Museum Stories

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Wendy Gray 11 July 2018 min Read

When you walk into the first room of any exhibition, there is an involuntary holding of the breath as it can often be a make or break moment. Walk into the first room of Tate Britain’s Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One and it’s more of a gasp of astonishment as you look around: Epstein’s Rock Drill, Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, but without the ‘censored’ label he placed on it, the haunting Zonnebeke, with the symbolic lone helmet lying in the mud and the poignant devastation of the landscape in Paul Nash’s Wire.

Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’, 1913-14, Tate Britain, London
CRW Nevinson, Paths of Glory, 1917, Imperial War Museum, London
Sir William Orpen, Zonnebeke, 1918, Imperial War Museum, London
Paul Nash, Wire, 1918-9, Imperial War Museum, London

As you step closer, however, the real genius of this exhibition is quite clear. There are two sides to any story, and we are privileged to see the German view alongside the British and French.

Remembrance: Battlefields and Ruins

In the centre of the room is one of the most astonishing war sculptures: Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s The Fallen Man

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, The Fallen Man, 1915, cast 1916, Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, Germany

Lehmbruck’s soldier crawls along the ground, naked, dejected, his head so low it rests heavily on the ground. This is the consequence of war, not glorious, not remote but something you cannot escape from. It was designed by Lehmbruck for the war cemetery in his hometown of Duisburg. As a paramedic in a Berlin hospital, he was affected by the experience and never recovered. His later works reflected the misery and suffering but it was not a cathartic experience for him and he finally took his own life in 1919.

Remembrance: War Memorials and Society

However, when it came to British memorials, the idea of a realistic depiction was not in the spirit required and, in room 2 we see the contrast of Charles Sargeant Jagger’s large relief, No Man’s Land, alongside his marquette for Driver, which can be seen on the Royal Artillery memorial in London’s Hyde Park. Showing soldiers win realistic positions of agony, pain and anguish was no way to memorialise heroes, and, as Catherine Moriarty says in her essay, ‘Making the absent present’, it was necessary to put him securely on his feet, helmet on head (or in hand), resolute instance.

Charles Sargeant Jagger, No Man’s Land, 1919-20, presented by the Council of British School at Rome 1923, source:
Charles Sergeant Jagger, Driver, 1921-25, The Worshipful Company of Founders, source: Wikimedia Commons

The poignancy of the human cost of war could be seen in works such as Felix Vallotton’s Military Cemetery at Chalons-sur-Marne, June 1917.

Felix Vallotton, Military Cemetery at Chalons-sur-Marne,1917, Bibliotheque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC)

The tightly packed crosses in beautiful symmetry fade into the distance, each one representing a life lost. In a nearby display case, memorials made out of relics from the battlefield are a stark reminder of the personal tragedy. A bullet with a framed photograph of young German soldier welded to the base, a French grave marker that a family member placed on a cross tell their own story of loss and the desire to remember. These images contrast with the paintings of the battlefield graveyards by William Orpen and Paul Segeith. While Segeith employs the muddy palette reminiscent of the reality of the battle-scarred landscape, Orpen bleaches his scene out in the bright sun, with colours so garish that they make you want to look away.

Sir William Orpen, A Grave in a Trench, Imperial War Museum, London
Sir William Orpen, A Grave in a Trench, 1917, Imperial War Museum, London
Paul Segieth, Angriff auf Verdun, 1916, Bavarian Army Museum – New Castle, Ingolstadt, Germany

Above your head in this room is Ernest Barlach’s The Floating One, or Der Schwebende a bronze horizontal statue, that has been brought to the Tate from Güstrow Dom in Germany. An interesting podcast from the BBC can be found here.  Barlach’s Angel, BBC Radio 4

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One 1927, cast 1987, source:

Barlach decided to consider the impact of grief on those left behind, and this image of a mother (with the facial features of the sculptor, Käthe Kollwitz) floating above the battlefield, arms crossed across her broken heart is a stunning memorial. However, by the 1930s, this was one of the many destroyed by the Nazis under the label of ‘Degenerate Art’. Fortunately, Barlach kept the mould and the figure was recast and restored to its rightful place after the war.

Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers

The tone of the exhibition changes from this point and rather than concentrate of depicting war and memorializing the dead, we are confronted with the aftermath of the war in all its reality and horror; those who returned wounded and scarred both physically and mentally from their experiences. Artists were now portraying the reality of war on canvas, which was a difference to their predecessors who concentrated on the glory of war and the notion that there was dignity and honour in dying for one’s country, but, as Owen explained in his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, this lie could no longer be commemorated in artistic form. From Henry Tonks’s medical pastels of the disfiguring facial wounds to Orpen’s traumatised figure in Blown Up, it is not possible to be sheltered from the reminders of what war really meant to those who took part.  

Sir Henry Tonks, Private Charles Deeks, 1917, Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London
Sir William Orpen, Blown Up, 1917, Imperial War Museum, London

This is where the German artists, Otto Dix, Conrad Felixmüller, George Grosz and Heinrich Hoerle amongst others, come into their own. For these pieces, the artists did not disguise with metaphor and symbolism, in fact, at times you feel you have to look away. Veterans blinded, with amputated limbs and those driven mad by their experience are put in front of us as a reminder of what we owed, and what was not given in return.  

Otto Dix, Prostitute and War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism, 1923, Westphalian State Museum of Art and Cultural History, Münster, Germany
Otto Dix, Prostitute and War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism, 1923, Westphalian State Museum of Art and Cultural History, Münster, Germany

Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People

The criticisms of those in charge are the prime aim of these works and is brought together so well in George Grosz’s Grey Day with his view of the architect allegedly rebuilding the country, but sealing off the wounded veteran behind the wall while the able bodied worker merrily goes along his way, and all the while, the corrupt businessman peers around the wall to see what he has created.

George Grosz, Grey Day 1921, Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
George Grosz, Grey Day 1921, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin- Nationalgalerie

The second half of the exhibition moves us into the post-war era through Dada and Surrealism, through to what is suitable entitled, ‘Return to order’ and the people and technologies that took us forward.  

The Dada section links in with the way in which the artists challenged the way the conflict had changed society. The George Grosz surrealist painting with the tongue-twisting title, Daum marries her pedantic automaton ‘George’ in 1920. John Heartfield is very glad of it, is a suitable companion to the British artist, Edward Burra’s, The Eruption of Vesuvius, with its mix of human and machinery, evoking thoughts of artificial limbs, shell-shock and the fragility of the human spirit.

George Grosz, Daum marries her pedantic automaton ‘George’ in 1920. John Heartfield is very glad of it, 1920, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin

Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

The exhibition ends with a series of paintings that bring us into the modern age, with technology being at the forefront. Oscar Nerlinger’s wonderful Radio Tower and Elevated Railway and CRW Nevinson’s The Soul of the Soulless City, laying out how a new world was forming from the chaos of war.  

Oscar Nerlinger, Radio Tower and Elevated Railway, 1929, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin- Nationalgalerie
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’), 1920, Tate Gallery, London

However, it is Oskar Schlemmer’s Abstract Figure that leaves you with the chill that perhaps we were heading towards a cold and soulless future where human life was to be held so cheap and lessons of war had not been learned.

Oskar Schlemmer, Abstract Figure, 1921, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

The exhibition is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London until 23rd September 2018!