SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 220 July/August 2018

The art of war

Aftermath: art in the wake of world war one

Tate Britain, 5 June to 23 September, £18

Reviewed by Manny Thain

Aftermath offers an intriguing look at art during and after the first world war. Timed to mark the centenary of the war’s end, it focuses on British, French and German art from 1916 to 1932. It covers a wide range, from realism to cubism, the dada movement and surrealism, the biting satire of German artists, and the rebirth of pastoral and religious work. Sculpture in monumental commemoration is featured, too.

This exhibition raises many issues – the more you think about it the deeper it goes. However, in what is a recurring criticism of art establishment exhibitions, the political context is weak. Above all, the failure to take account of the Russian revolutions of 1917 makes the social, political and cultural turmoil of the early 1920s practically incomprehensible.

It is not enough to say, for instance, that "social unrest and political upheaval were intense in the 1920s, particularly in Germany..." There was revolution in the air from 1918 to 1923! In such circumstances – not only in Germany – the inspiration of the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 mobilised millions of workers and middle-class people behind a socialist alternative to capitalism. It held out the prospect of an end to war and poverty.

In addition, the October revolution hastened the end of the war. The Soviet government sued for peace immediately, with Leon Trotsky leading its delegation at the Brest-Litovsk negotiations with the central powers led by Germany. A very harsh peace deal was concluded in early 1918. With the ‘eastern front’ taken out of the equation, and the example of Russia fuelling mutinies among French and British troops and revolt in European countries, the pressure on the western powers to end the war was immense.

To ignore that is a grave omission. The focus of Aftermath may be on Britain, France and Germany but, just as the war affected the world, so did the revolution. They were inextricably linked.

Despite this shortcoming, this is a powerful exhibition. The first room is filled with recognisable scenes from the frontlines – most of the artists saw military service. Bomb craters, bare trees, trenches, fallen soldiers and the symbolic abandoned helmet. Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s painting, Paths of Glory (1917), shows two soldiers face down in the mud – rare for a British artist at the time. The painting was banned originally.

Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, Torso in Metal from the Rock Drill (1913-14), is the man-machine mix which became a widely used device. Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s crawling naked figure is desperate – The Fallen Man (1915-16). The war proved too much for Lehmbruck, he killed himself in 1919. In the display cases are illustrated Michelin guides to battlefields, including the Somme and Verdun. These appear somewhat distasteful today, but they are a poignant reminder of the profound impact of the war on European society.

Next comes a look at the way the war was commemorated. The exhibition notes: "Ceremonies of communal mourning promoted unity in the times of social and political unrest that followed". That is a neutral way of expressing it. Looking from a class-based perspective, the ruling classes made use of these events to try to rebuild their bases of support, seriously undermined by the war fought for competing imperialist power interests. The revolutionary waves crashing around Europe were driven by the anger at the senseless loss of life, the widespread destruction and impoverishment – boosted by the Russian example.

While the ceremonies may have helped with individual grief they were put to cynical use by the political establishment. As an aside, while disabled veterans featured prominently in the national remembrance events in France, in Britain they were shunted onto a grandstand, separated from other participants. Local monuments were set up in all three countries – very few dedicated to African, Asian and Caribbean troops.

Most of the sculptures commissioned for this purpose tend towards depictions of heroism and, ultimately, glorify the armed forces and establishment. The wounds were so open and the trauma so deep, however, that even some of these have an unexpected poignancy. Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Soldier Reading a Letter (1921-22) is a touching bronze statue, while his No Man’s Land (1919-20) evokes suffocating trenches.

The most reflective pieces come from Germany. Käthe Kollwitz’s sketch for The Parents (1931), a monument for the German military cemetery originally at Eessen-Roggeveld, Belgium – now at Diksmuide – is very moving. The sculptures overlook the grave of her younger son Peter, killed in 1914 aged 18, and the 25,663 other German war dead buried there. As were many artists, Kollwitz was a member of the German Communist Party (KPD), interrogated by the Nazis when they came to power, her art pulled from galleries.

The exhibition moves to depictions of wounded soldiers. Some are straightforward reportage. In Britain, these were often used as educational tools, part of therapy. In Germany, by contrast, there was much more social comment, the images used widely in anti-war and radical art publications.

Sella Hasse hits hard. One-Armed War-Blinded Man at the Machine (1919) shows a disabled veteran grappling with the difficulties of integrating back into society, a subject she would return to repeatedly. Otto Dix is also unsparing, War: Skin Graft (1924) a case in point. His drawing, War Cripples (1920) depicts a line of poor and disabled soldiers. The fact that they are wearing medals, prompts the exhibition to state: "... it also suggested that many of them continued to be invested in the military ideals that led to the war".

