Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 8, 2019
Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One
Tate Britain, London, June 5–September 24, 2018
Ernst Barlach, The Floating One (Der Schwebende), 1927, cast 1987 (photograph provided by the Tate)

To celebrate the one-hundred-year anniversary of the World War I armistice, the show Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain explored artistic responses to the physical and psychological scars left on Europe. German, British, and French artists produced the majority of the works on display in the show, and most of them had practiced in Berlin, London, and Paris. They produced the exhibited works between 1916 and 1932. The expression of trauma, as it was experienced during the First World War, is a shared theme that all of the artists explored. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the show was not only about the devastation brought on by warfare but also about the events that followed in its wake, for better and for worse. Indeed, the scope of the show suggests that the curators interpreted the term “aftermath” broadly enough to include its more optimistic, agricultural lexical meaning, where it indicates renewal after devastation.

There were eight rooms representing eight aspects of the causes and consequences of the trauma of war. All of the rooms focused generally on artistic production from 1916 to 1932, emphasizing the effect of war on creativity during that period. The curators suggested through their choice of objects that artists frequently produced images of deserted landscapes and battlefields filled with soldiers’ bodies or even, in one instance, a cemetery resembling a sea filled with empty helmets. This collection of works also suggested that war’s catastrophic effect on humanity is made clearer in visual art by the striking absence of the human figure. In Paul Nash’s Wire (1918–19), for example, the destruction of war is everywhere: it is signified in the dull colors of the objects, as well as in the painting’s forms, from the image of a tree merging with barbed wire to the shell holes rendered on the canvas. William Orpen’s Zonnebeke (1918) embodies the same tone, but expressed in a more explicit manner, as there is a dead man featured on the right-hand side of the picture.

The first room of the exhibition emphasized the development of postwar tourism by displaying new materials related to the event, including commemorative objects, postcards, and books such as the illustrated Michelin guides to the battlefields of the Somme and Verdun. The second room echoed the first with its display of battlefield artifacts and photographs of the victory celebration in Paris. The artifacts were displayed next to the work of artists such as Käthe Kollwitz, Antoine Bourdelle, and Marcel Gromaire, who had produced art on the topic of war. This comparison helped viewers to contextualize and understand how artists interpreted current events. Another component of the second room, Ernst Barlach’s The Floating One (1927), proved to be one of the most memorable pieces in the exhibition. Barlach’s sculpture of a female figure hangs facedown from the ceiling so that she appears to levitate. With her eyes closed and her arms folded across her chest, her facial expression is unreadable. It is difficult to determine whether she is dead, sleeping, or simply trying to shut out what is going on around her. The shadow that her body forms on the gallery wall haunts the viewer for the duration of her visit.

Following the display of these artifacts and art objects, the curators devoted the third room to the social, political, and artistic consequences of war trauma. This aspect of the exhibition focused primarily on German society during the 1920s. Artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz reveal their own artistic and political commitments through their critique of the frequent mistreatment of war veterans. Otto Dix’s 1924 etching War: Skin Graft, which is a plate from the series War, describes the painful process of reconstructing the face of a soldier whose right visage has been completely damaged. As uncomfortable as it is to look at this image, the picture’s suggestion that there is no sign of healing is even more disturbing. We see the same social critique in George Grosz’s 1923 drawing Blind Man, in which the artist also uses an individual figure as a symbol of all the social issues veterans were left to cope with. The French painter André Mare’s Survivors (1929) served as a kind of geographical counterpoint to the German situation. By bringing French and German artists together, the exhibition revealed that the situation for veterans, whose sacrifice society soon forgot, appears to have been the same in Germany and in France, regardless of who “won.”

The situation surrounding the visual arts and specific types of artistic expression in postwar Europe was also the subject of much attention. The fourth room was devoted to the traces of war that appear in Dada and Surrealism. The curators included photomontages by John Heartfield, such as his 1934 After Twenty Years!, and George Grosz’s collages from the 1920s, including the satirical watercolor “Daum” Marries Her Pedantic Automaton “George” in May 1920, John Heartfield Is Very Glad of It (Meta-mech. Constr. after Prof. R. Hausman) (1920). In the fifth room, the curators exhibited print portfolios by Max Beckmann and Käthe Kollwitz. This display emphasized how prints, as products of mechanical reproduction, allow artists to deliver politically and socially charged messages to the public using compact and relatively inexpensive materials. To close their inventory, the curators devoted the sixth gallery to the period immediately following the war, which is often referred to as the Return to Order (Retour à l’ordre). Here, pictures by Paul Nash, Félix Vallotton, Roger de la Fresnaye, Christian Schad, Georges Braque, and more offered a very passionate presentation of the types of figurative realism produced in Europe during that period.

The emphasis on the return to figuration during the Return to Order was one of the exhibition’s most original contributions to the topic of World War I and its aftermath. The paintings in the sixth room illustrated the movement’s diversity and explained, under the very appropriate heading “Revival,” that by revisiting older approaches to realism, artists attempted to determine what new directions it should take. This point of view offered visitors a sense of the richness of artistic expression in the 1920s, and the curators’ choice of landscapes, religious-themed images, and portraits underscored this richness. Nostalgia for a time before the war is often given as a reason for the return to figuration in these pictures, but unusually, the curators did not present this as the sole explanation for the diverse forms of expression we see in the works. On the contrary, the exhibition insisted on the positive aesthetic consequences of the Return to Order. By dissociating these works from the Neue Sachlichkeit, which was presented in gallery seven, the curators highlighted the significance of the urban context in the latter. By refusing to re-present the Neue Sachlichkeit as the German analogue the French Return to Order, as it is so often described, the curators made it possible for viewers to rediscover the distinct figurative contexts of each particular movement. The exhibition’s final installations invited the visitor to look at some major pictures wherein artists attempted to imagine a postwar society, from both a popular point of view and from the perspective of modern urbanization, represented in works by artists such as Christopher R. W. Nevinson and El Lissitzky. These last projects invite us to question what the aftermath would look like in the artists’ future. They suggest conflicting possibilities of an optimistic machine-age utopia and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a world of lonely steel and glass deserts.

Aftermath was a major show, echoing themes explored in Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919–33, which was exhibited at Tate Modern at the same time. Indeed, the Tate’s presentation of works by Otto Dix, George Grosz, Albert Birkle, and Jeanne Mammen made it possible for viewers to put objects produced at almost the same time and by many of the same artists into a broader perspective. While Aftermath emphasized the effects of war trauma on all of the involved countries, Magic Realism, by focusing only on German art, revealed how postwar trauma and anxiety led to the growth of political extremism, which evolved into Hitler’s Third Reich.

By presenting works from France, the UK, and Germany that were culled from both public and private collections, Aftermath made it possible for viewers to encounter objects that, while devoted to the same themes, have rarely been placed together. By offering excellent material for contextualization, this curatorial strategy made it possible to avoid misinterpretations of the artistic views of the contemporary world. One hundred years after the armistice, we cannot help but be frightened by the terrible actuality/reality of the theme. More optimistically, however, Aftermath also highlighted the fact that many of the most traumatic pictures of war are works of art, and that as such they can help us to think about the possibility of renewal.

Juliette Milbach
EHESS, Paris