Fighting it Out on the Home Front***

The home is an enduring site of ease and dis-ease. It is where we traditionally experience comfort, contentment, resentment and confinement. How did British artists respond to the idea of home between about 1950 and 1980? Answering that question is the purpose of a new group show at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield which opens tomorrow. 

Jean and Table Top (Girl in a Yellow Jumper), 1953-4, oil on board, John Bratby
© Julian Hartnoll / Bridgeman Images

The clutter of household objects on a table top preoccupies John Bratby in ‘Jean and Table Top’ (1953-4). Familiar household objects – from the Daz packet to the looming packet of cornflakes – overbear, cow and finally define the lowly status of the feminine presence, rendering it small and uneasily deferential. Their grim fixedness drags the woman in their wake. The painting is swift, harsh, knuckly, rough-edged in its making, and sullen and rebarbative of mood. A stolid, unshakeable brownness seems to say it all. The grim fixedness of household objects drags the woman in their wake. 

For Patrick Caulfield, on the other hand, the very clean-lined smoothness of facture of his screenprints, the way he artfully raises up an object such as a jug or a bowl for our particular attention and then wrests it away from any wider scene, almost glamourises, high-glosses, and even aestheticises what he sees. Gender plays no part in all of this. 

Patrick Caulfield, Coloured Still Life, 1967
© The Estate of Patrick Caulfield. All rights reserved, DACS 2019

Helen Chadwick, showing off a sprightly and humorous defiance in a series of archival prints collectively entitled ‘In the Kitchen’ (1977), plunges the helpless, naked woman into the heart of the relentlessly enslaving machines of domesticity. In short, she lives inside a washing machine. It clothes her, boxes her in, hides her nakedness. The marvellous absurdity of it all signals fight-back.

Still Life on Table by Anne Redpath
© Courtesy of the Artist’s Family / Bridgeman Images

This first gallery feels almost over-full of itself, as if the subject of domesticity is stifling, bearing down upon us, constraining our wider life impulses. In the second of the two galleries, the domestic moves out beyond the four circumscribing walls of the home. The inside floats out into the world, and helps to demonstrate and define our responses to it. 

In Derek Boshier’s ‘First Toothpaste Painting’ (1962), a naked figure flails, helplessly upside down, inside a toothpaste tube. The oozing toothpaste, in all its red-and-white, candy-stripe allure, irresistibly draws the eye. The future means this: we will all be helplessly in thrall to the idea of toothy perfection. In ‘The Pink Shirt’ (1956), Jack Smith shows us a shirt hanging off a table top, fixed in the shape of its wearer, ready to define and to entrap all that he is and will be. 

David Hepher’s ‘Upperthorpe’,  a smudgy and enthrallingly sombre painting of 1959, offers up for our grim delectation huddles of terraced housing in Sheffield, wedged in beside chimneys, gasometers and general industrial smuttiness. Everything seems to be engulfed by a pall of muck. This was the truth it then. This was the street-side view of hard-bitten, working-class domesticity.  These tiny, marooned houses is where domesticity actually happened.  Lives were shaped and forged here, peaceably, combatively, with much difficulty, and the wars between the sexes were fought to a messy and exhausting conclusion of sorts. 

Upperthorpe ((1959), David Hepher, oil on canvas

This exhibition enables us to do a bit of voyeuristic peeking into the contentious messiness of it all.

This Life is so Everyday: the Home in British Art, 1950-1980, is at the Graves Gallery, Sheffield until 6 July 2019

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