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Fifty years ago: looking at the art and artists of 1945

Peace was celebrated in Europe fifty years ago. As The Art Newspaper reaches its fiftieth issue this month, we look at the art of a war-torn world

The auctioneers: Christie’s

Despite the war, it was business as usual for Christie’s. On 19 January the London auctioneers offered Jane Seymour’s own portrait of Henry VIII, “possibly by Holbein” of which had been in the family for over 400 years. It sold for £3,360 to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. The Impressionists were not yet fetching dizzy sums, with a Pissarro Eragny garden picture going for a reasonable £231 on 20 April. The star of the 27 July sale was a Rowlandson watercolour of Vauxhall Gardens, last seen at a Royal Academy exhibition in 1784, which went for £2,730. It had been bought for a £1 by someone looking for porcelain in a Walthamstow antique shop. The Duke of Norfolk had a minor clear-out at Arundel Castle on 20 September, raising £9,736. Birket Foster still raised huge prices, with a watercolour of “The Weald of Surrey” fetching an astonishing £2,152 on 5 October. At Sotheby’s a Claude Lorrain landscape sold for £1,150 on 12 December, just a year after the same picture had fetched £750. The art market seemed to be heading for a welcome boom with the coming of peace.

The witnesses: Stanley Spencer and the British War Artists

In the early 1940s Henry Moore descended into the London Underground to draw sheltering civilians and Paul Nash painted air battles.

John Piper and Graham Sutherland captured the impact of the Blitz. Stanley Spencer, a veteran artist from the Great War, had in 1940 been despatched by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to the Lithgow shipyard on the Clyde, in Port Glasgow.

One evening toward the end of his stay, he walked up the hill to the local cemetery, where he found the inspiration to paint his Resurrection scene “Reunion” (Aberdeen Art Gallery). Later in 1945 Spencer, then fifty-three, returned home to his beloved Cookham, where over a five-year period he eventually finished eighteen Resurrection pictures. The official War Artists’ committee was disbanded at the end of 1945 (the best works it had acquired went to public art galleries and the residual record pictures to the Imperial War Museum).

World War II never quite captured the artistic imagination in the way that the Great War had done.

It seemed less heroic, there was much less debate over whether it was a just war, and the horrors of armed conflict had become all too familiar.

The master: Pablo Picasso

Picasso was already the most prominent living artist (Matisse was an invalid and Braque a recluse). He had stayed in Paris during the war, greeting the capital’s liberation in August 1944 and joining the Communist Party two months later. In February 1945 Picasso started “The Charnel house” (Museum of Modern Art, New York), the last of his war pictures, inspired by the horrors of the concentration camps (finishing it proved more difficult and took years). On 12 May the sixty-three year-old Picasso made the traumatic decision to cut off his distinctive forelock, which was beginning to recede and turn grey. From July to October he was on the Riviera with Dora Maar, but on his return to Paris he devoted his attentions to twenty-three year-old Françoise Gilot. Picasso’s wartime paintings generated considerable debate when his London exhibition opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 1 November. Picasso ended the year by discovering lithography, working at the Mourlot printshop and using Gilot as his model.

The hoard: Alt Aussee salt mine

Of all the Nazi art caches, none rivalled that of the Alt Aussee salt mine in the Austrian Alps. German SS troops had intended to blow up the mine if the Allies approached and 1,000-pound bombs were already in place, but at the last minute local workers cut the fuse wires and blocked the entrance, saving its priceless contents. The American Third Army fought its way to Alt Aussee on 8 May. On entering, troops found the panels of Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece stacked on a cardboard box above and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna wrapped in an old mattress. Thousands of masterpieces which the Nazis had looted from Europe’s museums were there, ready for Hitler’s planned Führer Museum in Linz. Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Webb claimed at the time (with some exaggeration) that Alt Aussee housed one-fifth of the world’s art and its disposal would determine the fate of the post-war art market. The works of art were first sent to the US Army’s Central Collecting Point in Munich and the important decision was quickly taken to return most of them to their pre-war owners. The Van Eyck altarpiece was the first to go back, presented to the Belgian Prince Regent at a ceremony in Brussels on 3 September.

