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Paths to Glory, Christopher Nevinson, 1917. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paths to Glory, Christopher Nevinson, 1917. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Modern art was a way of actively willing war towards an end says Alistair Cartwright in his review of the Aftermath exhibition at the Tate

It is impossible to see the history of twentieth century art separate from the history of twentieth century wars, even, and perhaps especially, when artists themselves strive to bury that connection. Aftermath at Tate Britain shows how artists across Britain, France and Germany responded to the devastation of the First World War, beginning in 1916 and ending in 1932.

The title of this brilliantly curated exhibition is slightly misleading, as much of it is taken up with artists working among the full horrors of the war, rather than in their wake. These are brutal cries of anguish in a startling new visual language devised for the purpose.

Some, like the photomontages of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield - who changed his name from Hertzfeld in a gesture of rebellion that married revolutionary defeatism with the irony of R. Mutt (aka Marcel Duchamp) - were conceived expressly as works of protest. But there are also more meditative works, which make an appearance not only after the guns had fallen silent, but in some cases side by side with the former. From one room to the next, a complex cross-chatter between the reality of war and efforts to overcome it emerges, leaving us asking not only how the First World War impacted these artists' visions, but how art itself might track a path out of war, drawing on all the contradictory energies of modernity.

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Take the juxtaposition of a series of prints by Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and others, with a room focused on painting in the spirit of the so-called ‘rappel à l’ordre’ (return to order). Kollwitz’s stark graphic depiction of a harrowed looking widow has an urgency that is miles away from Meredith Frampton’s portrait of the professional model, Marguerite Kelsey, in her elegant white dress and Coco Chanel inspired haircut.

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It’s tempting to suggest a difference of national personalities - the stiff Brits versus the expressionistic Germans. Kollwitz’ use of monochrome woodcut printing translates artillery fire into streaks of white lightning and a widow’s cloak into an enveloping black cave that seems to both protect and smother a young child in the lower half of the picture. Yet the English high society painter’s work is also, in its own strange way, astonishing. Frampton’s level of surface control - turning oil on canvas into the cooly glowing, porcelain-like finish normally achieved only by professional make-up artists - is in equal parts brilliant, terrifying and vacuous. In the end, the eggshell rendering of his subjects hints more at their brittleness than implacability.

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Feeble messengers, bitter truths

Clearly, there were more ways than one of putting the war to rest. In general, it seems British artists were more successful at integrating a neoclassical or pastoral style into their work following armistice, and in some cases before. While Stanley Spencer’s Christian inspired folk choreographies struggle to lift off from quaint to visionary, John Nash’s cornfields are genuinely beautiful. Lines from Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’ come to mind:

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

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The surrealist influence on the brothers Paul and John Nash seems to have permitted them a more meaningful contact with the spiritual and the poetic, whether it was the sun-drenched fields of an idealised homeland, or the alien landscape of the Menin Road. In the case of some of the German artists who turned to similar subjects, the results are kitsch bordering on laughable. So in Georg Schrimpf’s painting ‘Swineherd’, we get a rustic cherub and his pigs. Others like Rudolph Schlichter did a complete about-turn - from perverse satirical collages to stiff society portraits. And if the work of Marcel Gromaire, whose semi-abstracted figures have a downbeat monumentality resembling earthenware vessels or old farm tools, is anything to go by, there was, among French artists, yet another way of making peace with the war.

The war affected all of these artists. Kollwitz’ son was killed at the front, leaving her haunted by guilt. Frampton served with a field survey unit mapping enemy positions from aerial photographs, a job demanding skills of observation that he carried into his paintings. Dix was a machine gunner at the Somme and a recipient of the Iron Cross, only later letting his nightmarish visions run loose. Gromaire was one of the French soldiers Dix would have been firing on; injured in that battle, he continued to serve for another two years. Nash lobbied the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, but after arriving at the front was soon writing home of the devastation he witnessed:

I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

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Yet the ability to turn first-hand experience into a condensed image of grief or rage seems to have been inversely proportional to the capacity for lyrical transcendence. There were of course crucial differences between the German, French and British experiences. One party were the victors, the other the losers. Britain’s economy recovered relatively swiftly after the war, whereas Germany’s protracted postwar crisis led to revolution, the deposition of the monarchy, a period of social democracy and eventually the rise of Nazism. While 1919 and the ‘Red Clyde’ were perhaps the closest Britain has come to revolution at home, with enduring achievements of working class resistance such as rent controls not to be sniffed at, events were simply not on the same scale. France meanwhile suffered some of the heaviest casualties in the war. Having lost a good part of a whole generation, the country’s low birth rate was a major source of establishment anxiety in the coming years, while French politics reeled from left to right within a broadly parliamentary framework.

