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Agents of change: how Europe’s artists responded to the first world war

Agents of change: how Europe’s artists responded to the first world war

“Aftermath” at Tate Britain shows how the conflict transformed art in Berlin, London and Paris

“Aftermath” at Tate Britain shows how the conflict transformed art in Berlin, London and Paris

Martin Oldham | June 18th 2018

Tate Britain is marking the final year of the first world war centenary with a major exhibition exploring how art was transformed by the conflict and its repercussions. “Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One” is not the first exhibition to consider this topic, and anyone who has been following the commemorations over the past four years will be familiar with many of the works in the first two rooms of the show. The first takes us to the western front, and to landscapes of the trenches by war artists like Paul Nash and William Orpen. The second considers how post-war society tried to come to terms with the scale of suffering and loss of life, and the often-contested questions of remembrance and memorialisation. There is little deviation here from the image of the conflict given to us by “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and other literature of the great war.

However, as we continue through the exhibition, it soon becomes clear that the curators have taken a much broader perspective than we have seen previously. Most importantly, they have departed from the single national story to include art made in France and Germany. They acknowledge that even this is a limited way of looking at the war, which should properly be understood as a global conflict. But the focus is on art, prioritising works produced in three key centres of the European art world: Berlin, London and Paris. It is an approach that successfully highlights the shared and divergent experiences of artists in these cities, and the international interactions that were important in this period. Bringing in German art is particularly revealing, as artists in this country contended with national defeat, followed by prolonged post-war economic collapse and political turmoil.

It is when the exhibition moves away from the conflict and its immediate effects that it breaks into new and interesting territory. The trauma of the war – psychological as well as physical – prompted artists to experiment with new imagery and new methods of making art. Art movements like Dada and Surrealism emerged as ways of expressing the absurd or irrational, or of challenging conservative aesthetic and social values. Conversely, some artists sought a “Return to Order”, looking for harmony and regeneration with a revived interest in classicism or realism, or by breathing new life into traditional genres such as landscape and portraiture. Many artists saw themselves as agents of change, challenging injustice and inequality, but also offering radical ways of imagining the future. The achievement of the exhibition is to immerse us in the interwar world, a period of intense social and political change, and to show us through the vision and imagination of artists, the anxieties and optimism of this age.

 

C.R.W. Nevinson, “Ypres After the First Bombardment” (1916)

Ypres, which occupied a strategically important salient on the western front, saw some of the bloodiest battles of the war. After German artillery bombardments reduced most of the town to rubble in 1915, Ypres came to symbolise the devastation wrought by the conflict on civilian populations. In this painting, Nevinson uses fractured planes and skewed geometry to convey a sense of imminent disintegration. The aerial perspective implies a detached viewpoint taken from an aircraft, one of the new technologies developed during the war.

William Orpen, “To the Unknown British Soldier in France” (1921-8)

Many of the artists featured in the exhibition had experienced the conflict at first hand, as serving soldiers or, as in William Orpen’s case, as official war artists. After the war he was commissioned to attend the Versailles Peace Conference to paint group portraits of the delegates. However, he soon became disillusioned with the conduct of the conference, in which he felt puffed-up politicians were deciding the fate of Europe, with little regard for the sacrifices of the common soldier. When he first exhibited this painting in 1923 he controversially included two ghostly soldiers guarding the tomb. He later painted over them before donating the work to the Imperial War Museum. But the painting retains a subtle reproach by contrasting the simple dignity of the Tommy’s helmet placed on the flag-draped coffin with the opulent gilded interior of the Hall of Mirrors and the flanking marble busts of Roman senators.

 

George Grosz, “The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture” (1920)

Dada was an international movement that rejected traditional artistic values and revelled in the absurd, using new means of expression, such as collage, assemblages or photo-montage, as a way to criticise the folly of war and post-war social conditions. This work is a reconstruction of a sculpture made by the German artists George Grosz and John Heartfield which they exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in 1920. Combining objects such as a shop mannequin, a revolver and military insignia, it is both an indictment of the treatment of the war-wounded and a parody of the sanitised forms of conventional war memorialisation. The figure has been decorated, not with medals, but with cutlery. Like many war veterans, it has a prosthetic limb. The light bulb refers to medical procedures used to treat shell-shock. Following the exhibition, Grosz was prosecuted for defaming the German military.

George Grosz, “Grey Day” (1921)

A satire on the bureaucratic neglect and mistreatment of veterans, Grosz’s painting exposes the class divisions that emerged in Germany after the war. He originally exhibited the work under the title “Council Official for Disabled Veteran’s Welfare”. The figure in the foreground is a caricature of a bourgeois civil servant, primly complacent, and so cross-eyed he is oblivious to the man for whose welfare he is supposedly responsible, the gaunt former soldier walking with a stick on the other side of the wall. Both are contrasted with the working man, heading for the factories in the distance. They share no common purpose; all three men are going in different directions. The veteran is secretly watched by another official in the background, suggesting that the state is more interested in surveillance of its potentially troublesome citizens than in their welfare.

Edward Burra, “The Snack Bar” (1930)

Here Edward Burra depicts a different kind of urban scene. The setting is a Soho snack bar, and the bright electric lights indicate that it is night time. It is an image that speaks of the new opportunities for leisure and consumption that developed in the 1920s, of night life in the modern city and the loosening of social mores. At first glance, we seem to be a long way from the war. But Burra had absorbed many of the new artistic approaches developed in the post-war years. This is an acute social observation of an everyday encounter, but he has amplified the characterisation to give it a surrealist edge. The painting is full of ambiguities. The two people seem to be self-absorbed, yet there is sexual tension between them. Is she a modern, independent woman or, as is typically assumed, a prostitute? The lubricious way in which the man slices the ham contains a hint of violence. Like many of the paintings in this exhibition, “The Snack Bar” evokes a destabilised society, unable to return to equilibrium.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One Tate Britain until September 23rd