Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain

Tate Britain is currently exploring the impact of the First World War on British, German and French art.  The exhibition, Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, is on until 24 September 2018 in the Lower Floor Special Exhibition space and it is definitely worth seeing.  To find out more click here.

The exhibition is spread over eight rooms.  It starts with a reminder of how artists documented the destruction of the war itself.  There are paintings, sculpture, photographs and video; contributions from British artists such as Paul Nash and William Orpen and German sculptor, Wilhelm Lehmbruch.  There are familiar images of skeletal trees, crosses marking graves and dead bodies or simply a discarded helmet to represent the dead.  Seeing these images, makes me wonder how anyone thinks that war is an acceptable thing or, at the very least, how we cannot allocate at least as much money to peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities as we do to war machines and training men and women to kill.  In general, I found it difficult to approach the exhibition as art, looking simply at the aesthetics.  It felt more like pain and definitely history.

The second room looks at how artists remembered the war, particularly their contributions to public memorials in France and Britain and Belgium.  Germany did not have a national memorial until 1931.  I wondered all the way through whether there was a difference in the way the victors responded compared to the defeated but that idea wasn’t tackled explicitly so it was left to my interpretation of the images chosen by the curators.

In July 1919 acts of remembrance took place in both London and Paris.  Frank Owen Salisbury painted The passing of the Unknown Warrior showing the gun carriage carrying the coffin passing the Cenotaph, accompanied by HM King George V and his most senior military men and politicians.  They were all old white mean and I wanted to ask them: what are you doing to keep the peace?

William Orpen painted To the unknown British soldier in France.  A coffin, draped in the Union Flag, sits in the splendour of the palace at Versailles.  It is an impressive piece of work but also, beside it, you can see the original version with a cherub above the coffin and two nearly naked skeletal figures wearing soldiers’ helmets flanking it.  These were painted out but the image on the right is starting to be visible again through the covering paint.  You can see what they used to look like if you look in Room 3 for the same painter’s Blown Up from 1917,  This shows an image of a soldier, his clothes almost all blown off, what’s left hanging in rags around him, still holding his rifle in the middle of the battlefield.

This shows the sort of censoring and self-censoring that occurred in all the countries.  Civilians did not want to keep being remembered about the horror of war.  The military did not want civilian morale to be adversely affected.  Everything needed to look glorious.

There were other reasons for censorship.  Ernst Barlach (born & worked in Germany), created the horizontal statue Der Schwebende (The Floating One) for a memorial.  The image was seen as an affront to military rectitude and power because it is horizontal.  Hence, it was “degenerate” to the Nazis who had it melted down in 1937.  It was recast after WWII.

This may be a sobering topic but there are some beautiful pieces of figurative art, portraying the detail of soldiers’ uniforms and kit.  For example, Charles Sargeant Jagger’s figures for the memorial in Hyde Park London, which I recently noticed from a bus and gave it more thought.  You can see one, Driver, leaning back, his arms stretched out almost as if he were on a cross, a great cape covering him and also Letter from Home 1922.  I could imagine the soldier looking up from reading his letter and starting to talk, to complain about the cold and the wet, no doubt.

The interpretation points out that most of the images are of white men; nothing commemorates the soldiers of the Empires who fought for the mother countries of Britain, France and Germany.  There are some women artists, for example, Käthe Kollwitz (born & worked in Germany).  In room 2 you can see her designs for and pictures of Die Eltern (The Parents), for Roggeweld military cemetery, in Belgium.  She focussed on the grief of those left behind and ended up creating two separate statues, one of the mother, one of the father, to show how isolating grief is.  Later in the exhibition, you can see her print series, War, which again focuses on the effect the war had at home.

I was pleased that I recognised Stanley Spencer’s style when I saw his Unveiling Cookham’s War Memorial 1922.  The interpretation tells of the reading out of the names of the dead.  This was apparently done at war memorials around the country for a long time.  This is not something I have ever experienced myself.  I thought the reading out of the names – recently associated with post 9/11 terror attacks – was a new idea.

