A new show reveals how culturally isolated London was after the war. By Bryan Robertson
If the general mood was hopeful after the ending of hostilities in 1945, there was also fatigue and an odd sense of isolation. Events were running away from us, we were no longer in full control internationally. Newsreels showing the plight of refugees right across Europe and the devastation in Germany were held in grim perspective by the horrific disclosures from Belsen, Dachau and the other concentration camps. (I still possess a charcoal drawing of a mother and child at Belsen, made by my friend May Kessell, a brave artist who visited the camp under the War Artists' Scheme.) Rationing of all kinds in England still determined everyday life from food to clothing. We listened to radio and went to the pictures once a week with no thought of TV. Advertising was mercifully confined to posters and the backs of magazines. Uniforms were still seen everywhere, and children were ticked off for beginning to play in the now-redundant air-raid shelters in back gardens.

An excellent show at Annely Juda Fine Art of paintings and sculpture created in 1945 by a wide range of celebrated and - in England - less- known European artists contains a lot of engrossing material. If the survey as a whole seems rather less brilliant than other grand summer anthologies at this gallery, and with a few notable omissions - Nicholson, Bacon, Giacometti, Herbin, Sutherland and De Stael, among others - there is a genuine fascination and sometimes pathos in visualising the conditions in which these works were made and the state of mind of individual artists at the time.

What difficulties or even hardships were facing Willi Baumeister in Germany, for instance, whose radiant multicoloured abstract figuration, anticipating Tobey, reflects no trace of wartime stress or angst? And at what price had Henryk Stazewski in Holland managed to retain the requisite composure for his immaculate hard-edged paintings of dislocated sequences of white- bordered black squares on black grounds? The answer to these questions must be that creative work obsessively continues through wars and other times of stress and strain, and doesn't always embody exterior or even interior tension. Art can be a stabiliser, a precious balancer for fatigue, oppression or even a sense of outrage. Since 1890 most of the best art has been made despite society and not because of it.

Looking round the show brings home how very little we knew of contemporary art in London in 1945 and how remote we had grown from the continent of Europe. New York didn't yet exist for us as a creative centre for painting and sculpture. London was not at all the international centre in art that it became by the mid-Fifties. By the end of the war our capital was shabby, with large areas of total devastation from the bombing still to be rebuilt, replete with the flowering rose-bay willow herb so sentimentally lyricised by writers who should have been attacking the lax owners or property speculators. In 1945, a lot of London and its suburbs looked like that eternally derelict no-man's-land of car parks and waste space that you still find at the back of the National Theatre today.

If you worked in the art world you drank occasionally in Soho at noisy pubs like the French, the Wheatsheaf, the Castle or the Black Horse and ate at Bianchi's. Or you enjoyed a gin-and-French - never a dry Martini - at the Cafe Royal (in its days of proper style before Forte suburbanised it). If flush, you could go on to the mildly bohemian Mandrake or the Gargoyle nightclubs.

The post-war revelation for me was the 1945 Paul Klee exhibition bequeathed to the National Gallery by its retiring director, Kenneth Clark - he was just 41, a rather dashing age, it seemed, at which to retire. I visited the show at length and was dazzled by my first sight of work by the most inventive and magical of all 20th-century artists. At my elbow was the equally enthusiastic David Bomberg, whose wartime drawings of London during the Blitz I had written about for The Studio's sister publication, Art and Industry.

Still without any real success as a painter, he was about to emerge strongly as a teacher at the Borough School. I was 20 years old and had just published a longer article on the younger British artists in The Studio - Colquhoun, MacBryde, Minton, Vaughan, Bayrton and Craxton among others. David saw me as a future scribe.

The Klee show was greeted politely in critical terms, perhaps because Klee is an unthreatening miniaturist and the pure fantasy and subtleties of colour, texture and calligraphy are so evident. The tremendous Picasso and Matisse exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum opened a little later in December 1945 and got a mixed reception. One outraged visitor waved an umbrella menacingly in the air and had to be removed before damage was done. Picasso showed wartime still-life paintings of skulls and leeks and a painting of a full-breasted woman with the legs of a fowl that has just been handed over by its owner, Mrs Bertram Smith, to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The gallery scene in London was restricted and extremely dim. The ICA hadn't yet been invented and the Arts Council put only small shows in its St James' Square premises. Gimpel Fils, with its constant shows of the new European art from Wols and De Stael to Manessier and Soulages, didn't begin operations until 1946. Erica Brausen's elegant Hanover Gallery, which exhibited the first exciting post-war Bacons as well as great work by Vasarely, Manzu, Marini, Giacometti and Villon, opened for the first time in 1948. A treasured memory of the ineffably polished Ms Brausen in action was to overhear her say to an irate young collector in a grand black overcoat who was clutching a Bacon canvas from which a piece of cotton-wool and paint had disintegrated: "But darling, what do you expect for pounds 650?"

The Lefevre Gallery in 1945 was the most sophisticated place we had, with its usual excellent French pictures but also exhibiting Nicholson, Hepworth, Tunnard, Colquhoun, MacBryde, Minton, Vaughan and Burra. The Redfern Gallery under Rex Nan Kivell's directive showed the first Soutines in London and Jawlensky, as well as British art; and after that, in 1945, there was really only the conservative Leicester Galleries. Wildenstein put on the odd blazing Topolski show, marvellous and terrible, and Mme Jaray in Brook Street exhibited exotic works by the French primitives Bombois, Vivin and Bauchant - and Emil Nolde, an artist also shown by the small Mayor Gallery at the time, with Mir, Klee and Picasso.

Apart from the Lefevre, our liveliest centre was probably the London Gallery, backed by the surrealist ELT Mesens and Roland Penrose. John Craxton showed there and a skinny young man called George Melly pottered around, but its usual fare of surrealist art was somewhat remote for most people at that time - perhaps it seemed too frivolous. Looking again at the Juda gallery's show, the sense of how ignorant we were in London in that insular period is underlined by the splendid appearance of some of the best works by Pollock, Hofmann, David Smith and Rothko. Some excuse for not knowing these Americans then, perhaps, but a splendid sculpture, a spiral construction, by Gabo's brother Pevsner and a fine painting by Kurt Schwitters, the collagist of genius who died in poverty in England just after the war, confirm that memory of cultural isolation from which it took us a decade to recover.

n '1945: the End of the War', continues to 16 Sept. Details on 0171-629 7578

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