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20th Century British Art - a short overview

20th Century British Art was hugely influenced by the social and political upheaval caused by the two World Wars which dominated the country during the first half of the century. The early 1900s had seen Britain coming out of the staid Victorian era into a time of more liberal thinking, but the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, arrested this progression and the bitter struggle dragged on for four years. Although the 'Roaring Twenties' gave the country a sense of optimism, the 1930s saw the country in the grip of economic depression. By 1939, with the declaration of World War II, Britain was faced with yet another six years of agonising conflict.

The war time years severely affected the entire population, heightening ideas of nationalism and patriotism, but also raising questions about the desperation and futility of war. In this climate, artists were largely unable to make a living selling works of art, but the artistic spirit found strength in adversity and British Art of this period developed extraordinary power and influence over the thinking of the next few decades. Some of the most notable British artists of the war years were John Piper (1903 - 1992), Henry Moore (1898 - 1986), Keith Vaughan (1912 - 1977) and Graham Sutherland (1903 - 1980).

In the post war years and the 50s decade, Britain struggled to recover economically and the mood of the country was one of austerity and determination. The group of artists who came to be known as the 'Kitchen Sink' group portrayed the limiting lifestyle of hard work, strict family hierarchy and rigid authoritarian social attitudes as subject for their work. John Bratby (1928 - 1992) was a leading member of this group and although the work was seen as shocking and depressing by some critics, this new genre actually led the way for art to become an overt commentator on social realism. By the end of the 1950s Britain was ready for a revolution. Austerity quickly gave way to the desire for modernity and mass produced, labour saving devices. Suddenly Britain was awash with bright plastic household goods, shiny white metal fridges, cookers and washing machines and clothes made from recently invented synthetic materials.

Above all, the country was in the grip of the advertising industry and this gave rise, in part, to the 'Pop Art Movement'. Artists used anything and everything as material for expression. The bright, punchy graphic quality of the advertising hoarding and media iconography became absorbed into the language of contemporary art. Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi and Colin Self are amongst the prominent artists who contributed to the British Pop Art movement of the 60s.

By the early 1970s, political thinking was leaning towards an anti-war stance and the 'peace and love' movement gave rise to a more introspective, questioning form of art. The 'Conceptual Art' movement quickly gained credibility. Conceptual Art dealt with issues and ideas in a way whereby the concept would become the art work. To a certain extent, this released artists from the need to produce works based on aesthetic choices of the past.

The 1980s saw huge technological leaps in communications including digital computerisation and the birth of the internet. New Media became the art tool of the decade and artists including John Stezaker and Lis Rhodes created innovative, mixed media works using digital photography, painting, sculpture, video and installation.

In the 1990s a group which came to be known as Young British Artists (YBAs) rose to prominence with fresh, bold and controversial methods of producing art. Two main players in this group were Damien Hirst (b. 1965) and Tracey Emin (b. 1963) whose early careers were subjected to intense and intrusive media attention.

Throughout the 20th century, British Art constantly re-invented itself, using the spirit of change and progression to produce inspiring, innovative and ground breaking works. Britain and British Art had changed beyond all recognition during that century and the country entered the New Millennium with an explosion of energy and optimism for the future.


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