On my desk are three generously illustrated publications, two of them focused on the 1950s. Although the largest and heaviest is the catalogue for the Royal Academy's exhibition "Paris: capital of the arts 1900-1968", only a sixth of it covers the period in question. "Transition: the London art scene in the Fifties" at the Barbican Gallery is entirely to the point, and so is James Hyman's book The Battle for Realism: figurative art in Britain during the cold war 1945-1960. There is also Andy Warhol pupping early icons at Tate Modern, and a full-scale retrospective of Paul Klee - the neglected inspiration of much art at the time - at the Hayward Gallery.
But why the Fifties now? Is it that somehow, threatened by the "H-bomb's mighty roar" and the clang of the Iron Curtain, we survived? It certainly can't be an instant reaction to 11 September - these shows must have been planned long before that. At all events, the zeitgeist is wearing the mask of nostalgia this season, and those of us who were around at the time are prepared to be seduced. It was our youth, after all. We knew many of these then unrecognised talents, and visited their first one-man shows (no political correctness then). In a morning, you could easily walk round all the galleries showing contemporary art. At night, if you were in a jazz band, or were a student or member of staff, you could watch John Minton behaving badly at dances at the Royal College of Art, South Ken, where the first Kitchen Sink paintings had replaced the neo-romantics on the staircase. Meanwhile, in the afternoon, at the Colony Room, you were quite likely to be offered a glass of champagne by Francis Bacon. Lucky sods, weren't we? Only, ever since, we have had to watch life as we lived it ossify into history. Still, that's our problem. If we were teenagers now, would any of this long-dried pigment grab us?
The Royal Academy's "Paris" exhibition need not detain us long. It's well worth visiting: in the early rooms there are great masterpieces, many of them signed Picasso, as well as (perhaps for the sake of a truthful balance) a fair number of duds, some of them also signed Picasso.
After the Second World War, however, the whole Parisian art scene went sour, as though it had been kept too long in the larder. Well, perhaps not the whole art scene: a few painters and sculptors, mostly older and mostly ex-surrealists, still stood - Alberto Giacometti for one, Andre Masson for another.
We in England (I speak only of "intellectuals", whether pseudo or genuine) were not expecting this terminal decline. We were all suffering from French flu, as it was called - the tendency to elevate anything Gallic above its merits - but then, we hadn't been occupied and, for lack of opportunity, nobody had collaborated. Moreover, Paris itself remained a magic city, and many of our most promising young painters and sculptors stayed there for a time, among them Lucian Freud and Eduardo Paolozzi. It was like visiting a once brilliant old aunt who had gone gaga. It was across the Atlantic that it was, as we used to say, "all happening", but it took us several years to acknowledge this and, although I never understood quite how, those on the left attacked abstract expressionism as "imperialist propaganda". Jack the imperialist dripper!
At the end of the war, still an able seaman, I visited London from Chatham, and got to know E L T Mesens, who eventually opened a gallery in Brook Street and, on my demob, offered me a job. I was there for two years before becoming a professional jazz musician, and as a consequence stood inside the art world, very aware of what was going forward.
Mesens was a surrealist from the early Thirties, and was a friend and champion of Magritte. As his squire, I absorbed his opinions, judging art by its ability to disturb, but in retrospect this was not a bad critical position. Immediately after the war, surrealism itself was completely "out". Luckily E L T, as a businessman, was quite realistic. While specialising in surrealists proper, he would try to balance the books with more commercial artists, or even let rooms to those prepared to pay for them.
Still, here was his critical credo. He thoroughly disliked neo-romanticism, finding it insular and meaningless. He equally rejected those who, during wartime, put their work at the service of the state. He had no time for Graham Sutherland, but nor had he for Henry Moore and Paul Nash, who had both belonged to the surrealists but left - Moore to carve madonnas and draw people sleeping in the Tube stations ("knitting with the needles pulled out", said the acerbic Francis Bacon), and Nash to become a war artist ("a gentleman first, a surrealist second", said E L T). He was probably right there, but he had, I thought, certain blind spots. Some years later, I bought a Kossoff. E L T looked at it with incomprehension. "Why do you buy this sad marmalade?" he asked me.
John Craxton and Lucian Freud, his best friend at the time, were actually exhibited as a duo. Craxton painted fast and decoratively, and sometimes very big; Lucian worked slowly and often very small. Both sold out, but Craxton had a more profitable turnover. It was not, however, until Erica Brausen opened the Hanover Gallery, and Helen Lessore the austere Beaux Arts Gallery, that things began to move. Both showed Bacon, although Brausen first and more frequently. Lessore promoted, not too easily to start with, David Bomberg's pupils, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
In one way, I've always felt that these three (four, if you include Freud) were our first "grown-up" painters. Later, out of Walter Sickert, came the Kitchen Sink school, whose uncle was Ruskin Spear. Then there was the Geometry of Fear, sculptors welding metal rods together to express anguish at the human condition but, in my view, more often than not suggesting no more than metal rods welded together - no real advance on the wire figures that Picasso constructed with the Spanish craftsman Julio Gonzalez in the late 1920s (a parallel I have never seen cited).
Well, it's all there at the Barbican: abstracts to taste, early Hockney, avid neoclassicism, Michael Andrews's fat man falling over and Richard Hamilton's cool entry into pop. The curator Martin Harrison keeps the show on the road. He preserves a certain, by no means soppy neutrality. There are perhaps gaps, only one reference to William Scott, and no reproductions at all. It's nevertheless a fair and comparatively inclusive picture of the days when most roads led to Soho. Who'll last, though? I'd put my money on Bacon and Freud. I'd cover myself with Auerbach, Kossoff, Michael Andrews and one outsider, Victor Willing. It wasn't an empty decade at all. On the contrary, perhaps it was a bit too crowded and aesthetically noisy.
And so to The Battle for Realism, not a catalogue at all, but a book with a strong narrative line. The illustrations, many of them the same as in the Barbican catalogue, are there not simply for historical continuity, but as ammunition in the war that is the author's subject.
In its pages, two heavyweight critics, one literally so, slug it out for art's sake. "On my right, ladies and gentlemen, David Sylvester; on my left, John Berger." Hyman, almost at once, defines how each of his protagonists defines realism. For Sylvester, it was "modernist realism", whereas for Berger it was "socialist realism". Bacon was in Sylvester's corner, Renato Guttuso in Berger's.
Berger's optimistic approach seems healthy and open compared to Sylvester's dark assessment of the human psyche, but then (for me at any rate) so many of Berger's swans, including Guttuso, although technically very able, turn out to be geese. Berger is a Marxist, but never joined the communist party or supported Stalin. The trouble is, though, that no matter how sophisticated (and Berger is no simpleton), as a believer in socialist realism he had to make room for sincerity, or even fake sincerity, if the subject was easy to read and optimistic in sentiment. Alas, this is not always the case. The French artist Andre Fougeron - a postwar communist - is a good example. In one picture, he shows some petit-bourgeois wives, smug in appearance, stiff in gesture, buying fish at a stall. The fish aside, it seems very badly painted and, while impeccable in ideological terms, it really won't do. Yet Berger's sincerity cannot be brushed aside. He writes with real fire. It's just that, in the end, he admits to losing ground and, after announcing rather movingly that you can only be a critic for so long, he has retired to the Continent.
Sylvester has also "retired", alas by dying. We were friends and I admired from the start his ability to change, and to admit to changing his mind. In their battle of long ago, I believe he won on points, but it did him (and us) no harm to be confronted by so determined an opponent. It may be, too, that in preferring screaming popes to dull housewives buying fish, we could be suspect.
"Paris: capital of the arts 1900-1968" is at the Royal Academy, London W1 (020 7300 8000), until 19 April. The accompanying book costs £45 (hbk) and £24.50 (pbk)
"Transition: the London art scene in the Fifties" is at the Barbican Gallery, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), until 14 April. The catalogue, published by Merrell and Barbican Art, costs £19.95
The Battle for Realism: figurative art in Britain during the cold war 1945-1960, by James Hyman, is published by Yale University Press (£45)