Out of Ruins: The Visual Culture of New Brutalism in 1950s Britain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Media, Film and Music


The visual culture of New Brutalism (roughly from 1952-1960) included paintings, sculptures, photography, printmaking, and craftwork, as well as the better known work of the architects who have been most clearly associated with the term (initially Alison and Peter Smithson and James Stirling). Most of the artwork was made in London and Essex but it had international references and aspirations. The visual culture of New Brutalism was practiced by some of the most significant artists of the twentieth century (Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and William Turnbull) as well as those who have become sidelined in the history of art (Magda Cordell, Nigel Henderson, and John McHale). It was characterised by a set of stylistic interests: the inclusion of 'raw' materials (everything from found photographs to bombsite debris); an interest in new possibilities for structuring images (images with no focal point, random forms of ordering); and the production of images that would be compelling even though they were not beautiful (addressed as much to the nervous system as to the eyes). Alongside these characteristics, New Brutalist artists, critics and architects refused to be programmatic: theirs would be an art that faced up to the dynamics of the post-war situation with an ethical responsiveness that would not be seduced by the emerging culture of consumerist plenty and unheralded technological progress, but would also not ignore the possibilities this offered. This was to be a humanist art that searched for progressive potential in the present, scoured the past for lost opportunities, and refused to forget the traumas of the recent past (the blitz, the Holocaust).
As yet no single volume has attended to New Brutalist art as a distinct contribution to post-war visual culture: my proposed book will fill this gap. Indeed art history and cultural history has usually treated the art of New Brutalism as nothing but the prequel to the emergence of British Pop Art, marginalising its distinctiveness and obscuring the early careers of artists such as Paolozzi and Hamilton (both of whom exceed the category of 'pop art'). Other artists who existed in the orbit of New Brutalism have either been forgotten (Magda Cordell) or are undergoing a reassessment through single artist studies (Nigel Henderson and John McHale [forthcoming]).
While the central task of this project is to resuscitate the term New Brutalism because it refers to a significant moment of post-war British art, the larger project is to argue that close attention to this work 'throws a unique light on the culture' within which it was produced. New Brutalism was practiced during a time of harsh post-war austerity and giddy hopes for future prosperity. The artists involved were all affected by the traumatic catastrophes of the war years. Their particular experiences extended far beyond the cultural and material shores of Britain: to Italy, Hungary, the US, Indian, France and elsewhere. New Brutalism refused the specialism of artistic disciplines: architects worked with artists; groups curated and created new forms of visual culture (exhibitions on speed, biology, scientific photography; as well as early examples of instillations as artworks); books and illustrated lectures were all part of New Brutalism. And while traumatic history marks the aesthetic practice of New Brutalism in profound ways, the dominant mood is enthusiasm: enthusiasm for science (the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener and the biology of D'Arcy Thompson) and science fiction; a fascination with advertising and commodity design alongside a passion for experimental theatre; a love of B-movies and the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Their aesthetic solutions might not be ours, but as an energetic example of a desire to fashion hope out of oblivion without the amnesia that usually accompanies it, they speak to us urgently and vitally.

