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Friday 26 November 2021 – ‘Pickled for Posterity’: British Art and the Second World War

Lecturer: Monica Bohm-Duchen

“What did it look like? They will ask in 1981, and no amount of description or demonstration will answer them.
Nor will big, formal compositions like the battle pictures which hang in palaces; and even photographs, which tell us so much, will leave out the colour and the peculiar feeling of events in these extraordinary years.
Only the artists with his heightened powers of perception can recognize which elements in a scene can be pickled for posterity in the magical essence of style” (Sir Kenneth Clark, 1942).
In marked contrast to most of the art produced under the dictatorships, most British art produced during World War Two (primarily under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, headed by Clark) was low-key and understated, the artists being more concerned with creating an unsensational record of the war in its more intimate aspects than with nationalist rhetoric, and with celebrating the quintessentially English qualities of stoicism and resilience. As much emphasis was therefore given to the Home Front as to the war in Europe and beyond.
This illustrated lecture will also address a less familiar area of British cultural history: namely, the wartime activities of émigré artists from Nazi-occupied Europe who sought refuge in Britain in the late 1930s.
Particular emphasis will be placed on their anti-fascist imagery and on the work they produced in the British internment camps for so-called “enemy aliens”, set up in 1940, mostly on the Isle of Man. It will also look at the work of British POWs such as Ronald Searle, who managed to produce some extraordinary images in captivity, and the British artists who were present at the liberation of the concentration camps.