How do you make sense of war? How can the human psyche comprehend senseless, wanton de- struction and loss of life for supposed political reasons? This question is searing red hot across the world following Russia’s inva- sion of Ukraine, and adds an un- nerving poignancy to this vibrant survey of 48 artists working in Britain during 1945-65.
Curator Jane Alison conceived this show to focus exclusively on people who directly experienced the sav- ages of the Second World War first- hand, so there is a conspicuous absence of the usual roll call of Post- War artists such as Graham Suther- land, Henry Moore or Paul Nash.
Instead we witness artists who served in WW2 such as Nigel Hender- son or Lynn Chadwick, or endured displacement like Eduardo Paolozzi; people who used art as a direct re- sponse to their personal experiences. Additionally, Alison spotlights lesser- known female artists, and highlights the transnational nature of the British landscape, with 19 of the fea- tured artists born abroad.
As a result, the range of experi- mental techniques, materials and mindsets are striking, shaking up the established modes of art-mak- ing. They turn destruction into pos- itive, forward-looking creation.
The opening room, painted som- bre black and displaying nihilistic, black pieces by Francis Souza and the monumental Black Spot from John Latham (1954), gives way to vi- brant colour and a dizzying assem- bly of ideas.
Giant, amoeba-like riots of bril- liant reds and yellows in distorted, looming alien figures by Magda Cordell, who mixes the unmixable acrylic and oil together on Ma- sonite, are a revelation. As Alison notes, “disfiguration is [the artist’s] strength”; humanity is reduced to its bare essence in the barbaric,
primitive humanoid forms of Paolozzi’s bronze men, or Fran- ciszka Themerson’s landscapes such as Topography of Aloneness, 1962.
So disparate are the techniques and individual expressions on show, that the point is made that there can be no definitive understanding or encapsulation of the experience of war. So we can forgive the cura- tion subgrouping the display into loose, left-field “themes” with such titles as “Scars”, “Strange Universe”, or “Horizon”.
The focus is on the freewheeling of ideas, and the captioning does not explain why X piece falls into Y theme, but instead suggests a com- monality we can explore ourselves; does “Scars” refer to scorched earth, or mental trauma? In Leon Kossoff’s savage landscapes, it can be both, and more.
This is an exhaustive show full of potent energy and ideas; but it proves that out of destruction and chaos, we can choose to create and find empathy. The overall effect is strangely one of overwhelming up- lift, that even when humanity is at its darkest, art has the power to unite.