Planned Impact

Alongside the contribution that the research will make to scholarship I envisage it as having a more general impact on national public culture, and producing befits in relation to the understanding and appreciation of national heritage. The people who would benefit from this research would therefore be an interested general public.
The public interest in my research topic can be demonstrated in a number of ways. There is an interest in cultural history at a general level and I would argue that the 1950s is a period that garners particular interest at the moment. Partly this is because the people of an age to have some nostalgic investment in this period often have the time to spend on it, but also because the period of the immediate post-war introduced so many cultural elements that still characterise our contemporary situation. It is especially relevant that the artists I'm concerned with engaged so thoroughly with the new consumer culture and the domestic technologies it introduced, with new popular cultural forms (comics and rock-and-roll), as well as with the emotional impact of a recent traumatic past. While we currently have different technologies, different cultural forms and new traumas there are good reasons why the 1950s feels so connected to the present. Post-war British cultural history clearly attracts a large public audience as can be seen by the success of the work of the writer and presenter Andrew Marr (Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain) as well as the book sales of historians such as Dominic Sandbrook, David Kynaston and Paul Addison. Alongside this I would argue that art history is now a formidable presence on television and in the press even if flagship art shows such as The Southbank Show have been lost to terrestrial television. Art critics and historians (such as Matthew Collings and Andrew Graham Dixon) have become household names (at least in many households) and with the emergence of two Sky arts channels, art TV has become a solid part of the weekly media output. The appetite for art documentaries and for exhibitions is growing, and the audience for these programmes would also have an interest in my research. In recent years the focus on British art has become much more pronounced and there is an interesting attempt to present British art as both unique (as a national form) and international in stature (for instance the Chanel 4 series The Genius of British Art and the BBC series British Masters). There is a clear national public interest in this history, as well as one that attracts tourists who nearly always come to Britain to consume cultural heritage.
My research will attract this overlapping audience because it tells a story about the emergence of an art movement out of the experience of war and post-war culture. There are personal stories here that will fascinate, whether an audience is interested primarily in art or not (for instance the story that Paolozzi tells of the rioters in Edinburgh destroying his parent's confectionary shop when Italy declared war on Britain, or Magda Cordell falling in love with band-leader Frank Cordell in Egypt after she had travelled across Europe when her entire family were killed).
The material of my research will be perfect for an exhibition in a nationally significant gallery, which would also benefit the institution economically and the larger national economy, indirectly, through tourism. Within the terms of this immediate project (writing a book for a university press) a non-academic audience will be reached through public talks and journalistic writing (see the document Pathways to Impact). However the long-term aim of the research is to produce an exhibition, a catalogue and hopefully a television programme.


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Description The findings from this research has resulted in a re-assessment of British post-war art. This has altered our understanding of some of the most well-known postwar British artists who are usually associated with the development of Pop Art (Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi) while at the same time it has allowed a number of less well-known artists to become more prominent in the historical understanding of this period (Magda Cordell, John McHale, William Turnbull etc.). The research has also involved developing an approach to art and visual culture more broadly that treats it as an important historical body of evidence for an understanding of the patterns of feeling that are circulating in the immediate postwar period.
Exploitation Route I think that this will give others the incentive and the tools to explore other aspects of this period or any other period of British art history.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description I am being asked not simply to give talks in art galleries and museums but to consult on issues of curating and exhibition development. The term Brutalism, as a more general understanding of the world of the 1950s, is being considered by the curators of the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich as a way of developing new appreciations of Francis Bacon and Elizabeth Frink and of organising their displays. The Tate has invited me to propose an exhibition based around my findings. I have been invited to Tel Aviv, Israel and Porto, Portugal to work on Brutalism in these and other national contexts. Unfortunately I was only able to accept the invitation to Porto and spent a week there working with 12 architects and looking at their buildings. A book on Porto Brutalism will be forthcoming in Summer 2019.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Contribution to exhibition Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 
Organisation Barbican Centre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I was an advisor to the curatorial team that put together the Postwar Modern art exhibition that was part of the Barbican's 40 year anniversary.
Collaborator Contribution They were the main contributors and organised the exhibition.
Impact Exhibition and catalogue.
Start Year 2020
Description Contribution to Radio Documentary for BBC Radio 4 (The Dreams We Live Inside) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a national Radio (BBC R4) broadcast aimed at a general public. The theme was re-evaluating some of the utopian ideas of the postwar period. For the programme that I was speaking on the themes was Brutalist architecture and housing with a special focus on Sheffield's Park Hill flats. The programme was 30 minutes long and I was included in three sections within the programme and probably contributed about 5 minutes of speech.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00108h9
Description From Cyborgs to Sideboards 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk to accompany the exhibition of Eduardo Paolozzi's work at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

The exhibition of Paolozzi's work was a lucky addition to my research project and I arranged to do this public lecture to coincide with it.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions1/past-exhibitions1/2013/main-galleries1/eduardo-paolozzi-collaging...
Description Life Patterns (Firstsite Gallery, Colchester) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a lecture to accompany the exhibition "Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi: Hammer Prints Ltd. 1954-1975" at the Firstsite Gallery, Colchester.

It increased attendance for the Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Paolozzi's sculpture in the 1950s and 60s 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, to coincide with an exhibition of Eduardo Paolozzi's work

Lively responses from audience that demonstrated that they had not previously thought of the sculptor in this light.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description This was a talk about the entire project of the grant, geared to the publication of the book The Art of Brutalism 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact It was a small (about 40 people) gathering of mainly interested public with a few academics. It was based around the publication of my book The Art of Brutalism, which is the substantial outcome of this grant. People were very interested and explained that had not known how interesting and important these artists were.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/whats-on/past/art-of-brutalism