Essays by James Hyman

The Challenge of Post-War Painting: New Paths for Modernist Art in Britain

The Challenge of Post-War Painting: New Paths for Modernist Art in Britain


The Middle Ground
Essay by James Hyman

For the Festival of Britain in 1951, Henry Moore created one of the major sculptures of his career. A reclining figure that abstracted both from the voluptuous female body and from the hills and valleys of the English landscape, Festival Figure was a powerful new form that married both figuration and abstraction. In a large, related watercolour Sculpture in Landscape (1951) (plate x) the derivation of this form in a response to the land is alluded to in the lush greens of the English countryside that help situate the reclining figure. The twin origins of this piece in a response to the figure and to the English landscape would be a leitmotif of much of the most radical British art of the ensuing years, inspiring new forms of realism and pushing abstraction in new directions.

The coexistence of these two extremes in Moore's work also encapsulates something less often recognised, that abstraction and figuration were not simply polarised extremes but might also exist simultaneously in a single work. As Henry Moore's example illustrates the possibilities of this third way, a way that was neither 'pure abstraction' nor 'neo-realism' preoccupied both artists and critics in the years after the Second World War. This coexistence of extremes has been too little acknowledged, obscured by the dogmatism of the period, yet as this exhibition and publication demonstrate, far from representing a 'middle ground' compromise between the creation of new modernist idioms and the restraining forces of conservative taste, from such soil grew much of the most innovative post-war art in Britain.

If one is to use British art of the pos-war period as a case study, one can see that as with so many national cultures, its art lay somewhere between the twin sirens of Paris and New York, a local modernism, framed as radical for consumption as part of a local history. Although many of the leading British artists of this period, included in the present exhibition, exhibited in Europe and America during the 1950s and 1960s, it is within a national context that their radicalism is best understood. In a time and place where little was known first hand of Dubuffet and Giacometti until the mid 1950s and almost nothing of Rothko or Pollock until later that same decade, Scott's tables, Auerbach's landscapes, Heron's floating colours and Davie's drips appeared all the more innovative.

In doing so it is perhaps better to move away from the perception of two poles - abstraction and figuration - to propose instead a continuum of responses to imagery and mark-making. As I argued in my study of the art of the post war period, The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War , realism could be as radical as any abstraction. Indeed distanced by time from an artistic discourse structured by the polarised dogmatism of the Cold War, it is far easier to view modernist abstraction and figuration as part of the same high modernist phenomenon of prioritising the artists mark-making. In so doing, one can recognise that the most radical British art of this period was part of a continuum, a continuum of attempts to explore the potentiality of paint on canvas, the results of which, whether abstract or representational, took different ways of seeing the external world as their prime stimulus.

To perceive this art as part of a continuum is to appreciate a host of often overlooked connections that shine light on the individual intentions of each artist. In recognising the importance of notions of embodiment, of the paint as an equivalence to the subject, is to allow connections, for example, between the bloody terrain of Francis Bacon's smeared forms and Peter Lanyon's later bodily landscapes or to appreciate the relationship between Frank Auerbach's abject landscapes, William Scott's figural still-lifes, Terry Frost's quayside abstractions and William Turnbull's symbolic heads. Viewed as an elemental continuum one can appreciate the fluidity and airiness of Bacon and Lanyon of the later 1950s with their eloquent sweeps of a loaded brush and recognise a common earthy materiality in the worried surfaces of Auerbach, Scott and Frost.

It is also possible to recognise that just as the abstraction of St. Ives drew from the visual world, so the realism of London was indebted to certain Modernist tropes, such as the prioritising of the artist's marks and the use of thick paint applied with a loaded brush. Furthermore, it is not just the approaches to mark-making and the creation of expressive personal languages of applying paint to canvas that bring these artists together but also the sense that the subject itself has been experienced through touch; the touch of the brush, the sweeps and swirls of paint, the drips and dabs of colour, all convey physical sensations: caressing skin, grasping a body, climbing a hill, swimming in the sea, gliding in the sky.

In charting this terrain, a starting point is provided by a variety of differently conceived notions of a central position, a middle ground or third way. This permissiveness about an art that was indebted to both abstraction and realism helped provide a soil for new ambitions. The extent to which this idea preoccupied critics and artists in the first years after the Second World War, is exemplified by the writing and painting of Patrick Heron at the start of the 1950s and the writing and curating of Lawrence Alloway in the middle of the decade. Heron's response to a range of French artists, including George Braque, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, and his advocacy of British artists, especially in seminal readings of Ivon Hitchens and Peter Lanyon, saw him advocating an art that might hold in check the extremes of, on the one hand, pure abstraction and, on the other, the fallacy of realism. As Heron wrote in January 1950 if the middle way between pure abstraction and abject representation can once more be strengthened in both England and France, there is a hope for modern painting; we should then escape the new academicism, now threatening, the academicism of mechanical abstraction. Heron elaborated on this in one of his most powerful early essays, Bonnard and Visual Reality: The special realm of art, the visual realm, has been increasingly ignored. Painting.... has jettisoned its birthright, which is the imaginative interpretation of the infinitely suggestive, infinitely complex texture of visual reality, the reality of the eye. Painting is no longer a window through which we may see familiar sights, but see them afresh because they have been distorted, and given a new twist or accent, by a process that is one of translation not reproduction. (check quote)

Heron was rare in the sophisticated ways in which he differentiated between different forms of abstraction and in the ways in which his own practises as writer and painter during the 1950s and 1960s present a series of different takes on abstraction. But what remained at their core was a belief in the necessity for a basis in the visual world. Blues with Brown Area (1962) (plate x), for example, is ostensibly an abstract painting which indicates how at times Heron did succeed in allowing his forms to melt into one another as they did in the paintings he admired by Rothko. Yet even in so abstract a work, the motivation for Heron was not spiritual, transcendental or existential as it was for Rothko, but remained perceptual, prosaic and external. As Heron explained, in a personal manifesto, written at about the same time as Blues with Brown Area, colour sensations were based on observation: One reels at the colour possibilities now; the varied and contrasting intensities, opacities, transparencies; the seeming density and weight, warmth, coolness, vibrancy, or the superbly inert 'dull' colours - such as the marvellously uneventful expanses of the surface of an old green door in the sunlight. Or the terrific zing of a violet vibration ... a violent violet flower, with five petals, suspended against the receptive furry green of leaves in a greenhouse! ... Certainly I can get a tremendous thrill from suddenly seeing two colours juxtaposed - anywhere, indoors or out.

This combination of strong formal sense allied to a response to the visual world, led Heron to extol the virtues of Cubism, to draw particular attention to the materiality of the application of paint and give equal weight to the formal and the representational aspects of the work. This legacy of Cubism would for Heron be a leitmotif, too, of postwar British as well as French art: 'Cubism, in its love of the concrete, extols paint, canvas, paper, chalk as well as wine-glasses, tables and guitars. This sensuous love of the material is of paramount importance to Soulages, de Stael and - over here in England - to William Scott, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Victor Pasmore and Terry Frost.'

Heron's starting point may have been a response to French painting, especially that of its elders, but as he himself recognised for young painters in France and Britain the frontiers between abstraction and figuration were growing ever more permeable.

Form and Matter
In the late 1940s a phenomenological concern with space dominated the writing of French and British writers from Michel Leiris to David Sylvester, inspired by such artists as Paul Klee, André Masson and Alberto Giacometti. However, by the mid 1950s one Modernist priority had began overlaid by another, as a new emphasis was placed on the painted surface typified by de Stael's use of a palette knife and Dubuffet's use of paste to create relief-like surfaces.

Nicolas de Stael's London exhibitions at Matthiesen in 1952 and at Tooths and the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956 had a profound impact in Britain. As John Berger declared in 1956 de Stael is the new hero of the art world. De Stael provided an exhilarating example of the balance that might be achieved between abstract and figurative impulses, perceived not as assign of crisis but as an affirmation of the fertility of the middle ground that Heron had previously proposed in his response to Bonnard: in de Stael the double function of fine painting is always apparent: each form, each area of paint is both itself (an area of paint) and, at the same instant, the communication of illusion - the almost tangible illusion of forms in space - out there! before your very eyes!

Nicolas de Stael appears to have had a profound effect on Terry Frost, whose paintings of 1954-55 are the most heavily worked of his career and share with de Stael a marriage of heavy impasto with abstraction from nature. (plate) Frost was always at pains to emphasise the basis of his abstraction in experience and observation, however transformed this might be though the act of painting, and Margaret Garlake has characterised him as the 'most undeviatingly perceptual' of the St Ives Modernists'. Nevertheless, the fact that he was able to combine allusions to sea and landscape, to Cornwall and Yorkshire, in a single painting suggests the fluidity of his language. Two related paintings allow one to trace the nature of this engagement with the external world. In Blue and Red (Harbour) (1954-55), (plate x) the stimulus is clearly the harbour with lozenges tracing the forms of the fishing boats. However, in Brown and Yellow (Harbour) (1954-55) (plate) the forms of the harbour remain, but the blues and greens of the sea are overlaid with the ochres, browns, reds and golds of the land as the artist suggests the fields of Yorkshire and swirling forms allude to sheep-tails.

In the case of William Scott the impact of visiting de Stael's exhibition at Matthiesens in London in February 1952 appears more evident than that of the artist's 1953 visit to America, where he was one of the first British artists to meet Pollock, Kline, Rothko and de Kooning. Lessons about the ways in which the handling of matter could suggest the presence of body or landscape, without recourse to description, illustration or narrative is especially evident in Scott's table-figures of 1952-56. In one of the earliest of these, Still Life with Coffee Pot II (1952-53) (plate), the bound in forms, constrained by heavy contours and the tactile quality of the thickly applied paint also suggest the legacy of Dubuffet's earthy surfaces, rather than the airy lucidity of so much American painting. In keeping with this Scott was never wholly comfortable with describing his work as either abstract or figurative. Indeed even in one of the seminal publications on abstraction of the 1950s, Scott was cautious in accepting the abstraction of his work. I cannot be called non-figurative while I am still interested in the modern magic of space, primitive sex forms, the sensual and the erotic, disconcerting contours, the things of life.

Another artist stimulated by de Stael's Matthiessen exhibition was Frank Auerbach in whose early imaging the appreciation of the art work as an evocative language of signs in need of decoding is taken to an even greater extreme. His major early landscape Primrose Hill (1954-55) (plate x) engages both the latest abstraction, with its prioritising of the surface and with figuration in its obsessive attempt to grasp the subject. Occupying a space between Dubuffet's 'haute pates' and Giacometti's obsessive scrutiny, Primrose Hill, is a powerful demonstration of this third way: a fusion of formal and realist extremes recognised by David Sylvester in one of the first responses to the artist in which he wrote that in this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity, the pliancy of paint. Here at last is a young painter who has extended the power of paint to re-make reality. So excited was Sylvester that he declared the show to be the most impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon's in 1949.

This was not a middle-ground compromise but the position from which much of the most radical art would spring, opening up the possibilities for the artist. Increasingly new stimuli would emerge through the activities of the ICA, the Independent Group and extraordinary associated individuals, including the critic Lawrence Alloway, the architects, Reyner Banham and the Smithsons, and artists such as Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. Their work showcased a genuinely radical appreciation of the mulitifarious stimuli for an artist, the notion of a world as a repository of visual stimuli, a field of signs and symbols there for the artist's appropriation. An openness to diverse sources, wherever they might come from, from high to low culture, revitalised art debates by consigning battles between abstraction and figuration to the past and suggesting new priorities.

ICA exhibitions played an important role, not least Opposing Forces in 1953 and a monographic show of Dubuffet in 1955. Dubuffet's bold forging of an art-brut that was free to draw from sources as various as tribal art, the art of children and the insane and sources from cave art to contemporary graffiti, was presented in a British context in terms that stressed its formal qualities. This was encouraged by Georges Limbour's catalogue essay for the ICA exhibition in which he declared that painting is matter rather than form. It is matter in the same way as the world is matter.

Underpinning such a reading of the art work was Michel Tapié's notion of un art autre, which was introduced to a British audience through the exhibition Opposing Forces at the ICA in 1953 , and the publication of an English translation of his essay, Un art autre in 1956. Tapié's un art autre and the related idea of informel or formlessness was emphatically contemporary, rejected tradition and undermined a separation between abstraction and figuration.

For William Turnbull 'formlessness' was achieved through a lucidity of mark-making that allowed a mark to be both itself and multi-evocative as in a celebrated series of heads in oil, watercolour or ink from 1954-55. Like his friends Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham, the artist was not interested in distinctions between abstract or figurative, or in ideas of high and low art. His visual stimuli could range from fish in an aquarium, the extraordinary form of a lobster, a visit to the cave paintings at Lascaux and seeing in museums Egyptian and cycladic figures. In a loose series of often life size paintings and watercolours on paper, entitled Calligraphic Heads (1954-55) (plates x,y) Turnbull sought to return to essentials by beginning with the pictorial language itself rather than the thing represented, addressing how marks and shapes could be used evocatively rather than descriptively. The looseness of the chosen media - whether paint, watercolour or ink - complemented the fluidity of Turnbull's treatment of a motif deliberately chosen as a format that could carry different loadings. Almost anything could be a head-and a head almost anything-given the slightest clue to the decoding The sort of thing that interested me was- how little will suggest a head, how much load will the shape take and still read head head as a colony head as landscape head as mask head as ideogram head as sign, etc ...'

