Many of the art exhibitions held during the war, such as the AIA War Pictures at Charing Cross, included works in which artists depicted in various ways the effects of bombing on the buildings of Britain. The apparently unrealistic colour and strong tonal contrasts of Sutherland’s Devastation pictures for the WAAC, such as Devastation, 1941: An East End Street, later presented to the Tate Gallery, were nevertheless recognised by many as a vivid representation of their experiences. Often these show damage to buildings (whether housing, factories, or amenities such as schools and hospitals) which were inadequate for their purpose, as many from the political left had already pointed out before the war. Their destruction was recognised as an opportunity to rebuild in modern, functional styles, and, as it began to look more certain that the Allies would win the war, several exhibitions held on building and rebuilding were intended to encourage public awareness and support for modern architecture and design. The posters designed by Abram Games for circulation by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs use the imagery of the pictures of devastation, but superimpose upon it the modern architectural features already used in a few developments before the war.
Kallmann makes special mention of ABCA’s ‘admirable’ posters, which, he says, ‘form poignant miniature exhibitions in themselves’. His opinion was that ABCA was the next most important organiser of exhibitions to the Mol , ‘at least socially’, its main role being to educate the troops not only about warfare and technical matters, but also about longer term issues such as post-war rebuilding.
Among the architectural exhibitions circulated by ABCA were Ralph Tubbs’ The Englishman Builds and Living in Cities. Tubbs combined interests which linked a commitment to modern architecture and a desire to see it put into practice in post-war reconstruction plans. The exhibitions’ narrative technique connected modern architecture and design with British tradition, an association frequently made during the war years as a way to making modern practice more acceptable by linking it with the familiar, and with the civilisation for which it was claimed the war was being fought. The figure of the English man is the thread throughout, and in the last ‘scene’ of the exhibition it is the returning soldier, ‘the man who will be building’ , who is one of the principal targets of the exhibition.
A further development of the idea of rational planning was made with the Rebuilding Building exhibition, organised by RIBA in 1943, which set out to address the ills of British society, insofar as they could be ameliorated by modern architecture and design principles. The picture painted is one of present decay that can be overcome by the adoption of large-scale planning policies using modern design and building techniques and, to quote Kallmann, ‘judicious location of houses, a conscientious building technique, and mass production of modern standard equipment on a Spitfire scale.’ Kallmann’s reservation was that this ‘much needed message struggled to penetrate its glossy shell and the respectable atmosphere of the National Gallery’, though it is clear anyway that its main targets were really planners, architects and future decision makers.
As well as exhibitions promoting the alliance of modern architecture and active planning policies to aid reconstruction, some were intended to display modern design and its applications in everyday life – like the ‘modern standard equipment’ mentioned by Kallmann. During 1943, for example, CEMA organised Design in the Home, in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Paul Nash - An Exhibition of Applied Design. Design in the Home was intended to show:
the character of the English tradition, with its stress on the beauty of simple forms and restrained and sober colour, and its practical regard for the requirements of use.
The ‘traditional’ features enumerated here could equally well be referring to abstract sculpture (‘simple forms’, ‘restrained and sober colour’), or modern architectural theory (‘regard for the requirements of use’). The catalogue goes on to urge that:
a simple beauty of form, enhanced by a sparing use of decoration, is the distinguishing feature of wares which could be produced at very moderate prices if a sufficiently large market were available for them ... good design costs little more than bad.
Exhibitions such as this were therefore clearly being used as a way of encouraging the formation of such a market when conditions allowed.
Early CEMA touring art exhibitions formed part of the Leeds calendar of temporary shows held at Temple Newsam for the duration of the war, for example the 1941 Moore, Sutherland and Piper show, from which some purchases were also made. From 1942 onwards, CEMA also began to form the nucleus of its own art collection, and to tour this, as well as collaborating with the BIAE on shows of war artists’ work. These often employed the services of a guide lecturer to explain less easily intelligible works by artists like Sutherland. This strategy continued after the war for events such as the Arts Council travelling exhibition British Painters 1939 to 1945, shown at the City Art Gallery in Leeds in January 1947, when some 800 out of around 4000 visitors used the services of Hungarian-born artist George Mayer-Marton, who was a regular lecturer and guide for CEMA and then the Arts Council. Describing his audience metaphorically as different kinds of wall, some of whose preconceptions about modern art can be broken down and rebuilt while some are intractable, he later wrote that:
the demand for someone who does as much talking as might prove helpful in looking, proves the existence of two things: (a) that there is a gap between contemporary people and contemporary pictures, and (b) that there is a wish, on the part of quite a few, if not all people, to see this gap disappear.
The Arts Council claimed that its own collection would give:
an introduction to the pleasures which can be derived from modern art. The average man and woman with a taste for painting will surely find a few pictures which will whet his appetite and make him anxious to see more of, perhaps ultimately to possess, the work of some of the painters … represented.