Tate Britain’s latest exhibition is a “painfully brilliant” testament to the daunting task of artistically comprehending one of history’s most tragic chapters
In the second room of Tate Britain’s ‘Aftermath – Art in the Wake of World War One’, the serene and sunlit inhabitants of Stanley Spencer’s Cookham look toward the unblemished stone of a new war memorial. On the opposite wall the stern faces of the greatcoat-clad cubist robots in Marcel Gromaire’s War squint indecipherably at unknown horizons. These people recognise each other across the tempest. While Spencer’s dolls look meekly to the departed they connect with the hard, duty-bound, lines of the French soldiers. They’re all looking in on the terrible truth of reality, that the diversity of the 150 artworks displayed in these rooms proves is as inescapable now as it was then.
Nothing is easy here: The new matrixes developed by artists for understanding the events of the First World War show the magnitude of their task and give credence to the challenges inherent in 20th century Modernism, Realism and Classicism. That makes this exhibition as close to a definitive picture as you will find of this difficult time and gives the viewer a privileged, almost organic, view of this stunted and hurt artistic evolution. That is best shown in the mutation of Dadaism half-way through and Grosz et al’s resonating critique of the futility of order in a world where nations kill 18 million people.
Dada’s uneasy pivot sits inside a loose chronology that moves us through state ownership of the wartime narrative to memorial and remembrance. Then mourning turns to grief: Artistic understanding diverges as the national dialogue unwinds to yield universalist interpretations of innocence and loss in Britain and France and a darker, more detached cynicism in Germany.
Joint curator, Emma Chambers, points to the agricultural origins of the term ‘aftermath’, and its meaning of new growth following the crop cycle. But this growth is a strange, unrecognisable harvest from poisoned fields. The landscapes themselves are chewed mires, littered with the detritus of industrialised warfare, shards of metal, discarded weapons, broken trees and torn men. Luc-Albert Moreau’s Chemin des Dames Assult, October 1917 (1918) depicts the unceremonious dumping of a French solider on a tree stump. Thrown fast by an explosion he is an inverted Christ, blurring with the new morbid norm; a tragically unremarkable sacrifice. Other critiques abound: Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s Paths to Glory (1917) is shown uncensored, unlike its first appearance beneath a banner covering the two face-down Tommies it depicts.
The indifference of the machine age is an untreated haemorrhage. Men move munitions, wire ensnares limbs, a film shot from an airship journey over eastern France in 1919 shows the apocalypse rendered in rubble, a forest of crosses (painted 18 months before the war finished) blurs into the distance and a stark alien Torso in Metal makes a sinister sentry. Everywhere the industry of war makes painful new ways of seeing and, by close, we are grateful they are less real.
Seeing through the pain
After the armistice there is ‘Remembrance and Commemoration’. The humbled but large scale cenotaph and the deep, formal process of memorial are seen in the realist painting of Frank Owen Salisbury’s The Passing of the Unknown Warrior (1920) and Charles Sargeant Jagger’s sculpture of a soldier reading a letter (1921-2). These are moving but their official position does not make it easy for them to countenance the grief inside so many personal hinterlands.
Arguably the art of this aftermath begins here in representing the inexpressible. You wonder if Spencer’s sunlit civilians want to reach out to Gromaire’s robots. While Ernst Barlach’s sentinel sculpture above, The Floating One (1927), makes an angel of death and a departing soul – both untouchable now. Parents weep and despite the explanations of the machine age, the maps to understanding that are left to the survivors remain shredded.
So new routes are forged. Some, notably British or French, take a more realist approach, coming to terms and then closing a chapter on horror and moving to new Modernisms, celebrating the noble labourer, the emancipation of women and rays of hope in painting and sculpture at the borders of utopian ideals.
Others find the concept of order perverse and paint a broken society. Where Henry Tonks gives a dignity to recuperating soldiers suffering facial disfigurations in his pastels, Otto Dix’s blinded quadriplegic is pissed on by a dog. Where Nevinson’s capitalist sits in contradicted contemplation (He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son – 1918), George Grosz’s Toad’s of Property (1920) bicker and stamp, while purposeless soldiers march and a politician with shit for brains mumbles.
Dada is the difficult, torrid confluence that is superbly placed by this exhibition. Too often its anarchy is referenced without the historical context but work such as Grosz’s The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) and Max Ernst Celebes (1921), anchor the fetishisation of the machine in correspondence to the craters of the war and are apt critiques of militaristic sentiments following such slaughter. There is a growing nightmare present in these weird, ungrateful, creations of reality – for all their wonderful ridiculousness they harbour very real demons.
And we should be scared. If these rooms show anything it is that art has a responsibility to speak to truth and highlight and interpret the world. This war is indelible in form and content. “Artists should not proselytise or reform, all they have to do is bear witness,” writes Otto Dix. The horrific figures depicted in his series of war prints make a haunting testimony to that: Men shrivel in pain, worms eat skulls, corpses rot, soldiers devour meat next to skeletons and the earth becomes a carbuncle. In these prints, complemented by series from Rouault, Beckmann and Kollwitz, there is a visceral, almost audible tearing of social fabric. This art is a key witness and makes this small room the exhibition’s most poignant.
In closing there is no affirmative pay-off or given conclusion – and nor can there be. The contemporary universe our artists now inhabit owes so much to this period that arguably, the ‘aftermath’ referenced here is ongoing. From 1932 the Modernist imaginings of the new world began to attract the unlicensed, conceited, pilots of politics and much art was taken hostage. It remains a testament to their undaunted creativity that the Dadaists were labelled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis; who also deemed the serenity of Barlach’s The Floating One offensive, melting it down in 1937 (fortunately the mould survived and it was recast in 1987).
This insightful, intelligent and informative exhibition is perennially relevant. It is underpinned by a myriad of artefacts from the battlefields, from discarded helmets to sculpted letter-openers, all emphasising the loss of the individual in the storm of mutilating industry. The tragedy is ongoing but no less diluted in its differing forms: you may not see a dead soldier in the later paintings but you will see the proverbial flood and a sneered at Christ. This art, made in the transitional 1920s, is chilling in its contemporary setting, trying to show the premium of hope in world looking to rebuild – a hope that was ultimately truncated.
The tragedy of lost potential pervades because so many of the artists displayed here suffered personally from the war. That is epitomised by Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s The Fallen Man (1915-6). The galling sculpture shows a cowed, destitute and crawling figure – a difficult but powerful piece. Affected deeply by his experiences during the war, Lehmbruck, a father of three, killed himself in 1919, aged 38.
By tracing such omnipotent tragedy this exhibition allows us to see the future the First World War created while we ponder glimpses of the infinite futures it aborted. That makes this space its own painfully brilliant memorial and possibly the most human exhibition you will ever see.