Europe Post-War, Art and Politics


Gertje Utley

My talk about art and politics in Post World War II Europe was inspired by the presence in this museum of the exhibition “Let us face the future,” which shows British art from the end of the Second World War to the late nineteen sixties. But, as I have discovered and as I will explain, British art is not the best example, as the presence of political art was much less prevalent there than in other European countries. And so I have decided to throw my net over a rather wide territory and cover England as well as France, Germany, and to some degree Italy. I do however, not intend to cover Spain in this, as Spain was not a participant in WWII, and all of you who live here know much more about this topic than I do. 

As it is, my topic is vast and complex. But it is this complexity that makes it interesting. I have focused on art that can in one way or another be called political in the wider sense. And I concentrate in particular on the ways in which the different political situations in England, France and Germany during the war and in the immediate postwar period reflected on the national art scene.  Consequently my talk is just an overview; it will per force neglect a lot of subtleties.

I can not stress enough how important a role art played in the propaganda war between the opponents in the Cold War, which pitted the Communist East against the capitalist West.

Renato Guttuso, Abstract versus Figurative Art

    Moreover, the growing importance of abstract art in the 1950s heated the debate about abstract art’s capacity to express issues of wider human importance. The polemic between the defenders of abstraction and those of realist and figurative art, the so-called battle for Realism, was from the beginning fraught with strong political implications. Therefore, while the political content of a work of art may at first sight not be apparent, its idiom – abstract or figurative – made it a player in the aggressively political discourse that opposed the two artistic approaches at the time.

When we speak about art and politics, we must also acknowledge the wide variety of what can be understood as political expression in art: it can be the partisan belief in the precepts of one political party, or the theoretical and philosophical belief in a political dogma, or it can quite simply be one’s response to a set of historical local or international conditions.

Rarely have conditions been more horrendous than during the war and the immediate post war period in Europe. In order to have some sense of what politics could mean right after the war, one has to realize what an incredible wasteland Europe was in 1945. In fact Europe would live for many decades – and certainly the decades that are covered by the exhibition – in the shadow of the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin and of the war and its effects. And the postwar period was in many respects as bad as the war itself. Only with the retreating German army towards the end of the war, did the full horror of the holocaust come to light. And this was followed by news of the first atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and in 1947 by the escalating Cold War with the ever-present threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

Europe in Ruins

    In Europe the war was a total war as it embraced civilians as well as soldiers. 19 million civilians died in the war, and this does not include the over 6 million Jews and others killed in concentration camps. To give just some examples of the destruction: In the Soviet Union 70,000 villages and 1,700 towns were destroyed, 75% of Berlin was in rubbles. Between the Soviet Union and Germany 45 Million people were homeless. In Poland there were some 200,000 orphans. In Vienna 87,000 women were raped by Soviet soldiers in the three weeks after the red army’s arrival in Vienna; more than that in Berlin [1].

Germany as the instigator of the war was totally demolished physically and psychologically and ended up divided by its occupation force and by the hardening positions in the Cold war. In fact it was the Allies’ intent that Germany should fully feel its defeat and realize that they had brought the war upon the world, and that they should suffer the most. [2]

While the immediate postwar period was one of apparent cooperation and good will between the various victors over Germany, this climate of alliance came to a harsh end as soon as 1947.  Winston Churchill had already in the Spring of 1946 denounced what he called the "iron curtain" that the Soviets drew between Western Europe and the East European countries that now lay in their sphere of influence.  The Marshall Plan, the plan of economic support for war torn Western Europe, an initiative by US Secretary of State George Marshall, was condemned by the Soviets as an instrument of American imperialism. [3] Thus the Cold War had begun, and culture was assigned a strikingly important role in it. In 1957 Leopold Senghor, the spokes person for the West European Union, ranked culture alongside military defense as a means to protect Western European unity. While America promoted abstraction as expressive of personal freedom in a democracy, the Soviet Union imposed Socialist Realism on its artists as serving the cause of its people and the propagation of Socialism. [4]

This had an effect on the art scene in Italy and France where Communism played an important role after the war, as well as in East Germany, where Socialist Realism was strictly imposed as part of its Soviet inspired totalitarian government.

Britain was different, in that realism appeared in various forms and that Socialist Realism was the least of it. Even the few painters, who practiced a kind of Social Realism, were not necessarily affiliated with Marxism. [5] In fact, in contrast to the other countries under consideration here, I could not find much that could properly be described as political art in British post war art. The Idealism of left-wing intellectuals of the 1930s had been discouraged by what was known of Stalin’s show trials. [6] Moreover, although Britain had suffered repeated bombing attacks from the Germans, there had been no Nazi occupation. The postwar climate therefore never lent itself to the polarization that could be found in Italy and France for example. And yet its post-war situation was in many respects worse than in the other countries. Britain had lost its colonies and was trying to adjust to its new position in the world. Food shortages were so bad that food rationing continued until 1952, and consumer goods were only gradually introduced in the early 1960. [7]

Paul Nash, Battle of Germany, 1944; Graham Sutherland, Red Landscape, 1945

But postwar debates in Britain focused mainly on the legacy of national traditions in the arts as a means to affirm national identity, an issue that was taken up by the left and right of the political spectrum alike.  This inspired much of the work that artists such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland produced as part of the British government’s War Artists’ scheme.  The program had been set up in 1939 to commission artists to produce “an artistic record of the war in all its aspects”. [9]

Artists like Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland both continued the trend of their WWI paintings to portray mainly the suffering of the war torn landscape, in neo-romantic paintings that look back to the Romanticism of William Blake, Turner and Palmer. They followed a longstanding trend in British art in which landscape painting is being associated with a quest for national identity. [10]

Henry Moore, Subway; Henry Moore, Subway

Henry Moore was commissioned for the War Arts project on the basis of his drawings of the scenes in the London tube, its subway system, where thousands of Londoners sought shelter during the Blitz, the bombing of London by German fighter planes. Fascinated by that “huge city in the bowels of the earth,” he spent a year producing hundreds of drawings that became highly influential for British artists such as Bacon for example. [11]

Graham Sutherland, Thorntree; Graham Sutherland, Crucifixion

It is no wonder that during and after the war references to the crucifixion theme abounded, as in Graham Sutherland’s images of thorn trees. Particularly in times of war the Crucifixion has served artists as a symbol of suffering, death and redemption.

Francis Bacon, Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion, 1944; Francis Bacon, Painting, 1945

One of the most powerful examples of that imagery is “Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion”, a painting from 1944 by Francis Bacon. Like Picasso, whose crucifixion imagery strongly influenced him, Bacon used the image devoid of any religious significance as an “armature on which to hang feelings about human behavior,” as he claimed. Bacon’s representations of tortured humanity, of man’s isolation, what has been called Bacon’s iconography of disaster, are not really political. In fact John Berger, the eminent leftist critic, who championed a Courbet derived realism and saw all art as weapon and all expressions of individualism as decadent, condemned Bacon’s paintings for their supposed lack of indignation. [12]

Bacon himself, who was always strongly opposed to painting as illustration,  claimed that the violence of paint, the distortion, fragmentation and isolation in his work has nothing to do with the violence of war, but should be understood as his attempt to “return the viewer more directly to the nervous system.” [13] And it is true that, while the imagery seemed particularly cogent in the post-war climate, they present a vision that did not change in Bacon’s art until the end.

For Bacon as for other artists of the postwar period Existentialism had a powerful attraction. In particular Sartre’s lecture of 1946 “Is Existentialism a Humanism?” and the idea that “moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art,” became extremely inspiring. [14] In the search for ways to best express this new humanism, the art of Alberto Giacometti with its highly expressive figuration became of utmost importance. [15]

Giacometti, The Square, 1948; Giacometti, The Nose, 1947

Bacon, Head VI, 1949

The confined spaces in Bacon’s work, the cage-like enclosures, such as in his painting “Head VI” of 1949, certainly seem to refer to Giacometti’s work.

Image of Maid in Battleship Potemkin

But they also point to another of Bacon’s most important sources: a photograph of the screaming Maid in Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.

Giacometti, The Square, 1948;

Turnbull, Acrobat, 1951; Giacometti, Man pointing

Giacometti’s representations of the tensions, alienation, and confinement of contemporary existence in works such as the Square of 1948 and The Nose of 1947 were essential for British postwar art, mainly for works that belonged to what the critic Herbert Read called “transmitters of collective anxiety,” [16] such as:

Lynn Chadwick, The inner eye, 1952; Kenneth Armitage, Figure lying on its side, 1956

Herbert Read’s famous characterization of postwar art as reflecting “the iconography of despair… the geometry of fear”--  a line he burrowed from T.S. Eliot -- fits all those works. [17]

Reg Butler’s monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner, 1952

Yet it was specifically coined for Reg Butler’s work, Monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner of 1952, which again shows the influence of Giacometti’s and Bacon’s claustrophobic enclosures.  The work was the winning entry for the international sculpture competition in 1952 for a monument that would symbolize the opposition to totalitarianism. However the project was never realized. [18]

John Bratby, Jean and Still Life, 1954; Peter Coker, The Skate 

As opposed to what we will see in France, the Battle for realism in Britain was not really a battle between realism and abstraction, but turned around two different forms of realism and was fought by two eminent British art critics: David Sylvester, the champion of Existentialist realism, realism derived from late Modernism, and John Berger, a Marxist-Leninist who insisted on social realism.  [18] Against Sylvester’s belief in individual freedom and western liberalism, Berger defended a Marxist inspired view of art as weapon in the Cold War and as tool for the transformation of society. [20]

The modernist realists were represented by the so-called School of London painters; Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff.