Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 at the Barbican
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 is, as the name suggests, an exploration of art produced in Britain during the twenty years after the Second World War, bringing together around 200 paintings, photographs and sculptures from 48 artists. In particular, the exhibition focuses on new modes of artistic expression in the wake of the war, assessing movements that emerged from the socio-political rubble and featuring work from artists at formative stages of their creative development.
Divided into fourteen themed sections, Postwar Modern is a comprehensive examination of the effects of WWII on the British cultural psyche. Ideas of creation and destruction are played with in many works, such as Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” pieces, representing a country on the verge of a massive cultural shift.
The show clearly depicts the disruption of identity and self in the wake of the war, and many of the exhibits on display deconstruct and reinterpret the human form in visceral and striking ways, perfectly and painfully communicating the way the conflict stripped even the basest notions of stability from those who survived it. Things that were mundane and ordinary were rendered alien and unsettling, and a lot of the artwork conveys a dissolution of “ordinary” as a concept.
Many of the exhibition’s pieces are by immigrants, and it’s fascinating to see the various ways their works recontextualise Britain itself, charting the emergence of a fragile new society from the remains of the old. Of course, considering the collective trauma that birthed it, this new world is a complicated one, but Postwar Modern does a great job of highlighting the various ways that new artists were able to salvage the cultural and societal detritus of post-war and forge new meaning and purpose from it. It’s experimental, it’s emotional and it’s powerful.
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 is a thought-provoking and deeply engaging look at a society attempting to find itself in the aftermath of a great tragedy, but it’s also a glimpse into the unifying human experience that can survive even a conflict like the Second World War – life, loss and love are on display here as much as socio-political upheaval and cultural shifts. “New” is the primary theme, but in showing what was created from the war it also highlights the important, universal things that survived it.
Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 is at from 3rd March until 26th June 2022. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.