Art is history and history is art in the Norton Museum of Art’s new “Keep Calm and Carry On” exhibition, a sprawling, all-encompassing show about England’s home front before, during and after World War II. Divided into four sections with the gallery walls symbolically color-coded, “Keep Calm” is a departure from the Norton’s recent tilt toward cutting-edge artists for an exhibition that showcases period clothing, furniture and books in addition to more traditional drawings, photographs and tapestries. It paints a complete picture of a nation wracked by war and thrown in flux – only to unite under duress and rebuild itself.
Doing so sometimes meant using artistic ingenuity to make lemonade out of lemons. The most revealing item in the small, introductory gallery is a bite-sized model cabin fashioned for Christmastime, complete with Santa Claus imagery and a snow-capped roof. But what makes it really special is that it was constructed out of a gas mask box – a great example of an artist reincorporating an object of fear and negativity into an art piece of joy and positivity.
As the exhibition reveals, the British artists, architects, clothing designers, writers, filmmakers and government officials that toiled during the perilous World War II era knew how to keep inspired while boosting morale in the process. While bomb shelters weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing – one depiction of a three-person shelter looks like a claustrophobic chicken coop – the exhibit’s fascinating second section reveals that creativity can indeed thrive in an environment of austerity and limitation.
Abram Games’ propaganda posters are textbook prototypes of the form, effective in their self-evident purpose but also artistically vivid and of-the-moment, incorporating modern minimalism and surreal flourishes to push their themes across. Henry Cross’s epic “Battle of Britain” lace panel is a stunning achievement, a painstakingly realized textile with intricate detail showing all manner of valiant heroism, weaponry, bombed-out buildings and Churchillian inscriptions. And an entire wall filled with scarves shows that in this regard, Great Britain’s women were able to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in the simple clothing designs mandated by the government. The scarves show kaleidoscopic panoplies of victory gardens, flags, letters, pamphlets, airplanes and military insignia, drawing inspiration from both figural and abstract art of the period.
The final two rooms of “Keep Calm and Carry On” reveal life in the immediate postwar era, when prosperity began to rise and Britain’s exports ballooned. The last room is dedicated entirely to 1951’s celebratory Festival of Britain, which marked the end of angst and austerity and heralded advancements in many of the fields – architecture, art, technology and industrial design – that were so integral in generating wartime morale in the late ‘30s and 1940s.
The exhibition has a few cosmetic hiccups. Many of the touch-screens displaying art, crafts, designs and fashions of the period do not work correctly. And while the recreated bomb shelter/movie theater (complete with sandbags on the sides!) in the dead center of the exhibit is impressive, the volume of the war-movie clips projected inside is too low; only astute dogs will be able to make out much of the dialogue.
The “prosperity” portions of “Keep Calm and Carry On” are slightly less captivating than the wartime studies, but they are two sides of a very important coin; one wouldn’t work without the other. Many times as I strolled through the exhibition, I marveled at how the entire country sacrificed so much for the war effort, from growing their own gardens to rationing food and clothing. Even a magazine like British Vogue supported clothes recycling efforts. This has not happened here with the two wars the United States has been mired in for about a dozen years. We’ve been asked to sacrifice nothing – rather, we were told to go shopping after Sept 11, 2001, the exact opposite of austerity measures – and so most of us feel disconnected from the conflict overseas. Britain in World War II is the very model of how a nation should deal with a war, and the positive denouement of its unified efforts will always be inspiring.