In Search of the Picassoettes Jeffrey Jones    

Modern Art in Post War Britain

  In 1941 Eric Newton struggled with a changing sense of the modern in his book European Painting and Sculpture.

The word 'modern' used, as it is to-day, as a semi-technical term to describe a period style is a little confusing and unfortunate. An adjective that should mean no more than up-to-date, and which has always been used in that sense, has now gathered to itself a new set of connotations which future lexicographers will have to take into account.3

Newton regarded 'Abstract art, Cubism and Fauvisme… as the three main sources of 'modern' art' (original emphasis) and he also acknowledged the importance of Surrealism.4 Newton of course had a sophisticated understanding of these types of modernist expression and he was writing from a vantage point where he could look back on a decade or two of British modernist art activity in which such distinctions were duly acknowledged and appreciated, albeit by a relatively small group of aficionados.5 Also, Newton's book was published during a wartime period when people had little time or inclination to ruminate on the problem of the 'modern'. Newton, however correctly anticipated that they soon would and in post war Britain both the art world and the general public alike showed a considerable appetite for taking the modern apart and seeing if they liked the stuff of which it was made. Indeed something of a panic set in and this was fuelled by a fear that in abandoning representation, perhaps even abandoning reality itself, modern art was in danger of subverting those civilised values that British society had recently fought so hard to assert. The niceties of modernism could not hold.

Margaret Garlake discusses at length the loaded meanings of the word modern in this period in her 1998 publication New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society and she points out that 'abstract implied modern: the words were sometimes interchangeable'.6 She adds that 'abstraction was seen as a threat to received values' and that 'abstraction had replaced Surrealism as an object of scandal and, like Surrealism was treated as difficult, alien and slightly embarrassing'.7 Garlake gives numerous examples of the hostile language which was undiscriminatingly employed to attack modern art at this time and she notes that Picasso was routinely, if somewhat erroneously, cast (and just as routinely condemned) as an abstract as well as a modern artist.

The 'Picasso and Matisse' exhibition which opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in December 1945 was a crucial event in the reinvigoration of the debate in the post war British art world. Many commentators were shocked into hysterical reactions which questioned not only the artistic but also the moral credentials of Picasso and his apologists. The controversy reverberated for some years, coming to a head with a drunken tirade by Sir Alfred Munnings at the Royal Academy Banquet in 1949. Munnings had been President of the Academy from 1944 to 1949 and clearly felt aggrieved and insulted that his term as President had coincided with a period of Picasso mania in Britain. In his speech at the banquet Munnings claimed that Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso had defiled the British tradition and claimed that Winston Churchill had once said to him: 'Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his something something…' to which Munnings had replied 'Yes Sir, I would'.8

The 'ferocious squabble about abstract art'9 rumbled on well into the 1950s with much of the press and the general public lining up alongside the forces of tradition as represented by the Royal Academy against an increasingly beleaguered modern art camp. It remained, however, a quarrel about painting and sculpture and about the failure of practitioners within those disciplines (especially as epitomised by Picasso) to fulfil the representational potential of those artforms.

In 1950 the Arts Council toured the Picasso in Provence exhibition in Britain and it included a number of ceramic pieces. This in itself generated little controversy at the time; indeed the applied or decorative arts generally seemed able to side-step the debate and against a background of fevered reaction to modern painting and sculpture many designers and applied artists were quietly and relatively uncontroversially integrating a modern art look into a new 'contemporary' style. The fractured images of Picasso's artworks may well have offered an infuriating taunt to British, high bred, fine art sensibilities but they also offered a rich resource for textile designers, wallpaper manufacturers and even the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent.

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3 Eric Newton, European Painting and Sculpture, Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1958 (first published 1941), p.234. back to article

4 Newton, European Painting, p.233. back to article

5 See Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, 2nd edition, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1994. back to article

6 Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1998, p.38. back to article

7 Garlake, New Art, p.38. back to article

8 For the full text of Munning's speech see Munnings v. the Moderns, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1986. back to article

9 Cited in Garlake, New Art, p.40, the phrase quoted comes from The Guardian, 29 July 1950. back to article

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Modern Art in
Post War Britain

Picasso and
the Potters

Dora Billington and
the Bayswater Three

The Oral Testimony
of William Newland


Acknowledgements & Bibliography

In Search of the Picassoettes • Issue 1