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‘Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain’
21 February – 29 June 2014 Free entry
This spring, mima presents ‘Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain’, a major exhibition that explores the changes in the country’s mood and artistic output in the post-war period. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the Festival of Britain via the chill of cold war paranoia to the optimism of 1950s design and the Pop art movement; it also examines how the era affected the people of Middlesbrough and North East England.
The exhibition includes acclaimed art and design of international importance, including loans from Tate, National Galleries of Scotland, Museum of London and the Arts Council Collection. ‘Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain’ features over 50 works – paintings, sculpture, photographs, design, craft and furniture – by major artists such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake. The show opens with a look back at the Festival of Britain of 1951, which strove to project a new spirit of confidence, ambition and optimism, and especially showcased British design of the era. The Festival was initiated to ‘cheer up’ Britain and inspire confidence in society, as well as marking the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It generated demand for new fashions in furniture and furnishings and introduced new styles and revolutionary materials – fibreglass, plywood, Formica and plastics: a selection of homewares is being shown as part of mima’s exhibition.
Despite the optimism of the Festival and the innovations in design and materials, much of the fine art of the 1950s was rooted in austerity and fear. This can be seen in some of the paintings on show such as Girl in a Green Dress by Lucian Freud, Primrose Hill: High Summer by Frank Auerbach and War News (Portrait of Froanna) by Wyndham Lewis. The exhibition also showcases the work of a new generation of British sculptors who emerged in this period, including Anthony Caro, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi. These artists sought to reflect something of the horror of war and the age of the atom bomb. Their chosen medium was bronze, rather than stone or wood, and their figures are gnarled and scarred, as if emerging from battle.
In contrast to the works of painters and sculptors, the approach of designers in this period presented a new vitality that still influences design today. The show features period furniture, photographs, design and craft alongside display systems that reflect the 1950s aesthetic. This decade also saw the birth of Pop art; works by artists such as Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton – who drew on interior and graphic design in their art – show how discovering the American way of life became key to the aspirations of the British public, in terms of both culture and material goods.
Part of the exhibition focuses on Middlesbrough’s and the North East’s approach to this time. Middlesbrough Art Gallery created its first Friends group in the 1950s. The Friends began to purchase art works for the town, including the much loved L.S. Lowry painting of the old Middlesbrough Town Hall, forming the basis of Middlesbrough’s permanent collection based at mima. The show also has works by Victor Pasmore, who created the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham.
In addition to the exhibition, mima will run a series of public events for adults and families, including a 1950s celebration day and family workshops.
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima)