By Rebecca Townesend
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Art for All

This article is over 5 years, 6 months old
Issue 442

In Art for All Christine Lindey considers socially committed art and artists across three periods — 1914–39, 1939–45 and 1945–62. In her introduction she explains the use of the term: “‘Socially committed’ suggests an active engagement with social change…[and] allowing the flexibility needed for the consideration of a wide gamut of works ranging from paintings to posters.”

In a post-Second World War chapter she provides a concise summary: “The content of socially committed art continued to be defined by accessibility, specificity, topicality, optimism, truthfulness and the centrality of the working class.”

Lindey vividly and rigorously brings to life the lives, experiences, context and artistic output of these artists in a rich and engaging book.

It has over 100 good quality colour images but she also has a wonderful way of describing works of art in her writing. Of Clive Branson’s “Bombed Women and Searchlights” (1940) she writes, “The jittery crisscrossing of numerous, mostly dynamic, diagonals against the wild fluidity of barrage balloons dominating the composition conveys the fraught atmosphere.”

Brief biographies are provided of the numerous artists she profiles and she goes through the huge political and social changes and struggles which give an important context to the art produced.

During the Second World War, for example, “the artists addressed the sorrow, anxiety, privation, disruption and destruction brought by war with a directness which was rare in works by their contemporaries”.

Organisations I had not encountered before and their activities are given prominence. The Artists International (which subsequently became the Artists International Association or AIA) was established in 1933 and initially described itself as “The International Unity of Artists Against Imperialist War on the Soviet Union, Fascism and Colonial Oppression”.

The AIA was committed to democratising contemporary art and during the Second World War: “About 500 works by AIA artists toured Britain…shown in works canteens, factories, municipal museums and art galleries, schools and adult education centres in an impressively wide range of British cities, market towns and suburbs.”

There are fascinating insights into the discussions that were carried on about artistic styles such as “Modernist Realism” versus “Social Realism” and how in the late 1940s and 1950s “Britain’s dominant critics and institutions followed America’s promotion of formal experimentation as a sign of artistic freedom and cultural superiority”.

She explores the political lives and debates of these artists and the challenges they faced such as their tussles “with loyalties split between the demands of the studio and of political activism” and how they related to the Communist Party of Great Britain over this period.

It is inspiring to read about these artists whose lives were often challenging and who “trod a difficult path between raising working-class sense of self-worth, exposing exploitation, and calling for a struggle for social justice”.

Although accessible and engaging this book may appeal more to those with a significant interest in art. I really enjoyed it and I have lots of new artists and movements to go and explore and agree that “they deserve a place in art history alongside their better-known peers”.

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