It has taken me some time to consider the significance of the naming of this exhibition, works from the personal collection of Alan Bowness at the Heong Gallery in Cambridge, with an accompanying symposium. It offers a complex mix of specific historical reference to past exhibitions, a nod to the unique social and political milieu as well as a more familial, autobiographical reading.
A generation, usually defined as some 25 to 30 years from birth to the birth of offspring, signifies a new, distinct and cohesive group of contemporaries. Here it involves a ten year period from 1955 to 1965. Post-war it cannot help but take on an element of re-generation with the return to the peace-time luxury of art exhibitions and economic revival. This was a generation who witnessed some major shifts including the increasing popularity of art, the diffusion of the abstraction versus figuration binary and the disruption brought about by “outsider” influences.
To quantify generation as decade Bowness in the catalogue essay “Ten Good Years” talks about the golden period of an artist’s career, when they achieve recognition and appreciation. He stresses the importance of the group or collective mentality in providing encouragement and, perhaps more crucially, competitive challenge. The exhibition title, surely, has as much to do with these being golden years in the life of Alan Bowness, the man and collector, and of the crucial influence that the time spent at his alma mater had on nurturing his career in art.
When Alan states that he has a continuing fascination for the painting Ocean by William Scott, sustained throughout a fifty year period of daily gazing, he seems to be acknowledging a longevity and legacy that transfers from one generation to another. The impact of family lineage is certainly evident in his daughter Sophie, art historian and granddaughter of Barbara Hepworth. To borrow a phrase from psychotherapy these paintings can not only be seen as binding “generational objects,” unifying a same-age cohort but also as inter-generational objects connecting grandparent, parent and child. Interesting, then, to read of Alan’s wish to leave his collection to the Fitzwilliam Museum.
It is pertinent that this exhibition, in an impressive newly built gallery designed by Caruso St. John, echoes “54/64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade ” curated by Bowness at Tate in 1964. At the time, pre Tate Modern, there was much criticism about the lack of suitable gallery space to adequately show modern art. The Tate show also attracted criticism for being too narrow in focus.
Last year we were treated to an alternative “outsider” perspective of this period in Refiguring the 50’s, the Ben Uri Gallery exhibition which featured five figurative artists. Margaret Garlake in the exhibition catalogue states:
“The story of art during the first 15 years after the war is largely the record of the intersection and divergence of realism and abstraction.”
Rachel Rose Smith in the Heong Gallery catalogue sums up the time:
“…freed from categorical constraints…a period in which art movements, critical ideas, genres and media were creatively combined.”
Generation Painting is a fabulously rich exhibition fascinating for the stories that it tells and also for those that it leaves out. You have until May 22nd to enjoy it.