Much as we like to group post-war culture and design movements into handy decades, it rarely works out quite so neatly. Most of what happened during the 1960s had its roots in the 1950s, while a lot of what defines the 1950s was already well under way during the 1940s.
In 1947, the year Enzo Ferrari first presented his vision to the world, seismic shifts were happening in art, literature, music and theatre, many of which continue to be felt today. Progress, in a brutally fractured and shell-shocked world, was needed more than ever.
In February of that year, French clothes designer Christian Dior unveiled his first couture collection. Keen to provide some much-needed glamour in the midst of post-war austerity, Dior created the “New Look” and brought back opulence, femininity and a full-skirt silhouette after years of sartorial restrictions. This wasn’t just a statement about style, it was a rallying cry for a reborn Paris, a city ready to reclaim its mantle as fashion capital of the world.
Over in New York, a new soundtrack was being written for the new age. Miles Davis was a 21-year-old trumpet player, beautifully poised and bristling with attitude. His first recording as a band leader featured Charlie Parker on saxophone, which isn’t bad going for a debut. The All Stars quintet recorded four songs for the Savoy label; within just a few months Davis would be hailed as a new voice in the music, with the Birth Of The Cool sessions following towards the end of the decade.
Jackson Pollock would famously paint while listening to jazz records, but his tastes always veered more towards the pre-war big bands. However, on canvas he was very much the modernist. Full Fathom Five was one of Pollock’s first ever drip paintings and certainly one of his most celebrated. All dynamic energy and rhythmic density, the work is Abstract Expressionism’s great calling card, majestic in its scale and ambition.
In December 1947, audiences at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, on New York’s Broadway, were jolted out of their comfort zones when a 23-year-old Marlon Brando brought a brooding – and decidedly working-class – sexuality to the hallowed boards, playing Stanley Kowalski in the first ever performance of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Elia Kazan, who would also direct the Oscar-winning 1951 film version, Brando’s one-line-howling, one-line-mumbling approach signaled the moment when method acting came crashing into the mainstream.
Jack Kerouac spent most of the year formulating the idea for a novel that would take a further 10 years to see the light of day. Travelling across the country, hanging out in jazz clubs and meeting a cast of characters who would go on to be the focus of a burgeoning counterculture movement, Kerouac had all the material he needed swirling around in his wonderfully feverish mind. The Town And The City was his first published novel (1950), but the groundwork for his On The Road was already under way in 1947, that fascinating year of change and invention.