The first half of the twentieth century was caught up in not one, but two World Wars–for many of us, a difficult thing to imagine. In the 1950s, Britain was emerging from the shadow of conflict and artists around the world were still looking for an appropriate response. And the question loomed: now that war is over, what is the way forward for modern art? Can art make moral claims? Should painting be abstract or realistic? Even then, should that realism be straightforward, like a photograph, or more like Lucian Freud's figures with their uncanny features and sinister looks? Or should painting go the way of Patrick Heron, whose works have abstract values while maintaining real subject matter? Heron's Azalea Garden: May 1956 looks highly abstract and signals the artist's shift away from representation, but also manages to capture the effect of sunlight streaming through a luminous English garden.
This was just one potential way forward artistically–it was a turbulent time for British art, to say the least. But what was truly exciting about these debates around modern art was how international they were in scope. Many artists moved to Britain in the 1950s and 60s specifically to study and engage with modernism, which was itself a kind of international "language" capable of overcoming borders of culture, speech, and political difference. Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen, for example, was a pioneer of minimalism in Britain. But the art establishment at the time could only see Araeen and other international artists in terms of their ethnicity, marginalising but also inciting them to challenge and define their own modernisms.
One of the major figures of this time was Henry Moore, whose massive, curving sculptures of human figures managed to capture something both abstract and human. Moore took the genre of public sculpture (think massive generals on horses and similarly triumphant military figures) and turned it into something more personal for post-war Britain. His Falling Warrior from 1956-7 is a more gentle and abstract depiction of the consequences of war, while other sculptures such as his Family Group from 1949 show figures in tender compositions, sharing a vision of a community-oriented society building itself up again.
From the '60s through the '80s Britain and British art experienced a period of great social and political change. New subjects, new forms of abstraction, conceptual art that elevated the idea behind an artwork above its material concerns, and live performance and video art arrived for the first time, and they arrived with a bang. London became an artistic hotspot and the home of many emerging iconic painters like Peter Blake and David Hockney. Ethnic, sexual, and political minorities whose voices were previously suppressed began to see modern art as an outlet for their ideals. The emphasis on the conceptual aspect of art, by privileging ideas over objects, made sharing these ideas even easier.
One of these artists, Anthony Caro, sought to bridge the artistic disciplines of his peers. Having travelled through America and witnessed abstract painting in full force (think big colour field paintings, like those by Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman), Caro took those qualities of abstract painting and turned them into sculptural forms, as in Early One Morning below. Caro had worked with Henry Moore but moved away from human figures to hard, bright, and abstract forms. He even took it a step further by taking his sculptures off the plinth–the traditional base of a sculpture–and putting it onto the floor. This was a time when British art sought to defy categorisation, renegotiating the art object and what it is.
Sir Anthony Caro, Early One Morning, 1962, painted steel and aluminium, 289 x 619 x 335 cm (Tate)
During these particularly turbulent decades in Britain, artists worked across a variety of media and subjects. Some artists moved away from a focus on technical abilities to a concern with issues of conversation and ecology, like Tony Cragg's Stack(1975), for example, which with its cube of squashed layers of common objects almost seems like a geological formation of human detritus.
Chris Ofili, No Woman, No Cry, 1998, oil paint, acrylic paint, graphite, polyester resin, printed paper, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on canvas, 243 x 182 cm (Tate)
London was thriving as a multicultural city and a centre for contemporary art, and the city itself became a subject for many artists of these decades. A group known as the Young British Artists emerged in the late 1980s. Artist-led exhibitions by major figures like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin began popping up in local warehouses and factories and led the London art scene. British artists from first or second generation immigrant backgrounds explored the politics of diaspora and displacement, reconfiguring the cultural and aesthetic parameters of British art in relation to race and national identity. In the early 1990s, Chris Ofili began exploring issues of black identity and experience through his paintings, often employing racial stereotypes in order to challenge them. Ofili handles the canvas much like a hip hop artist or DJ handles music and sound, remixing cultural references and a range of materials (including elephant dung sourced from the London Zoo!) to make something entirely new. His No Woman, No Cry, a depiction of a woman crying tiny portraits as tears, is both a tribute to murdered London teenager Stephen Lawrence and a universal picture of grief.
And so our journey through British art draws to a close as we enter the 2000s gallery. This last gallery in the chronological circuit takes us right up to the present, and because of this fact it will be changing more regularly than the other rooms. By highlighting the latest additions to the collection, this gallery is always adapting to the changing scope of contemporary art. It's where the newest art finds its place and where–who knows–you might even find yourself or someone you know one day.