From cultural barbarian to cult icon: Podium

From a lecture on Jackson Pollock by the director of collections at the Tate Gallery

IT HAS long been recognised that the exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism circulating in Europe in the 1950s were part of a cultural offensive during the Cold War to establish the United States of America as a benign superpower and a model of democratic freedom.

As early as 1950 Lewis Galantiere indicated the necessity for such a strategy: "When a nation attains to world leadership, it preserves that rank only as long as its culture... commands respect... Without (it), wealth and might lead only to hatred, conspiracy and revolt against the physically dominant power."

Respect for that culture did not simply come through the appreciation of high art however. American art was promoted in Europe within the context of a general infiltration of American products, financial aid and lifestyle. That context conditioned the reception of Abstract Expressionism and, in particular, of Jackson Pollock.

The first sight of Pollock's painting in England occurred in 1953 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Dover Street in an exhibition called "Opposing Forces". It was greeted with amusement and Pollock was ridiculed in advance of the late arrival of his works. Those critics who actually did see his work judged it to be decorative.

"Modern Art in the United States", shown at the Tate Gallery in 1956, was more widely reviewed. The introduction to the catalogue lent credibility to some of the stereotypical views of American art which had been circulating since the end of the war. It constructed an image of Pollock as a cowboy, a Wild West savage and thus a cultural barbarian and this was willingly adopted by a number of critics.

Themes of bestiality, violence and barbarism were never far from the critics' minds. While primitivism denoted lack of culture, barbarism had not that long ago been associated with fascism. Thus Pollock symbolised the uncivilised enemy of European culture. The image that America had exported through literature, films, art and art writing had thoroughly permeated English minds.

The mixed critical reception of "Modern Art in the United States" was understandable in the context of general attitudes towards America, but by the time that the Pollock retrospective arrived at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in November 1958 the response had significantly changed. Whereas in 1956, having seen only a handful of paintings, many critics had regarded them as chaotic, they now perceived a logical development and an underlying order.

The fact that a clear chronological development and a substantial range of Pollock's work was visible had helped to convert the critics to his cause. Hans Namuth's film, which was shown at two lectures and on BBC television, was also crucial, for critics were able to see that the paintings were not produced in frenzy, as had been popularly supposed, but calmly and rhythmically.

The impact of the Whitechapel show on artists was extraordinary. For many the image of the wild man, the James Dean of painting, was particularly appealing. The bohemian, sophisticated Parisian, who by now was perceived as conformist and conventional, had been eclipsed by the smoking, jeans- clad, macho American. Namuth's photographs, by now widely known, employed a vocabulary familiar to the cinema-going public.

In the climate of the "angry young man", after the debacle of Suez in which the authority of government was completely discredited, when artists and writers were trying to break down social hierarchies and structures and free themselves from restricting conventions, the rawness was innovating and exciting. Pollock's violent image found a parallel in the language of Jimmy Porter and his neurotically aggressive exterior in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

The extent to which American culture was now admired was exemplified by the fact that the Times Literary Supplement published a special supplement titled "The American Imagination" on 6 November 1959. The lead article, "Taking Stock: A Scattered Abundance of Creative Richness', had as its only illustration one of Namuth's photographs of Pollock in action. The United States was now wholeheartedly accepted by the establishment as a cultural force.

With the British economy on an upsurge and rationing at an end, people began to acquire American products and participate in the dream. In a decade and a half since the war, America had been transformed from a target for ridicule to a role model. The reception of Jackson Pollock and the new American painting must be considered within this context.

Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines