A new season of exhibitions at MIMA headlines with Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain, 21 February – 29 June. This vibrant exhibition celebrates fine art, design and sculpture from the 1950s and features work by, amongst others, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro, Eduardo Paolozzi and Wyndham Lewis. Post-war Britain was a time of contradictions: alongside austerity, rationing and the lasting trauma of war were optimism and a sense of progress and change. Many artists of this time recorded a sense of apprehension and anger in their work, whilst the Festival of Britain and designers of homewares and advertising were embracing the new.
The exhibition explores all of this through paintings, posters, sculpture, furniture and ceramics, with works from major collections across the UK – including Tate, The National Galleries of Scotland and the Arts Council Collection – shown alongside works from mima’s collection.
A free 1950s Festival celebrates the exhibition on 1 March, 12 – 4pm. With free entry, this is a 1950s day with vintage fashion, food and drink, make do and mend activities, hair and makeup tutorials and live tattooing.
Also showing is Metal: AV Festival 14 Exhibition, 28 February – 24 April. AV Festival is a leading international festival of contemporary art, film and music, based in North East England. As part of this year’s festival, AV has curated Metal at mima. The exhibition focuses on the raw material of metal as an agent of global power and financial control. The show responds to Middlesbrough’s role in the development of a global iron and steel industry.
It includes works by leading international artists and the UK premier of Gold Toned Okapi, 2007 a work by Turner Prize winner Simon Starling. An accompanying installation is showing at Platform A Gallery in Middlesbrough Railway Station, a 10 minute walk from mima.
The final show of the season is Markus Karstieß: Hello Darkness, 31 January – 4 April 2014. It features thought-provoking ceramic sculptures and a sound installation developed by Makus Karstieß during his year-long tenure as Lipman Artist in Residence in Newcastle University’s Fine Art department. This installation is made up of lustre-glazed ceramic cylinders made by Karstieß, suspended in a way that could be likened to a giant glockenspiel. The sound installation that plays alongside the hanging cylinders is a recording of Karstieß striking each one, producing an other-worldly music. A floor of locally-sourced earth grounds the floating structure, reminding the viewer where the cylinders were made and linking them to the land of North East England.
The show opens with a look back at the Festival of Britain of 1951, which strove to project a new spirit of confidence, ambition and optimism, and especially showcased British design of the era. The Festival was initiated to ‘cheer up’ Britain and inspire confidence in society, as well as marking the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It generated demand for new fashions in furniture and furnishings and introduced new styles and revolutionary materials – fiberglass, plywood, Formica and plastics: a selection of homewares is being shown as part of mima’s exhibition.
However, despite the optimism of the Festival and the innovations in design and materials, much of the fine art of the 1950s was rooted in austerity and fear. This can be seen in some of the paintings on show such as Girl in a green dress by Lucian Freud, Primrose Hill: High Summer by Frank Auerbach and War News (Portrait of Froanna) by Wyndham Lewis.
The exhibition also showcases the work of a new generation of British sculptors who emerged in this period, including Anthony Caro, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi. These artists sought to reflect something of the horror of war and the age of the atom bomb. Their chosen medium was bronze, rather than stone or wood, and their figures are gnarled and scarred, as if emerging from battle.
In contrast to the works of painters and sculptors, the approach of designers in this period presented a new vitality that still influences design today. The show features period furniture, photographs, design and craft alongside display systems that reflect the 1950s aesthetic. This decade also saw the birth of Pop Art; works by the likes of Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton – who drew on interior and graphic design in their art – show how discovering the American way of life became key to the aspirations of the British public, in terms of both culture and material goods.
Part of the exhibition focuses on Middlesbrough’s and the North East’s approach to this time. Middlesbrough Art Gallery created its first Friends group in the 1950s. The Friends began to purchase art works for the town, including the much loved LS Lowry painting of the old Middlesbrough Town Hall, forming the basis of Middlesbrough’s permanent collection based at mima. The show also has works by Victor Pasmore who created the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham.
In addition to the exhibition, mima will run a series of public events for adults and families, including a 1950s celebration day and family workshops.