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Opinion

The gloom of war and poverty will find its way into the art of the future

An exhibition at the Barbican Centre evokes a postwar London that bore the scars of the conflict in unflinching detail

There must be a declining number of old art codgers like me, self-appointed historians, who when going to the City of London’s Barbican Centre find it still conjures up visions of the incredible burning buildings of Silk Street. Bombed in the Second World War and then revived as the largest arts centre of its kind in Europe in the early 1980s, the Barbican was a gift to the nation from the City of London.  

But the World War 2 reference is not wide of the mark when considering the brilliant new exhibition running at the Barbican until late June. Called Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965, it is a large exhibition featuring 48 artists, and it is well worth a good morning or afternoon’s visit. 

I knew most of the artists, having been at Chelsea School of Art in 1964-5 – not personally but through their reputations. But I had not before the Barbican show realised the significance of the recently ended war. Angst, destruction, works that could be stains on bombed buildings are much in evidence. Scrappings from a falling-apart world, and I could not stop myself thinking of the onslaught in Ukraine going on as we speak.  

One artist, seeming to grasp the angst of the time, had fascinated me in the mid-1960s when he took over the window from a dress shop called Jaeger in the King’s Road, Chelsea. He displayed piles of burnt books. I loved this apparently anarchic madness, but now on reflection it seems it was all a bit of a recovery job from the despoliations of Nazi Germany’s blitzkriegs. Perhaps even making art out of the books the Nazis burnt in mass bonfires when they first came to power. John Latham, the book-burning artist, is shown in the exhibition with – among others – an enormous full-stop painting. To me it looks more like a burnt-out sun.  

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Nearby are the sculptures and prints of a very interesting postwar artist who I got to know in the 1980s. Eduardo Paolozzi and I were friends until he accused me of surrounding myself with losers. Irrespective of such a slight, I remain a firm believer in the strange use he made of rubbish and pieces of broken wood in his sculptures. I would often walk down the road with him, and he loved nothing better than a good builder’s skip to salvage what to him was the art of tomorrow. 

Yes, there was a savagery in the art of that period, which was later dumped as people like David Hockney came along and drenched us all in Californian sun. In fact there are two early Hockneys that have the stained-walled effect shared by his older peers. And they are very beautiful, though lighter than some of the angsty artworks. I loved Hockney’s work when he first started, but increasingly I have understood what the Evening Standard art critic, the late Brian Sewell, meant when he said that “Hockney must be blind to paint like that.” My opinion is not quite as severe, but Hockney does always remind me of a very good illustrator or designer who uses colours almost to cheer you up. 

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There are great pieces of beauty in this show, though, so it’s not all gloom and doom; but neither is it all cakes and ale. Victor Pasmore has a vast work that looks a bit like a red heart not completely formed. Strictly abstract, Pasmore was highly thought of then, and has survived the decades well. But his use of reliefs made of Perspex does to me look naff, trying hard to look modern. 

But the star of the show must be the works of Leon Kossoff, whose painting of Willesden Junction is incredible to see in real life. I have seen it as an illustration in a book, but this was the best bit of postwar art I have seen in years. He lays the paint on with a plasterer’s trowel it seems, showing almost the presence of a place in its materiality. 

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There are some great photographs by Roger Mayne of the rubbished streets of postwar and bombed Britain. What people fail to understand though was how wretched and run down most working-class life was, even without the bombings. Ninety per cent of working-class housing was substandard from the 1930s way up until the 1970s. And Mayne captures this mayhem of dirt and decline with children happily playing among it all. I was pleased to see that Mayne’s photographs of postwar Britain included some from my wrecked slum childhood in Notting Hill. But there was joyousness even against the grim backdrop of poverty. 

Yes there was a grimness in the air, what with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. A kind of wreckage of war seemed to dominate way up until the colourful Sixties burst into song and brightness. I think, having lived through all the damage of life added to by war, I just slipped into this colourfulness, along with most of us who were young at the time.  

Perhaps there was a need for artists to cling on to that murderous war and make it their subject matter. Russia’s war against Ukraine may well bring us back to that time of angst-laden art again. For death and destruction will find its expressers.  

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 is showing until June 26. Tickets £18

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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