Exhibition Review

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. Tate Britain, London

The effects of the First World War still resonate today, both in politics and culture. By the end of the war much of northern France and Belgium was wasteland and national boundaries even beyond Europe had been redrawn. Heroic behaviour was still praised, of course, but more and more a sense of the ghastly reality of the conflict infiltrated people’s views and was particularly expressed in literature and the visual arts. Drawing from several countries’ public and private collections, Aftermath is a visual essay of the period between 1916 and 1932, from the final years of the war through to the ill-fated Weimar Republic, taking in the Jazz Age and the frenetic 1920s, when moods alternated between hopes for a brave new world and the despair engendered by recent events. It is one of the most ambitious surveys ever staged of the ways in which artists understood the war in its time and in the immediate post-war period.

With the loss of the Empire having been accelerated by the impact of war, some have speculated that the British are almost unhealthily obsessed with the conflict, and an interest in art that was produced in the context of war has long been a preoccupation in Britain. The first official War Artists Scheme was set up by the British government in 1916; the Imperial War Museum was founded in London by Britain’s War Cabinet in March 1917 and formally established by an Act of Parliament in 1920. Today it owns the second largest collection after Tate Britain of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British art, as well as a huge and growing collection of archival material, such as diaries, photography and film. Increasingly, anniversaries of the world wars have been marked with cultural events: for example, a huge programme 14–18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commisions is just drawing to a close.1 The British Museum, London, is showing twenty-five prints on the subject of war and peace that C.R.W. Nevinson gave to the collection in 1918, which include his profound representations of wounded soldiers. In addition, there is a new willingness, even an eagerness, in Britain to understand German visual culture of the first half of the twentieth century, which had long been neglected. Examples are the current exhibitions Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919–33 at Tate Modern, London, and Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz, organised by the British Museum and the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, and currently on tour in England.2

One of the strengths of the exhibition under review is the mixing of masterpieces with lesser-known but significant works. It is part of a relatively new determination by the Tate to make sure that visitors – and art historians – not only appreciate individual works of art but also grasp the importance and relevance of social context. There are some great names here: Picasso, with his serene Neo-classical Seated woman in a chemise (1923; cat. no.69); Henry Moore’s Standing woman (ex-catalogue); Max Beckmann, with a selection from his portfolio of prints of war, aptly titled Hell (1919; no.53); and George Braque’s Bather (1925; no.70). There is also Jacob Epstein’s vivid pared-down figure, Torso in metal from ‘The rock drill’ (1913–14; no.2), his terrifying meditation on robotic mechanisation; Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Fallen man (1915; no.1), a naked figure crawling towards an unknown destination; Max Ernst’s Celebes (1921; no.50); and Ernst Barlach’s The floating one (no.23; Fig.22), the prime version of which was destroyed by the Nazis. Outstanding British artists include Paul Nash (Fig.24), Nevinson, William Orpen and Stanley Spencer (Unveiling Cookham war memorial; 1922; no.24), and many other familiar names. There are also artists that are little known now, such as Franz Lenk, André Mare – whose painting Survivors (1929; no.35) is particularly poignant – Paul Jouve, Albert Birkle and Clive Branson. The exhibition’s complex ironies and the fractured society of the post-war period are brilliantly summarised in one of the masterpieces on view, George Grosz’s Grey day (no.77; Fig.23), which depicts a cross-eyed, bloated, stiff-collared and besuited capitalist figure; behind him in the bleak city street are a faceless manual worker, a smaller clerical type and a hunchbacked soldier, a casualty of the war. It is the class system as portrayed by several stereotypes, but the soldier’s face is etched with grim lines, the echoes of pain and suffering.

The First World War has often been described as the first conflict of the industrial age, denting, culturally speaking, the glorification of technology advanced by artists such as the Futurists, and temporarily putting an end to the expansive experimentation and passion for abstraction that had just begun. A central subject of the exhibition is the visual aftermath of war and its effects on artists who had been physically present on the front line or had witnessed the effects of war after its formal end and who recognised the almost intolerable suffering undergone by both the military and the civilian population. As Nash said in a letter to his wife of November 1917, the bitter truth was that the war was ‘unspeakable, godless, hopeless’. Visitors are reminded that ten million soldiers died, and twenty million were wounded: in earlier times many of the wounded would have died, but innovative medical advances kept many alive, albeit often terribly mutilated. The French actress and war nurse Marguerite Moreno summed it up thus in a letter written to her friend, the French novelist Colette: ‘I am still at work among my leg amputees, who are gay, and my arm amputees, who are sad. In a very short time, the legless begin to draw, to write, to make little toys and drag themselves along the floor with their hands, joking all the while. But the armless fellows become depressed, it’s a great humiliation for a man – perhaps the worst – not to be able to pee without asking for help’.3

There are many reflections of such deeply compassionate insights in the exhibition, such as Henry Tonks’s extraordinary pastels of soldiers with facial injuries. Tonks, who went on to become Slade Professor of Art and one of the most influential teachers of the period, had trained as a surgeon. He was able to portray these mutilated faces with uncanny and empathetic precision, a kind of passionate dispassion that vividly communicates a strikingly sympathetic objectivity. Responses to the war were often contradictory: for example, there was both a fascination with machines and revulsion at the suffering caused by technological innovations that resulted in mass suffering, such as mustard gas. There are depictions of the physical destruction of landscape, cities and people, critiques of the postwar political fragility, the fractured visualisations of Dada and Surrealism, and finally hypnotic classical paintings. Cool controlling portraits of young women by Dod Procter and Meredith Frampton are tense with repressed emotion, a veneer over the bloodbath of this fiery exhibition. The exhibition’s wide geographical range – there are works from France and Belgium as well as Britain and Germany – is matched by a broad choice of media, including photography, painting, sculpture and works on paper. Only the popular arts, most notably posters, are excluded.

The catalogue contains a series of short, pithy, but unusually informative essays by a number of authors on such themes as battlefields and ruins, war memorials and society and the hopeful but doomed attempts at a ‘Return to order’. 4 There is a list of all the art on display and comparative illustrations. The whole is a compressed but stimulating and eminently accessible visual history of the period, set in context and with an excellent historical chronology. Missing however are succinct biographies, which would be particularly helpful as a number of artists are little known today, and an index would have been equally desirable.

1 See www.1418now.org.uk, accessed 27th July 2018. THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE published a special issue on the First World War in September 2014.

2 Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919–33 is on view to 14th July 2019; Portrait of the Artist: Käthe Kollwitz is at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, to 30th September. The C.R.W. Nevinson prints at the British Museum can be seen on request until 13th September.

3 M. Sarde: Colette (London 1978), p.307.

4 Catalogue: Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. Edited by Emma Chambers. 128 pp. incl. 100 col. ills, (Tate Publishing, London, 2018), £19.99. ISBN 978–1–84976–567–1.