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Tate Britain on how art was changed by the First World War and its aftermath

a painting depicting two dead soldiers lying face down in the mud surrounded by barbed wire

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889 – 1946). Paths of Glory. 1917 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

As Tate Britain prepares to open a major exhibition exploring Art of the First World War, Museum Crush talks to Tate Curator of Modern British Art, Dr Emma Chambers, about how the war changed art

The First World War began to be constructed as a memory almost as soon as it had begun – and artists were a vital part of that process.

Whether it was via artworks made by serving soldiers or by Official War Artists under the auspices of the government, millions of people saw the First World War through the artworks it spawned.

Despite the pressure to communicate the horror of this tumultuous period, artists began to explore new imagery and new ways of making art in response to the experience of war. Artistic styles and ideals flourished and were in turn crushed by the real experience of warfare, while the culture of remembrance and the rebuilding of cities and the aftermath of the slaughter saw another flourishing of artworks – both official and unofficial.

Tate’s exhibition explores the immediate impact of this tumult on British, German and French art and looks at how artists responded to the physical and psychological scars left on Europe.  during the war and its aftermath.

a painting of a partially naked couple

Christian Schad 1894 – 1982 Self-Portrait, 1927. Lent from a private collection 1994 © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

a painting of building seen from above with bomb damage

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889 – 1946). Ypres After the First Bombardment 1916. Museums Sheffield

a painting of two grim faced men in black clothes and flat caps

Curt Querner (1904 – 1976) Demonstration 1930. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo credit: bpk/ Jörg P. Anders

Aftermath brings together over 150 works from 1916 to 1932 by artists including George Grosz, Fernand Léger, Paul Nash, Otto Dix and C.R.W. Nevinson, all of whom were intrinsically involved in how people viewed the war, both personally and officially.

In Britain the latter happened through the Official War Artist’s programme through the Ministry of Information and then the War Memorial’s Commission. Britain was unusual in commissioning a “painted memorial” to the First World War via its officially chosen artists and many of their more monumental artworks were even intended for a physical Hall of Remembrance, but this was never built and most of their artworks went to the Imperial War Museum.

“In Britain we had a very central, national, painted memorial in a way that wasn’t really conceived in either France or Germany, who both had sculptural memorial programmes but not really the paintings,” says Tate’s Curator of Modern British Art, Dr Emma Chambers.

“Britain was certainly more active in getting artists to officially visit the front, than France and Germany, who had various methods by which artists could do it,” she adds, “but the Official War Artists’ scheme was much more dynamic.”

Perhaps because of this, more than any other conflict, the First World War’s link with art in Britain has remained a strong one. This was the dawn of moving images and sound – even photography was in its youth – so art was the way many people connected with the conflict.

a painting of woman eating a sandwich at the counter of the snack bar as a man slices ham

Edward Burra 1905-1976. The Snack Bar, 1930. Tate © The estate of Edward Burra, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London

a grotesque painting of a semi naked woman next to a figure made up of semi abstract parts

George Grosz (1893-1959). “Daum” Marries her Pedantic Automaton “George” in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (Meta-Mech. Constr. After Prof. R. Huasmann) 1920. Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Berlin. © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. 2018.

a painting of a business man in suit and coat walking in front of a soldier with injuries and a walking stick

George Grosz (1893-1959) 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

From the trench art made by the soldiers at the front to the poetry that continues to define the conflict, art helped people make sense of the cataclysm that spread across Europe between 1914 and 1918. And the artworks on show in the Tate exhibition reveal a commonality of imagery – before a difference emerges in the work produced by the artists of the Allies and Central powers in the wake of the war.

“the abandoned soldier’s helmet, is a symbol of death”

Battlefield landscapes and images of soldiers’ graves such as William Orpen’s A Grave in a Trench 1917 and Paul Jouve’s Tombe d’un soldat serbe a Kenali 1917 evoke a silence and absence in the aftermath of battle.

“There are points in the exhibition where you see artists working very much with the same imagery and the same ideas across the three countries,” explains Chambers, “and other points where specific national concerns affect the type of art produced.”

