Aftermath – notes following an Exhibition

The title is an important one. Its origin lies as an agricultural metaphor: the new grass/plants that emerge after mowing or a harvest. Aftermath the exhibition plays on this meaning by asking the question: what plants grow if the land itself has been poisoned by the trauma of war?

The first two rooms, of the compendious 8 in total, leave us in no doubt that this is a poisoned land. Casualties are everywhere, though often not on show. Old boots and helmets stand in for the dead as artists, especially those acting as official War Artists, are restricted as to what they can reveal of the horror and devastation of the front line. In one telling example of such restrictions, Christopher Nevinson’s ‘Paths of Glory’, two men, two dead men, lie face down in mud, surrounded by makeshift and fallen barbed wire fencing. For Nevinson these ‘Paths’ are clearly inglorious, messy, strewn with obstacles and oblivious to heroism, and as such his painting was censored, tape being strapped across the two fallen figures to hide the truth of devastation.

CRW Nevinson's 'Paths of Glory' 1917
Paths of Glory by CRW Nevinson, 1917

The scope of the exhibition isn’t confined to art in a time of war though, choosing also to explore what artists created in response to, and because of, it. The exhibition is large therefore, and not only British artists are featured; curators Emma Chambers and Rose Smith placing French and German artists’ work alongside that of their British contemporaries. The effect is to compound the notion that this was no easy victim-perpetrator, loser-winner scenario. Art, one of the cultural grasses to grow in the Aftermath, had its place in revealing how poisoned the land had become, the trauma that sprouted back, beyond the battlefields. It did also hint of a brighter tomorrow though, a Paul Nash vision of a tree (Wire, 1918-19) in a desolate landscape, ostensibly exploded from within, it’s bark like fountain-spurts turning into the omnipresent barbed wire that encircle and contain it; yet if we look look up, dark clouds seem to be blown back by clearer skies. Renewal is possible, lest we forget.

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in FRance, 1921-8
To the Unknown British Solider in France by William Orpen, 1921-8

Yet that renewal, the new grass, is conditioned by the old; we need to remember former sacrifice. Shortly after the hostilities concluded discussions began on how to memorialise the war and those who’d died. Two images of this period stood out for me. The first was a painting by William Orpen (To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1921-28 – above). Orpen, an official War Artist, was brought to Versailles as part of his duties when British and French military command were debating the commemoration of war. Finding himself exasperated in witnessing the ignorance on show he later painted an arresting image of a coffin draped in a Union Jack and topped by a helmet. It rests at the entrance to the famously ostentatious Hall of Mirrors, yet gold, chandeliers, seraphim and filigree are cast in shadow, the only revealing light being that at the far side, in which you can detect the central Christian symbol for suffering: the cross. This critique was astutely accompanied by Frank Owen Salisbury depicting, by royal command, the ‘march-past’ during the burial of the Unknown Soldier on the first Remembrance Day. On initial look it appears to be a pageant showing a conventional celebration, by the ‘great and the good’, of the soldiers who died ‘not in vain’, as heroes. Look again though, and the military figures all look to be cut from the same cloth, sporting very similar moustaches, caps pulled over their eyes, caricatures. Owen, a devout Methodist and pacifist, was he subtly mocking the military ‘top brass’, who look pompous and blind in the face of the sheer numbers of people they sent to be killed?

The second image of note, a bronze sculpture, hung from the ceiling immediately in front of me on entering room 2. It shows a single body, its clothing both falling under gravity and fixed by materiality (The Floating One by Ernst Barlach, 1927 – below). It looked awkward, even ugly, an art nouveau style that I’m not a fan of. I ignored it in favour of other works more stimulating. Later, wandering underneath it, I glanced up, and felt its full force, crushing … a face, that of the artist and friend of Balach’s, Kathe Kollwitz, sweet, eyes closed but bulging, bulging that is with tears … indeed a whole body, bursting with sadness as it flies over the battlegrounds of the 1914-18 war. Kollwitz’s son was killed during the war and the angel is Balach’s response to the ‘vacuum’ of war into which grief has flooded. It’s an angel that has refused to be grounded. The Nazi’s hated and destroyed it, yet after WW2 a cast was discovered and Balach’s angel was able to fly again, reminding us now not of the sufferings of one war but two, this time its shadow cast even longer.

