Take British art in the 1950s: what were the links between the ICA and the CIA? Which British artist and theorist preferred Soviet Statist art, even after Stalin’s excesses became apparent, to the “decadence” of American “individualism”? When was the plug pulled on the “kitchen-sink” painters?
Such questions are ably answered in Mr Hyman’s stimulating examination of that seemingly far distant decade when the Cold War came of age. Many of its struggles and diatribes might seem picayune or ferociously oversized to our era of multifaceted, globalised problems; an almost nostalgic simplicity hangs over that period of dual-superpower antagonism, when the “enemy” was obvious, as it were.
Mr Hyman is careful not to judge with hindsight (any more than he says the extant protagonists do; interviewing them, he found himself surprised at the rigour of their vituperation half a century later) and this restores to readers the actuality of concerns at the time.
Commencing with 1930s sources and wartime impulses, the defining characteristic of British art is seen to be a pragmatic involvement with the world as it is, bifurcated into emphasis on pictorial modes (“Modernist Realism”) or on socio-political agitation (“Socialist Realism”). “Art as either ends or means” might be the shorthand for this struggle, fought out as much between the two rival realist camps as between the “real” enemy of abstraction and in particular American Abstract Expressionism.
European influence is here very well illustrated, with Renato Guttoso restored to prominence as flag-bearer for a politically committed art with humanitarian themes. The Italian’s self-confidence was the result of the huge support the Italian Communist party enjoyed; its British counterpart had nugatory returns from 1951 onwards, when Conservative governments held sway despite disasters like Suez.
The embattled sense is conveyed by the chapter headings as well as the title: “The combatants”; “Mobilisation”; “Conflict”: the circus masters (or “generals” as the author prefers to call them) for the British art scene at the time were David Sylvester, spokesman for “genius”, individualism and (to cite his title for Baconiana) the “brutality of fact”. Interiority was the key to artistic motivation; phenomenology, existentialism pervading through Giacometti and then Henry Moore (“a god”) reached an apotheosis in Bacon’s caged traumas. These reflected the angst of the times, but were also transcendental to it.
The near opposite stance was taken by John Berger, who saw art in the service of the revolution rather than as involved in the intangibles of genius and inspiration, all too often deployed to satiate the bourgeois market. Social observation that was not, however, photographic reportage was a major goal of Berger’s thesis: Sickert (whom Mr Hyman considers only nominally a British artist) was a great precursor, just as Guttoso and then the so-called “kitchen-sink” group (including John Bratby) were standard-bearers in the present. All share a histrionic component in their work more extrovert than the previous groupings.
The leading painters (the “rehabilitated” Wyndham Lewis, Graham Sutherland, the London School—Kossoff, Auerbach, Freud, and Michael Ayrton) as well as less renowned figures, such as Derrick Greaves and Edward Middleditch, are informatively delineated; the journals, such as Encounter, with its US backing, and the galleries (all the important exhibitions of the period are contextualised, from the ICA’s to the Venice Biennale’s) expand the topic into the artistic-political hinterland with a panache that removes any sense of hoary old history.
The tensions conveyed by the CIA-fomented competition for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner (1953) regain their electricity in the face of Soviet repression in Eastern Europe, while the bureaucratic paranoia surrounding the Communist Picasso’s visit to Britain to speak at the Sheffield Peace Conference in 1950 becomes slightly less laughable as the Korean War breaks out.
Amusing incidental details show how much the times have changed: artists from Yorkshire being entertained at Bertorelli’s in order to introduce them to European “Social Realism” grumble that the place “isn’t very English”.
Both faces of Realism were hostages to fortune, both politically and economically. American Abstract Expressionism gained the upper hand by the end of the decade, while Soviet praxis, for all its theorising, produced only mediocre results, paralysed by censorship and centralised control.
Yet to claim that British realism was left rudderless because Berger and Sylvester both decamped (the former to the Alps, the latter to the delights of American culture) is perhaps too simplistic; while Berger was elegiac about his stance as early as 1959, the painters nurtured their response to a world unswayed by fashion. It may be a fault, but, as Auerbach’s recent Royal Academy show revealed, his work has changed relatively little in half a century; radical rebels are now doyens of academic probity.
This book’s more specific importance is the light it sheds on a now obscure vein of artistic production, that often took the form of magazine illustration (therefore close to “ephemera”) and re-illuminates the “kitchen-sink” artists and their motivation. Much of their work is drab and seamy, but the sincerity stands out and was a necessary corrective to the wilful escapist fantasising of the neo-Romantics who preceded them, and the attractive, but often hollow, world of Pop that occluded them, as the bourgeois capitalism they loathed triumphed with Macmillan’s smug “You’ve never had it so good”.
Whether the overall quality of work by the first-class second-raters in Britain in the Fifties is actually able to challenge production in Paris and New York, as nationalists here might fervently wish, is not, in the end, a clearly proven case, but the search and scrutiny Mr Hyman involves us in is ample reward in itself.
Perhaps it is a sign of our times that the twin peaks of Berger and Sylvester are given such prominence here, with the artists deployed as sometimes dumb satellites around these flaring stars; commentary on the artist threatened to overwhelm whatever they might have thought of things themselves, (the norm these days). Yet was this how it was perceived in the 1950s, 45 years before the apotheosis of curator rather than creator?
James Hyman, The battle for Realism: figurative art in Britain during the Cold War, 1945-60 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001), 264 pp, 150 b/w ills, 50 col. ills, £45 (hb) ISBN 0300090897
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘When the Cold War was hot'