Between the wartime ’40s and the swinging ’60s lay the 1950s. What of them? Sandwiched between decades with lots to shout about historically, the ’50s can seem a bit of a shrinking violet.
If there’s one word that sticks to the post-war, pre-Beatles decade, it’s ‘austerity’. Post-war rationing didn’t end completely until 1954 by which time the principle of ‘make do and mend’ was well ingrained.
This concept has made a comeback in recent years, notably after the bankers’transgressions shrank the pound in our pocket.
An inaugural Thrift Festival proved popular while allotment gardening, knitting and cycling have shed their fuddy duddy image to attract a new wave of devotees.
Now comes an exhibition at mima called Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain.
This is interesting because through the prism of ‘optimism’ rather than ‘austerity’ the decade can seem very different.
The title alone is a reminder that this was also the decade of the Coronation, the conquest of Everest and the 1951 Festival of Britain, an attempt to cheer up a battered population and promote good design ahead of massive post-war reconstruction.
The exhibition in Middlesbrough will celebrate the fine art, design and sculpture of the 1950s and feature work by, among others, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro, Eduardo Paolozzi and LS Lowry.
Pop art was actually born in the 1950s which is why you will see works by Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, who taught in Newcastle and is currently the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern.
Mima confirm the impression that this was a decade of contradictions, stating: “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 while the Festival of Britain and designers of homewares and advertising were embracing the new.”
Curator Alix Collingwood says the idea for an exhibition started to take shape when mima was offered an archive by the second Lord Crathorne, Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire and a longtime supporter of the arts.
“His mother was Nancy Tennant (who became Nancy Dugdale, Baroness Crathorne) and she was the chair of the first Friends of Middlesbrough Art Gallery,” explains Alix.
“The gallery was set up in the late 1950s and the archive material presented us with a lot of source material, explaining why it was established and how the collection began to come together.
“There were newspaper clippings from the time and speech notes that Nancy jotted down.
“The group started to build the collection before they actually had a gallery to house it in.
“Middlesbrough had been collecting since the 1920s, but there was no collecting policy. What Nancy Tennant did in establishing the Friends group was really to start bringing in works by significant artists, so ultimately Middlesbrough would have to give them a gallery to house it in. She campaigned really hard for this.”
Mima (the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), a purpose-built home for what is now a valuable collection, would surely have delighted Baroness Crathorne, who died in 1969.
A keen artist, she would also have been thrilled to see one of her paintings displayed in the exhibition alongside notable loans from the Tate, the National Galleries of Scotland, Arts Council England and elsewhere.
The exhibition will also acknowledge the work of Max Lock, the post-war urban planner who was commissioned by the Middlebrough Corporation in 1944 to develop a plan for the town, incorporating Modernist architecture but also taking into account the views of the public.
The exhibition, arranged to take the visitor on a journey through mima’s four ground floor galleries, runs until June 29.
On March 1 (12 noon to 4pm) there’s a free 1950s Festival offering an introduction to the fashions, food, music and even hairstyling of the period.