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


Exhibition and catalogue: James Hyman

Frank Auerbach, Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Ivon Hitchens, Peter Lanyon, Henry Moore, William Scott and William Turnbull

ISBN 0-9540606-7-9

This publication is available from the gallery, priced at £10.00


Different Ways of Seeing:

a reassessment of post-war British art
James Hyman

The Middle Ground

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) the derivation of this form in a response to the land is alluded to in the verdant 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 land 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 the work of Henry Moore 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. Since then, however, this coexistence of extremes has been too little acknowledged, as studies of the period have tended to focus on either abstraction or figuration. 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 art in post-war Britain.

As with so many national cultures, Britain's art of the post-war period lay somewhere between the twin sirens of Paris and New York, a local Modernism with national roots that was, initially at least, addressed to a domestic audience. Although many of the leading British artists of this period exhibited in Europe and America during the 1950s and 1960s, it is within a national context that their radicalism is perhaps best understood. In a time and place where little was known firsthand of Dubuffet and Giacometti until the mid 1950s and almost nothing of Rothko or Pollock until later that same decade, Scott's table-tops, Auerbach's landscapes, Heron's floating colours and Davie's drips appeared all the more innovative.

The achievements of artists active in Britain are all the more apparent when one considers the distinct qualities of each artist, rather than the extent of their engagement with an agenda set in New York. To do this, it is instructive to move away from the perception of two poles - abstraction and figuration - to consider, instead, a continuum of responses to imagery and mark-making. As I argued in my book, The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War, Modernist realism was at least as radical as any abstraction. Distanced by time from an artistic discourse structured by the polarised dogmatism of the Cold War, Modernist realism and abstraction must necessarily be seen as part of the same high Modernist phenomenon of prioritising the artist's mark-making. Viewed in this way one can recognise that the most radical British art of this period was part of a continuum. This continuum represented 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. The importance of notions of embodiment, of the paint as an equivalence to the subject is 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 calligraphic heads, and to comprehend the connections between the bloody terrain of Francis Bacon's smeared bodies and the meatiness of Alan Davie's embedded forms. An elemental continuum, this is an art of the sea and the sky, of blood and earth, air and sand that includes the materiality of Auerbach, Scott and Frost in the first half of the 1950s and the airiness of Davie, Bacon and Lanyon in the second half of the decade.

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. The immediacy of each mark conveys a physical sensation: 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 the 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 Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, and his advocacy of British artists, especially in seminal readings of Ivon Hitchens and Peter Lanyon, saw him champion 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 (1951): 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.

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 presented 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), for example, is ostensibly abstract and illustrates how in Heron's most successful paintings of this period the forms melt into one another as they do in the paintings he admired by Rothko. However, 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 the same year as he painted 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 a strong formal sense allied to a response to the visual world led Heron to extol the virtues of Cubism as an art that gave equal precedence to the materiality of the painting and the immediacy of the object, directly linking this art form to the latest post-war French and British painting: '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.
and Matter
In the late 1940s a phenomenological concern with the form in 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. Klee's ideograms of movement in space were a particular stimulus to abstraction in Britain and were given a psychological charge as Masson, Giacometti and Bacon used movement, whether actual or implied, to suggest the vulnerability of the human body. However, by the mid 1950s this Modernist priority began to be overlaid by a new emphasis on another Modernist concern: surface. In painting this was typified by Nicolas de Stael's use of a palette knife and Jean Dubuffet's relief-like surfaces and in sculpture by the opened out forms found in the abstracted bodies of Germaine Richier and César. The assertiveness of these surfaces was a stimulus to abstraction, but read as the subject's 'skin' they could also be read as analogous to an attack on the body. In such cases a prioritising of central aspects of Modernism could be presented both as an affirmation of the abstract credentials of a work and at the same time as a means of providing a jolting engagement with the contemporary world.

Nicolas de Stael provided an exhilarating example of the balance that might be achieved between abstract and figurative impulses, perceived not as a sign 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'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.impact of French painting and especially de Stael is well illustrated by Terry Frost's paintings of 1954-55. Some of the most heavily worked of his career, such paintings share with those of de Stael a marriage of heavy impasto with abstraction from nature. Frost was always at pains to emphasise the basis of his abstraction in experience and observation, however transformed this might be through the act of painting. 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 paintings from this formative moment allow one to trace the nature of Frost's engagement with the external world. In Blue and Red (Harbour) (1954-55), the stimulus is clearly the harbour with lozenges tracing the forms of the fishing boats. However, in Brown and Yellow (Harbour) (1954-55) 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.

Meanwhile, in the case of William Scott's painting the impact of visiting de Stael's exhibition at Matthiesen's 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 a body or landscape, without recourse to description, illustration or narrative is especially evident in Scott's table-figures of 1952-56, one of the earliest of which is Still Life with Coffee Pot II (ochre and black)(1952-53). This small group of paintings well illustrates the artist's refusal to categorise his work as either abstract or figurative.

