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Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain

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Marking 100 years since the end of WW1, Tate Britain’s latest exhibition explores the effect the conflict had on subsequent British, French and German art.

Marking 100 years since the end of WW1, Tate Britain's latest exhibition explores the effect the conflict had on subsequent British, French and German art.

As you enter the exhibition you are plunged head first into the landscape of war. Depictions of decimated battle fields drape the walls. War artefacts such as old helmets, are hauntingly present in glass display cabinets, alongside medals of achievement that echo of the chilling nationalism that led to the conflict in the first place. The video on display, An Airship over the Battlefields (1919) by Lucien Le Saint shows real life footage of the devastation across Western Flanders and Ypres in particular, offering a point of comparison to show that the artwork on display is not the exaggerations of emotional artists, these are in fact pieces that reveal the cold hard truth of the destruction humans are capable of.

But this exhibition isn’t just a depiction of the desolated battlefields of Belgium and France. As the exhibition acknowledges, aftermath was originally an agricultural term referring to new growth after the harvest. With this in mind, Tate Britain have also fittingly curated sections that reflect upon the new artistic movements that developed because of the Great War, proving new knowledge and development can be produced from suffering and atrocities.

Otto Dix, Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran. Two Victims of Capitalism, 1923, LWL- Museum für Kunst and Kultur (Westfälisches Landesmuseum) / Sabine Ahlbrand-Dornseif. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018.

The artistic movements that manifested were, however, still tinged with darkness and criticism of the political and social systems that led to one of the greatest losses of life Europe had ever seen, as well as the ensuing class divisions, inflation and mass unemployment. No art movement represents this hard criticism better than the German Die Neue Sachlikeit, and if you, like this art critic, are a Weimar obsessive, you will definitely regard the plethora of biting satire by renowned artists of the period Otto Dix and George Grosz as the highlight of the exhibition. Standout works include Grosz’s Grey Day (1921) which sets discussions about class divisions and the plight of unemployed veterans against the backdrop of a modern city, whilst Otto Dix’s Prostitute and War Veteran: Two victims of Capitalism (1923) offers a welcome consideration of the female experience, as it depicts a chisel faced female forced into sex work due to post war financial instability.

There’s also a section dedicated to Surrealism, with Max Ernst’s famous Celebes (1921) taking pride of place, and of course Dada, which, originally hailing from Switzerland, is particularly renowned for its use of collage and photomontage. At the Tate there are works by key players in the art movement such as German artist Hannah Hoch - the only woman amongst Berlin Dadaists. Dada Review (1919) splices together text and images to make political statements about post war Germany, such as presenting the American President Woodrow Wilson as an angel of peace, presumably referencing the financial loans from the USA that granted the Weimar Republic relative stability, as well as Wilson’s moderate, forgiving approach towards Germany at the Paris Peace Conference which was held in the same year of Hoch’s work’s creation.

Hannah Hoch, Dada Rundschau 1919, Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Berlin © DACS, 2018

Other photomontage works such as British Edward Burra’s Keep Your Head (1930) and German Rudolf Schlichter’s Phenomenon Works (1919/20) splice together images of humans and machinery, which reveal a widespread post-war concern with the relationship between man and technology. This concern is understandable, as during the war man was expected to be a fighting machine in a new highly industrialised style of warfare, with tanks and machine guns as opposed to horses and rifles of yesteryear. Depictions of mechanised soldiers are evident in works such as Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from the Rock Drill (1913-15), an imposing sculpture that presents a “menacing human-machine hybrid”. But these automaton human figures were not restricted to the war years, they in fact permeate the art of the subsequent decades, with George Grosz’ The Petit Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild, Electro-Mechanical Tatilin Sculpture (1920) acting as a perfect depiction of a remade man, hashed together with odds and ends - a lightbulb head, a revolver shoulder - reminding us of Bertold Brecht’s 1926 play, A Man’s a Man, in which the protagonist offers himself to be dismantled and remade as a soldier, alluding to the required use of prosthetics to replaced limbs lost in battle.

George Grosz, The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture, 1920, Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Berlin, © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. 2018.

The exhibition also recognises psychological signs of war as well as physical, which is refreshing when one regards the development in mental health awareness was not as prevalent in the 20th Century as it is today. Conrad Felix Müller’s Soldier in the Mad House 1 + 2 (both 1919) depict distorted forms twisted in anxiety, tormented by their surroundings of harsh dark strokes and scribbles, figuratively eluding to mental trauma.

But not all post war art was critical. The latter sections of the exhibition show how some artists instead sought to return to pre-war ideals by revisiting classical techniques, and depicting beautiful pastoral landscapes, whilst others dreamt of modernity, painting skyscrapers and cityscapes, in an effort to embrace new technology. Many may view this end to the exhibition as a hopeful conclusion, as the artists featured dream of a better future that uses technology for constructive as opposed to destructive purposes. However, regarding what we know now about events that followed WW1, and - what with the current political climate - what may be about to happen, one may leave with an overpowering sense of guilt and melancholy, that the war to end all wars did not live up to its name.

Art in the Wake of World War One runs until 23 September at Tate Britain, Millbank, Westminster, London, SW1P 4RG