English art and architecture: The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

England played a minor part in initiating experimental and intellectual movements in art and architecture during the 20th cent. but was profoundly affected by them. In 1933, 11 painters, sculptors, and architects formed a short-lived group known as Unit One, which aimed at furthering the contemporary spirit in the arts. Among those who attained international fame were the sculptors Henry Moore and Dame Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. A touch of macabre fantasy can be seen in the works of three noted 20th-century painters, Sir Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland, and Francis Bacon. In 1954 the pop art movement originated in England in response to commercial culture. Well-known contemporary painters include Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Michael Andrews, Bridget Riley, and Christopher Wood; among notable sculptors are Reginald Butler, Lynn Chadwick, and Kenneth Armitage.

British art in the last two decades of the 20th cent., often called neoconceptual, has been quite eclectic and employed a variety of often mixed and sometimes surprising media. Much of the art deals with life's big questions, has a certain shock value, and shares a preoccupation with mortality and bodily decay. Probably the best known of England's post-Thatcher artists is Damien Hirst, whose images have included dot paintings, cabinets of pharmaceuticals, and, most famously, animals, sliced or whole, pickled in formaldehyde and displayed in glass vitrines. A wide range of other contemporary English works and artists include Chris Ofili's sparkling elephant dung–encrusted semiabstract paintings; Richard Billingham's deadpan photographic images; Rachel Whiteread's plaster casts and rubber sculpture of domestic objects; Jenny Savile's fleshy and disturbing nudes; Gary Hume's cool and brilliantly colored abstracts; Fiona Rae's jazzed-up abstractions; and Marc Quinn's controversial works, notably a cast of his head made with his own blood. Other notable English contemporaries include Ian Davenport, Gillian Wearing, Gavin Turk, Abigail Lane, Mona Hatoum, Marcus Harvey, and Sarah Lucas.

After World War II, there was an attempt to rebuild England in the modern spirit, and many urban buildings were influenced by the International Style. In addition, architects of the school dubbed “new brutalism” were inspired by Le Corbusier to search for new forms and textures. The cathedral at Coventry (consecrated 1962) is the setting for a synthesis of the arts, with a sculpture of St. Michael by Sir Jacob Epstein, a tapestry designed by Sutherland, and engraved glass walls; the new cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, provides an effective contrast to the adjacent ruins of its Gothic predecessor. In more recent times, postmodernism has influenced a number of English architects. Among Britain's best-known contemporary architects are Lord Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Sir James Stirling.

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