By confrontations, on 28 August 2022
By Juliane Debeusscher
Among the exhibitions we visited, “Postwar Modern. New Art in Britain 1945-1965” offered a fresh set of reading keys to the exceptional cultural ferment of these two decades in Britain, against a backdrop of post-war reconstruction, the disintegration of the British colonial empire and the ever-present atomic threat. The exhibition’s curator and head of visual arts at Barbican, Jane Alison, accompanied us at the outset and introduced the exhibition, which pays tribute to the intense vitality of this new art she describes as “rough poetry”, borrowing the expression from the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in reference to brutalism. The first room, which brings together works by three artists differently marked by emigration and colonial experience (John Latham, Eduardo Paolozzi and Francis Newton Souza), is a perfect introduction to the exhibition’s overall attempt to take into account the geopolitical and migratory dynamics of the period and how they may have resonated in artistic practices.
I particularly appreciated the willingness to highlight the contributions of artists whose experiences of exile, emigration and settlement in a country undergoing reconstruction are emphasised, as well as the choice of thematic nodes that bring to the fore large-scale social and political situations, likely to enter into dialogue with other contexts, and the very specific responses of the artists, grounded in local practices and narratives. The strong focus on women is also significant, as is the attention given to a register of intimate and domestic relationships. “Postwar Modern. New Art in Britain 1945-1965” is undoubtedly a major contribution to the reading of these decades from a more pluralistic perspective that captures the diversity of British society and the cultural practices that developed during this period. In the context of the Confrontations project, it enriches the artistic panorama of the post-war period in Europe, of which we have had numerous insights during our previous encounters, and provides an opportunity for further comparative exercises.