The museum: the National Gallery, London

The National Gallery remained open in the war for concerts and the changing display of a single masterpiece, but its paintings were stored for safekeeping in a Welsh mine. Within a week of VE Day over forty pictures had returned on show (George VI brought nineteen year-old Princess Elizabeth to the private view). On 22 November, an exhibition opened in the Trafalgar Square gallery of works acquired with the help of the National Art Collections Fund, held in honour of its retiring chairman Sir Robert Witt. Treasures saved for the nation by the NACF in 1945 included Poussin’s “Adoration of the golden calf” (bought for £10,000 for the National Gallery), Gauguin’s “Breton shepherdess” (presented to Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery) and Kneller’s forty-four Kit-Kat Club portraits (bought for £6,500 for the National Portrait Gallery). By December, when Sir Kenneth Clark retired as National Gallery director (to be succeeded by Philip Hendy), all the paintings were back from the Welsh mine.

The double agent: Sir Anthony Blunt

During the war Blunt served three masters. He worked as the Courtauld Institute’s deputy director, an agent for the counter-intelligence service MI5 and a Soviet spy. Blunt also found time to continue his scholarly study of Old Master drawings at Windsor Castle, culminating in his 1945 catalogue, The French drawings in the collection of HM The King. Poussin remained his special love and the August 1945 issue of The Burlington Magazine included his report on two newly discovered landscapes (purchased by the National Gallery in 1970). Blunt was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Pictures by George VI in April 1945. In December he was despatched by the king on a secret mission to rescue the Hanoverian crown jewels from Germany and smuggle them back to Britain (see The Art Newspaper, No. 42, November 1994, pp. 1-2). Blunt also started work on the Royal Academy’s magnificent exhibition, “The King’s Pictures”, which opened in 1946.

The victims: Holocaust artists

The Nazis killed at least 8,000,000 people in the death camps, mostly Jews but also people of virtually every nationality. Although the existence of the camps became known during the war, it was only with liberation in 1945 that the full extent of the horror emerged. For a few of those imprisoned by the Nazis, art became their lifeline. Inmates sketched in almost impossible situations, frequently at the risk of death. It was a way of asserting their personality against the dehumanising Nazis, but above all they had a powerful need to record the terrors they were witnessing. After the war many of the artists who survived the death camps were badly scarred by the experience, finding it difficult to avoid the references to the suffering in their later work. After the liberation, Margaret Bourke-White visited Buchenwald and photographed survivors.

The architect: Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

The spiralling gallery on New York’s Fifth Avenue dates back to 1945. Frank Lloyd Wright, then seventy-seven, finished the complex task of designing the audacious ramped gallery for Solomon Guggenheim’s collection of modern art. “This unique building is so symphonic in character that the least discord at any point echoes throughout the entire structure”, he wrote on 12 May. A model of the museum was finished on 28 August and on 7 September Wright signed the final working drawings. Building the museum took rather longer than the planning. Wright died on 9 April 1959, just a few months before the museum opened. Although dating from fourteen years earlier, the bold design still appeared startlingly modern -an extensive restoration of the museum was completed in 1992.

The Surrealist showman: Salvador Dalí

Salvador and Gala Dalí had fled to America in 1940 and by the last year of the war they were comfortably ensconced in New York’s St Regis Hotel, making the occasional foray to Hollywood. Dalí, then forty, created the dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Spellbound”, starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August had traumatised Dalí, inaugurating his nuclear paintings, which started with “Melancholy, atomic, uranic idyll” (Reina Sofia, Madrid). He later wrote of the impact of Hiroshima, “I resolved to study without delay the best way to preserve my precious existence from the inroads of death and began seriously to be concerned with formulas for immortality”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fifty years ago: art in a war-torn world'