After the War

The inclusion of frankly decorative works mars what could have been a fascinating show

Feature by Rosamund West | 16 Apr 2006

Art After the War is an exhibition structured around the conflict and dialogue between realism and abstraction in art in the decade following the Second World War. With works drawn from the National Galleries of Scotland's permanent collection the show naturally contains a sizeable proportion of works by Scottish artists, most of which are confined to the final two rooms.

The first two rooms are concerned with abstraction and social realism on a more international level, with works by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Salvador Dali occupying the room dealing with 'abstraction'. Dali's 'Raphaelesque Head Exploded' draws on imagery of the Renaissance and the classical architecture of Rome to describe the emotional turmoil of a post war Europe divided along the lines of East and West and of two very different ideologies. The shattered head motif is also present in a Paolozzi sculpture in the same room. The motif can be seen as exemplifying the mood and thinking of the time, a shattered head depicting the existentialist belief in the abandonment of humanity in a cold, godless world.

The works in this room certainly do reflect an emotional turmoil, even a despair in the spirits of the artists. Francis Bacon's famous painting after Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X is represented in the early stages of its gestation by 'Head VI' of 1949. The screaming mouth (taken from a film still of 'Battleship Potemkin'), the evaporating head, the suggestion of a cage-like structure around the cleric all contribute to an image of unexplained horror.

The Giacometti-like sculpture of Germaine Richier's 'Le Coureur' 1955 was designed to be exhibited in a new French Sports stadium. Yet the 3ft bronze figure, its surface scored and scarred evoking mutilation, is anything but an advertisement for athleticism and health. The man is emaciated, his genitals shrunken, his flesh almost falling away in what is surely the illusion of decomposition. The artist must have been working with the bodies of concentration camp survivors in mind, and her attempt to place it within a stadium designed to celebrate health and fitness must, in its great irony, have been politically motivated.

The room opposite, with painting and photography described as Social Realism, also ostensibly deals with work of a political nature, yet it is really only the photography of the slums of Glasgow and Dundee in 1948 which successfully communicates the message of a need for social reform. There is an immediacy to the photographic medium and to its means of dissemination in widely circulated magazines and newspapers which renders the adjoining paintings of street children and families on the breadline self-indulgent, sentimental, redundant. A photograph of a teenaged girl in a cramped room with an occupied box bed behind her, staring despondently at the table succinctly communicates the hopelessness and despair of a life of poverty. The accompanying caption from the Picture Post in which the image was originally published informs us that this is Mary, a 16-year-old bakery worker. "Already futility and frustration stretch ahead. Already her dreams are losing their battle against reality." The surrounding painting pales in comparison.

Even more redundant than the paintings in this room are those in the room concerned with specifically Scottish work of a realistic inclination, which serve only to highlight how parochial Scottish establishment art has been. Robin Philipson's 'Woman in Ecstasy', 1955, exemplifies this, the accompanying description stating that the former ECA tutor's works "verge on abstraction, although he was always careful to retain some figurative elements." Careful, or perhaps more accurately prudent, as by retaining figurative elements his work also retained its ready commercial value, removing the dangerous possibility of being an artist misunderstood in life and ensuring the steady income and comfortable lifestyle of the Edinburgh head of department.

This exhibition contains some interesting work by internationally renowned artists, and its premise of collecting works from a single era of a similar theme does give the viewer the opportunity to see intriguing similarities which raise issues concerning the existence of a zeitgeist. However, the inclusion of frankly decorative works by members of the Edinburgh establishment, and of a number of paintings which are strikingly derivative of those of more prominent artists, mars what could have been a fascinating show.

After the War: Art in Europe 1945-1955, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh until June 4, free.