YCBA talk explores post-war British art

Assistant professor of art history at Southern Methodist University Eric Stryker GRD ’10 discussed the connection between sociopolitical conditions and visual art in postwar-Britain at the Yale Center for British Art on Tuesday.

The event, part of the YCBA’s weekly “Art in Context” series, focused on pieces from the museum’s modern collection, particularly works from the “reconstruction” period in the aftermath of the Second World War. Before offering his interpretations of individual works, Stryker explained that the period was one of profound change to Britain’s urban, social, political and economic geography, characterized by a housing crisis, labor shortages -— which would come to be filled by an influx of immigrants from Commonwealth nations — and talk of the potential decline of the British state.

Stryker also explored the art historical trends of the time, explaining the differences between postwar visual arts in the United States and Britain. While the move toward abstraction came to dominate American artistic milieus, such as the New York School and the Abstract Expressionists, representations of the human figure remained particularly prominent across the Atlantic, he explained.

“There’s a very strong tendency towards figuration in British art … [it] often resembles a human body, to one degree or another,” Stryker said.

Stryker focused on a 1973 bronze sculpture by British artist Lynn Chadwick’s named “Winged Figures II,” explaining that the piece took the artist’s “winged figures” series, which he had begun to create after making the switch from architecture to sculpture in the 1950s, in a new direction. The novelty, he said, is evident in the piece’s “flat, polished bronze face,” set on top of the highly textured body typical of Chadwick’s prior sculptures.

Although made nearly two decades after Chadwick shifted disciplines, “Winged Figures II” still provides glimpses of his “architect’s way of thinking,” Stryker explained. He noted the piece’s nod to poured concrete — a building technique that had emerged at the beginning of the 20th century — as well the sculpture’s echoes of the “raised platform” trend in Modernist architecture, in which concrete platforms raised above street-level were used to connect buildings and serve as pedestrian areas removed from the road.

Stryker noted that the sculpture’s metamorphic qualities are not limited to its bird-like characteristics, adding that Chadwick’s works exemplify the idea of “body as a building” — a concept common in postwar British sculpture. He added that the prominence of this notion of figures in a state of change was likely tied to the social conditions of the period.

The professor also analyzed two of artist Kenneth Armitage’s sculptures — his 1957 “Triarchy” and 1952 “Friends Walking” — both composed of a large, “wall-like” bronze slab. He focused in particular on the process Armitage used to add supporting legs to “Triarchy,” which involved the sculptor placing the slab in a vertical position and using a frame of wooden supports to hold it up while the permanent legs were added. This process, he said, was akin to that used to prop up the walls of buildings near bomb sites, deployed all over Britain during the period of reconstruction.

The final piece discussed was Frank Auerbach’s 1967 oil-on-board “Seated Figure II,” a painting rendered in a palette of grays, browns and ochres. Though many scholars associate this lack of vibrant color with the austerity of postwar Britain, Stryker said he wonders if the “lusciousness” of the vast quantity of paint — applied over a long period of time — does not contradict such a notion. He pointed out several other contradictions present within the paining, questioning in particular allegations that Auerbach’s work is necessarily about decline — in fact, the artist’s work quite literally depicts the “building up” of something.

Sue Cohen, a New Haven resident, said she is thankful for the range of programming offered by the Yale galleries.

“I enjoyed hearing about the social-political connections between the [visual] arts and the reconstruction of Great Britain,” said David Thompson, Coordinator of Cataloguing at the YCBA.

The Yale Center for British Art is located at 1080 Chapel St.

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