Almost a century after the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, Tate Britain’s new exhibition examines how the experiences of artists such as Paul Nash, Edward Burra and George Grosz contributed to movements including Dada and Surrealism
The signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918 marked the official end of World War One, in which more than 20 million soldiers and civilians were killed and a further 20 million soldiers were wounded. But the physical and mental scars left by the conflict were only just beginning to be understood and processed by artists in Britain, France and Germany. To mark the centenary of the armistice, a new show at Tate Britain, Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, explores how the war resonated in the art of these countries in the years between 1916 and 1936.
‘Over four years ago we started discussing with our colleagues at Tate about how to commemorate World War One,’ says exhibition curator Emma Chambers. Since many events had been planned to mark the beginning of the war, Chambers and her colleagues decided to examine the period after the war’s end.
‘We wanted to look specifically at memorial culture, and its impact on the art of the 1920s and 1930s,’ she explains. ‘We eventually managed to narrow our focus to the art of the Western Front — British, French and German schools — which we decided would tell the most compelling narrative.’
But the exhibition has a particularly British slant. ‘As we explored how avant-garde art movements developed simultaneously across Europe, we wanted to take a closer look at Britain’s contributions to them,’ says Chambers, suggesting that this has been largely under-appreciated. Aftermath features some 150 works, many loaned from European institutions.
Artists began to respond to the events of World War One almost immediately. Not long after the outbreak of violence, younger artists began to mount critiques of pre-war movements such as Futurism, which had celebrated urbanism and the rise of the machine. World War One marked the first time that tanks, aeroplanes and chemical weapons had been used in battle, and as news of their horrific effects filtered back from the front lines, artists reacted with anxiety.
In 1916, for example, British sculptor Jacob Epstein exhibited a reworking of his 1913-14 sculpture, Rock Drill — an abstract human figure modelled in plaster, set atop a real miner’s rock drill, the whole more than three metres high. The new piece, Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’ (above) was radically different: Epstein discarded the rock drill altogether, and effectively mutilated the human figure, cutting it in half to leave a one-armed torso, now cast in gun-metal and bronze.
On the continent, the image of the returning wounded soldier, missing one or more limbs or wheelchair-bound — half-human, half machine — contributed to the rise of movements such as Dada and Surrealism.
Another British artist, Paul Nash, was commissioned by Wellington House — the War Propaganda Bureau — to memorialise the war. But as the rules of his commission forbade him from portraying dead bodies, he had to find alternative ways to represent its horrors. The paintings he produced included scenes of scorched earth, barbed-wire forests and downed planes that were precursors of the barren landscapes typical of Surrealism.
Painter Edward Burra, meanwhile, explored man’s relationship with machines, in line with the Dada manifesto. Like other British artists, Burra travelled extensively around Europe and studied the work of the German Surrealists George Grosz and Otto Dix as well as the Dadaist Hannah Höch, all of whom were examining different ways to portray the legacy of war.
While Höch used photomontage, as in the example above, to celebrate women gaining the right to vote and hold elected office, Grosz and Dix mocked capitalism and rationalism through surrealist caricature.
These ideas fed into Burra’s work, which in turn fed back into these European movements when Burra’s works were shown in Germany. ‘Paul Nash had a similar experience with the French Surrealists,’ Chambers notes.
‘With Aftermath we hope to contribute to the growing recognition that Britain wasn’t a remote artistic enclave in the interwar years,’ she continues, ‘but a fundamental part of this wider web, playing a key role in the development of the European avant-garde.’
Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One runs until 23 September at Tate Britain