Sculpture and painting were in the spotlight in this decade. Alongside works by well established names like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, the Pavilion’s group exhibitions in the 1950s showcased young painters and sculptors, like Lucian Freud and Kenneth Armitage. For many of these artists, these shows launched their international careers.
Following the success of Henry Moore and J.M.W. Turner’s exhibition in 1948, the format of juxtaposing the work of artists from the 19th and 20th century was repeated. So in 1950, the work of Romantic painter John Constable (1776–1837) was presented alongside that of contemporary sculptor Barbara Hepworth and painter Matthew Smith.
The Biennale in 1950 was less popular than in 1948, only welcoming half the number of visitors. Hepworth was not satisfied with the works that were chosen to be shown, feeling that their selection was ''discreet" and "ladylike'' when she had wanted something bolder.
Both Hepworth’s drawings and sculptures were on display, including a series of drawings inspired by a visit to watch an operation in Exeter Orthopaedic Hospital. Alongside the drawings, there was a sculpture retrospective featuring Pelagos (1946) and Bicentric Form (1949); the latter was displayed at the entrance to the Pavilion and is now part of the Tate’s collection.
The other contemporary artist on display was Matthew Smith, who had briefly studied under Matisse and was known for his Fauvist-inspired boldly coloured nudes, still-life and landscapes. He had a successful career (this was the sixth time he had shown at the Pavilion) and later on went onto have a Tate retrospective in 1953 and was knighted in 1954.
The Selection Committee was made up of an impressive line-up of London’s art world leaders: John Rothenstein, the Director of Tate; Sir Eric Maclagan, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Sir Philip Hendy, Director of the National Gallery; and Herbert Read, the founder of the ICA. Lilian Somerville was then Director of the Fine Arts Department at the British Council and she worked with the Commissioner Sir Eric Maclagan to organise the exhibition.
The idea for this year’s exhibition was to show how Henry Moore had influenced a younger generation of sculptors to move away from the direct carving of stone and to instead embrace a metallic and angular style. Herbert Read, the Commissioner, curated a group exhibition of 11 artists, entitled New Aspects of British Sculpture.
For two young sculptors, their inclusion in this Biennale launched their careers. Kenneth Armitage said, "I was really at the beginning of my professional life. I was totally unknown before that, and in those few weeks I became a known name internationally." Another exhibiting artist, Lynn Chadwick, was declared to be “one of the revelations of the Biennale”.
Controversy surrounded the sculptures by Reg Butler, as it was a maquette of his winning proposal for a sculpture competition to commemorate people who had lost their lives as political prisoners. Butler’s idea was not welcomed by the press and politicians, the maquette was later severely damaged by a Hungarian artist and former prisoner of war so a replica model is part of the Tate’s collection.
Geoffrey Clarke and William Turnbull were among the youngest sculptors in the exhibition, whilst Graham Sutherland was of an older generation. However, the spikiness of Sutherland’s paintings has striking similarities with the younger sculptors’ work and his large painting Twisted Tree Form (1944) was awarded the Acquisition Prize of the São Paulo Museu de Arte Moderna, Brazil.
Even though Edward Wadsworth has passed away in 1949, his woodcut and tempera works in the Pavilion exhibition showed the breadth of his career and his experimental applications of traditional techniques and the influence of Vorticism on his work.
A cast of Bernard Meadows’ Black Crab (1951-2) was shown in the exhibition, a semi-abstract form that is now part of Tate’s collection. In addition, Scottish sculptor, artist and pop art pioneer Eduardo Paolozzi also made his Biennale debut in 1952, showing a bronze sculpture called Bird (1950), a brass version of Forms on a Bow (1949) and Study for a Larger Version in Concrete (1951).
"Eduardo Paolozzi (Italian by name, but born in Edinburgh) has moved from skeletal hulks to blind encrusted larvae, formless in mass, logs that seem to have drifted from the primordial Id," Read wrote in the catalogue.
