Out of the darkness

Rating: 5

Aftermath: Art in the wake of World War One

by Hugh St Clair

Before the 20th century, art celebrated war. Wellington and Nelson were painted in full military uniform as mighty victors, irrespective of losses of men and defeats. Napoleon was often painted on horseback cutting a swathe through the enemy. The horrors and suffering of the battlefield and the effect on the regular soldier were never shown. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism changed all that. Critic Roger Fry declared the 1910Londonn exhibition of Manet and the Post-Impressionists an ‘art quake’. The seeds of modern art had been sown and the first World War was the perfect catalyst for art to reflect the emotions of the common person and the effect the fighting had on them. After the war, more radical movements such as Abstraction, Dadaism and Surrealism sprang up.

This show is far-reaching and includes artists from France and Germany alongside British ones. It also has a great scope of subject matter with a well-explained narrative. Passing through the exhibition the visitor starts with images of battlefields and ruins, then is shown trench ephemera such as objects made out of shell casings, miniature inscribed scimitars and images of war memorials. At the same time, harrowingly poignant portraits by surgeon and artist Henry Tonks show the disfigured faces of veterans. Tonks recorded before- and after-surgery images which helped to advance plastic surgery and change perceptions towards the wounded. In Germany, George Grosz and Otto Dix brought their government’s attention to the blind and disabled veterans unable to work but often not given enough support.

In interpreting the post-conflict world of the 1920s and 1930s, artists fall into two camps. First there is the dehumanised world where machines rule. Christopher Nevinson's Spooky Soul of the Soulless City (a New York landscape), Oskar Nerlinger’s Radio Tower and Fernand Leger’s Two Discs in the City are examples. All of these works are devoid of people. Then there are images of decadent party types by William Roberts and Glyn Philpot. German artist Georg Shrimpf longs for the innocent world before the cataclysm and paints a swineherd, while French painter Roger de la Fresnaye illustrates a herdsman.

These artists’ predictions for the new society came partly true: machines became more a part of daily life and social lives and the old order began to break down. What is fascinating about this exhibition is the diverse range of styles the artists used to make their point. There is so much to see and absorb. I will return.

Until 24 September at Tate Britain, London SW1: 020-7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk

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