Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 8, 2021
Gregory Salter Art and Masculinity in Post-War Britain: Reconstructing Home London: Routledge, 2019. 224 pp.; 30 b/w ills. E-book £44.99 (9781003084686)

The post–Second World War era was marked by profound changes that altered almost every aspect of British society. These were particularly visible in the domestic sphere, which had been fractured and fragmented by war and was undergoing a long period of reconstruction in the decades after 1945. In his book, Art and Masculinity in Post-War Britain: Reconstructing Home, Gregory Salter delves right into the notion of the postwar home in its tangible and intangible formations. The book is presented as a series of case study chapters on male artists: John Bratby, Francis Bacon, Francis Newton Souza, Victor Pasmore, and Gilbert & George. Salter’s work analyzes how these men were able to navigate their contested feelings of belonging, rejection, masculinity, and familial relationships through the use of “home” in their art. Home is not just explored here in a singular sense but through a wide-ranging lens that includes both the community and the nation. As such, the content of this book is not centered on the appearance of the postwar home or how art was incorporated into domestic space by the general population. The domestic interior itself is only glimpsed intermittently through certain illustrations, such as Bratby’s Jean and Still Life in Front of a Window (1954) or Ida Kar’s photographs of Souza.

Salter introduces his book with a discussion of various overarching themes framed within the context of postwar Britain. This was a complex period of history, but Salter guides the reader through each theme using the carefully chosen case studies. Salter clearly acknowledges that his choice of the six artists is somewhat subjective; however, the book in its entirety communicates a broad range of experiences of men in this period. These include the rebalancing of gender roles and heteronormative ideals, migration, homosexual relationships, and the process of dealing with the past coupled with preparations for an uncertain future.

The first chapter focuses on the turbulent domestic life of Bratby and his dual anxieties regarding his home life and his career. Salter draws upon the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein and the works of sociologists Mary Allen and Jeff Hearn to aid the reader in understanding Bratby’s representations of his family and of gender. Familial relations and the nuclear family are key themes in Bratby’s work, and Salter places a particular focus on Bratby’s relationship with his wife and fellow artist, Jean Cooke. Salter compares several paintings by Bratby and Cooke, as well as Bratby’s novel Breakdown (1960), to discuss the uneasy relationship between the couple, which resulted in domestic violence that Salter argues was fueled by Bratby’s conflicted masculinity. He was jealous of his wife’s career and the threats this posed to his life inside and outside the home. Salter’s analysis of Jean and Still Life in Front of a Window is particularly insightful, revealing, through the imagery, the arduous demands Bratby placed upon his wife.

The second chapter also focuses on the intensity of masculine, intimate relationships. However, in contrast to the first chapter, Salter here emphasizes the meanings of home as a nondomestic and nonprivate space. The focus is Francis Bacon and queer spaces in Britain at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized. Salter frames Bacon’s transient moments of contact with other men in public within the existing historiography of queer spaces. This includes references to Matt Cook’s work on queer spaces in the public sphere, where homosexual men could find comfort and intimacy in outdoor places, bars, and restaurants, all distinctly outside the usual domestic sphere. Salter highlights how the semipublic and semiprivate ways in which intimacy was carried out were reflected in the treatment of Bacon’s paintings by critics and gallery owners, such as the partially obscured exhibition of Two Figures (1953). In order to ground the themes of transience, drifting, and exile, Salter compares Bacon’s work with similar themes in literature, such as in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites (1948). This cross-disciplinary approach opens up the meaning and interpretation in Bacon’s work in a more fluid and accessible manner for the reader.

