The Battle for Realism

Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War 1945 - 60
James Hyman, 2001
The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War 1945 - 60
Dimensions: 28 x 23 cms
Pages: 272
ISBN: 0-300-09089-7
£ 45.00

Art historian James Hyman takes a fresh look at the crucial years after the Second World War when attempts were made to revive European culture and debates about the future of art were fierce. The author proposes that realism in Europe during the early Cold War years occupied a radical vanguard position and stood in opposition to the competing claims made for American Abstract Expressionism. He examines two distinct visions of realism - social realism and Modernist realism - and explores their political implications and ideological significance.

Hyman argues that this Battle for Realism shaped and internationalised British art and addresses a range of artists, from Modernist realists such as Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Moore and Sutherland to social realists Hogarth, de Francia and the 'kitchen-sink painters'. He also illuminates the impact of foreign and émigré artists on British culture, addressing artists such as Giacometti, Guttuso and Picasso, and examining the claims made for London as an art centre to rival the Ecole de Paris and the New York School. Hyman draws on contemporary critical writing to give fresh insights into the art debates of the period and gives new prominence to the central roles of the critics John Berger and David Sylvester.

Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.


"This book will oblige us to re-evaluate our readings of all art in the postwar period."
Margaret Garlake, author of New Art, New World: British Art in Post War Society

"Bacon and Freud, Berger and Sylvester - English painting and art criticism had an unforgettable cast list in the 1950s. James Hyman's exciting new book brings the art of that decade out of the chill of the Cold War and back to life... It will be fundamental to anyone looking at twentieth century art from the beginning of the twenty first century."
Christopher Green, Professor of the History of Art, Courtauld Institute, London

"James Hyman's excellent new book The Battle for Realism breaks fresh ground ... perhaps the greatest merit of Hyman's text is a determination to give Berger's realist opponents their rightful place... This reassessment is well overdue."
Richard Cork, The Times, 15 January 2002

"James Hyman's Battle for Realism is an important addition to the history of British art ... a meticulously researched and copiously illustrated book which aims to revise the perception of figurative realism as a conservative, even marginal, strand of art in the early Cold War era and to place it in the centre of British avant-garde practice."
Toby Treves, Burlington magazine, February 2002

"Hyman's stimulating examination of that seemingly far distant decade when the Cold War came of age ... amusing anecdotal details show how much the times have changed ... this book's more specific importance is the light it sheds on a now obscure vein of artistic production ... the search and scrutiny Mr Hyman involves us in is ample reward in itself."
James Malpas, The Art Newspaper, February 2002

"We all know what a nuisance the term `realism' is. Hyman gives a scholarly account of how, in 1950s Britain, two notions of what it should mean confronted each other in the work of two eloquent critics. It is an important book - a doctoral thesis enriched and confirmed by additional research. It is also well produced ."
Norbert Lynton, The Art Book, March 2002

"One of the many virtues of Hyman’s narrative is its understanding of the politics of history and the politics of art in a notably turbulent period… a deep comprehension of the time and culture that produced the work in question.
…Hyman has gathered together many blessedly unfamiliar illustrations in a classic Mellon-funded Yale University Press volume, which is a notable contribution to the scholarly history of art in Britain."
Tom Rosenthal, The Times, Higher Education Supplement, 3 May 2002

"The historiography of Francis Bacon's rise to critical prominence, and Sylvester's role in promoting him, is the most fascinating theme of Hyman’s book… The Battle for Realism claims Sylvester as the master of spin."
Robin Spencer, … Brit Art from the Fifties: the reality versus the myth, Studio International, May 2002

'Hyman's impressive achievement is to have contributed significantly to the depth and sophistication of our understanding of 50s art and its critical debates… his text is a model of research initiative and investigative thrust… The Battle for realism is clearly destined to become a standard text on the period.'
Adrian Lewis, … Realism: Bruising Bouts and Beyond, Art Monthly, October 2002


The Battle for Realism was nominated for the William MB Berger Prize for British Art History.