Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Text by Alan Sykes

The 1950s do not have a good reputation these days.  In contrast to the exciting, vibrant, swinging 60s, the 1950s are usually thought of as a dreary decade, blighted by austerity and post war rationing.

mima’s curator Alix Collingwood begs to differ.  She has assembled a fascinating collection of diverse works demonstrating quite how revolutionary the decade was, at least for the visual arts.  Freud, Auerbach and Bacon are here, as are Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and Lynn Chadwick.  As well as paintings and sculpture, mima has also assembled a reproduction of a 1950s room, featuring furniture and craft from the period.

In some cases the post war palette was indeed drab.  Kenneth Cozens’ Coke Ovens, Cargo Fleet, (1953), for instance, shows local industrial scene, with the charcoal and ochres brightened by little flashes of flame.  One expects Lowry to be drab, and his The Old Town Hall and St Hilda’s Church, Middlesbrough (1959), from mima’s own collection, fulfills expectations.

Among the more vivid works is Bacon’s untypical Study for a Portrait of van Gogh VI (1957).  The original van Gogh, showing the painter on his way to Tarascon, was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II and only survives in reproductions.  Bacon’s reinterpretation is more abstract, and his provençale palette of greens, reds and yellows is even brighter than what we know of the original.

In low light in mima’s gallery 2 we find David Bomberg’s almost abstract Vigilante (1955) near to Lucian Freud’s small, lighter, Girl in a Green Dress (1954) and Keith Vaughan’s subtly homo-erotic Landscape with Two Bathers (the Diver) (1954) – it is easy to forget that homosexuality was illegal in the UK until well into the 1960s.  On the floor is Anthony Caro’s Twenty-Four Hours (1960), his first abstract sculpture, made of welded pieces of scrap steel, and deliberately not placed on a plinth.
In the much brighter gallery 3, is Victor Pasmore’s Maquette for the Apollo Pavilion (1967), arguably one of the North East’s first works of public art – as opposed to civic sculpture.  Pasmore’s pavilion still stands proudly in Peterlee, last remnant of the dreams of Lubetkin’s unachieved utopian masterplan for the miners’ new town.  Pasmore and Richard Hamilton spent the 50s teaching up the road at Newcastle University, and some people argue that Hamilton’s seminal installation Man, Machine and Motion (1955) at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery was the birth of pop art.

Choosing one’s favourite works from any given time period, while great fun, would normally be ultimately pointless.  What mima has succeeded in doing is assembling works that show the art world – and by extension, society – on the brink of fundamental change.  Abstraction was moving towards minimalism, pop art was in its birth throes, as was what we now think of as public art.  This exhibition shows many important works – with loans from the Tate, the Arts Council collection, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Museum of London, and the Geffrye – alongside pieces from mima’s own collection.

Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain continues at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art until 29 June 2014.

Alan Sykes is a member of the Association International des Critiques d’Art and based in Cumbria.


Published 02.04.2014 by Lauren Velvick in Reviews

540 words