Art for All : British Socially Committed Art c.1939 – c.1962

January 6, 2019 2:18 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War

by Christine Lindey

Pubs: Artery Publications

Price: Hdbck £45; Pbck £25

In her previous well-received book Art in the Cold War Lindey discovered British artists largely ignored by the dominant art world, largely for political reasons. This omission became enshrined in subsequent art history much of which still implies that 1930s British socially committed art petered out until the renewed interest in art and politics by artists of the1960s.

This attractively-designed, extremely readable and informative book fills this gap by reclaiming socially committed artists active in these two intervening decades. This time span also offers fascinating contrasts between the dominant contexts of patronage and aesthetics during the wartime social consensus as opposed to the individualism promoted in the first phase of the Cold War. Most mainstream critics either ignore the political context of art production and fail to see a close relationship between politics and art. Christine Lindey demonstrates how the two are inextricably linked.

In her text, Lindey carefully traces how world events affected the thinking and actions of British artists. In the twenties and thirties, for example, many joined the Communist Party and a few, such as Cliff Rowe and Pearl Binder, spent time working in the Soviet Union. Some remained party members for life, some did not. Some fought with the International Brigades in Spain, where, one of them, Felicia Browne was one of the first to be killed. Some had no direct political affiliation, but were happy to produce works for working class sponsors such as the trade unions. Some were founder members of the Artists’ International, later the Artists’ International Association, an organisation whose foundation, expansion and decline paralleled the waning influence of Marxist and socialist ideas within the British art world during the Cold War. This was further demonstrated by the attitude of the Arts Council. Founded in 1946, it was warmly greeted by those artists who believed in the need for state sponsorship of the arts. But when the Council quickly moved away from its initially stated position of ‘The Best for the Most’ to that of ‘Few, but roses’ they swiftly became disillusioned by its essentially elitist approach.

That artists could organise and work together for political ends may seem astonishing to us today when international capital dominates the art market as never before. The rediscovery of such concepts, and of the artists who believed in and worked for them, is one of the many delights of this book.

Twenty-nine artists are featured in this book. Keen to reach the masses and aware of the conservatism and escapism of mass taste, socialist artists varying from Peter Perí to Ghisha Koenig remained committed to an accessible art. This set them apart from the formal experimentation favoured by ‘high art’ canons of taste, as well as from the sugar-coated dream worlds of mass produced art prints and mass media imagery. In resistance to these formidably dominant High and Low art opponents, artists of conviction including Clive Branson, Priscilla Thornycroft and Ruskin Spear created unvarnished depictions of contemporary life. Sometimes overtly political, the works were more often humane assertions of the social importance of working people and their lives. The ‘modernism versus realism’ critical debate dominated both decades. That socially committed artists’ realism was ultimately a matter of content rather than of style is shown by contrasting the works with avant-garde and rear-guard ones; for example a comparison of the humanism of Josef Herman’s modernist portraits with the alienation of Lucian Freud’s realist ones and the idealised portraits in Vladimir Tretchikoff’s mass produced prints.

Marginalised artists are brought to the fore by discussing their diverse lives, aims and works in their cultural and socio-political contexts. Exploring the personal and political events which influenced key artists’ formative years explains how artists of different generations, gender, social class and national origin were politicised and came to share similar outlooks. While it was not unusual for artists to be broadly left-leaning, unlike their peers a few disparate artists such as the upper class Betty Rea, the working class George Fullard and the Hungarian political émigré Peter Perí put their work at the service of their political beliefs. Although activism brought many of the artists together they did not form a self-defined movement, it is their shared ideological commitment which links their works. A detailed identification and definition of recurring content in socially committed artists’ stylistically diverse works reveals a shared desire to promote social justice and respect for working class life. The content of their works and their theoretical debates relate to the continuing arguments on the left about art and propaganda and the relationship between art and politics. Some, like Spear and James Fitton fought from within the art establishment and became the enfants terribles of the Royal Academy while others such as Boswell, Paul Hogarth and Ken Sprague continued the 1930s socialist practice of working as illustrators, sometimes for left wing organisations. The relative lack of critical success of many of the artists highlights the restrictive effects on patronage and critical response of the dominant art world’s ideological assumptions. This is emphasised by the contrast between the greater assimilation of socially committed artists into the mainstream during the wartime consensus compared to their increased marginalisation during the Cold War.

In her preface, the artist and writer Lynn MacRitchie writes that ‘the book’s subject is new. It redefines art history by reclaiming a marginalised aspect of British art and by discussing it in the contexts of High and Low art. By avoiding jargon it is accessible to the general reader. The book is timely, given the current revival of interest in socialism and socially committed art. Although it deals with little known artists some of whom are obscure, the book’s story has a larger resonance by showing that the artists’ relative obscurity was partly due to their politics. These courageous outsiders, largely consigned to obscurity by Cold War ideology resisted the formidable cultural power of dominant aesthetics. Their evocations of their era’s ambiances and preoccupations made a minor but important contribution to British art. Their works and stories deserve to be better known.’

I could not sum up the importance of this book better than Simon Casimir Wilson does. He is the author of Holbein to Hockney: A History of British Art, former Tate curator, columnist for RA Magazine. He calls Christine Lindey ‘a doyenne of British art history and one of its most original, accessible and principled practitioners. In previous publications she has approached traditional art history in novel ways, as well as revealing the importance and fascination of previously neglected areas. Her thought and writing combine academic rigour with a rare lucidity. In Art for All she explores a rich vein of British art ‘ As a historian of British art myself I found this book a revelation, not least, for example, of artists of the quality of Eva Frankfurther of whom, to my shame, I had never heard. An important contribution to the history of British art, this book, in its focus on a socially and politically aware practice that seeks a genuinely wide audience, seems particularly timely in this historical moment of rampant individualism and raging inequality.’

The upcoming nationwide Insiders/Outsiders Festival (March 2019-March 2020) will celebrate the contribution made to British culture by refugees from Nazi Europe whose work will be displayed in many of Britain’s prestigious art venues during the year. Christine Lindey’s book which features a number of such refugees from fascism, can be seen as pioneering and sets the tone for such an important ‘rediscovery’ of these artists.

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This post was written by John Green

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