On 11th November 1918, fighting on land, sea and air in World War I between the Allies and their opponent, Germany, finally came to an end. One hundred years later, television, magazines and museums throughout Britain are paying tribute to the events of the Great War with reflective thoughts, facts and stories, revealing truths and experiences of those who fought or were affected by the conflict. Tate Britain jumped on the bandwagon with a major exhibition throughout the summer: Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. Bringing together over 150 artworks from 1916 – 1932 by British, French and German artists, the exhibition explored the artistic responses to the physical and psychological scars left by the war. With over 10 million soldiers dead and 20 million wounded, the fighting may have ceased but the after effects of the devastation continued to plague the hearts and minds of those left behind to pick up the pieces.
The exhibition, which closed on 23rd September 2018, began with a selection of paintings produced by artists who had either fought or witnessed the battle first hand. Since the majority of civilians had not seen the fighting in the trenches, they were sheltered from the brutality of the experience. Artists struggled to express the horrors of war, the battlefields and the loss of human life; instead, they painted the scene after the guns had fallen silent, indicating the violence by revealing the destruction of the landscape.
Paul Nash (1889-1946) used his surrealist style to produce a ruined field full of shell craters and broken trees. Although no human remains can be seen, it is easy to imagine the significant death toll caused by heavy artillery and automatic weapons. Other artists included abandoned helmets as a piercing symbol of the death of a soldier. An example of British, French and German helmets, which had originally been collected as war souvenirs, was displayed in a glass case in the first room of the exhibition. The rusted state of the British and German helmet was a strong reminder of the damp, inhospitable environment soldiers were subjected to.
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946), one of the greatest British war artists, included a couple of corpses in his painting Paths of Glory (1917). Lying face down in the mud surrounded by barbed wire, the soldiers are stripped of their dignity and identity, becoming a small percentage of the war losses. When the painting was first displayed in London, the Department of Information threatened to censor it, however, Nevinson got there first, pasting pieces of brown paper over the dead bodies with the word “censored” written over the top. Rather than protecting the viewers from the truth as the Department had wished, Nevinson caused people to demand to know the realities of the war.
William Orpen (1878-1931) was another artist who was determined to reveal the traumas of war. Drawing on his own experiences, Orpen produced Blown Up (1917), a painting of a soldier he had witnessed wandering around in a corpse-ridden landscape.
“Practically every shred of uniform had been torn from his body … [he] was wandering crazed and naked, still clinging to his rifle.”
It was impossible for soldiers to forget the sights they had seen and Orpen was particularly outraged that the people who had “gone through Hell” were quickly being forgotten by the people in charge. Soldiers were expected to return to their daily lives as though the war had never happened. Mental illness was not an accepted concept at the time and illnesses such as PTSD were not mentioned. Instead, the dazed, emotionally broken man depicted by Orpen was deemed to be “shell-shocked”, a term coined during the war by Charles Meyers (1873-1946), a physician, who believed the behaviour of these men was a result of shockwaves caused from a nearby exploding bomb, severing men’s nerves.
Of course, the Great War itself was remembered, and continues to be, by the countries involved. Britain and France quickly erected memorials to the people who lost their lives and Germany eventually followed suit in 1931. In Hyde Park Corner, London, stands a stone monument dedicated to the First World War casualties of the Royal Artillery. Included in this statue are four bronze figures of artillerymen designed by Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934), one of which featured in the Tate exhibition.
In Britain, the Tomb of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, which contains the remains of an unidentified British soldier killed during the First World War, is still respected at memorial services today. Similarly, in France, a French unknown soldier is buried at the Arc de Triomphe. The coffins were marched through the capitals on 11th November 1920, as shown by Frank Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) in his painting The Passing of an Unknown Warrior. Salisbury captured the procession as it passed Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall where hundreds of people had gathered to pay their respects. The highly recognisable George V walks alone behind the gun carriage carrying the coffin, playing the role of Chief Mourner.