Ernst Balach, Der Schwebende (The Floating One, 1927
Der Schwebende (The Floating One) by Ernst Balach, 1927, cast 1987

In room 3 we move beyond memorialising the war to depicting those wounded in the course of it. Servicemen, faces sliced, blown open and repaired as best as possible, these are sensitively rendered in pastel by Henry Tonks. German war veterans could be treated appallingly, and Otto Dix renders in cartoon, an art form usually associated with caricature and comedy, yet here subverted to reveal how they are treated with cruel ridicule, even dogs urinating on them as they are shown forced to beg for life’s necessities.

Otto Dix, Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran. Two Victims of Capitalism 1923 LWL-Landesmuseu
Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran. Two Victims of Capitalism, by Otto Dix, 1923, LWL-Landesmuseu

We’ve gone from the immensity of the battlefield in which the individual can be lost, to the memorialisation of the those died, those unknown, to specific, individual experiences of the affects of the conflict. ‘Traces of War’ showed how in Germany the ‘print portfolio’ did offer the possibility for art to enter into homes, villages, and towns. Mass-produced, low-cost, unofficial and personal, wider society is often held in question, its morality compromised. This reached an apotheosis, for me, with Kathe Kollwitz’s woodblock prints of the lives of women, their loss of uncle, cousin, grandfather, husband, brother, father, son, and friend exposed in simple black-white contrast, haunting shapes of individual and collective grief.

We then move into the ‘Return to Order’, a room that reveals more colour, light, in which English pastoral scenes and family life begin to show life a little further on from the armistice. A shadow is still cast though: the rural scenes are human-less, family life is scarred with father’s absent from their former selves, withdrawn, even ghostly. We see here too women, in the first years of franchise, living independently. Having learned to work in ways not experienced before and with so many men casualties of the war they shouldered loneliness alongside responsibility, the freedoms of franchise and independent means tempered by loss.

Meredith Frampton's Marguerite Kelsey, 1928
Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton, 1928

Moving further artists began to imagine the post-war world, depicting social unrest and political upheaval. Men and women became animated in seeking a better world for themselves, and the new politics of mass labour organisation provided a channel for them to change how society was structured. This occurred alongside scenes of how in many ways things returned to normal, divisions of wealth in many ways being exacerbated by the war. There was definitely a desire to enjoy emerging among the population though, and newer musical forms like jazz spread throughout major cities. A tense juxtaposition was portrayed in Gorge Grosz’s image, Grey Day (1921) in which the soldiers left behind by disability haunted the prospering classes.

George Grosz, Grey Day, 1921, copyright the Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Grey Day by George Grosz, 1921, copyright the Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Artists also depict how the modern world was changing. Technological developments, that often rapidly innovated during the war, began to be felt in the designs of modern life. Some artists became fascinated by automation and industrial machinery and their worlds are mechanized, more abstract, and even idealised. The impact of this upon human beings is still critiqued though, Alice Lex-Nerlinger’s scepticism revealing a life increasingly subject to factory timetables and the relentless ticking of the clock. In the increasing abstraction sits a haunting image that reflects a very human shadow cast from World War 1. A woman, Jenny, a figure of sadness and anxiety, even trauma, a reminder that recollecting and learning from the past is an optional but essential endeavour if we are not to repeat its mistakes. Aftermath clearly makes the case for such recollection and its message is one we would be fools to neglect.

Rudolf Schlichter, Jenny, 1923, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal.
Jenny by Rudolf Schlichter’s, 1923, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal.


23rd August 2018

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