Post-War British Sculpture and Painting at THW

Yesterday was really bloody exciting! Gallery 3 of The Hepworth Wakefield opened to the public showcasing the new exhibition of post-war British sculpture and painting.

I crept upstairs to have a sneaky peek at 9.45 a.m. and was stunned by how different this room looks now. Until last week, the exhibition in Gallery 3 was entitled ‘Hepworth in Context’ and explored Barbara Hepworth’s work in relation to that of some of her European contemporaries (idols, friends, lovers…), such as Constantin Brancusi and Ben Nicholson. I’d grown very fond of Brancusi’s Danaide and John Skeaping’s Woman and Bird, so I’d been feeling a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to admire them again for a while. However, my blues were instantly dispelled upon seeing the current offering.

The brand new exhibition, which will be installed until November, features work by Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach, Graham Sutherland, Anthony Caro, Eduardo Paolozzi and Robert Adams (amongst others). It explores art from the 1950s, the decade succeeding the end of World War II, and really shows how artists at that time were struggling to come to terms with the atrocities of war and the return to everyday routines. It deals with such themes as alienation, shame and the frailty of the human body. I get a real sense that these artists were trying to represent a complete breakdown of individuals’ confidence in the strength of their bodies and their minds. During the world wars, strong, young men had been killed and mutilated; brave, efficient soldiers had been reduced to stammering, nervous wrecks. In World War II, yes the Allies defeated the Axis, but at what cost? Britain was plunged into a state of economic ruin, some 450,900 Britons had died and thousands more had been injured – scarred psychologically as well as physically. The nation had been destabilised; reality had been destabilised.

In Gallery 3, Skeaping’s smooth, curvaceous alabaster beauty has been replaced with a grotesque, pock-marked hag rising up cumbersomely from slumber: Anthony Caro’s fabulously revolting Woman Waking Up.

The awkward angle of this figure, sprawling on her back, is echoed by Henry Moore’s Fallen Warrior and also Michael Andrew’s A Man who Suddenly Fell Over.

The latter shows the complete upsetting of someone’s apparently secure equilibrium – it’s a snapshot of that moment, just after you’ve fallen over (come on, we’ve all done it at some time or other), when you attempt to make out as though nothing at all has happened, when your face does that funny, contorted smile thing as you try to express absolute nonchalance: ‘What? Oh, that?… I meant to do that’. Your eyes betray you; your eyes say, ‘WTF just happened?!’

Perhaps these three clumsy figures could be seen to symbolise 1950s Britain: shocked, unbalanced and squirming on its back. The artists reject the ideal for the real, seeking to portray the human condition honestly in all its horrible, nauseating, tedious, embarrassing grittiness. This is Art, bloated and bleary-eyed at 6 a.m. with a hangover and no makeup on.

Some of the pieces here are from the Wakefield Art Collection, but many are on loan from the Tate, the Arts Council and private lenders. Having, not one but, TWO Francis Bacons in one room is mega for THW – and alongside Lucian Freud no less!

The two pieces that really grabbed my attention upon entering this space for the first time were Eduardo Paolozzi’s The Cage and Robert Adams’ Apocalyptic Figure (no image available sadly).

To get a real sense of the physicality of the sculptures and paintings discussed here, you really need to visit Gallery 3 and see it for yourself. Frank Auerbach had a very distinctive manner of painting which involved super thick layers of paint being smeared and daubed onto a canvas. You can’t really see the very 3D nature of this painting from a 2D reproduction. Seeing his E.O.W. Nude yesterday for the first time brought back memories of when I saw my first Van Gogh; it truly is painting as sculpture.

The same can be said of David Bomberg’s Double Self Portrait – his style of painting was so audacious at the time that he actually got kicked out of the Slade in 1913 for being too unconventional! Now there’s an accolade.

There’s definitely a dark, shadowy presence looming over Gallery 3, perhaps its that ominous pairing of Francis Bacon’s Untitled (Crouching Nude) and Graham Sutherland’s alien-crustacean-insectoid Head III – a double whammy of nightmarish spectral form that dominates a whole wall.

It’s a refreshing change from the previous exhibition of pretty, abstract, minimalist modernism. Personally, I feel that there’s far more to get one’s cerebral teeth into. I also think it fits in well with some of the temporary exhibitions: Ben Rivers’ post-apocalyptic, science-fiction film Slow Action, showing in Gallery 9, and Heather and Ivan Morrison’s splendidly creepy interpretation of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, Anna, in Gallery 10.

Looking forward to spending some more time invigilating this one… although also slightly nervous after hearing that the contents of this room are insured for more than it cost to build the gallery. Eeek.

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4 responses to “Post-War British Sculpture and Painting at THW

  1. brilliant write-up. Looking forward to seeing it

  2. ms6282

    Looks like another trip allong the M62 and over the Pennines is on the cards!

  3. Thanks Andy.

    It’s worth it ms6282!

    Thank you for your comments.

  4. That ‘woman waking up’ is me. That’s what i look like with no clothes on. Serious. I’m not joking. I’m gonna show Baggy when he gets back, i think he’d agree.

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