Salisbury’s painting was not the only one at the exhibition to feature the coffin of the unknown soldier. William Orpen painted a tribute to the soldier, placing the coffin in the Hall of Peace at the Palace of Versailles, however, the story behind the artwork gives it an entirely different meaning. As the Tate pointed out, the original painting once featured two putti hovering above the flag-clad coffin, whilst two emaciated soldiers stood to either side. Five years after it had been produced, Orpen painted over the putti and soldiers, leaving the lone coffin in the middle.
What the Tate failed to mention was the painting, To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-8) was never the original intention of the artist or the commissioners. Orpen was commissioned to paint the politicians, generals and admirals who had “won the war” in a group portrait within the walls of the Hall of Peace. Whilst Orpen worked diligently on this for nine months, his experience of the realities of the battlefield prevented him from continuing until completion. With those that had “given up their all” forgotten about by these “frocks” who had very little to do with the physical warfare, Orpen rebelled by removing the statesmen from the painting and replacing them with the coffin of an unknown soldier. He aimed to express the fate of millions of soldiers to the public back home and the war-induced trauma the survivors were suffering.
“… it must have been the experience of many men, when the war was over and they came back with minds seared with the things they has seen, to find a civilian public weary and indifferent, and positively unwilling to listen.”
– Herbert Read (1893-1968)
Although some photographs were produced during the war years, the medium was an expensive way of documenting the travesties, therefore, it was left to the artists to show the true events and after-effects. Nevertheless, a painting of a war-strewn landscape does not express the emotional, mental and physical effects upon the combatants. Soon after the war, art movements such as Dada and Surrealism became a way of communicating the damage inflicted upon bodies and minds. Warped images of half flesh, half machine figures were frequently used to represent the use of prosthetic limbs by war veterans.
The French painter Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), whilst not associated with Dadaism and Surrealism, produced a painting of robot-like soldiers sitting in a trench. The individuals look as though they are made of steel, thus dehumanising the act of war. The German painter Otto Dix (1891-1969), on the other hand, chose a cartoon-style to express his experience of war, for instance, the violent-looking, gasmask-wearing stormtroopers in his print series, The War (1924).
Dix also tried to draw attention to the way post-war German society mistreated disabled veterans as well as exposing the lives of ex-soldiers and their female relatives. In a caricature entitled Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran. Two Victims of Capitalism (1923) Dix aimed to make society aware of the men who were refused work on account of their facial disfigurement and the women who had no choice but to go into prostitution due to economic necessity.
As well as exploring the catastrophic impact of the war, many artists’ styles and genres began to radically change in the following years. Before 1914, many avant-garde movements were developing, changing the way art was perceived and executed in the western world, however, the war years brought these artistic advancements to a lull. With the world suffering physical and psychological damages, the heart temporarily went out of modern art and many returned to realism and traditional genres.
This revival has been given the art term Retour à l’ordre or Return to Order, which is thought to stem from Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) book of essays Le rappel a l’ordre, published in 1926. Although the style may be reminiscent of old approaches, the subject matter alluded to the current economic and political climate. Dorothy Brett (1883-1977), for example, portrayed a group of pregnant war widows dressed in black supporting each other through such a distressing time. War Widows (1916) emphasises the death toll of the war and the number of women left without husbands and children who will never meet their fathers.
Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955) also alluded to the effects war had on women. In his portrait Jenny (1923), Schlichter gave great attention to the sitter’s facial expression, exposing the inner turmoil of her mind. Jenny appears to be deep in thought, distant and detached from the world. The war did not only affect the men who fought but also the women who lost husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. Another artist, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), produced a narrative print portfolio that focused on the war from the perspective of mothers and children. It was one of the strongest and most powerful anti-war statements made at the time.
Other artists subliminally referenced the war by returning to classical themes, such as religion, combining them with modern settings. Winifred Knights (1899–1947), for instance, combined the Biblical story of the flood in the book of Genesis with frenzied figures wearing typical clothing of the 1910s fleeing from the rising waters. The Deluge (1920) was displayed at the Royal Academy in February 1921 and received positive feedback from critics. “The ark suggests the modern concrete buildings, and the figures are those of present-day men and women. Critics declare the painter a genius.” (The Daily Graphic, 8 February 1921)
The most surprising artist to feature in the Return to Order section of the Tate Britain exhibition was Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Known for cubism, surrealism, expressionism, post-impressionism and more, it is easy to forget that Picasso was also an exceptionally good realist painter. Although he quickly returned to his iconic modern style, for a short time after the war, Picasso entertained ideas of classical and Biblical art. In Family by the Seaside (1922), Picasso paints what appears to be a family of three relaxing on the beach, however, a closer inspection reveals the unnerving nudity of the father and child. The similarities between this painting and the Pietà are evident in the position of the father lying unmoving on the ground whilst the mother and child watch over him.
