Published  10/05/2002

Brit Art from the Fifties: the reality versus the myth

Brit Art from the Fifties: the reality versus the myth

Just after the war, when France had Picasso and Matisse, Giacometti and Existentialism, and Britain could only summon up the shadows of the Ecole de Paris and the ghosts of surrealism, tutors at the Slade School of Fine Art in London strongly advised their students not to visit the Picasso and Matisse exhibition at the V & A. That was how modern art in Britain — the word ‘modernism’ was not in use until the 1960s — was regarded.


Critical interest in British art itself, if there was any at all, usually centred on disputes between realism and abstraction, or a nebulous characterisation between Left and Right, before America became the refuge for the avant-garde, and painting was more expansive, and pop and its conceptual successors went from strength to strength, with just a little bit of help from the Independent Group.

James Hyman’s The Battle for Realism shows that the truth about post war art in Britain was much more complex — and far more interesting. The ‘battle’ was never between realism and abstraction — always a cliché for artists anyway — but between different kinds of figurative art, and British artists (for ‘British’ read English) searching for the very soul of realism itself.

This is how the ‘battle’ was perceived by the ‘generals’, the critics David Sylvester and John Berger, at the head of their opposing factions. In Hyman’s account, David Sylvester represents the ‘realism of the imagination’, a liberal form of Modernist realism, based on Bacon, Giacometti and Existentialism and his early formalist interpretation of Klee. John Berger, the independent Marxist but non-Party member, represents variations on social and Socialist realism characterised by the ‘Kitchen Sink’ painters Bratby, Greaves, Middleditch and Smith, who exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery in the mid-1950s. Both critics fed off each other in their prescription for the future of realism, and shared common differences in their opposition to the art of their time. Both objected to most current French and American art, but for different reasons. Sylvester because he believed Paris-based art was played out (he initially thought that Dubuffet was a ‘con’) and American art because it was unoriginal and overdependent on its European sources. For Berger, both American and European modernism contained the seeds of decadence, had long forgotten its social responsibilities and had lost touch with its audience. The threat to freedom by the Cold War made the social and political responsibilities of the post war artist more onerous than they had ever been before. ‘In a period of cultural disintegration’, or ‘the decadence of the cultural situation’, are typical phrases Berger used to preface his art criticism in the Fifties. Yet art in post war Britain was not all as grey and monochrome as it is sometimes represented, which will have come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who visited ‘Transition; the London Art Scene in the Fifties’, the exhibition curated by Martin Harrison at the Barbican Gallery, in which most of Berger’s and Sylvester’s foot soldiers are on parade, together with their commissioned officers.

The idea of a ‘School of London’, as the American Kitaj liked to think of his English artist friends in 1976, or as a commercial ploy later used by exhibitions and galleries such as the Marlborough, was far away in the future. Yet as early as 1948, at a critical moment after the war when Paris is supposed to have been seceding its role as the world’s art capital to New York, Sylvester was writing about a ‘School of London’, which consisted of the pre-war generation of Moore, Nicholson, Hepworth and Lowry; as well as the group of Sylvester’s artist friends of his own generation who were then living in Paris, which included Bill Gear, Raymond Mason and Eduardo Paolozzi. After the war there were as many sorts of figurative art in London as there were painters, all ostensibly realists: a faction descended from Whistler and Sickert; the still-smouldering embers of Wyndham Lewis’s critical intelligence. The rival sensibilities of the Royal College and the Slade included survivors of the Euston Road School, Coldstream; neglected artists like Bomberg, with their coterie of followers; ‘foreigners’ like Auerbach and Kossoff, both critically neglected; and Bacon and Lucian Freud, then as unknown nationally and internationally as the rest. All these and many more, before American art was ever considered an aesthetic or a political issue, pursued variations on European realist styles of painting, capable of ideological and aesthetic grading from strict Party Socialist realism of the Stalinist sort, down to the tamest of figurative painting, in which, as in a Lowry, the cloth caps and even the industrial landscape could be more than a decade out of date. By unearthing long-forgotten periodicals, exhibitions obscure even when they were held, and reviews unread since the day of publication, together with an extensive correspondence with the artists concerned, Hyman is particularly good at demonstrating these various styles, their origins in the Thirties, their ideological shading, and how they became known to Berger and his English troops. Also documented is the importance of historians and theorists such as Antal and Klingender for the revival of interest in illustration and the 18th century Hogarth, as exemplified in the work and Communist Party campaigning of his modern realist namesake Paul Hogarth. Of the European schools, it was the Italian, and in particular Guttuso, who featured most prominently in Berger’s pantheon, and whose painting came closest to meeting his criteria for realism, exemplified in the pictures of Ayrton, Greaves, de Francia and Minton, as well as the Kitchen Sink painters.

