Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, Tate Britain, London

'Ypres After the First Bombardment', Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson ( Museums Sheffield )

The question asked is this: what kind of art, whether English, French or German, could be regarded as the legacy of the Great War of 1914-1918, the bloodiest and most foolish conflict in the history of the world? 10 million was the death toll.

Art was one of its (almost) unsparing witnesses, of course, and this exhibition begins on the devastated battlefields – benign pastoral scenes reduced to heaving ructions of mud, and smoky, blackened stumps once officially known as trees.

What surprises, so often, is how relatively bloodless much of this seems. Nature may have taken the greater hit. Could that really be true? Of course not. The images on our own screens these days are much less censored than those official war artists. Never more than two dead to be photographed together was the rule handed down from above by the Ministry of War. We can only be permitted to agonize over, and reflect upon, the grotesque follies of Earl Haig to a degree.

Much more troubling is great, rearing ‘Rock Drill’ torso by Jacob Epstein (1913) – part menacing mechanized bird, part helmeted human head – which is a perfect, symbolic image of the dehumanization of conflict.

Scenes witnessed from above of wholesale architectural ruination are remarkable too: Michelin’s published guides to the shattered towns and villages of France, for example, in which we see the skeletal hulks of cathedrals with their windows blown out. This is pocket voyeurism for the prosperous, weepy tourist. Or a remarkable film, shot by Lucien le Saint in 1919 from a small, wheeling plane, of Ypres in ruins.

The contemporary documentation in vitrines drags in issues of status and class – the scenes of Victory Day in Paris in 1919, with the disabled heroes much to the fore. The English kept them corralled and out of official sightlines.

The truly terrible acts of remembering through art – the work which arrests and horrifies even now, when we have become blithely inured to so much – often came some years later. Agony needs time to germinate in the dark perhaps.

An entire room is devoted to sequences of prints by Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, and Georges Rouault. Two Germans and one Frenchmen. Wormy skulls. The thickened, lolling tongue of the dead man. Or Kathe Kollwitz’s stark preparatory drawing of two mourning parents robbed of their precious child – just as she has been robbed of hers. Here are the poisonous traces of war as registered in the 1920s by Dada and Surrealism. My task declared the collagist Kurt Schwitters, is to make new things from the fragments of a shattered culture.

The final rooms dribble our theme away somewhat or disperse it into more general views of what came after. New architecture swoops skyward. Soho’s sexy leerers jitter-bug to jazz. The more pleasurable distractions of constructing a different world from the ruins of the old come between.


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