Tate Britain’s survey of the impact of the First World War on art in Britain, France and Germany, opens with a series of iconic images of the conflict. Jacob Epstein’s Terminator-like torso in bronze from his ‘The Rock Drill’ of 1913-14 is as arresting as ever. There are photographs of shattered cathedrals, helmets dented by shrapnel and post-war Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields of France. There are Henry Tonks’s unforgettable pastel drawings showing facial injury cases before treatment. Less familiar will be German works such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture ‘Fallen Man’, made for the cemetery of his hometown of Duisburg – humanity crawling away on all fours to die.
Art’s role in documenting and memorializing the war is admirably conveyed, although there’s not much here that you won’t see on a visit to the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum. What I didn’t come away with was much sense of the personal response of artists to the events of 1914-18.
Take Paul Nash, for example, one of several artists who were left with psychological scars once the fighting had ended. Nash spent the early 1920s recovering from ‘war strain’ at Dymchurch on the edge of Romney Marsh, where he painted a series of haunting landscapes, laden with a sense of emptiness and despair. There are stories of Nash staring fixedly out to sea for hours on end, often at night, as if looking into an abyss. On the whole, I’d rather have seen one of those Dymchurch seascapes than another vitrine filled with trench paraphernalia.
And what about the artists who were actually killed in the war? The best-known cases are the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the German painters Franz Marc and August Macke, and the British painter-poet Isaac Rosenberg. Marc in particular, like Macke a co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter and only 36 when he died at Verdun in 1916, was a huge loss to art. Yet none of these names are even mentioned in the Tate show.
In Room 4 (of eight) there’s an abrupt change of gears and the rest of the show is a whistle-stop tour of the main movements in post-war art, from the angry counterblasts of Dada & Surrealism to the considerably more lyrical mood of the so-called ‘Return to Order’. In the last two rooms there’s an equally breathless attempt to chronicle the war’s impact on society by looking at Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), Bauhaus and life in ‘the New City’.
‘Aftermath’ feels like two exhibitions sandwiched together, one that can’t make up its mind if it’s teaching us that ‘war is hell’ or simply trying to unravel the complexities of post-war art. Worse, all the blood and gore in the early rooms makes the classicizing trend of the 1920s seem frivolous, which it certainly was not (as the Tate itself demonstrated in a landmark exhibition in 1990, ‘On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930’).
The Germans are the ones who come out on top in all this, whether it’s the existential Angst of Beckmann and Kollwitz, the mordant satire of Grosz and Dix, the sinister decadence of Christian Schad’s portraits or the weird geometric automata of Oskar Schlemmer. Perhaps the post-war upheavals in German society, far more pervasive than in either Britain or France, provided better take-off points for art. Or maybe they were better artists. In any case, although Germany may have lost the war, in a cultural sense it was the undoubted victor. Until the Nazis showed up, of course.
Header image: Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” 1913-14 bronze 705 x 584 x 445 mm, Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein