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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee