Leaving Base on D-Day

D-Day: Leaving Base on 'D' Day, 6 June 1944 mid-20th C by Norman Wilkinson (1878–1971) ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The 1940s were a pivotal decade for art, influenced heavily by the global turmoil of World War II and the subsequent social, political and economic changes. For many artists, this period was marked by a fusion of traditional techniques and emerging trends. Here we look back at the art of the 1940s and explore the techniques that defined this era and how they continue to inspire contemporary artists.

The Influence of War

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 had a profound impact on the art world. Many artists were directly involved in the war effort, either as soldiers or as war artists documenting the conflict. This experience brought about a raw and poignant realism in their work.

Landing Craft Going to the Beaches

D-Day: Landing Craft Going in to the Beaches, 6 June 1944 mid-20th C by Norman Wilkinson (1878–1971) ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Content continues after advertisements

War Art Techniques

Artists often worked quickly to capture the immediacy of wartime scenes by sketching and drawing. Pencil, charcoal, and ink were commonly used due to their portability and ease of use on the battlefield. Watercolour was also favoured for its versatility and speed. War artists like Eric Ravilious utilized watercolours to depict the sombre and resilient landscapes of wartime Britain.

The Rise of Abstract Expressionism

The 1940s also saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism, particularly in the United States. This movement marked a significant shift from representational art to abstract forms, emphasising spontaneous and subconscious creation.

Abstract Expressionist Techniques:

Action Painting: Pioneered by Jackson Pollock, this technique involved dripping, splattering, and pouring paint directly onto the canvas. It was a physical and dynamic process that emphasized the act of painting itself.

Colour Field Painting: Artists like Mark Rothko focused on large areas of colour with subtle variations. This technique sought to evoke emotional responses through the use of colour and form, rather than depict specific subjects.

Social Realism and Post-War Reflection

In the post-war period, many artists turned to Social Realism to reflect on the social issues and human conditions exacerbated by the war. This movement aimed to depict everyday life with a focus on the working class and marginalised communities.

Social Realist Techniques:

Murals: Large-scale murals became popular for their ability to convey powerful social messages to a broad audience. Artists used traditional fresco techniques, as well as more modern approaches with oil and acrylic paints.

Printmaking: Techniques like lithography and etching were widely used to produce multiple copies of socially relevant artworks. This made art more accessible to the masses and allowed for widespread dissemination of political and social commentary.

The British Perspective

In the UK, the 1940s were characterised by a blend of traditional and modern techniques. The war and its aftermath influenced many British artists, leading to a unique fusion of styles.

British Techniques:

Neo-Romanticism: Artists such as John Piper and Graham Sutherland used this style to evoke the spirit and landscape of wartime Britain. Their work often combined elements of romanticism with modern abstraction.

Collage and Assemblage: Inspired by European avant-garde movements, British artists experimented with collage and assemblage, incorporating everyday materials and found objects into their work. This technique highlighted the resourcefulness and creativity of the time.

Continuing the Legacy

The techniques of the 1940s continue to inspire artists today. The combination of realism and abstraction, the emotional intensity of expressionism and the social awareness of realism all offer valuable lessons for contemporary creators.

The 1940s were a decade of profound change and innovation in the art world. By studying the techniques of this era, we gain insight into the resilience and creativity of artists who navigated one of the most tumultuous periods in history. As we commemorate their legacy, we find inspiration to continue exploring, experimenting and expressing our unique perspectives through art.

Content continues after advertisement