August 20, 2018

A sombre history lesson: Aftermath at Tate Britain

If you fancy a sombre history lesson on a summery day off head to Aftermath at Tate Britain. Held in its windowless subterranean exhibition space this exhibition looks at the effect of World War One on art. It takes a wide-ranging view, taking in such diverse subjects as battlefield paintings, official commemorations, Dada’s anti-war critiques and illustrations of wounded soldiers. This makes a very broad exhibition, even before considering the number of countries from which the art is taken. Why it’s Tate Britain, you might think, so the art in question will just be British. You’d be wrong. Belying the focus suggested by the gallery’s name the exhibition looks at the impact of the war on art from Britain, France and Germany. That gives an enormous subject and the chosen works can only tell part of a massive story. If other countries than Britain are to be included in the survey then why are only France and Germany included? And if other countries are to be included in a show at Tate Britain whose remit is it to tell British stories in the future?

Given the aim of the show is to look at the effect of the Great War on art it might have been helpful to give a sense of what art was like before the war. Instead we plunge immediately into the battlefields. Paintings attempt to show the loss and destruction of the four year catastrophe when 10 million soldiers were killed and over 20 million were wounded. Ten million dead. Ten million. It’s a staggeringly absurd, unimaginable number. In this room an overhead painting of the frontline by Richard Carline stands out, a reconnaissance photograph in paint. Imagine him at his easel in a plane above France, the enemy taking potshots as he squeezed out cobalt green, smoked a cheroot and told the pilot to stop swerving bullets. 

C R W Nevinson Paths of Glory 1917

C R W Nevinson Paths of Glory 1917

The pictures in this room were once shocking, to the extent that a painting of dead soldiers by Nevinson had to be censored when it was first displayed. It still speaks of futility and waste but from our 21st century perspective of wikileaked videos from the front line it is hard to see oil on canvas as the hard-hitting reportage medium that it once was. Photographs by Pierre Anthony-Thouret of a damaged Reims cathedral have probably always shocked British eyes less than others, generations here having been brought up on actual monastic ruins dotting the countryside from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It is an old film taken from an airship over Ypres by Lucien Le Saint that brings the most immediate and horrifying sense of the unimaginable extent of loss and destruction. The same film is available to watch here:

But we already know how awful war is. The curators want to show the impact of the war on art. To this end they take a detour into the government sponsored art of war memorials and images of wounded soldiers. Though no one makes war memorials or draws wounded soldiers before a war, and so these things are undeniably a result of war, their official and medical status precludes them from being anything more than a footnote in the story of art. Not so much an impact of war on art but the use of art to record a new subject matter.

Governmental responses such as memorials are not as interesting as those from individual artists. World War One’s most interesting reactions came from the Dadaists, who created an anarchic cabaret in Zurich that seemed to mock the madness of war with raucous performance. It was as though the violence of the war gave art such a jolt that it had to change completely. Dada developed into an international movement that still influences today, though here Dada is only given a small section. Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield collages – a method of working that is commonplace today but was not back then – critique how the war was remembered, whilst a reconstruction of a Heartfield sculpture based on a tailor’s dummy shows something of the chaotic direction that art was taking after the war in the hands of the Dadaists. Their surrealist chums also started experimenting with the random and automatic, techniques represented here by an Andre Masson image of oil paint and sand. Though one of the smallest sections in the show the Dadaists gave the most intriguing responses to the insanity around and are worthy of a more in-depth examination.

The so-called ‘Return to Order’ is celebrated later in the exhibition, showing works of realism and portraiture. Colours that pre-war may have been Fauvistly extravagant return to the natural, drawing that may have been cubistly angular returns to the representational. There is a sense that the war was just too much, that the avant-garde experiments that came before it have been unable to cope with the pain, shock and emotion that has been unleashed. Even Picasso, that great experimenter develops in a more traditional direction, taking inspiration from classical sculpture in works such as Seated woman in a chemise. However his styles overlap, and although not shown here many artists also continue working in other directions. 

If you do visit the show look out for Kathe Kollwitz’s series of woodcuts showing the suffering of the women who stayed at home and Max Beckmann’s claustrophobic lithographs reflecting the chaos of post-war life in Berlin. But worry not if you don’t make it to the Tate for Aftermath. Whilst much well-respected poetry came out of WW1, this show demonstrates that Dada and some intense prints aside the visual realm was not so energised.

Aftermath is on until 23rd September. £18 will get you a ticket (click here to buy).

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