After the memorialising, rooms 3 and 4 look at Traces of War, starting with wounded soldiers in room 3.  This was mostly French and German artists who portrayed soldiers with disfigurements and missing limbs out and about in the street or trying to learn a new trade.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Henry Tonks who was a surgeon and artist drew before and after pictures of facial reconstruction surgery to be included in patients’ notes.  It seemed a very different response.  Did we British treat our veterans better or keep them better hidden?

Room 4 covered Surrealism and Dadaism, which were artistic responses to the trauma.  Placing these art movements in the context of the war made them suddenly make more sense to me, although I’m still not sure that I particularly like them.  There was one British artist, Edward Burra, the rest being mostly German.  I wondered whether this was a fair representation of the active artists or not.  Room 5 covered The Print Portfolio, an important medium for artists in France and Germany, but not in Britain, where you can see the artist as activist, protesting about political matters or illustrating injustices and dangers.

The German art is often a statement against the military and artists were prosecuted for “slandering the military”.  I wondered whether this is evidence that there might have been a second war, even without the Nazis taking power, because the German state was heavily influenced by the military and militarism.

There were more British artists on display in Room 6, which looked at the Return to Order movement.  This returned to more classic genres of landscape and portrait although rejecting the geometric and mechanised forms that were common before the war, or so I’m told.  They produced more precision and clarity amidst the “chaotic economic and political climate”.  Here there are paintings by Paul Nash and his brother John, Henry Moore, George Clausen and David Jones filling maybe a bit less than half the room with the rest German, French, Swiss and Spanish (Picasso).

Rooms 7 and 8 then look at the way artists imagined the post-war society, first the people and then the cities.  Works from different countries are often hung in pairs, suggesting a contrast in the different treatments of subjects in the different countries.

I enjoyed the exhibition very much and was moved by many of the artworks.  I particularly enjoyed seeing art from the three countries.  I did find it a history lesson, as much as an art exhibition, and I did wonder whether I was seeing a truly representative sample of the art from the three countries.  From this exhibition, it seems that Germany in particular but also France were in turmoil in the inter-war period and that Britain had the leisure for nostalgia and a more positive, forward-looking attitude.  And, yet, I know that Britain faced turmoil itself: Irish Independence, movements for workers’ rights and the great Depression to name but three elements of that.  I wonder if there are more stories to be told about the aftermath of war.

For those who want a longer read, what follow are my highlights from the different rooms starting back in Room 4 on Dadaism and Surrealism, where one exception to the weight of German artists was Frenchman, André Masson.  You can see his La Route de Picardie (The Picardy Road) 1924. Based on his memories of serving on the Western Front, this is recognisably a landscape but it is painted with strange shapes, including bare trees in the foreground, painted in a soft Autumnal palette – pastel greens and browns.  I actually found it quite peaceful not at all sinister as the interpretation suggested.

After painting from his memories, Masson turned to “automatic painting”, “a way of releasing a flow of images from the unconscious”.  For Lancelot 1927, he applied glue randomly, cast sand on it and then added paint in response to the resulting shapes.  He saw a warrior but I’m not sure I did – maybe not as automatic as he thought – his vision still clouded by his memories.

In Room 6, I really liked George Clausen’s The Road, Winter Morning, from 1923.  I could feel the cold of the morning as I looked at the cart driving away from me, the driver huddled down, the sun from the left, and bare trees reaching up into the sky. Actually, it says winter morning but the picture shows some flowers – maybe it is early spring, late February.

There were two sculptures of women providing an interesting contrast.  Briton Eric Gill produced Mankind 1927-28 showing a female form, with a fashionable slim figure, like a flapper.  Frenchman Aristide Maillol Produced Vénus au collier (Venus with a Necklace) c.1918 –28, cast 1930 which was distinctly more curved and rounded in a more classic style.  I think it was the contrast and the presence of the pieces that stopped me seeing the irony of a statue called “Mankind” being in the form of a woman.  Humankind maybe?

I liked Morgen an der Friedhofsmauer (Morning at Cemetery Wall) with its amazingly lifelike and detailed red brick wall above the top of which you can see monuments and statues.  The artist, Franz Radziwill, was born and worked in Germany and in the 1930s became a strong supporter of Nazism.  So, should we no longer appreciate his art?

A piece by another German, Franz Lenk, called Old Military showed a wooden structure in the foreground, water filling it; a bare trunk of a tree; and a red house with a steep roof behind them.  The foreground structure is supposed to be a vestige of the war, now decaying.  I didn’t see the decay, although, thinking about it, if this is a trench then the fact that it is full of water means it is in disrepair.  I’m not sure it worked for me now, looking back from 2018.

Quite a few of the pieces seemed to be hung in pairs, contrasting styles between countries.  There were two portraits of women.  In the first, by Briton Meredith Frampton of Marguerite Kelsey is a fine portrait of a woman with her knees bent under her sitting on a large comfortable armchair.  Her cream dress looks like heavy woollen crepe and her skin tone and the curves of her neck and the hands are photographically real even though it is painted in oils.  In the second, by German Rudolf Schlichter is Jenny, greyer and bleaker.  I couldn’t decide if it was about the style of the two artists or if it pointed to the substance of life the 1920s in Britain and Germany?  Looking at this array of art, the impression is that life was wonderful in post-WWI Britain and not in France (also victorious) nor Germany (defeated).

I rather liked the drawing by George Grosz, from Germany, showing large fat and balding men smoking cigars and counting their money at a table while in the background soldiers, including one with crutches, and working men in caps and an old lady with a small child wander aimlessly.  It is called Die Besitzkröten (Toads of Property) 1920.  So, not Fat Cats, but Property Toads, in German.  I wonder if that is still an expression in Germany?

There is some parallel with a painting by Briton Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson.  Called He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son from 1918 it is said to be a rare British portrait of profiteers.  The man is fat and balding but he is not counting his money.  He is in his parlour and has a picture of his son in uniform on his mantelpiece to remind him of his loss.  This creates a shared experience between him and the viewer and softens the idea that he might have profiteered.

Another work by George Grosz is in this room and was also chosen as the key picture in the publicity for the exhibition.  It is now called Grauer Tag (Grey Day) and was painted in 1921.  However, it was first exhibited as ‘Council Official for Disabled Veterans’ Welfare’.  It shows a street scene with quite a flat perspective.  In the front is a plump-looking, well-dressed man with hat and briefcase – and a badge on his lapel.  The original title suggests he is responsible for the welfare of the soldier with a stick behind him.  With just Grey Day it becomes more a documentation of the different people in the city: officials, soldiers, manual labourers and clerks (skulking in the top right).

Across Europe, the working man became quite a hero in paintings.  There is a copy in the exhibition of a famous painting of men singing the communist and socialist anthem, the Internationale.  We are seeing a copy, painted by the Ingrid Griebel-Zietlow, the daughter of the original artist, Otto Griebel, because the original is too fragile to travel.  A group of men stand with their arms by the sides and their mouths open.  They are all individual, dressed according to their trades, including a miner with his lamp.  There are no women and most are Anglo-Saxon, although there may be a Mediterranean or two.  It changes the way we see it today.

There is another portrait of a woman that is worth mentioning: Jeanne Mammen’s Valeska Gert. She was a well-known German Jewish performance artist, actress, artist’s model and dancer in 1920s Berlin who left Germany when the Nazis banned her from the stage and became well-known as a pioneer even to the Punk movement of the 1970s and 1980s, apparently.  The picture does not provide much detail but a great overall impression of the person.  Almost Bjork-like.

The picture of the city that I liked best was another by Briton Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson: Soul of the Soulless City 1920.  It is clearly American with the elevated railway through skyscrapers.  It is all squares and harsh lines but has a palette of soft beige to tan with blue highlights.  I like that.  This, like Grey Day, is another picture where the artist exhibited it first under a different title.  In this case, Nevinson originally entitled New York – an Abstraction when he was enamoured of that city’s energy and dynamism.  He gave it the current title only after he became somewhat disillusioned.