Artists International Association

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An association of left-wing British artists founded in London in 1932 with the aim of achieving ‘the unity of artists against Fascism and war and the suppression of culture’. Originally it was called Artists International, but it added the word ‘Association’ to its name when it was reconstituted in 1935. It continued until 1971, but abandoned its political objectives in 1953, thereafter existing as an exhibiting society. Initially there were 32 members, mainly commercial artists and designers, although they also included the German-born Marxist art historian Francis Klingender (1907–55), who described his work as ‘theoretical and historical studies designed to elucidate the role of art as one of the great value-forming agencies in the social structure and social change’. The first chairman was the industrial designer Misha Black (1910–77), who later played an important role in the Festival of Britain. At the outset the position of the group was avowedly Marxist and its activities included producing pamphlets, posters, and other propaganda material (making use of facilities at the Central School of Art, where one of the founder members, James Fitton (1899–1982), taught lithography). Modern art, with its ‘negation of content’, was viewed with some suspicion as a sign of bourgeois decadence, but after the Association was reconstituted in 1935 it became much less doctrinaire and attracted support from artists working in a wide range of styles. Its exhibition ‘Artists against Fascism and War’ (1935), for example, included work by Robert Medley, Henry Moore, and Paul Nash, and by the end of the Second World War the Association had more than a thousand members. In addition to holding exhibitions, the AIA published a journal (sporadically and under different titles and formats, beginning as Artists International Bulletin, 1934–5) and also a book of essays entitled 5on Revolutionary Art (1935). This was edited by the sculptor Betty Rea and the five contributors were Eric Gill, the ethnomusicologist A. L. Lloyd, Klingender, Herbert Read who gamely made the case, unpopular in the AIA, for the avant-garde against realism, and the writer Alick West.

Most of the Association's early exhibitions were held in its premises in Charlotte Street, although numerous other venues were used, including the basement canteen of the John Lewis department store for the 1943 show ‘For Liberty’. Among its other exhibitions was ‘The Engineer in British Life’, arranged for the Amalgamated Engineering Union to celebrate its Silver Jubilee in 1945. Klingender wrote that this was ‘the first art exhibition sponsored by a British trade union’ and that it gave him the idea for his most famous book, Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947); his other books included Marxism and Modern Art (1942). The Association had the broadest support at the time of the wartime alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union. The Cold War and especially the problems created by the Communist opposition to modern art (see formalism and Socialist Realism) led to an erosion of that support. In 1947 Claude Rogers found new premises in Lisle Street and the AIA Gallery was opened there that year; the Association dissolved when the lease expired in 1971. Distinguished foreign artists sometimes showed work at the later exhibitions, notably Léger and Picasso.


Subjects: Art.

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