From Decimation to Reconstruction – Glass reviews Carved, Cast, and Constructed at Marlborough Fine Arts
AS Britain carved a new identity for itself, cast aspersions on its former ideologies, and constructed edifices in cities damaged by the Blitz, the country’s artists to turned to sculpture as a new focus for its visual language. Carved, Cast, and Constructed happens to the title of the leading London gallery Marlborough Fine Arts latest exhibition reviews four decades of constantly evolving approaches to sculpture by British artists, catalysed by the Second World War.
The Second World War was a time of great loss globally, with a dearth toll of 50 milllion. However, Great Britain’s Keep Calm and Carry On mentality generated initiatives aimed at resurrecting a country devastated by the Luftwaffe’s relentless bombing.
It was during the end of the war and beginning of peace time that the British government established welfare, the NHS, free secondary schooling for all citizens, and, most pertinent to this exhibition, the Arts Council of Great Britain. Founded in 1946, it was the beginning of unprecedented arts funding. This allowed those previously unable to afford art education a chance to study it and exhibit their work on a level formerly inaccessible. This financial backing heightened the presence (and opinion) of visual arts in the press.
Artists were quick to use their creativity as an immediate means of processing the horrors of wartime. During the war. many were unable to access materials or found themselves eschewing art out of duty or necessity. Because pigment for painting was hard to acquire painting was a luxury during the war. This, coupled with the nation’s impetus to reconstruct itself, it was only natural that sculpture would come into favour. It emerged as the key medium through which the language of humanism was redefined.
To appreciate why the trauma that Great Britain endured would suddenly translate into a urge to sculpt, one need only look at two statistics One third of London was destroyed during their campaign and 60 per cent of homes in Britain were decimated. Reconstruction was the primary motivation of the country as peace was ushered in.
Despite outpouring jubilance in the streets, the English remained wary and anxious. The atrocities of the last half decade left the nation nervous. Artists are known to translate tribulations into masterpieces and in 1952, British sculptors demonstrated this wth finesse in the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. A group of three dimensional artists, dubbed the Geometry of Fear movement by art critic Herbert Read in the exhibition catalogue gave them the sobriquet – christening the movement retroactively.
The British idea of sculpture was largely centred around the work Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth until this point. Hepworth considered sculpture “a plastic projection of thought”. She saw the resulting work a organic and complete as it can stand by itself. Hepworth regarded primitive art the most fundamental expression of the human condition.
A piece by Henry Moore introduced visitors to the British Pavilion. Previously, Moore’s work was shunned for its Modernist leanings prior to the war. The acceptance of Modernism/Futurism was a sign of the aesthetic schismogenesis. Styles formerly rejected were embraced, a common consequence of great historical shifts. Figurative and classical statues reminded audiences of propaganda art.The 1952 show was the genesis of the British penchant for abstraction.
Moore’s contrarian methodology were a great analogy for the tension produced globally due to disparate moods revealed by the war. As much as he was a Modernist, Moore’s work also referenced primitivism. consolidating themes usually seen as mutually exclusive, geometric shapes morphed with the organic. Constructivism was melded with surrealism. Moore’s handling of paradoxes prompted inquiry into whether certain forces were actually. This reflected the confusion felt by a nation confused by the staggering industrial advancements made during a time where man had resorted to vulgar displays of barbarism.
The Holocaust, atomic bombs, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the rationing of food and supplies, and fear of nuclear were some of the psychological legacies of the war were generating anxiety and this could be detected in the nervous works on display.
Such artists as Kenneth Ermitage, William Turnbull, Edward Paolozzi and Lynn Chadwick on display in the British Pavilion were all under 40, therefore neotenous in a world of more experienced artists (like their contemporary Moore). Otherwise, the Geometry of Fear “school” did not have a single cohesive aesthetic- it was their confrontation of the human condition in a post-war atmosphere that morphed them into a movement. The name of the movement, referred to the to the artists’ articulation of the anxiety felt by the British. Underpinning this nervousness was a sense of confusion. Despite the eclectic execution of their sculptures, the group’s work was mostly angular, with rough edges. Any figurative forms were represented in states of decay or decline: the legacy of the horrors of war resonating in the visual language of the artists.
Their nascent status made them relevant spokespeople for the generation most prominent in the redevelopment of Britain. In the wake of such pervasive destruction, the young artists sought to represent the values of what was either a civilisation yet to form or one lost forever. They were drawn to construction and assemblage instead of carving and modelling- likely a result of their lack of access to material.
Aside from the literal loss of life that war brings, it also dehumanises – in other words, both humans and humanity are casualties of war.In the years after the war, British sculptors continued to investigate the redefinition of the language of humanism. Paolozzi and Turnbull went to Paris, where they experimented with assemblage. Paolozzi was deeply influenced by Art-Brut while Turnbull turned to pre-classical archeological art as references. Finally, Raymond Mason’s work was a humorous look at life on the street.
One of the key concepts explored by the Marlborough Arts show is the presentation of figurative work. Again, the dehumanisation and loss of life severely impacted figurative depictions. Moore continued to experiment with the human form but many other artists became more devoted to the world of abstraction.
Roland Piche, a sculptor known for his Spaceframe works used less figurative representations prior to 2000. He is perhaps one of the most eclectic of the artists on display. His fluctuating influences, ranging from Americana to Ancient Egypt, Orientalism and European humanist approaches define the his ouvre.
Another largely abstract sculptor was the conscientious objector, Victor Pasmore, who is also featured the exhibition. His curriculum for a Basic Design course at Durham University was based on the Bauhaus movement. Durham, incidentally, had one of the new industrial centres commissioned by the New Towns Act (1946), a movement to Marrying craft with fine art was the approach of the Bauhaus school, the approach that underpinned Pasmore’s teachings and mostly abstract work. Bauhaus means “construction house” or “School of Building”, and finds its roots in Picasso and constructivism.
Another groundbreaking British artist in the exhibition is Anthony Caro, who studied under Moore and became a lecturer at Central St. Martins. Born just as the war started, he is best known for his assemblages. He is the person credited with taking the sculpture off the plinth- an immediate abolition of the barrier between the viewer and the piece . Suddenly the viewer had the opportunity to approach a sculpture from the angle of their choice. This dissolution in barriers was a reflection of the crumbling distance between cultures.
Dissolving barriers reflecting the flourishing open-mindedness globally as British became less insular and more interested in Eastern and other foreign sociocultural attitudes. The figurative made a resurgence in the Sixties, a time at which the individuals across the pond rallied against war. Peace was a value that was (pacifistically) fought for. It was then that John Davies reconnected with the human form. He was instrumental in guiding taste back from the penchant for abstraction that had dominated since in came into favour after the war.
Similarly, Allen Jones (one of the first British pop artists) translated his earlier body of work from voluptuous one dimensional renderings to sculptural interpretations. It seems, after all, the figurative rose again in the ocular lexicon of the British art world. Jones dared present the taboo with his investigations into “the secret face of British male desire in the gloomy post-war years”, making him a trailblazer in the art world.
All of these decades of flirtation with the human form (and with the notion of it being destroyed), represent the preoccupation with how ephemeral life is- a notion prompted by the war and continually explored ever since.
by Yasmin Bilbeisi
Carved, Cast, and Constructed: British Sculpture 1951 – 1991 is on at Marlborough Fine Arts, London until November 25, 2017