The 1940s was a landmark decade for British art as the great painters of the day depicted the horrors of war, the hopes of peace and the aftermath of conflict. The Tate Gallery’s online Walk Through British Art features 22 artworks from the period, with contributions from the likes of Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and Prunella Clough. Here are five of the most notable works on show.
1 TOTES MEER (DEAD SEA)
Paul Nash, 1940-1
This arresting picture was inspired by a wrecked aircraft dump at Cowley in Oxfordshire, the broken wings and damaged fuselages eerily evoking the waves of the sea. The artist said of the sight: “Nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead.” The scene is set at night, with a lone owl flying, adding to the sense of disquiet.
2 GREEN TREE FORM: INTERIOR OF WOODS 1940
Graham Sutherland, 1940
A fallen tree may not seem the most obvious reflection of war, but its awkward and uncanny appearance as captured by Sutherland creates an unsettling effect. The painting shows a fallen tree on a grassy bank, with exposed roots. But it is not instantly recognisable as such, instead resembling a strange organic shape emerging from murky surroundings – a monster, perhaps, or even a distorted human figure.
3 THE MUTILATED
Jankel Adler, 1942-3
Jankel Adler, a Polish Jew and socialist, fled Germany in 1933 when the Nazi party came to power. He worked in Warsaw and Paris before arriving in Britain with the Polish army. The Mutilated was painted in London during heavy bombing. Adler said it reflected his admiration for “the behaviour of Londoners under great stress and suffering”. He added: “Only then could humanity be seen at its best.”
4 BRONZE BALLET
Edward Wadsworth, 1940
This deceptively peaceful scene, based on Le Havre in northern France, was painted in Maresfield in Sussex. From there, Wadsworth could hear the bombing of French ports by the German forces.Wadsworth was interested in animism – giving life to inanimate objects. Here the forms of the ships’ propellers suggest movement, or a dance, while also hinting at the function they will perform out at sea.
5 ST MARY LE PORT, BRISTOL
John Piper, 1940
Piper was commissioned as a war artist during the Second World War, painting civilian life in the UK during the conflict. He made a series of paintings of bombed buildings, visiting the sites to take photographs and make sketches. These formed the basis for a series of paintings. From 1940, he focused particularly on churches that had been damaged or destroyed. St Mary le Port was hit in the attacks on Bristol Docks in November 1940.
See tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-british-art/1940 for the full collection