preoccupied with the subject. It all started after the second world war - with what, at the time, was called the battle for realism. This all but forgotten struggle was one of the key moments in the history of British art.

At first glance, the situations then and now could hardly be more different. The inhumanity of the war years had cast a dark shadow over our lives. The world was polarised between Moscow and Washington, and Britain was struggling to establish a role for itself in a new world order. Yet it was from such infertile soil that the seeds grew for some of the seminal works and international success that British art has since enjoyed. For this was the moment, in the late 1940s, when a School of London was proposed for the first time, a challenge to the predominance of the Ecole de Paris and the New York School.

It was a challenge that saw British art elevated to a new status through the reputations gained by artists such as Bacon, Lucian Freud and Henry Moore. Their work was at the centre of a battle fought between two competing visions of realism: social or socialist realism, and modernist realism. Leading the two sides were two of the 20th century's greatest art critics: David Sylvester, the insider par excellence, and John Berger, a combative outsider.

Each critic had a hero. For Sylvester it was Bacon, for Berger it was Italian Renato Guttuso. Today, Berger's realism is almost invisible in our museums, but at the time was at the very forefront of British art. His was a realism concerned with finding, as Walter Sickert advocated, "poetry in the everyday", and was filled with such everyday subjects as Lowry's matchstick men and the domestic scenes of the kitchen-sink painters.

In contrast, Sylvester's realism addressed the human condition. It was fuelled by existentialism and inspired by Giacometti. The artist was a loner, a solitary genius revealing important truths - and from this side of the battle emerged the victors, from Bacon and Freud to Kossoff and Auerbach.

Half a century later it is difficult to capture the heat of this battle, its importance as a riposte to American abstract expressionism, and its role in intellectualising postwar British culture. It is difficult, too, to grasp the passionate conviction with which it was fought, a conviction fuelled by the belief that art really mattered.

Today, when so much art has become entertainment, serving a public hungry for sensation, and when the notion of high culture is attacked so routinely, it may seem misplaced to recall the high seriousness of that battle. Yet behind the headline-grabbing of Tracey Emin, or any of a dozen other young British artists, the indebtedness of today's leading artists to these postwar pioneers seems clear.

Rachel Whiteread's most powerful recent commission is her eerie Holocaust Memorial for the Judenplatz in Vienna. The Chapman brothers' most profound tableau, Hell (2000), also depicts the Holocaust. Anya Gallaccio's moving installation, a floor of 10,000 dying roses entitled Red on Green (1992), poetically traces death on a mass scale. For all the differences in medium, Hirst's boxed and butchered animals are surely the descendants of Bacon's paintings of man as meat, and Whiteread's impassive monuments the equivalents of Giacometti's stoic figures.

As modern artists continue to grapple with humanity's vulnerability in a violent world, they are creating a new realism that places them as heirs to the legacy of this earlier battle. Fifty years ago it was the chimneys of Auschwitz and the atom bomb plume at Hiroshima that prescribed the artistic struggle. Now, in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities in America, the battle for realism has assumed a chilling new resonance.

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