New Trends in Painting

In New Trends in Painting, an Arts Council exhibition of 1956 Lawrence Alloway illustrated what he understood to be a fundamental shift in priorities that was sweeping across Europe, exemplified by the paintings of Karel Appel, Bram Bogart, Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, Sam Francis, Paul Jenkins, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Pierre Soulages. Elaborating on the significance of these artists in the accompanying catalogue essay, The Challenge of Post-War Painting, Alloway made only a passing, disparaging reference to the now academic quarrel between realism and non-figurative art and instead asserted that the artists in the show were concerned with neither alternative [realism or non-figurative art] ... What they want is something that is real as a painting, in which the physical qualities of paint have not been suppressed by a fixed idea of finish or elaborated to a point of excessive refinement. For Alloway this was no compromised middle way. It was an entirely new mind set. Nothing less than a new set of aims and values. Radical and extreme, this, for Alloway was the challenge of post-war painting.developed his ideas in a pioneering series of six essays entitled Background to Action that began in October 1957. In them he gave a comparable status to American and European artists by conflating the ambitions and achievements of Tachiste, Cobra and American Abstract Expressionists. Celebrating their shared endeavour since 1940 as action painters, Alloway claimed that they all had a new awareness of the physical means of painting [and] an existential definition of the artist.

In the subsequent exhibition, Abstract Impressionism (Arts Council, 1958), Alloway again found space for American as well as European artists. Including a wide range of international figures ranging from Nicholas de Stael to Sam Francis and Philip Guston, the exhibition also provided space for Ivon Hitchens, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, implicitly making claims for their natural place in the international vanguard.

In the catalogue to Abstract Impressionism Alloway wrote of the relationship between form and subject, declaring that allusions to nature, though important, are not allowed to disrupt the autonomy of the paint. So convincing was Alloway and so widespread this notion of freedom that one of the leading writers on art, Andrew Forge, could even write in another Arts Council exhibition that same year that the barriers between [...] abstract and realist tendencies [...] are not as hard as they used to be; artists feel free to cross them either way. They are united in a new interest in the painterly, paint itself and its manipulation. (This is perhaps the most important characteristic of the time).

For Alloway and his colleague on Art News and Review, Pierre Rouve, categories were breaking down as figurative as well as abstract artists were emphasising the paint itself. As early as 1952, at the time of that years Venice Biennale Herbert Read had written of a geometry of fear to be found in the work of young British sculptors , thereby conflating the formal and the psychological and now Pierre Rouve proposed that in contrast to American Abstract Expressionism, there was in Europe an Abstract Humanism . Meanwhile Lawrence Alloway championed a new permissiveness about references in abstract pictures to figures and landscapes.

Alan Davies's paintings of this period parallel those of Cobra artists such as Karel Appel, but in their complex structuring and indebtedness to pre-war French surrealism they also share concerns with Jackson Pollock. This is particularly evident in their shared interest in Jungian archetypes and the coexistence of partially buried references to the human body and to creatures whether real or imagined, whether from nature or mythology. Davie's Snail Elements (plate x)contains references to crustaceans and despite the grand proportions has an appropriately nacreous feel that is also suggestive of the frottages of Max Ernst. Meanwhile, an important small group of paintings entitled Woman Bewitched by the Moon (plate), there are allusions to Picasso and the atavistic energy of his Three Dancers.

It was such paintings that dominated Davie's retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958. This retrospective, one of the first to be held of an artist early in their career, provided the evidence for critics to suggest that Davie was the most important young artist at work in Britain: already of international reputationDavie is the most significant phenomenon which has irrupted in British painting since the war. It included Creation of Eve (plate), one of the largest and most ambitious canvases Davie had ever painted, whose scale and format recall Monet's sublime late waterlily paintings as well as indicating Davie's rivalry with the painting of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

More needed here

Figurative Action-Painting
The use of evocative, expansive gesture in the realisation of form in a state of flux allies Davie, Lanyon and Bacon, in each of whose work there is a constant slippage as forms coalescence and deliquescence as though caught in a vortex

Indeed Francis Bacon's attempts to free his colour and to introduce broader, more expansive gestures in his paintings of the later 1950s, most famously in a series based on Van Gogh's Painter (?) on the Road to Tarascon, possess echoes of Alan Davie's preceding paintings such as Woman Bewitched by the Moon (plate x), whilst other works of the later 1950s and early 1960s also have areas of paint handling that echo the lightness of Peter Lanyon's ethereal paintings of the same period.

