Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965

Guest contributor Ananya Mukhopadhyay reviews the exhibition, on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 26 March 2017


Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Haus der Kunst’s ongoing exhibition Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945 – 1965 takes as its premise the ruptured discourses of nationalism and humanism which were sharply brought to light during and following the Second World War. The exhibition traces the global artistic response to the cataclysmic events of the Holocaust, the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the enduring political schisms of the Cold War. In addition to rehabilitating waning and Nazified ‘degenerate’ European modernisms, Postwar surveys the contributions of artists from pan-Asian, African and American backgrounds. In doing so, curators Katy Siegel, Okwui Enwezor and Ulrich Wilmes follow in the footsteps of Rasheed Araeen, whose seminal exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain was held at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. In another sense however, Haus Der Kunst goes further than to simply subvert the hegemony of Western Modernism. ‘Postwar’ becomes a condition that is not topographically constrained: it is a global consciousness of a violent modernity which counts partition conflicts, decolonisation and the rise of new technologies among its various geopolitical faces. Indian and Pakistani artists are featured prominently in this recent survey of alternative voices.


Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Baroda artist Jeram Patel is on view alongside Araeen, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Mohan Samant in a section of the exhibition dealing with materialism, entitled ‘Form Matters’. Patel is perhaps most well-known for his experimental brutalisations of the picture surface with a blowtorch, and also for his black abstractions on paper which are seen as in-betweeneries, or illustrations for the interstitial spaces of experience. Postwar, however, exhibits a dark, highly textured oil-on-board composition. A luminous window floats atop the murky abstraction which dominates the picture plane. The curious referentiality of this window element suggests a beyond, a concealed au-delà which emphasises the very instrument of its obscurity: the material blackness of the foreground. The physically ruined postwar landscape had prompted a concern with this kind of material manipulation, with the surface transformed from mediating membrane into the primary site of expression. Highly prized by Alfred Barr, Mohan Samant’s tactile Green Square (1963) is also presented as an embodiment of this trope.

Another area of the exhibition focuses on ‘New Images of Man’, highlighting the major crisis of humanism which characterised the postwar period. Existential questions are combined with a concern for nation building in the works on view here, including Man (1951) by M.F. Husain and Head of a Man Thinking (1965) by F.N. Souza. Husain’s monumental canvas is largely articulated in the colours of the Indian flag, featuring folk dancers, nude female bodies and the sacred cow. The central character of Man is a pensive black figure, drawing the eye by virtue of its chromatic negativity, and raising the question of identity in a newly independent India. Souza’s Head is a similarly charged work of dappled blackness, a stigmatised colour in the context of ubiquitous racial conflicts and migratory movements across not only Indian but global borders.


Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

In the context of modernity as cosmopolitanism, Postwar posits the work of Krishen Khanna, Avinash Chandra and Pakistani artist Sadequain. Chandra’s typical blurring of the line between abstraction and figuration permits the entwinement of various different figures, distinguished by their varied colours and rotund, interlocking forms. While Chandra’s Early figures (1961) is decidedly erotic in its staging of heterogeneous characters, Krishen Khanna’s News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948) uses depicted newspapers to divide up and isolate the various figures on the canvas, thematising separateness within a community, despite their unifying interest in a tragic event.

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji's Death (1948) Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948). Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery

Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965 is on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 26 March 2017.

Indian and Pakistani art at Tate Britain’s ‘Migrations’

Sabah Mathur of Saffronart, London, on Tate Britain’s amazingly original exhibition Migrations. 

London: The show currently on view at Tate Britain, London, raises interesting questions about the identity of British art. Titled Migrations it offers a novel approach to art as a continuum, flowing in from somewhere else, and addresses a topic that has always been provocative – interculturalism. The exhibition envisions British art as a dialogue with Europe, America, the Commonwealth and ex-colonies, including India, and demonstrates how Britain has always been influenced by the migratory; or, how ideas from beyond its borders are constantly being incorporated in the culture.

The exhibition opens by demonstrating that the most distinguished art made in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries emerged from the hands of artists who came from modern day Holland and Belgium, either as religious exiles or in search of financial reward. As well as bringing a new sophistication to portraiture – especially after Van Dyck arrived at the behest of Charles I – artists from these countries also brought in fresh artistic genres like marine painting and landscape painting. We are then taken on a whirlwind tour of the effects of incoming cultures on British art, from 19th century dialogues between Britain, France an America through the work of artists such as the Frenchman James Tissot and two Americans, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, to avant-garde Jewish artists of the early 20th century such as Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian, who fled to Britain during the Second World War. The exhibition also highlights the mid-century lure of Britain as a centre for engagement with an international language of Modernism for artists from the commonwealth, and the work of artists from second generation immigrant backgrounds, engaging with questions of race and identity in Thatcher’s Britain.

What we found particularly interesting is the section of the exhibition dedicated to migrant artists from commonwealth countries who moved to Britain in the 1950s and 60s to study and engage with modernism. Initially, their work was often viewed in terms of their ethnicity. This marginalisation led many of the artists to challenge, and, through their own practices, to redefine modernism. This section includes works by two Indian artists (F.N. Souza and Avinash Chandra), and two Pakistani artists (Anwar Jalal Shemza and Rasheed Araeen). Although Rasheed Araeen is quite well represented with a number of works, the only Souza on display is Crucifixion (1959), which is part of the Tate’s permanent collection, purchased in 1993. This painting is typical of Souza’s imagery made around biblical themes, and is indicative of his bitterness towards the Catholic Church and the tremendous anguish this led to.

Here we should say that this is essentially an in-house show, with all but a handful of works taken from Tate’s own collections. In fact, the idea for the show arose from an issue with Tate Britain’s collection itself: it covers British art over the last 500 years – yet a significant proportion of it is not British at all. While that is admirable, it does mean that in several cases the curator had to make do with what she had.

Francis Newton Souza . Crucifixion . Oil on board . 1959
Collection: Tate London
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Rasheed Araeen . Rang Baranga . Wood and paint . 1969
Collection: Tate, London
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Avinash Chandra . Hills of Gold . Oil on Canvas . 1964
Collection: Tate London
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