Clearly, there never was a cohesive group of realists with a programme or manifesto. It’s true that the Kitchen Sink realists briefly held the stage, and that it was Sylvester, not Berger, who gave them their name. As artists they were more like rival individuals. The group was the invention of the British Council for the Venice Biennial of 1956, and afterwards fell apart to go its separate ways. In the 1950s the British Council was in search of a successor to Henry Moore to tour and show, for Moore was well on his way to becoming a national treasure, and no longer an inspiration for the younger generation. According to Berger, when he reviewed an exhibition of Moore, arguing that it revealed a falling-off from his earlier achievements, the British Council telephoned the artist ‘to apologise for such a regrettable thing having occurred in London’ (Permanent Red, 2nd edn. Methuen, 1969). What chance, then, for a flaky gay Irish artist of irregular personal habits with aspirations to the Grand Manner? 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.

In the last century the art critic became increasingly influential in establishing art’s importance; but its importance... for what? Its importance for dealers and entrepreneurs would be the answer today. But at the end of the last century but one, the influential idea Oscar Wilde promoted was that criticism could be as creative as art itself and share the same muse. Paradoxically, it was a painter who was responsible for originating the idea. It was conceived by Wilde in response to Whistler’s taunts that Wilde had plagiarised his theory of art. Sylvester may have wanted as much for his own criticism as Wilde did, for his cut-and-paste interviews with Bacon are as much his own creation, as his subject’s, if not more. But in his published writings Sylvester tacitly accepted Sickert’s dictum that a painter’s reputation could not be made by writers but only by other painters. Privately, like Whistler (from whom Sickert got the idea), Sylvester must have known this was only partly true. There is a passage towards the end of Sylvester’s transparently self-justificatory introduction to his own volume of collected art criticism about the need for the critic to square up to the reputation of Picasso, in which he speaks of ‘those of us who are not involved in the life-and-death struggle of the game of art but only in the sham heroics of the game of criticism’. In another passage in the same introduction, he states that the ‘attraction of serving on committees is that one can influence events — the purchase of works, the choice of artists for exhibition — far more than one can by writing in the press’ (About Modern Art, Chatto and Windus, 1996). What he is really saying is that bodies which spend your money and mine, like the Arts and British Councils, and galleries like the Tate, will always need critics like himself to help them endorse decisions taken in private, which they can afterwards broadcast and write about in public. Some game.

Sylvester played the game with increasing influence for nearly half a century. Part-critic, part-salesman of expensive carpets — and Bacons — hopefully the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Bacon's paintings will tell us more; for a time he shared a house with the artist. His writings on British art far outweigh in quantity what he wrote about American and European art, but the omission of so many of them from his collected criticism gives the misleading impression that the quota was equal. ‘I published at least a dozen eulogies of Bacon between 1950 and 1957,’ Sylvester wrote in 1996. ‘Though they include well-turned phrases... they are all somewhat spoilt by portentous rhetoric (which is why only one of them is reprinted here).’ The achievement of James Hyman is to have disinterred this rhetoric and deconstructed its code to reveal the Brit Modernist project of the Fifties for what it was, aesthetic and ideological warts and all.

