British socialist art exhibited

Peter de Francia, study for The Bombing of Sakiet

By Christine Lindey in Britain:

Art For Whom?

Tate Britain, London SW1

Friday 13 May 2011

Britain’s museums are under such pressure to attract revenue that visiting their paying exhibitions, however wonderful their theme, is often exhausting and expensive.

Meanwhile, outstanding works can be enjoyed for free in the peaceful rooms of their permanent collections.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Tate Britain.

Its curators continue to find inventive ways of making the most of its vast collection of British art to attract visitors who tend to flock to the more glamorous Tate Modern.

This current display is unusually sympathetic to socialist works which more usually languish in the museum’s stores.

Seeing them interspersed among the academic and modernist works which dominated the aesthetics of their day allows us to understand the norms against which socialist artists battled. As in politics, so in art.

Communist Clive Branson‘s Portrait of a Worker is in room 6, which is devoted to the 1930s.

In its day, Branson’s “return” to realism was all too easily accused of conservatism by the British avant-garde then pioneering abstraction and surrealism.

Branson’s style may have been traditional but his choice and treatment of subject was progressive.

Portraiture was – and still is – largely a matter of commissions from the ruling class.

Paintings such as HJ Gunn’s Sir WO Hutchinson (1926) which hangs next to Branson’s, portray their sitters on a grand scale, immaculately and expensively dressed, their elongated physique, arrogant facial expression and stance denoting their supposed social superiority.

But Branson’s painting subverts this norm.

Scumbled and impastoed brush work refuses to hide the painter’s working process.

Tired but with his spirit uncrushed and looking older than his years, his sitter’s careworn, intelligent gaze engages directly with ours.

Non-idealised, non-heroic, the worker is portrayed as a thinking individual typifying the politically-aware working class.

Surprisingly, the communist Peter Peri‘s bust of Stalin (1942) is also displayed. Frankly, it is not one of his best.

But like the far better Mr Collins From The ARP (1940) which is also owned by the Tate, it shows Peri’s desire to make accessible art which reflects it own times.

Made when Britain and the Soviet Union were allies against fascism, “Uncle Joe” was then a familiar figure in the British media.

Cast in modern coloured concrete, the bust represents its subject with unpretentious honesty.

Peter de Francia‘s expressionist condemnation of colonialism The Bombing Of Sakiet (1959) is in room 4.

During the Algerian War of Independence, the French airforce illegally destroyed the Tunisian border village Sakiet Sidi Yousef, killing 58 civilians claiming that it was a training camp for Algerian “terrorists.”

In its context of mid-century modernist works which relied on non-contentious, traditional subject matter such as the human form or townscapes, the seriousness and pertinence of de Francia’s theme shines through.

It’s a rare modern history painting in that it addresses a contemporary political issue.

Room 13, entitled Art for Whom? is devoted to 1970s and early-1980s politically engaged art.

Alongside works by Stuart Brisley, Peter Kennard, Linder and others hangs Keith Piper‘s Go West Young Man (1987).

This recently acquired photo-text sequence is a moving indictment of the cruelties of slavery and its legacy.

It exposes the processes whereby the slave owners’ commodification of human beings underlies the current objectification of young black men as mindless erotic and/or savage beings.

Equally powerful is Conrad Atkinson‘s Northern Ireland 1968, May Day 1975, also recently acquired.

Dominating half of one wall this image-text installation exposes the anger, injustices and prejudices which informed the civil rights struggles.

Atkinson spent several months interviewing local people and British soldiers, photographing city streets and gathering documentation from official and unofficial public relations handouts, media reports, posters, wall paintings and slogans.

Arranged non-emotively, two rows of snapshot-sized photographs are displayed above a single row of texts typed uniformly onto a repeated sequence of orange, white and green backgrounds.

The folk art generated by the troubles comes across in republican and unionist banners, wall paintings, children’s ditties and ballads.

Slogans such as Brits Out and Remember Derry, jostle ones such as Ulster Is Protestant and What We Have We Hold and a wall painting of a swastika morphing into the Union Jack is near a laboriously painted image of King Billy.

From afar the deadpan arrangement of these unframed, simply-aligned rectangles contradicts the emotive message that these are the colours of the Irish republican flag, albeit not in their correct order.

Atkinson’s stated intention was to generate discussion, yet his socialist stance is clear – the people’s views are elevated above those of politicians and the message is that armed colonialism is the problem, not the solution.

What unites these disparate works spanning half a century, is their creators’ commitment to accessibility, contemporary life, class consciousness and the belief that art has a social function.

Rather than looking inwards, they all engage with major issues of their times. That this is rare exposes the paucity of capitalist aesthetics.

Runs daily from 10am-6pm. Free.

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