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Graves Gallery
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Gallery 5: A century of change, Striking a pose, From dawn till dusk, Conflict and a Sense of place

© Carl Chambers

Striking a Pose: People in 20th century art

The way in which artists have represented people has changed throughout history. During the 20th century, growing importance was placed on the role of the individual and this was reflected in the art of the time. In many portraits the character and personality of the sitter became particularly significant. These qualities were often explored through colour, composition, pose and gesture rather than the recognised symbols frequently used in earlier centuries.

Some artists emphasised the qualities of the materials they used rather than the subject matter. The way they handled the materials became the focus of their work, for example the expressive use of paint or the modelling of clay. These artists were often more interested in their individual style or technique than in the person being portrayed. 

Works in this display include Pierre Bonnard's Nu aux Bas Noires (1900) and Gwen John's A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (1907-9)

From Dawn till Dusk: Everyday life in the late 19th and 20th century

From the late 19th century onwards new technologies were developed, such as electric lighting, telephones, cars and buses. Towns and cities were transformed and artists increasingly focused on aspects of ordinary life. This concern with the everyday was explored in different ways throughout the 20th century. Some artists specifically focused on people going about their daily lives. They showed them involved in everyday activities at home, at work, and at leisure. 

Artists also became interested in including everyday materials and references to popular culture in their work. They used familiar images taken from supermarkets, television or magazines. They also adopted processes which were more common to newspaper production and advertising, rather than using traditional art techniques. 

Conflict: War and unrest in the 20th century

During the 20th century Europe experienced may profound changes. Two world wars and many other conflicts had a dramatic impact on both life and art. Some artists embraced the machinery and technologies of this new age. They initially used art to glorify the idea of war, but became disillusioned by the devastation and destruction it caused.

Many artists experienced conflict first-hand. Official War Artists recorded the effects of war on the landscape and on the people involved. These works were sometimes used as propaganda, showing the horrors carried out by the enemy or the bravery of the allies. Other artists explored the feeling of unease surrounding war, and expressed a sense of foreboding in their work. Some works depicting war-ravaged Europe lack a human presence and evoke a feeling of emptiness. The devastating impact on society is evident in these paintings which look more like empty stage sets than living cities.

Works in this display include Stanley Spencer's Helter Skelter (1937) and C R W Nevinson's Rain and Mud after the Battle (1917). 

A Sense of Place: Landscape in the 20th century

During the 20th century, artists began looking at the landscape and the environment that surrounded them in different ways. Building upon the ideas of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, they tried to capture the spirit of a place and explore their personal connection with it. Throughout this period the British landscape changed physically, showing the scars of war and the rapid growth of towns and cities. Many artists reacted to these changes by creating images of the landscape which explored a sense of national identity, often idealising the countryside. The relationship between the individual and the landscape became increasingly important throughout the 20th century.

Some artists depicted their personal environment, such as the view from their studio window or the area where they lived. Others created paintings drawn from their imagination or abstracted almost beyond recognition.

Works in this display include Frank Auerbach's Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station – Night (1973).

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