Before the explosion of pop art of the 1960s, when the works of David Hockney and Peter Blake heralded a new era of optimism, British art went through a period of deep reflection as the nation began to come to terms with the devastation of the Second World War. This dark period, characterised by grimy industrial landscapes and introspective figures, forms the basis for a beautifully-curated exhibition called In the Shadow of War at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre.
Featuring an impressive collection of artists, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, it begins with a series of pieces which highlight how fresh the memory of war was in the 1940s and ‘50s. Auerbach’s Building Site, Victoria Street, London (1959) reminds that the post-War reconstruction was a protracted process. His thickly layered paint creates a viscous feel as if the city is slowly emerging out of the ashes.
Some of the pieces such as Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) references the human cost of war more overtly. It depicts a warrior laying on the ground in defeat which stands in contrast to the idea of the victorious soldier. With its distorted facial features and gaping holes, Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze statue Shattered Head (1956) evokes the physical and mental anguish of war. Meanwhile, Francis Bacon’s 1945 piece Figure in a Landscape, in which the figure is obscured by a black void, suggests a loss of identity though he is still discernible as a person. Blood-red flowers flicker in the background alluding to death on the battle field, poppies or Nazi uniforms.
Lucien Freud’s portraits – Head of a Girl, Head of a Woman and Portrait of Peter Watson – reveal inward-looking figures who appear to be carrying a heavy burden, although it is impossible to decipher what they are thinking.
The exhibition then moves towards a series of pieces where the connection with war is less obvious but its effects can nevertheless be felt. The pale, vacant faces of L.S. Lowry’s The Funeral Party (1957) references the austerity of the post-War years, while Josef Herman’s Evenfall (1948) is a startling study of a mining village in Wales where life continues despite the hardships people face.
Alongside In the Shadow of War, Lakeside is also hosting a complementary exhibition featuring photographs by Lee Miller. Miller worked with some of the most eminent artists of the early 20th century, including Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, she also worked as Vogue’s official photographer during the Second World War. This exhibition features some of the photographs she took during the Allied victory and her images include the liberation of the concentration camps, towns razed to the ground, the suicide of Nazi officials and Hitler’s mountain home in flames.
Looking at these pictures it is almost impossible to believe that Europe was able to rebuild itself following destruction on this scale. Miller’s subjects bear a look of relief but also extreme weariness; you can only imagine how she and the envoys felt as they uncovered the extent of the Nazi atrocities.
The two exhibitions take place ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War next year. Both are free to attend and run until 22nd February.