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Reviewed by:
  • British Art in the Nuclear Age ed. by Catherine Jolivette
  • Paul Dobraszczyk (bio)
British Art in the Nuclear Age. Edited by Catherine Jolivette. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xvii+275. $119.95/£70/C$85.

Cultural responses in Britain to the onset of the nuclear age have remained relatively underexplored by scholars, especially in the light of such a rich range of literature on American counterparts. In Catherine Jolivette’s carefully selected group of essays dealing with the visual culture of nuclear warfare and atomic science in Britain from the early 1940s to the 1970s, British [End Page 488] Art in the Nuclear Age seeks to redress this imbalance. The nine chapters cover much more than the fine arts alone; even though painting and sculpture form the book’s main focus, there are significant chapters on the role of the Picture Post in disseminating visual images of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Festival of Britain, and the work of leading public intellectuals such as Jacob Bronowski. As Jolivette states in her introduction, visual responses to nuclear culture were about making visible the intangible nature of the subject (p. 14): whether the tiny scale of atoms, the unimaginable scale of nuclear destruction, or the invisibility of the latter’s deadly legacy, radiation.

Each of the chapters presents a detailed investigation of significant aspects of the relationship between the visual and the nuclear in Britain in the postwar period. Carol Jacobi grounds the book in the early part of this period with her focus on British art in the lead-up to the seminal This Is Tomorrow exhibition in 1956. Discussing works by Eduardo Paolozzi, Diego Giacometti, Nigel Henderson, Isabel Rawsthorne, and Francis Bacon, the author demonstrates how artists’ responses in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombings in 1945 were dominated by a lack of visual references (as most images of the attacks were suppressed). Robert Burstow enlarges on this in his chapter on sculpture produced in the same period and beyond (including works by Reg Butler, Naum Gabo, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, and Peter (Lazslo) Peri), exploring how the term “geometry of fear”—coined by art critic Herbert Read (p. 70)—relates to these works but also how it might obscure more complex readings of them.

Christoph Laucht provides an important context for such responses— photojournalism in the Picture Post—demonstrating how this British newspaper impacted on popular imagery of both real and imagined nuclear warfare. Jolivette’s own chapter explores the more optimistic visualizations of atomic science at the 1951 Festival of Britain—in its buildings, sculptures, and murals—and suggests “a more complex range of uncertainties and aspirations” in these works than has previously been acknowledged (p. 121). Painting—particularly landscapes—come under scrutiny in Fiona Gaskin’s chapter, demonstrating how neoromantic works by Graham Sutherland, Peter Lanyon, and Alan Reynolds were “metaphors of the danger posed by the nuclear threat” (p. 144), while the work of John Bratby forms the focus of Gregory Salter’s chapter on more personal responses to the threat of nuclear warfare. Prunella Clough’s enigmatic “urbscapes” are analyzed in Catherine Spencer’s chapter, which shows how the artist’s abstract works referenced contemporary landscapes of nuclear research and militarization. Kate Aspinall sheds light on another aspect of visual culture in the nuclear age—the role of the intellectual (in this case Bronowski) in informing public opinions of nuclear science.

Together the nine chapters present a rich array of insights into the complex range of responses to nuclear war and science that preoccupied [End Page 489] British culture in the quarter-century after 1945. Yet there are some problems with the book. First, the chapters are excellent stand-alone contributions but are not tied closely together (despite the introduction’s attempt to do this). Second, there is a sense in which the American contexts (already widely covered in sources such as Paul Boyer’s 1985 By the Bomb’s Early Light) were excluded for the sake of breaking new ground, but at the expense of some much needed transcultural analysis. Finally, although the book gives due attention to visual culture, it is still dominated by the fine arts...


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pp. 488-490
Launched on MUSE
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