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75th Anniversary of VE Day

Marking VE Day with artworks from the Collection that illustrate the resonant themes of Peace, Reconciliation, New Beginnings, Celebration, and Gratitude.

VE Day on 8 May 2020 observes 75 years since the end of conflict in Europe. On 15th August Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, effectively ending World War II. Years of loss and hardship drew to a close and millions of people took to the streets to celebrate peace. Populations reconciled in mourning and hope for the future. Over 4 million men and women were demobilised, and tens of thousands of evacuees – most of them children – returned to their homes and families in towns and cities that needed rebuilding for new beginnings. Millions of personnel from Commonwealth forces faced long journeys home, whilst over 60 million refugees worldwide were left displaced needing to rebuild their lives. Resettlement to civilian life was a major concern of post-war governments and a driver of social change.

Join us in an artistic celebration and demonstration of gratitude.

Britain shares a long history of global relations marked by negotiations, matrimonial alliances, conflicts and resolutions. Commemorating these significant moments, treaties and works of art allow us to reflect upon the rituals and forms of negotiation played out between countries at different moments in history. In this section, we explore ways in which the ‘art of peace’ has been expressed across time. Featured artworks focus on joyous moments in which peace has been secured, either through a temporary event or a permanent symbolic form. Expressing the idea of unilateral peace shared by European nations after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, George Vertue’s engraving has us witnesses to a spectacular procession along the Strand on 7 July 1713. Similarly, in Augustus Pugin’s engraving we are immersed into an illumination, projecting written and emblematic elements to mark the Peace of Amiens in 1802. Finally, Duncan Shank’s modern composition incorporates a universally recognised symbol of peace through the comforting presence of a dove.

Remembrance and peace cannot be achieved without reconciliation. The 75th anniversary of VE Day is shared with that of the United Nations whose core founding principle is ‘to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace’.

Renewal unites artworks featured here. The strengthened relationship between Britain and Germany in the late 20th century was marked by the new British Embassy in Berlin in 2000, featuring Wall Drawing (British Embassy) by David Tremlett, and Dancing Columns by Tony Cragg. At the British Embassy in Vienna, Edmund de Waal’s metamorphosen I explores loss and memory, a poignant presence after the Austrian government’s recent announcement that descendants of those persecuted by the Nazis, can reclaim their citizenship. For affected families, this is a reconciliatory act of great significance. Evelyn Williams’ drawing, Consoling Friends I was made after the death of her ex-husband, artist Michael Fussell – a moving expression of enduring closeness and love.

In metamorphosen I, an example of De Waal’s ‘black works’, are an arrangement of dark-glazed porcelain vessels and shards, pieces of dark lead, Cor-Ten steel, graphite, oxidised silver and black marble placed on six shelves in a glass vitrine.

view of a work of art on a staircase

Metamorphosen I by Edmund de Waal installed in the British Ambassador’s Residence © Crown Copyright

Two time periods influenced the creation of this work. In 1938, the Ephrussis, an established Viennese Jewish family persecuted by the Nazis, were forced to flee the city, abandoning their ancestral home. A descendant of the family, de Waal spent years in Vienna researching his family history, culminating in his 2010 memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. Responding to the dark and mysterious nature of many of the exhibits selected for his curated exhibition, During the Night at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2016, he created a large vitrine of black materials.

The title of metamorphosen I directly references a score for 23 strings, Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss at the close of the Second World War. Strauss was inspired by Goethe’s text, On the Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), celebrating rebirth and transformation. Alluding to music, the sculpture’s blocks of non-ceramic materials create rhythmic intervals in the work, described by de Waal as, ‘… moments of pause or recollections of loss’.

In 2019, over 80 years after the Ephrussi family fled Vienna, the Austrian government announced that descendants of those victimised by the Nazis, could reclaim their citizenship. For de Waal’s father, this was a moment of great poignancy.

Echoing the period following the end of the Great War in 1918, the wake of World War II raised cultural debates on how to move on from the seismic impact of the conflict. The Festival of Britain of 1951 provided a space to express new beginnings in British art and design. The growing importance of abstract art in the 1950s rekindled the debate around what making art should entail and look like, and its capacity to reflect wider human issues. Winifred Nicholson, with her Flowers on a Window Sill, reflected later in 1969: ‘What greater enjoyment than to turn common air into perfume, light into rainbows and the irreconcilable opposites into the neighbourliness of brushstrokes?’ William Gear’s abstract painting Spring Song heralded new growth observed from nature, that cohabited with the image of wartime debris evoked in the composition’s web-like lines. Official War Artist Graham Sutherland turned to the Origins of the Land No. 1.

A declaration of peace is an occasion for people to come together, celebrate and express gratitude. While conflict and war have always had a devastating impact on people’s lives, overcoming such extraordinary times has shown remarkable resilience and togetherness. Whether taking the form of a street celebration, or a toast from the safety of our homes in the current situation, these are unique opportunities to honour and reflect on the sacrifices of past generations. In this section, we invite you to experience a glimpse of joy and hope through a selection of depictions of life post-war at different moments in time. Imagine witnessing a magnificent display of fireworks in the 18th century while listening to the music of George Friderick Handel. Strolling through the Pleasure Gardens at Battersea and taking a funfair ride during the 1951 Festival of Britain. Or simply holding up a colourful balloon and watching it float up to the sky.

The end of war in Europe declared on 8 May 1945, brought a long welcomed sense of relief, yet the jubilation expressed in street parties was not without a bittersweet sense of gratitude to the millions of lives lost or irreparably changed. At pivotal moments of the conflict there were acts of collective international cooperation towards overcoming oppression. The events of D-Day on 6 June 1944 when thousands of Allied troops began their final assault on Nazi occupied France, are captured in Stephen Bone’s painting, Sunset on Normandy Beaches.

The immediate post-war years were a period of slow transition when rationing and food shortages continued. It was also a time for rebuilding lives, communities and homes, as captured in Roofing a New House by John Aldridge. A new decade began in a spirit of optimism marked by two major national events, the 1951 Festival of Britain, and the Coronation in 1953. These landmark moments provided a focus for people to reflect on just how much was owed to those who had fought to secure the country’s peace. Painted in the period between these events, Richard Eurich’s Coast Scene with Rainbow expresses the simple human delight at catching a rainbow in the sky. Representing peace and hope, this universal symbol continues today with the painted and collaged rainbows displayed in our windows, in deep gratitude to those who continue to save lives and keep us safe.

For more on VE Day 2020, visit the VE-VJ Day official website, https://ve-vjday75.gov.uk/.