Not alone

Seeing these works as entirely symptomatic of their circumstances, however, leaves a crucial element out of the picture. The most powerful works in the exhibition come from artists who rejected what could easily have amounted to a paralysing isolation. John Heartfield created arresting images for the communist AIZ magazine (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung) using the cutting-edge technique of photomontage. Heartfield’s brother, Wieland Herzfelde, was a Marxist writer who helped organise the first International Dada Fair. Hannah Höch contributed some of the most enduring and innovative works seen at the Dada Fair, after objections from Raoul Hausmann at her initial exclusion from this iconoclastic boy’s club.

In Germany, a network of publishers, gallerists and activists sustained an extraordinary intersection of avant-garde image making and radical left wing politics. This, as much as the different experiences of world events, was crucial. Even the most intimate of subversives, George Grosz, with his scratchy little pen and ink drawings satirising the establishment, could not have got far without the help of the radical bookshops that gave him a platform.

In Britain the stakes were not necessarily any less high. Art and politics were everywhere intertwined. But here the networks sustaining both critical and conservative art practices seem to have been more thoroughly integrated into the mainstream of state patronage. The position of official war artist, first created in 1916, is a case in point. For a couple of years before this, artists like Nash and Christopher Nevinson exhibited paintings depicting their experiences of the fighting unofficially. Their work drew reactions of both shock and critical acclaim.

A few years further into the war, British artists could still provoke a reaction from the authorities. After the official censor instructed Nevinson not to exhibit his painting of two dead soldiers, he chose to show it with a strip of brown paper covering the bodies. We can try to imagine what the painting would have looked like shrouded in this way: the snowy blue ground, the loops of barbed wire blending into the shrubbery. It could almost be an impressionist picture from the 1880s, something by Alfred Sisley perhaps.

That this relatively mild image provoked such swift action suggests a keen awareness on the part of at least some establishment circles of the need to co-opt and contain wartime cultural expression. The censorship in Nevinson’s case may have been overkill; most artists were quite capable of exercising the approved degree of visual tact. The dead trees seen in so many British representations of the battlefield (Paul Nash’s most famously) become stand-ins for human figures. Then again, perhaps it was only the threat of censorship that generated these strange substitutions.

Modernism rising

There is a well known anecdote concerning Picasso’s Guernica: In occupied Paris, a Gestapo officer burst into the artist’s studio. “Did you do that?” he asked, pointing at a photo of the painting. “No, you did”, came the answer. This quite possibly apocryphal story appears as the inverted mirror image of an earlier one. When Picasso saw the WW1 allied warships camouflaged with ‘dazzle’ stripes (an invention of the artist Norman Wilkinson), he called them a Cubist invention.

Was modernism simply the monstrous child of a half century of war? Or did it in fact itself give birth to those wars? The Italian Futurists extolled the cleansing virtues of war (as did, in Britain, the sometime fascist and Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis). A few years after their famous declaration, the 1909 Futurist manifesto, two of the most brilliant members of that movement were dead, killed by the technology they glorified.

Of course modernism was not simply anything. It was not (or is not) one thing but many things. If it was a product of the world’s first machine war, or a premonition of it, it was also a product or premonition of revolution. As is clear from the work of John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Käthe Kollwitz and Georg Grosz, modern art was a way of actively willing war towards an end, and sometimes fighting for a better future.

Two works could stand as bookends to this justifiably historical exhibition. The first is an etching by Otto Dix. It shows three card players at a table. One player holds the cards in his teeth, another with his toes. A pipe is plugged into the place where one player’s ear should be. The wooden peg-legs which rest under the table do not, on a second glance, all belong to the table. The curving ironwork of the table momentarily distracts us from the armature supporting the broken body of the player on the left. Dix turns an archetypical scene of modernity in its heady days of Parisian cafe culture (think Cézanne’s card players from 1894/5, or Toulouse-Lautrec’s treatment of the same theme) into a nightmare fusion of the mechanical and the organic.

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The second is a painting by Fernand Léger, one of the last in the exhibition. Semi-circular forms in red, black and gold overlap and interlock, interrupted by dark vertical bars and what looks like conveyor belts running horizontally. The painting is called ‘Discs in The City’ but it could just be called ‘The City’. This painting is the city. It is an image constructed as a complex, dynamic, articulated series of moving parts. You can almost imagine a motor hidden behind the canvas. Press the right coloured swatch and the whole thing whirrs into life. There is a funfair sense of movement for the sheer joy of it. And yet there is also a strange cool-handed touch, cursory and almost diagrammatic. The figures in the background look like moulds made out of pressed steel. They are not really people but the alienated traces of people. In Léger’s painting, the crushing and liberating potentials of modern life come together on a single surface, leaving us, like so much in the exhibition, trying to look two ways at once.

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Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright edits Different Skies, an online magazine and collective for experimental writing. He writes about cinema and the city. Alistair is a stalwart of Stop the War and a member of Counterfire.

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