But this aspect of the book should also come with an art-historical health warning. For the critically unwary, Hyman too often gives the misleading impression that Sylvester’s ideas were original and his own, whereas they were invariably derived directly from the work and ideas of his artist friends. Take, for instance, his so-called theory of ‘afocalism’, as developed in the two early essays of 1948 and 1950, and on which so much of his early formalist thinking was based. There is nothing in either essay about the viewer's relationship with the multifocus perspective of late Klee which could not be found in Bill Gear’s paintings: an interest shared also by William Turnbull during this period, as well as by Alan Davie, and similarly evident in their work. Sylvester knew all three. Other British artists also living in Paris, such as Raymond Mason, were already on close terms with Sartre and his circle and had absorbed the implications of Existentialism, upon which Sylvester drew heavily on his return to London. And it was Paolozzi whom Sylvester later acknowledged as being the first to draw his attention to Giacometti; ‘he educated me’ Sylvester said publicly about Paolozi’s role in his own appreciation of Giacometti. As with Giacometti, Paolozzi also knew Bacon before Sylvester did, and Sylvester’s account of Bacon’s use of news photographs and film stills owes a lot to the Independent Group, and in particular Paolozzi, for whom the mass media has always been a ‘metaphor’ for something else. This became Sylvester’s most favoured discourse for presenting Bacon. In ‘Transition’ there is a fascinating display case showing the press cuttings Sylvester used for a lecture about ‘New Realism’ given at the Royal College of Art in 1952. They consist of the front page of the Daily Express for 4 October 1952, with the first pictures of the atom bomb exploding, the new Queen at the funeral of George VI, and images of Lord Beaverbrook from a television transmission.

The Battle for Realism claims Sylvester as the master of spin. Sylvester worked on the catalogue raisonné of Henry Moore before dumping Moore for Bacon in 1952; he then skilfully airbrushed out references to Bacon’s past affiliations to old-fashioned styles, such as neo-Romanticism and surrealism. There followed the not-so-subtle elbowing-aside of the rival claimant Sutherland, once though Bacon’s rival, to make space for the artist-genius now based on the example of Picasso. Most interesting of all is the way in which Bacon’s war and Holocaust source material, including specific press photographs and film stills of Hitler, Goebbels and so on, cited by Bacon’s critics as evidence for his cruelty and violence, were edited out in Sylvester’s account to become generalised ‘metaphors of humanity’, so making the art appear enlightened and humane. Although not directly in the pay of the CIA, Sylvester wrote early warnings about the Stalinist ‘Big Brother’ for Stephen Spender’s Encounter magazine, which itself was on the payroll There is a persuasive comparison in The Battle for Realism between a Bacon ‘Pope’ painting, one hand tied to the throne, and a still from the 1954 BBC TV production of Nineteen-Eighty Four, which shows Winston Smith constrained with handcuffs to a metal frame, faced by his interrogator O’Brien. According to Hyman, Sylvester even wrote an essay on the BBC adaptation of Nineteen-Eighty Four, which includes the description of a state official putting a syringe needle into Smith's arm, a scene which did not appear in the TV version. The aesthetic significance, or otherwise, of swastikas and syringes in Bacon’s painting could do with some revision.

For reasons of world politics, Berger’s project as an art critic came to an end at about the same time as that of Sylvester got a new lease of life. In his introduction to the second edition of Permanent Red, Berger dates this moment to the period, after Hungary and the Cuban Revolution, when the struggle to achieve parity in nuclear arms between East and West was no longer a primary political factor. ‘The raison d’être of polarized dogmatism had collapsed... In the early 1950s the USSR represented, despite all its deformations, a great part of the force of the socialist challenge to capitalism. It no longer does,’ Berger wrote in 1968. A wonderfully telling detail here is of John Bratby, flushed with acclaim in 1958 from the paintings of Alec Guinness (aka Gully Jimson) for the film The Horse’s Mouth; he is found asking Helen Lessore of the Beaux Arts Gallery for two exhibitions a year and £1,500. The implication is that this was way over-the-top, but in a good year Bacon probably got handouts well approaching this from Erica Brausen of the Hanover, and according to Michael Peppiatt, when Bacon left the Hanover in 1958 for the Marlborough with gambling debts of £5,000, £1,242 was ‘roughly the equivalent’ of what Bacon could expect to receive from the contents of a new show (Francis Bacon, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996).