It is an interesting comment on confused consciousness. However, it might not be patriotism that prompted them to do this. It could be a way of reminding people, society and the establishment of what they had been through, while trying to hold onto their own sense of self-worth now they had been thrown on the scrapheap by the ruling class, surplus to requirements. It’s debatable – and this exhibition raises much that can be debated.

Another German big-hitter, George Grosz, is featured. Are We Not Fit For the League of Nations (1919) shows poor soldiers selling matches to scrape a living as businessmen walk by. Grosz and the artist John Heartfield anglicised the spelling of their names in protest at the growth of German nationalism. Both joined the KPD, and both had to flee the Nazis in 1933.

From there we get into dada and surrealism. Dada was a deafening howl of outrage at the industrial scale death of the first world war. Fragmented images reflected the fragmentation of society, smashed remnants of cities, wastelands, wrecked bodies and minds. Grosz and Heartfield’s The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild, Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) features broken up bodies and prosthetic limbs. It also name-checks the famous Russian architect, another reference to the socialist Soviet alternative not picked up in this exhibition.

Photomontage and collage were used by Hannah Höch, the only woman in the Berlin dada group, and Heartfield used it on the covers of KPD magazines. Meanwhile, the surrealists drew on the psychological damage of the war to explore mental states. They rejected rationality and conscious thought – and the limitations imposed by capitalism – through juxtapositions of incongruous images and objects, and ‘automatic writing’.

The Print Portfolio room deals with a simple but important development. This medium had been popular in France and Germany before the war. Typically produced in batches of tens or hundreds it was a relatively cheap way of reaching quite a broad audience. Not contained within gallery walls, it was freer. It could get around official propaganda and censorship.

They include Dix’s extraordinary series of 50 etchings from 1924. War: Crater Field Near Dontrien, Lit By Flares, is incredibly bleak. War: Shock Troops Advance Under Gas is a nightmare vision of dehumanised menace and human vulnerability.

Another standout series, woodcuts by Kollwitz, is also titled War. Each has an additional title: The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, The People. They depict the heartrending loss felt by close relatives of the fallen, intensely black, cut through with pain and grief, extremely powerful anti-war statements.

It’s actually a bit of a relief to reach the Return to Order room – referring to the artistic movement of that name. It was an attempt to get away from the filth, noise and death. John Nash’s The Cornfield (1918) is an early example, the field on an idyllic day, the light brightening the corn. Even here, though, there is an uneasy quiet. Why are there no people? Is it a deliberate portrayal of the sense of loss and wartime depopulation?

By contrast, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) was overtly political. Grosz’s Toads of Property (1920) is one of 57 ink drawings, grotesque depictions of the ruling class. A prominent target was the industrialists who made millions out of the slaughter, the exhibition noting that, "... despite the upheaval, society had reverted to its old class divisions". In reality, those divisions had never gone away – in fact, the war had shown them in their starkest form. CRW Nevinson’s painting He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son (1918) is factual, but lets the capitalist off the hook – we’re all in this together.

The exhibition touches on the rise of jazz and dance in the three capitals, hotbeds of decadence, and on changing attitudes towards women. Working in war-related industry, women had entered the workforce as never before. Voting rights were being widened to include some of them – in Russia, to all women. That gave rise to increased economic independence and assertiveness.

With regards to city rebuilding, artists expressed both hope and anxiety. The photomontages by Alice Lex-Nerlinger – Work Work Work (c. 1928) and Work! Work! Work! (c. 1931) – express the dilemma. On the one hand, mass production techniques represent progress and great potential. On the other, they alienate and dehumanise, grinding down workers with relentless speed, repetition and exploitation. This imagery had a big impact on Fritz Lang – just look at his film Metropolis.

The notes state: "In the 1920s many looked to the United States as an example of technical progress and modernity. The skyscrapers of New York feature in the cityscapes by CRW Nevinson, Paul Citroen and El Lissitzky". On show is the latter’s cover design for Amerika, a book by the modernist architect Richard Neutra. Again, however, that needs to be balanced by the understanding that many of these artists looked east as well as west.

Lissitzky had been one of the pioneers of the early Russian avant-garde and was a leading Soviet artist, famous for his 1919 civil war Red Wedge propaganda poster. As head of architectural design at the People’s Art School he was a big influence on the Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany. While the Bauhaus gets a mention, its radical politics and links to the Soviet Union do not.

Lissitzky was also the Russian cultural ambassador to Weimar Germany from 1921, before returning to Russia several years later – he died in Moscow in 1941. Of course, it is true that artists and designers looked all over the world for ideas and inspiration, including to the US. Nonetheless, to have such a blinkered, only-look-west, view does a great disservice to what is otherwise a moving and very thought-provoking exhibition.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page