From cultural barbarian to cult icon: Podium

From a lecture on Jackson Pollock by the director of collections at the Tate Gallery
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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.