Sylvester described himself as initially ‘blinded by an old-fashioned anti-Americanism’. When Clement Greenberg invited him to review modern American art at the Venice Biennial for The Nation in 1950, he burnt his bridges by condemning it. He was not really a convert to American modernism until 1956. There followed a wobbly period of a few years when Sylvester himself also seems to have had doubts about Bacon, particularly after Bacon’s dramatic change of style in his Hanover Gallery exhibition of 1957, exemplified by the de Kooning-like colour and slapdash drawing of the outdoors ‘Van Gogh’ series. Sylvester also had the trans-Atlantic urban modernism of the Independent Group to contend with, as well as Lawrence Alloway snapping at his heels (his ‘friend and enemy’ as he called him in an essay on Caro in 1986). But by 1960, on a US State Department-funded visit to New York, Sylvester had met de Kooning and Harold Rosenberg, who took him to the Cedar Tavern, and with Kline, Guston and David Smith, they ‘drank till 5 am’. In spite of all this bonhomie, he was never really a buddy for Clem.

In ‘Transition’ there is a picture of which Berger and Sylvester might have both approved. Albert Herbert’s ‘Children Playing’ was painted, according to the artist, after hearing Sylvester give his lecture on ‘New Realism’ at the Royal College of Art in 1952. ‘Art,’ Sylvester argued, ‘must show that experiences are fleeting, that every experience dissolves into the next [and] must be images in which the observer participates.’ The subject of Herbert’s picture, a little girl pirouetting prettily in a derelict street, was identical with what Nigel Henderson was then photographing in the East End; but the painting is technically indistinguishable from anything any follower of Whistler or Sickert might have made fifty years before.

In conclusion it must be said that British art in the Fifties would not have been fundamentally different had Sylvester and Berger not been around to write about it; which is to be expected and as it should be. While there is nothing in exhibition or book to suggest otherwise, in the last room of ‘Transition’ (as a coda to the exhibition) is Anthony Caro’s dark brown-painted steel sculpture ‘Twenty-Four Hours’ (1960), a work which inaugurated a new relationship between art and criticism, and one in which Clement Greenberg, and not Sylvester, would play the dominant role. Nothing could suggest more eloquently the shift in sensibility towards America — and the increasing power of art criticism to influence art — which was to characterise the British art of the following decade. The critical intelligence in which Berger still believed was never more needed than it was then. ‘Realism,’ Berger wrote, ‘is not a method but an attitude of mind... The realist always starts from the particular and from the beginning tries to deduce a typical truth.’ Unfortunately, but as usual on these occasions, sculpture makes no more than a token appearance in either exhibition and book. It is certainly very odd that the subject of ‘realism’, which can never be fully understood in any century without the third dimension, should have been attempted here without it; especially since no book or exhibition purporting to analyse the realist art of this particular period with any authority could possibly do so without devoting a chapter or a room to the sculpture of Raymond Mason (of which a small display has recently been on exhibition at Tate Britain). On exhibition at Tate Modern at present is a selection of works by artists Sylvester admired and wrote about. Fortunately, it is not too late for John Berger to curate an exhibition of his choice in his lifetime. He should be asked to do so without delay.


Martin Harrison. Transition, the London art scene in the Fifties. London: Merrell in association with Barbican Art Galleries, 2002.
ISBN 1 85894 172 5 (hardback).
ISBN 1 85894 173 3 (paperback).

James Hyman. The battle for realism: figurative art in Britain during the Cold War 1945—1960. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
ISBN 0-300-09089-7.

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