Another artist stimulated by de Stael's Matthiesen exhibition was Frank Auerbach in whose early imaging the appreciation of the art work as a language in need of decoding is taken to an even greater extreme. His major early landscape Primrose Hill (1954-55) engages with both the latest abstraction, with its prioritising of the surface, and with the latest realism, 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 very first essays on Auerbach, Sylvester used observations about the formal properties of the paint to make assertions about the work's realism: 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.was not a middle-ground compromise. It was the position from which much of the most radical art in Britain would spring, opening up new possibilities for the artist. Increasingly new stimuli would emerge through the activities of the ICA, the Independent Group and 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 multifarious stimuli for an artist, the notion of a world as a repository of signs and symbols there for the artist's appropriation. An openness to diverse sources 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, especially 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 cave paintings, tribal art, the art of children and the insane and 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 by 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 might include fish in an aquarium, the extraordinary form of a lobster, the cave paintings at Lascaux and Egyptian and cycladic figures in museums. In a loose series of often life-size paintings and watercolours on paper entitled Calligraphic Heads (1954-55), 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. This challenge saw new languages of painting, a new openness to diverse sources, a new internationalism, a new attitude to finish that disregarded notions of belle peinture in favour of an art brut. This, declared Alloway, was no compromised middle way. This was an entirely new mind set. It was nothing less than a new set of aims and values. Radical and extreme, this was the challenge of post-war painting.

Alloway 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. He reinforced this in a subsequent exhibition, Abstract Impressionism (Arts Council, 1958), in which he 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 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 Pierre Rouve, his colleague on Art News and Review, categories were fast breaking down as figurative as well as abstract artists were emphasising the paint itself. As early as 1952, at the time of that year's 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. This is especially well illustrated by the paintings of Alan Davie.

Davie's paintings of this period may 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 (1956) contains references to crustaceans and despite the grand proportions, marries the meatiness of the snails with impressions of their shells that is also suggestive of the frottages of Max Ernst. Meanwhile, in an important small group of paintings entitled Woman Bewitched by the Moon (1956), Davie alludes to Picasso and the atavistic energy of his Three Dancers (1925).

Davie's status was confirmed by his retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958, one of the first to be held of an artist so early in their career. This provided critics with the evidence 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 erupted in British painting since the war. One of the works which dominated was Creation of Eve (1957), one of the largest canvases Davie had ever painted. Possessing a scale and format reminiscent of Monet's sublime late waterlily paintings, Creation of Eve well indicates Davie's rivalry with the painting of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Here was a British painter at the forefront of the international avant-garde, his work as much at home in European capitals as in New York.

Figurative Action-Painting
The use of evocative, expansive gestures in the realisation of forms in a state of flux allied Alan Davie not just to achievements in New York but also, closer to home, to concurrent paintings by Peter Lanyon and Francis Bacon. In all three artists' work of the later 1950s there is a constant slippage as forms coalesce and deliquesce as though caught in a vortex.

Francis Bacon's attempts to free his colour and to loosen his paint handling in works from the later 1950s, most famously in a series based on Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1957), echo Davie's paintings of the preceding years, such as Woman Bewitched by the Moon (1956), whilst other works by Bacon 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.

Bacon would have been extremely aware of these paintings, not least since he lived and worked in St Ives for four months, from September 1959 to mid January 1960. The lessons Bacon learnt about colour and its application whilst in St. Ives would dramatically transform his work, leading two of its most distinguished champions to present his figuration in terms of the latest Abstract Expressionism. The director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein, heralded Bacon as a sort of figurative action-painter working under the spell of the unconscious and Philip James, director of the Arts Council, writing of Bacon's latest paintings, declared that technically this intuitive approach is entirely in keeping with the present mood of the contemporary movement in non-figurative painting.Meanwhile in St Ives, Peter Lanyon's most important paintings continued to explore the combining of a tactile response to landscape with buried or partially buried suggestions of the human form. In St Just (1953), one can decipher on the left the rib cage of a standing figure with arms outstretched and on the right a second figure, its legs and arms open wide, and by the later 1950s Lanyon had taken this reference even further so that in a small number of these works, most notably Beach Girl (1961), sexualized references to the female body combine with references to the land, the coast and the sea.

One stimulus was Ivon Hitchens, as Heron recognised in an early assessment of the two artists' work. Contrasting Hitchens' use of the single perspective of the single, static viewpoint 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. Recognition of this phenomenological dimension to Lanyon's abstracting from nature led Heron to present the combination of areas of abstraction inspired particularly by Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson with more representational aspects stimulated by the coast and land of Cornwall as a sort of hide-and-seek with nature. The result, as in Moore's response to the body and the land, avoided description by using allusion and metamorphosis: 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.Heron, Ivon Hitchens was in many respects the most important English painter now living 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.

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 and this bringing together of landscape, still life and human elements reached an apotheosis in Ivon Hitchens' monumental Fountain of Acis (1964), one of the largest and most ambitious canvases the artist ever attempted.

Painted in the aftermath of Arts Council exhibitions of Modern Art in the United States (1956) and The New American Painting (1959), as well as exhibitions of American art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Fountain of Acis shows Hitchens raising his game. One of the most extraordinary paintings of his entire career, Fountain of Acis affirms Hitchens' status at the forefront of recent international as well as national trends as well as making a powerful statement about contemporary painting: colour and form are freed from a merely descriptive function yet Hitchens shows that the subject remains indispensable, not just as a starting point but as a crucial aspect of the finished painting. The subject matter, scale and dimensions of Fountain of Acis all created new challenges for Hitchens, challenges that led the artist 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 Henry Moore's Festival Figure a decade earlier, Ivon Hitchens' Fountain of Acis highlights the fertility of this abstract-figurative continuum. Along with the other major paintings in this exhibition these works emphasise how some of the most powerful British art sprang from this critically neglected terrain. This was art that engaged with Modernism, yet had its own frames of reference, 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.

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