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Artists of Their Time: The Postwar Battle for Realism in Literature and Painting

Ferrebe, AC (2018) Artists of Their Time: The Postwar Battle for Realism in Literature and Painting. In: Plain, G, (ed.) British Literature in Transition 1940-1960: Postwar. British Literature in Transition . Cambridge University Press, pp. 225-242. ISBN 9781107119017

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The culture of the 1950s in Britain has routinely been cast as a period of dogged realism. Yet the postwar period can alternatively be read as one in which artists and writers wrangle with the need for a democratised art just as key tenets of socialist belief are being destroyed by Stalinist policy and Soviet military actions: in other words, a time of cross-disciplinary, intense negotiation over the stylistic and moral imperatives of representing reality. In 1956, critic David Sylvester, an influential advocate of modernist art, wrote that ‘one of the odder intellectual conflicts of the present time is the one called the “battle for realism”. […] The oddity is that the battle takes the form of purely psychological warfare, waged by propagandists’. Clearly in his sights on this perceived battleground is John Berger – writer, painter, esoteric Marxist, invigoratingly belligerent ‘propagandist’ for a politically engaged art – and a critic violently opposed to Sylvester’s modernist preferences. Berger’s textual production during the 1950s was characteristically polymathic, including his most provocative art criticism, his curation and promotion of the seminal social realist 1952 exhibition Looking Forward at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, and his first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958). This chapter will consider this novel, together with other ‘artist novels’ by Joyce Cary and Elizabeth Taylor, against the context of these wider cultural debates. It will re-evaluate realism as a nexus of cross-class political and artistic engagement during the 1950s, and in so doing, seek to illuminate the close relationship between writing and visual art that has been missing from histories of the decade.

Item Type: Book Section
Uncontrolled Keywords: John Berger, Elizabeth Taylor, Joyce Cary, modernism, realism, John Bratby, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, fiction, painting, postwar
Subjects: N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Divisions: Humanities & Social Science
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Date Deposited: 28 Feb 2020 10:06
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2021 23:00
DOI or ID number: 10.1017/9781316340530.014
Editors: Plain, G
URI: https://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/12339
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