Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, UK – review

How can an exhibition whose greatest works are by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and L.S. Lowry have the word “optimism” in its title? MIMA’s large survey of 1950s British culture is broader than an art-historical show: it evokes the mixed mood of a decade caught between a bold democratising future and postwar austerity and existential doubt. Full of iconic pieces – from Richard Hamilton’s print which launched Pop Art, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” to Arne Jacobsen’s stacking chair – it is shaped into more than a nostalgia fest by showcasing a fascinating pluralism of approaches.

On one hand there is the pulse of hope and reconstruction – Festival of Britain posters, ads for “New Towns: What to See and How To Get There” – and the new consumerism which revolutionised the fabric of everyday life: Liberty’s boomerang table, humdrum, anonymous objects such as a red and white plastic domed lampshade and a kitchenette gas cooker all add flavour. This is the milieu satirised yet embraced by Hamilton and Pop colleagues Eduardo Paolozzi, represented by several collages, and Peter Blake. Blake’s enamel-wood relief “The Fine Art Bit” juxtaposes vibrant stripes suggesting 1950s packaging and signage with a frieze of Old Master postcards, questioning art’s future in an age of mass production and reproduction.

He also refers to American abstraction, and another highlight here is Anthony Caro’s first abstract welded steel work “Twenty Four Hours”. Flat, aggressively frontal, recalling Kenneth Noland’s target paintings, it was made following a decisive American visit (“I had nothing to lose by throwing out History”). But then comes the European perspective: Bacon’s “Study for a portrait of Van Gogh”; Freud’s engagement with northern portraiture in the forensic, melancholy “Girl in a Green Dress”; Auerbach’s earth-coloured interior “The Sitting Room”, whose dense painterly surfaces, natural and organic, have, his dealer Helen Lessore argued, “a reality which becomes ever more precious as the world fills up with plastics”.

Until June 29,

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