Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.

Art in the Aftermath

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.

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Original version

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.”
-George Grosz

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.

Echoes Across the Century

It is impossible to determine which war has been the worst since it is all relative depending on who you are and what country you come from. However, the First World War (1914-1918) is arguably the most devastating the world has seen to date. Millions across the globe were killed, leaving umpteen children fatherless and significantly increasing the population of widows.

Britain was one of the most affected countries by the First World War, wreaking havoc on all of society and severely disrupting day to day life. It is difficult to imagine what the country would have been like during the war years, and the people today who were around at the time were only children.

Echoes Across the Century is an art instalment at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London, which explores the impact World War One had on the British population. Different perspectives are included with a focus on soldiers, the families left behind, and those supplying arms to the Western Front.

Inspired by the personal stories recorded in diaries and letters, and historical objects from the period, children from a variety of schools ageing between 10 and 16, produced artwork expressing their interpretation of the turmoil experienced by their ancestors.

The other purpose of this exhibition is a commemorative act to acknowledge the centenary of the First World War, providing a place of remembrance where visitors can reflect on the excessive number of lives lost. Not only does it open eyes to the horrors of war, it shows the determination of a society to keep on going and survive their inflicted struggle.

Set out to resemble wooden barracks and trenches, complete with sandbags and relevant sound effects, the exhibition begins with displays of items and photographs preserved from the First World War. This helps to set the scene, evoking a sense of the lifestyle and experience of those around at that time. Alongside these examples is an arrangement of artwork inspired by the war, which is later replicated by the children as part of their own wartime project.

The artist, Jane Churchill, was heavily involved with the building of the exhibition and is responsible for the artwork at the commencement of the show. Inspired by the 1917-18 diaries of Jessie Ellman, Jane Churchill used the story of her Great Uncle Lieutenant William Goss Hicks (Ellman’s lover), who died during the First World War, as the foundation of her installations.

After Will’s death, Jessie Ellman created a “boxed world” titled Scene in which all the people are missing. Using an open box, Jessie used a variety of media to build up a scene to represent the loss of her lover. Borrowing this technique, Jane Churchill has produced a variety of boxed worlds, which, titled Collection of Dreams, show scenes representing the feelings of the women who watched their men leave for war never to return.

As visitors make their way around the exhibition, it becomes clear that there is some significance in the painted, paper moths pinned onto walls like scientific specimens. Cut out from paper that had been marbled with different coloured paint, these delicate moths are rather beautiful – the children must have thought so too because many of them have attempted their own versions. However, it is not until the end of the exhibition that an explanation is available. The moths are part of an installation by Jane Churchill titled Degrees of Separation, which, again, was in memoriam of William Goss Hicks. W. G. Hicks died at Sevenoakes alongside his comrades, therefore Jane has created 262 moths, one to represent each man who perished alongside her Great Uncle.

Jane Churchill invited over 240 students from London schools to contribute to the exhibition. Evidently, they were inspired by Jane’s own work with many choosing to replicate the moths and boxed worlds. However, a good number of the young artists came up with their own, unique ideas, largely inspired by artefacts salvaged from soldiers’ pockets after their deaths.

Most of the children will not have a personal connection to the war, so stories and the opportunity to handle wartime objects were the only means of evoking any emotion. A few of the students have studied the correspondence between families, friends, and lovers during the first world war, and have written their own, imagining themselves in that position. It is interesting to see how insightful these children are, despite their significantly contrasting lives.

Naturally, it cannot be expected for a few hundred children to produce aesthetically pleasing, art gallery-worthy artwork, however, their imperfections make them highly suitable for this exhibition. The unsteady hand of the painters and unskilled constructions help to capture the distress and uncertainty of the war era and almost look as if this juvenile style has been used on purpose.

There are eleven sections to the exhibition, which required the children to study different areas of wartime life. Like Jane, some have focused on the fates of the soldiers and the people they left behind, whereas others have been inspired by propaganda, munitions works and popular pastimes (e.g. playing cards).

Despite being mostly developed by children, Echoes Across the Century is as much informative as it is visually interesting. They have successfully conjured up an accurate atmosphere, which for youngsters with no experience of war, could not have been easy. This exhibition is not something you expect to see when visiting the Guildhall Art Gallery and is a stark contrast to the paintings on the floors above.

With only a month remaining, it is worth visiting and appreciating this unique exhibition. It is something that hopefully the children and schools involved with be proud of for years to come.