Queer spaces and home are again discussed in chapter 3 through the works of Keith Vaughan, forming a nice companion piece with the previous chapter. Unlike the sense of lost direction within Bacon’s artworks and life, Salter shows how Vaughan’s memories of comradeship during the war were used to form communities after its end. Of course, the Second World War is an undercurrent throughout the book and a central theme in the majority of the artists’ lives. Links are made between the home and the body and between sex and nature, especially evident in Vaughan’s collection of photographs from Pagham Beach, which were snapshots of everyday life that Salter uses to discuss life on the margins of society. As in the previous chapter, Salter takes an interdisciplinary approach to his analysis of Vaughan’s art, especially the comparisons between the painting Theseus and the Minotaur (1950) and Andre Gide’s novel Thésée (1946). One of the strengths of this chapter is Salter’s use of Vaughan’s personal journals, which cover a thirty-eight-year period between 1939 and 1977. Not only do these vocalize Vaughan’s own experiences and provide another level of insight into his life and his art, but also they help to humanize the wider themes surrounding masculinity evident throughout the book.

The reconstruction of “home” is a prominent theme in chapter 4, as it focuses on connections and ties between nation, empire, and the Commonwealth, as well as the experiences of an “outsider” in postwar Britain. Unlike that of the other artists in the book, Francis Newton Souza’s home life was fractured not by war but by the changing location of his home and his changing status as a result of these moves, from his attempts to look Anglo-Indian during his childhood in Goa and India to navigating racial tensions in postwar Britain. Salter draws upon Souza’s personal experiences of his new homeland and links them to wider contemporary events, such as the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. This helps to explain changing attitudes at the time and how the “defense” of home, family life, and masculinity were intertwined. As Salter explains: “The presence of migrants gave rise to an increasingly narrow, white definition of the home, rooted in an imagined, ordered national past, and anxieties about the threats of non-white masculinities in particular” (110). Souza’s art, especially Crucifixion (1959), reflected his own fears and anxieties, born from his internal conflicts regarding his body and appearance during his childhood and the external threats he faced in his adulthood. This chapter also highlights the importance of Souza’s written works in addition to his art. Finally, Kar’s photographs of Souza and his family at home are particularly interesting. Photographs act as key visual sources for historians of domesticity as they show how artists in the postwar period used their domestic space, balancing, for instance, between home and work areas.

Chapter 5 is somewhat different from the rest of the case studies as the artwork in question is a physical structure designed for the use and enjoyment of a community, rather than a painting to be privately or publicly exhibited. Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion (1969) was built as a community space on the Sunny Blunts Estate in Peterlee, County Durham. The theme of homes under threat is evident throughout this chapter, initially in the art Pasmore produced during the war. As Salter notes, Pasmore’s painting Lamplight (1941), a domestic scene, was damaged by shattered glass during an air raid (143), and later the abandoned and dangerous Pavilion posed a threat to the surrounding homes and community in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Pasmore wanted the pavilion to be a meeting space for a new community and the postwar generation; instead, Salter posits, it had the opposite effect, demonstrating the limitations of translating “private experiences of home into public communities” (135).

Whereas the chapters on Bacon and Vaughan focus on marginal communities in public spaces, this fifth chapter provides welcome balance as it draws the reader outside into the wider community. It also touches upon the postwar working-class home, which is absent from the other chapters. Salter’s analysis of the pavilion on the Peterlee Estate and its failures to act as a nucleus for this new community highlight the issues faced by residents of postwar estates across the country. The challenges of creating a sense of belonging, identity, and tradition among a fabricated community were problems that architects, artists, and developers did not adequately deal with. Salter grounds these issues in psychoanalysis in order to fully explore such themes.

The final section of Art and Masculinity is a conclusion combined with a brief case study on Gilbert & George, which serves as a continuation of the main themes evident throughout: how memories of war, marginality, nostalgia, reconstruction, and homosocial spaces and relationships shaped the home. Throughout this meticulously detailed and researched book, Salter shows how home permeates the domestic, the body, and the community even when home is not confined to a physical space. Although there is little representation of working-class homes, the themes of the book are applicable across class boundaries, offering the opportunity for future research in this area. Ultimately, Salter’s contribution to our understanding of the home and masculinity goes beyond just the artists examined in this book. This careful analysis of the postwar period will be invaluable to historians whose research touches upon the wider themes of gender, sexuality, domesticity, and urban spaces.

Thomas McGrath
PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer, Department of History, Politics & Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University