“A group of works in the first room, which includes a lot of battlefield scenes, have both the French, German and British examples of the abandoned soldier’s helmet as a symbol of death, so that’s very consistent across the three countries.”

a photo of a sculpture featurring a one legged mannequin with no arms or head

George Grosz (1893-1959) 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.

a photo of an abstract sculpture

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill”. 1913-14. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

a drawing of two abstract figures one with a bad facial injury the other with heavy make up and bangs

Otto Dix (1891-1969). 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.

In the post-war period, the official responses differed and French artists began to read the aftermath of the war through a classical language.

“That’s very much part of the way that they saw society after the war,” says Chambers. “France was more traditional in terms of how social change happened after the war, in Britain and Germany you had the extension of the vote to women immediately after the conflict, whereas in France that didn’t happen. There was much more of a focus on family and traditional values and rebuilding society rather than thinking about a more equal society.”

But the biggest divergence in the post war art narrative comes from the Germans. Works such as George Grosz’s Grey Day 1921 and Otto Dix’s Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran 1923 used the wounded soldier as a vehicle for social critique on corruption and poverty in Germany.

“It’s a very fractured time socially and ideas of building a new society and remembering the war are very contested in Germany. It’s partly because it’s still a very regionalised country at that point, but also because the politics in Germany is so much more complex than in Britain and France.

“As German politics became polarised between left and right, artists became more politically engaged – with most of them leaning towards the left. Most of the German artists included in the exhibition are either socialists or members of the Communist party.”

a drawing of a skull with worms protruding from it

Otto Dix (1891-1969) War: Skull 1924. The George Economou Collection. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018

a painting of a desolate landscape with shattered trees and wire

Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) Wire 1918-9. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2705)

Some of them, like Curt Querner, will be unfamiliar to British audiences. Like many socialist-realist artists in the aftermath of the war, Querner produced art in which the worker was cast as the heroic figure, but after the Second World War he ‘disappeared’ into East Germany.

“Other German artists like Christian Schad started as a member of Berlin Dada, working with people like Dix and Grosz, producing very trenchant and political responses – often through collage,” adds Chambers, “but then he moved towards a kind of antique classicism, that spoke to the upper echelons of society.”

“The rhetoric of the Vorticsts was turned on its head by the brutality of the war”

As well as the artistic responses to the physical and psychological scars left on Europe, the exhibition explores how post-war society began to rebuild itself, inspiring artists like Georges Braque and Winifred Knights to also seek a return to classicism and tradition – while others such as Fernand Léger, Paul Citroen and C.R.W. Nevinson turned their minds to visions of the technological future of the modern, rebuilt city.

“In France you have artists like Leger who are still working very much with ideas of technology, which is a big thing before the war – the idea of the dynamics of machinery is something that’s key to pre-war avant-garde movements like Futurism and Vorticism.”

The rhetoric of the Vorticsts was however turned on its head by the brutality of the war. Jacob Epstein famously reconfigured his Vorticist Rock Drill – transforming it from an artwork glorifying the power of the machine, to a piece articulating the vulnerability of the human figure – by cutting of its limbs.

“The idea of the all-embracing power of machinery disappears, but in one sense it resurfaces through ideas of rebuilding society and the technological city,” says Chambers, “so in France artists like Leger are looking to America, and the American skyscraper becomes an ideal to which they aspire.”

a painting of a mausoleum with a flag draped coffin in the foreground

William Orpen (1878 – 1931). To the Unknown British Soldier in France. 1921-8 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4438)

a painting of people in a club dancing

William Roberts (1895 – 1980). The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) 1923. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor.

In Britain, the story of post war art follows many paths, from the memorial paintings of William Orpen to the decadent, surrealist-inspired canvasses of William Roberts and Edward Burra, who reflected some of the new found freedoms – especially for women – in the 1920s. “It’s a very diverse story,” adds Chambers, “we’ve worked through it in the exhibition thematically rather than chronologically to show how some of those ideas have developed, because an artist’s interests change over that period as well. So it’s complex.”

And fascinating: art may not define our collective memories of recent conflict in the way it did at the dawn of the 20th century, but for the First World War it remains a powerful and absorbing guide to a tumultuous time.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of the First World War is at Tate Britain from June 5 – September 23 2018


Tate Britain

London, Greater London

Tate Britain is the national gallery of British art from 1500 to the present day, from the Tudors to the Turner Prize.

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