Exhibition: Restless Times: Art in Britain 1914-1945, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Norwich, February 19 – April 25 2011
© Tate London (2010)
When Culture24 asked curators and artists to pick their favourite shows of the year at the end of 2010, the ensuing discussions made us grateful Restless Times hadn’t ended its tour at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, when it used recipes concocted under siege, underground posters, captivating artworks, propaganda and most things in between to ponder the relationship between military conflict and art.
Conceived as part of The Great Art Debate, an initiative attempting to define the relevance of British art to society across the decades, the hugely popular show starts at a new dawn of creativity, soundtracked by the rumble of industrial machines. At first they were thrilling, but the public swiftly realised their monstrous potential.
“The glamour and excitement of the early machine age gives way to the realisation of how destructive the same machines can be in war and how little mankind seems to have learned when the war experience is repeated and, in many ways, worsened,” said archivist Judith Phillips, looking back on her trip to the show.
© Courtesy Museums Sheffield
“The desire to find or rediscover meaning in life led many artists in the inter-war years to look closely at the countryside or peaceful domestic life, but the calming and regenerative effects of nature are contrasted by a recognition of how, for many, life is an everyday struggle with poor living and working conditions.”
At the same time, Britain was becoming a refuge for swathes of people fleeing Europe, including an influx of new artists who invigorated their cultural contemporaries in their quest to reflect the state of the nation.
From the sculptures of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein to the subway prints of Cyril Power and surrealist Ceri Richards, the list of more than 120 works involved – borrowed from lenders including the Tate, Tyne and Wear Archives and a range of private collections – is a staggering testimony to just how intertwined artists were with the hopes and fears of a nation.
Their efforts to engage with the spirit of the times has left a powerful and compelling legacy.