Tellingly, for four months, from September 1959 to mid January 1960 Bacon lived in St. Ives. Almost nothing is known of this extended stay, but it is known that during it Bacon worked intensively, without the distractions of London, to produce twenty paintings, at least six of which survive.

Painted in the aftermath of the 1959 show of American painting, which Bacon visited, these paintings also show an awareness of the latest painting of Peter Lanyon and the lessons Bacon learnt about colour and its application whilst in St. Ives would dramatically transform his work, leading the Director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein to herald Bacon as a sort of figurative action-painter working under the spell of the unconscious and Philip James to provide this with an international context: technically this intuitive approach is entirely in keeping with the present mood of the contemporary movement in non-figurative painting.

Similarly, a number of Peter Lanyon's most important paintings combine a tactile response to landscape with buried or partially buried suggestions of the human form, perhaps most famously in St Just (1953), where on the left one can read the rib cage of a standing figure with arms outstretched and on the right a second figure, its legs and arms open wide. A small number of these works, most notably Beach Girl (plate x), take this even further to combine more overtly sexualized references to the female body with references to landscape, coast or sea.

Contrasting Hitchens' use of the single perspective of the single, static viewpoint of Hitchens with the way that Lanyon embodies the visual evidence of numerous viewpoints, Heron recognised that Lanyon always attempts to express a 'total experience' of landscape rather than merely a 'visual experience of it.' (p38). Recognition of this phenomenological dimension to Lanyon's abstracting from nature led Heron to characterise Lanyon's early works by their indebtedness to both abstraction, inspired particularly by Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson, and by the stimulus of the coast and land of Cornwall as a sort of hide-and-seek with nature. The result, as in Moore's work, allowed for references both to the body and to the landscape that placed analogy and metamorphosis at the heart of the artist's work: instead of keeping up the conviction of an external landscape, Lanyon seemed to allow his images to dissolve here and there into something quite different - into an analogy of bone overlapped by tendons, perhaps. (p.36)

For Heron, Ivon Hitchens was in many respects the most important English painter now living(p28) precisely because of this fusion of the figurative and the abstract: You are not made conscious of an object (the pine branch) and at the same time left unconscious of the actual paint that evokes it: that would be the fallacy of realism, which aims at an illusionistic rendering of natural appearances. Nor, on the other hand, are you conscious of some paint on canvas, but not conscious of the pine branch: that would be the fallacy of 'pure abstraction'. Instead you are conscious of the branch as paint. Hitchens is certainly always extremely concerned to communicate sensation - the sensation he experiences when contemplating a particular landscape for instance: but at the same time he is equally concerned to build up a distinguished architecture of abstract forms. (p31-34)

In 1950 Hitchens devoted a whole exhibition to the nude, leading Heron to praise works in which the subject had compelled a new formal invention (p.34) and this bringing together of landscape, still life and human elements reached an apotheosis with Hitchens's monumental Fountain of Acis (plate), one of the largest and most ambitious canvases the artist ever attempted.

Painted in the aftermath of two Arts Council exhibitions organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Modern Art in the United States (1956) The New American Painting (1959), Fountain of Acis suggests that Hitchens was raising his game to produce a painting which not only reasserted the status of this artist at the forefront of recent international as well as national trends but also made a powerful statement about contemporary painting whereby colour and form are freed from a merely descriptive function, yet still retain a basis in nature and in mythology. Its subject matter, scale and dimensions all created new challenges, challenges that led Hitchens to surpass his own small-scale work of this period and to push him to rival not only the epic ambitions of the latest American abstraction but also the liberating expanses of colour to be found in the recent paintings of Lanyon and Heron. Whilst retaining its roots in perception, in Fountain of Acis Hitchens gave the colours and marks a new resonant autonomy.

As powerful a statement of intent as Moore's Festival Figure a decade earlier, Hitchen's Fountain of Acis helps frame this discussion, highlighting the fertility of this abstract-figurative continuum. Along with the other major paintings in this exhibition these works emphasise the way that it was from such neglected terrain that sprang some of the most powerful British art of the post war period. This was art that engaged with modernism, an art that may have been most radical in a national context but could at its best challenge that of the great art centres of Paris and New York.

Garlake p.170 Middle ground painting.

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