Although war art is typically focused upon the actual combat and after effects, artists began to think about the future of a post-war society. In Britain, France and Germany, social and political unrest was plaguing the cities, particularly in the latter in which the percentage of unemployed skyrocketed. In the 1920s, Germany saw the rise of a new art movement, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which encompassed the artists who rejected the pre-war expressionist movement. Between 1925 until the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933, German painting began to characterise the attitude of public life.
Otto Griebel (1895-1972) painted Die International (The International) in 1929 to express the working class’ antagonism against Capitalism. Griebel paints an unending crowd of workers marching together whilst singing the Communist anthem. The individuals are dressed in all manner of work clothes but despite their different positions, they are determined to support each other.
Otto Dix also focused on the working class with his portrait of a street urchin in Working-Class Boy (1920). The young German boy would not look out of place in a Charles Dicken’s (1812-1870) novel such as Oliver Twist (1838) and other stories set in 1800 cities. This suggests that a century on, nothing has been achieved in helping the poor or that the war has reverted the world back to a previous era.
Disabled veterans who fought for their country were often ignored rather than receiving the thanks and praise they deserved. In George Grosz’s (1893-1959) recognisable Grey Day (1921), the cover image of the Aftermath exhibition, a social worker deliberately turns away from a struggling veteran. The public was led to believe everyone was treated equally, whereas, in reality, society had been split into social types similar to the old class system. Grosz and other members of Neue Sachlichkeit aimed to unveil the inequalities through their artwork.
“…I considered any art pointless if it did not put itself at the disposal of political struggle….my art was to be a gun and a sword.”
There were, of course, positive changes in society after the war. As most people will by now be aware, this year is also the hundredth anniversary of British women receiving the right to vote. It was a time when women were finally getting greater freedom and independence, particularly in the workforce. Cities and economies were adapting in order to fit women into their entitled positions. Europe was also looking to America and following their example of technical progress and modernity.
Some artists produced paintings of ambitious modern cities, full of hope and recovery from war. Nevinson, on the other hand, began to feel disheartened. Bearing in mind the prospect of a Second World War was not yet on the cards, Nevinson was already having doubts about the rapid changes occurring both sides of the ocean. The Soul of the Soulless City (1920) was originally meant to show the modern architecture of New York City with an imagined elevated railway; whilst the picture has not been altered, the meaning changed after a critic described it as “hard, metallic, unhuman”. What initially looked like a city of hope became a city in which buildings and technology replace human life.
As Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One proved, the First World War left lasting effects upon citizens regardless as to whether they experienced warfare first hand. One hundred years on, it is not only important to remember the people who fought but also the people left emotionally scarred by the conflict. The artworks shown at the Tate Britain exhibition show how complex the aftermath of the war was; just because the fighting had stopped did not mean life could return to its former state.
It was refreshing to see a handful of female artists who, until more recent years, were often omitted from art history. Their contribution helped to show another side to war that, again, is often forgotten about. The year 1918 has been recorded as a celebratory time for women, which, unfortunately, overshadows the emotional pain of war that they, their children and the soldiers were subjected to.
Tate Britain did an excellent job curating the Aftermath exhibition. Rather than acting as a First World War centenary memorial, it revealed the harsh truths about the impact of war, which, after all, was the original intention of the majority of the exhibits. Although the doors closed a month ago, Aftermath has opened visitors’ eyes and minds to the physical and psychological scars left by WWI. It also reveals the power a work of art can contain, speaking volumes at a time when the public had no voice of its own. Most importantly, it has changed the way the Great War is remembered and has given everyone something to think about.
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