Art and Optimism in 1950s Britain

mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

21 February – 29 June 2014

Art and design from the 1950s which focused on British optimism is shown alongside other examples that reveal the anxiety and gloom of the post war years.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain was initiated to ‘cheer up’ Britain. A showcase of the country's contribution to art and design, the exhibition hoped to inspire confidence, ambition and optimism. Its success generated demand for new furniture and homeware made from materials such as fiberglass, plywood, Formica and plastics, a selection of which are on display here.

However, despite the innovations it prompted in design, much of the fine art of the 1950s was still characterised by austerity and fear. Paintings such as Lucian Freud's Girl in a green dress, Primrose Hill: High Summer by Frank Auerbach and War News (Portrait of Froanna) by Wyndham Lewis reveal this was still a decade of uncertainty and hardship for many.

Similarly, British sculptors who emerged in this period, including Anthony Caro, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi, sought to reflect the horror of war and the anxiety that emerged following the invention of the atom bomb. Working in bronze rather than stone or wood, their figures were often gnarled and scarred, as if emerging from battle. The contrast between the work of painters and sculptors and the approach of designers in this period is the key focus of this exhibition.

This decade also saw the birth of Pop Art, with pioneers Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton drawing on interior and graphic design in their work. From these works it is apparent that the American way of life became key to the aspirations of the British public, in terms of both culture and material goods. 

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The exhibition also explores attitudes in Middlesbrough and the North East during this time. Middlesbrough Art Gallery created its first Friends group in the 1950s which began to purchase art works for the region, including LS Lowry painting of the old Town Hall. Also on display are works by Victor Pasmore, who created the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham.

Venue information

Opening times

Tue – Sat, 10am – 4.30pm (Thu until 7pm)
Sun, 12 – 4pm

Closed Bank Holidays

"Art Fund" is the operating name of the National Art Collections Fund, a charity registered in England and Wales (209174) and Scotland (SC038331)