Building a New World
‘Aftermath’, an information panel in the first room of Tate Britain’s new exhibition informs us, is an agricultural term for the new growth that follows a harvest. It is a very fitting title for a thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition on the artistic responses to the trauma of 1914-18 and, as the four-year cycle of centenary commemorations prepare to reach the anniversary of the 11th November Armistice, a reminder that the First World War shaped the artistic, political, and cultural landscape of Europe long after the guns fell silent on the Western Front.
I say ‘Europe’ here because the Tate has focused its exhibition on Britain, France, and Germany, acknowledging that other countries were certainly involved but that constraints of space and time necessitate a narrowing of focus. This approach works well. In each room a defeated combatant nation and two ostensibly victorious ones are seen to be wrestling with the legacy of a conflict that lasted longer than anyone foresaw and challenged its survivors to respond to its enormity once the fighting had ceased. Among the first exhibits the visitor sees are landscapes of near-total devastation: film footage of Ypres (or what was left of it) seen from a dirigible, photographs of Reims and its cathedral shelled almost into rubble. Alongside these landscapes, the human form is similarly ravaged. Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s 1916 bronze Fallen Man reduces the human form to one poised between a crawling figure and an utterly prostrate one, head on the ground as though unable to go forward any further. Abandoned helmets recur in paintings as representatives of dead soldiers while a display case nearby contains actual examples from British, French, and German troops. The top of the German helmet has been sliced open. One can only ponder the fate of its former owner.
In the second room official remembrance codifies the ways in which nations honour and mourn their dead. The human body now appears either in the form of heroic resolution – as in Charles Jaggers’ figures for the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner – or is absent altogether in the cenotaphs (empty tombs) that are included in victory parades in London and Paris and later complemented by the burial of unknown soldiers in places of national honour. Elsewhere, the burial of hundreds of thousands of corpses in state-designed cemeteries turns individual loss into national grief. The war dead are, in an aesthetic sense, accorded all the dignity that their countries can give to them.
The awkward truth, as the exhibition goes on to remind us, is that the war-wounded were still alive, even if they were finding ‘life’ near-impossible on account of wounds both physical and psychological. In France (where the mutilated survivors were accorded a place of honour in the victory procession) and Britain (where they were not) the state claimed – with varying degrees of success – to be caring for those whose war did not end in 1918. In Germany, ravaged by economic, political, and social collapse after defeat, the war-wounded were reminders of all that had wrong and seen all too often as a living impediment to any return to ‘normality’. In the works of George Grosz the wounded veterans function as the national subconscious, seen (in images like 1919’s ‘Are We Not Fit for the League of Nations?’) as blind, one-legged beggars while suspiciously rich businessmen saunter past on the streets of Berlin.
Artistic reactions to the War’s longer-term effects took two main paths: the rise of Dada and its exploration of psyches so ravaged that the most surreal images seemed coherent, and the equally intense desire to affirm and restore some kind of artistic ‘order’ in a world that no longer seemed to have any. After everything that has come before, the idea of ‘order’ in the latter stages of the exhibition seems less convincing. John Nash’s The Cornfield and his brother Paul’s Landscape at Iden may well be images of rural tranquility, but after all the dead bodies left behind in France and Belgium is it possible to think that those sheaves of corn and piles of logs are really just what they look to be? Like the religious works of Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights displayed elsewhere in the room, they seem to be the products of a world revalued by the War, more acutely aware of how thin the veneer of ‘normality’ is.
The final examples of ‘new growth’, then, have a frenetic element to them, reflecting an age newly conscious of the forces that had, in some cases, lain dormant under the pre-War order. The hedonism of the jazz age is seen as a reaction against the weight of guilt and grief of which the post-War world found itself in possession, and the rise of new political movements in response to changing patterns of work and life lead the viewer out of the 1920s. The pace of life in the modern city fascinates these artists, from Fernand Leger’s film Mechanical Ballet to the photomontages of Paul Citroen and El Lissitzky and their futuristic cityscapes. The machine ceases to be the means of dispensing death more efficiently and becomes the agent of improved living conditions, freeing the worker for more leisure or for unemployment, depending on your point of view. In the final room of the exhibition, a copy of Otto Griebel’s The International (1930) shows the massed ranks of men now not in uniform but bound together in a collective need to resist the economic forces destabilising their world as it slipped into the Depression that would itself help to fuel the rise of a toxic political extremism.
There was indeed ‘new growth’ after the trauma of the First World War, but by the time this exhibition concludes the viewer can anticipate where many of the complex emotions seen on its walls are going to find – one way or another – their next stage of resolution. In Germany, in particular, the war veteran would not be ignored so much as elevated to the status of victim; a victim not of enemy action but of national betrayal. Barely suppressed feelings of injustice would be channeled by a party adept at manipulating the popular will, and turning the nation’s gaze outwards again onto those ‘enemies’ who had defeated it in war and punished it in peace. There is no direct mention of the rise of Nazism in the exhibition, but there doesn’t really need to be: we know who many of Grosz’s war veterans would support when asked to do so, and how dangerous the German war experience would prove in the hands of Nazi propagandists.
The nature of ‘memorialising’ the War was more complex in Germany than in France or Britain, largely on account of feelings of guilt that the other powers did not really need to address. In the second room of the exhibition Ernst Barlach’s 1927 bronze The Floating One is suspended over the viewer, as it was designed to hang in Gustrow Cathedral. This angle-like figure, its eyes closed, has the facial features of Barlach’s friend Kathe Kollwitz, whose designs for other memorial sculptures are displayed nearby. Projecting an image of calm at odds with the context in which it was produced, it has a timeless quality, a memorial not to any specific war casualty but to all. The telling detail, though, is that the Tate’s exhibition features a 1987 casting of the bronze, made from moulds smuggled out of Germany after the Nazi regime declared the original a work of ‘degenerate’ art and melted it down. The aftermath of the ‘Great War’ was soon caught up in the rush towards another conflict that would, as the exhibition’s subtitle remind us, necessitate referring to the 1914-18 cataclysm as ‘World War One’.
‘Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One’ is at Tate Britain, London, until 23rd September 2018. For details visit:http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/aftermath