Look at the group exhibitions in the 1950s:
Surrealist artist, historian and poet Roland Penrose joined Hendy, Read, Rothenstein and Somerville on the selection committee. They organised a high profile exhibition of painting by Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud that attracted a great deal of interest in the British press.
Nicholson insisted that this Pavilion exhibition predominantly featured his recent work so nearly half the work came from the previous year and his signature white relief works were abundant. His cubist-inspired still life composition 1932 (Au Chat Botté), now part of Manchester Art Gallery’s collection, contributed to him winning the Ulisse Prize for his work in the Pavilion.
Despite some debate around not being given the main central gallery space, Nicholson was delighted with the exhibition in the end:
“Lilian Somerville [Director of Fine Arts, British Council] had hung and presented the show so well (lovely rooms, perfect colour, and miraculous Venetian light) that I was able scarcely to alter one single thing.”
1954 was Lucian Freud’s Venice Biennale debut aged 33 years old. In a letter written whilst in Paris to Somerville, Freud reassures her that his painting Hotel Bedroom (1954) would be finished just in time for the Biennale: “My new painting is approaching completion and should be ready in ten days or a fortnight. The moment it is dry enough to travel I will bring it to London.” The letters between Somerville and Freud in the run up to the Pavilion exhibition also reveal that there was much debate around which works to show – organising an exhibition via letters and small black and white photographs of paintings certainly wasn’t a smooth process.
One of Freud’s paintings shown was Girl with Roses (1947-48), a portrait of his first wife, Kitty, who was in fact the daughter of another Pavilion artist sculptor Jacob Epstein. This painting is now the most travelled artwork in the British Council Collection.
Francis Bacon’s work occupied the main gallery of the Pavilion. Among his works on view was Painting (1946), a bleak portrait of an unnamed figure, which is now part of MoMA’s collection.
The same committee selected the works for the 1954 Pavilion and presented an exhibition of four young painters, John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith, alongside sculptor Lynn Chadwick and a more established, older painter Ivon Hitchens.
Chadwick had been the breakthrough artist at the Pavilion in 1952 and in 1956 his work won even more acclaim, the Biennale’s International Sculpture Prize.
“The Biennale award marks the emergence of Lynn Chadwick as a figure of international artistic importance,” said art historian Alan Bowness.
Bratby, Greaves, Smith and Edward studied together at the Royal College of Art during the early 1950s. They were part of ‘The Kitchen Sink School’, a term used to describe for British artists who painted in scenes of real, everyday life and ordinary people.
A trio of artists were presented in this exhibition: sculptor Kenneth Armitage, painter and printmaker Stanley William Hayter, and William Scott, an artist known for his still-life and abstract style painting. Architectural writer J. M. Richards joined the selection committee in 1958 and Sir Philip Hendy, Director of the National Gallery, took to the helm as Commissioner, assisted by Lilian Somerville.
The exhibition was well-received by the Biennale’s judges: Hayter won first prize for a religious work and the first ever David E. Bright Foundation Prize for a sculptor under 45 was invented for and then awarded to Armitage.
Hayter showed his paintings alongside ten new etchings at the Pavilion. Sea (1957) was a green, purple and blue oil painting with grey-white lines that showed his interest in painting and printing lively scenes of the ocean.
Armitage’s sculptures on view, such as Family Going for a Walk (1951), now part of MoMA’s collection, were inspired by people, crowds, studio furniture and his military past. The show was a huge commercial and critical success.
Scott’s paintings included still lifes of domestic scenes, such as Frying Pan (1946), which has been toured around Europe during the late 1940s by the British Council and is now part of the Arts Council Collection. He also showed a pair of brightly coloured nudes, painted in an abstract, almost primitive style: Reclining Nude (Red)(1957) and Nude – Red Background (1957).
You can read Britain at the Venice Biennale 1895-1995. Published by the British Council, 1995. Edited by Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot.