Aftermath: Art in the wake of World War One @ Tate Britain

The First World War ended on 11 November 1918. To mark the end of the conflict Tate Britain has been hosting an extensive exhibition devoted to the aftermath of the war as it affected the art of the three main nations of Western Europe – Britain, France and Germany.

Thus there is nothing by artists from, say, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria, nor from the white colonies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, nor from America which entered the war in 1917. It is a Western European show of Western European art.

Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson © IWM

Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson © IWM


The show includes a staggering number of masterpieces from the era, interspersed with fascinating works by much less-well-known artists.

For example, room one contains the Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein, possibly my favourite work of art anywhere, by anyone. For me this hard brooding metallic figure contains the secret of the 20th century, and of our technological age.

Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” (1913-14) by Jacob Epstein. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14) by Jacob Epstein. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein


The exhibition is in eight rooms which take you in broad chronological order:

  1. Images of battlefields and ruins, early movies, and memorabilia (helmets, medals, cigarette cases)
  2. The official War memorials of the three featured nations (statues, designs and paintings by conventional artists such as William Orpen and the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger)
  3. A room devoted to images of disfigured and maimed soldiers
  4. Dada and Surrealism i.e. the extreme irrationalist response to the war of Swiss, German and French artists – including signature works by George Grosz, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters
  5. A room of black and white prints showcasing series of lithographs and woodcuts made by Max Beckman, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and Georges Rouault
  6. The ‘return to order’ in a revival of nostalgic landscapes in works by Paul Nash and George Clausen, sculptures of sleek femininity by Eric Gill and Aristide Maillol, neo-classical portraiture by Meredith Frampton, and the revival of a strange post-war type of Christian faith in the work of Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights
  7. Politics and pass-times – divided between gritty depictions of a newly politicised working class by socialist and communist artists, such as The International by Otto Griebel, and a rare opportunity to see an original ‘portfolio’ or pamphlet of lithographs by George Grosz – and on the other hand, depictions of the newly fashionable night-life, the craze for jazz dancing depicted in The Dance Club 1923 by William Patrick Roberts, cabaret clubs of the Weimar Republic, or the Folies Bergère as painted by English artist, Edward Burra
  8. The exhibition ends with brave new world visions of technology, machinery, skyscrapers, Russian constructivist images by El Lissitsky, the geometric paintings of Fernand Leger, and the sleek new design and architecture of the German Bauhaus school

1. Images of the battlefield

First impressionistic indications of the appalling nature of the war. A display case contains an original infantry helmet from each of the three featured nations, one French, one German and one British. Oil paintings of corpses in trenches or hanging on barbed wire. A rare black-and-white-film shot from an airship shows the devastation

2. Memorials

In terms of memorials I don’t think you can do better than Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph in Whitehall, arresting in its monolithic abstraction. But the show includes three large memorial sculptures by Charles Sergeant Jagger.

No Man's Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger

No Man’s Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger

3. The disfigured

The room of disfigured servicemen is hard to stay in.

The grotesques of Otto Dix and Gorge Grosz are bearable because they have a cartoon savagery and exaggeration which defuses the horror. But the realistic depictions of men with their jaws shot away, half their faces missing, skin folding over where their eyes should be, and so on by artists like Heinrich Hoerle and Conrad Felixmuller, are almost impossible to look at.

Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) © Estate of Otto Dix

Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) © Estate of Otto Dix

4. Dada and Surrealism

The exhibition takes on a completely different tone when you enter the room of works by Dada and Surrealist artists – although the grotesques of the previous room make you realise how so much of Dada’s strategy of cutting up and collage, of rearranging anodyne images (especially from glossy optimistic magazines and adverts), to create incongruous and grotesque new images, is actually a very reasonable response to the grotesqueness of war and its dismemberments.

Here there are works by Kurt Schwitters, pioneer of cut up and paste art, as well as the stunning painting Celebes by early Surrealist Max Ernst.

Seeing a number of examples of post-war collage – works by Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, the English Surrealist Edward Burra and their peers like Hannah Hoch and Rudolf Schlichter all together – brings out the superiority of George Grosz.

It’s probably because I’m a longstanding fan but he seems to me to combine the best eye for design and caricature, with the best feel for how to create a collage of elements cut out from newspapers and magazines.

As well as a good selection of his biting political satires, there is an opportunity to see a reconstruction of the Dada-mannequin he created for the 1920 Berlin Dada exhibition.

Why be sensible? How could you be sensible and take any of the standards and values of the old order seriously? After what they had seen in the trenches? After that old order had brought about Armageddon?

The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

5. Prints, lithographs, woodcuts

In the print portfolio room it is interesting to compare the style of the four featured artists: Max Beckman was too scratchy and scrappy and cluttered for my taste. The Georges Rouault images are harsh but use shading to create an eerie, gloomy depth, as if done with charcoal.

'Arise, you dead!' (War, plate 54) (1922-27) by Georges Rouault. Fondation Georges Rouault © ADAGCP, Paris and DACS, London

‘Arise, you dead!’ (War, plate 54) (1922-27) by Georges Rouault. Fondation Georges Rouault © ADAGCP, Paris and DACS, London

By contrast Käthe Kollwitz’s series War is made from harsh, stark, pagan woodcuts, which exude a really primeval force. This set is a masterpiece. You can see the continuity from the harsh emotional extremism of pre-war German Expressionism, but here a widely used technique has found its perfect subject. Kollwitz is a great artist. Her images may be the most profound in the show.

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

6. The return to order

After the physical and metaphysical gloom of the print room, room six is large, well lit and full of images of sweetness and delight. In all kinds of ways the European art world experience a post-war ‘return to order’, a revival of neo-classical technique, in music as much as in painting. It had quite a few distinct strands.

Landscape One strand was a return to painting idyllic landscapes, represented here by a haycart trundling down a lane by the pre-war artist George Clausen, and a similarly idyllic but more modern treatments of landscape by the brothers Paul and John Nash.

Woman After the disfigurements of the war and the parade of grotesques in the previous galleries, this one contains a number of images of complete, undisfigured bodies, particularly female bodies, used as celebrations of beauty, fertility, of life. These include the big, primeval statue Humanity by Eric Gill, alongside a more realistic depiction of a naked woman, Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol. After such horror, why not? Why not unashamed celebrations of peace, whole-bodiedness, beauty, youth, fertility – a new hope?

Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol (cast 1930) © Tate

Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol (cast 1930) © Tate

Interestingly, this room contains three or four works by Picasso, portraits of women or a family on a beach, done in a kind of revival of his rose period, with the figures now more full and rounded.

Neue Sachlichkeit Another strand was the particularly German style known as ‘New Objectivity’ which I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, not least because it was itself sub-divided into a number of strands and styles.

It’s represented here by a signature work from the era, Christian Schad’s half-realistic, half-cartoonish, and wholly haunting self-portrait of 1927.

Self-Portrait (1927) by Christian Schad © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

Self-Portrait (1927) by Christian Schad © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

Christianity Amazingly, after such a cataclysmic disaster, many artists retained their Christian faith, although it emerged in sometimes strange and eccentric new visions.

These are exemplified by the English artists Stanley Spencer, who is represented by one of the many paintings he made setting Christian stories in his native home town of Cookham. And also by the strange and eerie vision of Winifred Knights, here represented by her unsettling vision of the Flood.

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

Not so long ago I saw a whole load of Knights’ paintings at a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Seeing it here makes you realise the link to the stark geometric modernism of someone like Paul Nash. But also to the deliberately naive style of Spencer. It is a kind of Christianity by floodlights.

Portraiture Separate from these varieties of self-conscious modernism was an entire strand of neo-classical portraiture. A style which had observed and absorbed the entire Modernist revolution from Cezanne onwards, and then reverted to painting exquisitely demure neo-classical portraits, generally of demure and self-contained young women. Exemplified here by Meredith Frampton’s still, posed portrait of Margaret Kelsey.

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Is this a portrait of refinement and sensibility? Or is there an eerie absence in it, a sense of vacuum? Does it have all the careful self-control of someone recovering from a nervous breakdown?

7. Politics and pastimes

Room seven juxtaposes images of The People, The International and the proletariat – with images of jazz bands and people getting drunk in nightclubs. Which is the real world? The International by the German communist painter Otto Griebel faces off against William Roberts modernist depiction of a jazz nightclub (heavily influenced, I’d have thought, by Wyndham Lewis’s pre-war Vorticism).

The Dance Club (1923) by William Roberts. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts

The Dance Club (1923) by William Roberts. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts

By now it felt as if the exhibition was turning into an overview of artistic trends of the 1920s. A number of the works were painted 10 or 12 years after the end of the war. When does an aftermath stop being an aftermath?

8. Brave new worlds

The last room is devoted to technocratic visions of the machine age. Russian constructivists, French futurists, some of the old Vorticists, all the Bauhaus artists, looked to a future of skyscrapers, chucking out Victorian ideas of design and taste and creating a new, fully twentieth century art, architecture and design.

Fernand Leger perfected a post-cubist style based on brightly coloured geometric shapes suggesting a new machine civilisation, and the exhibition includes footage from the experimental film he made, Ballet Mechanique with music by the fashionably machine-age composer George Antheil. The Russian constructivist El Lissitsky devised an entirely new visual language based on lines and fractured circles. Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer is represented by an abstract figurine. Oskar Nerlinger evolved from pencil sketches of the war to developing a distinctive style of constructivist illustration featuring stylised views of up to the minute architecture.

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Now I like this kind of thing very much indeed but I feel we had wandered quite a long way from the First World War. Much of this last room struck me as having next to nothing to do with the war, or any war, instead being the confident new visual language of the hyper-modern 20s and 30s.

Wandering back through the rooms I realised the exhibition splits into two parts: rooms one to five are unambiguously about war, the horrors of war, trenches and barbed wire and corpses, moving onto war memorials and horrible images of mutilated soldiers, how those disfigurements were taken up into the distortions and fantasies of Dada and Surrealism and then extracted into a kind of quintessence of bleakness in the woodcuts of Kollwitz.

And then part two of the show, rooms 6, 7 and 8 show the extraordinary diversity of forms and style and approaches of post-war art, from nostalgic or semi-modernist landscape, through neo-classical if unnerving portraiture, Christianity by floodlight, from bitterly angry socialist realism to the frivolities of jazz bands and strip clubs, and then onto the Bauhaus and Constructivist embrace of new technologies (radio, fast cars, cruise liners) and new design and photographic languages.

Whether these latter rooms and their contents can be strictly speaking described as the ‘aftermath’ of the Great War is something you can happily spend the rest of the day debating with friends and family.

But there is no doubting that the exhibition brings together a ravishing selection of masterpieces, well-known and less well-known, to create a fascinating overview of the art of the Great War, of the immediate post-war period, and then the explosion of diverse visual styles which took place in the 1920s.

From the po-faced solemnity of:

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-8) by William Orpen © IWM

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-8) by William Orpen © IWM

to the compelling crankiness of:

'Daum' Marries her Pedantic Automaton 'George' in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

‘Daum’ Marries her Pedantic Automaton ‘George’ in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

From the earnest political commitment of:

Demonstration (1930) by Curt Querner. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © DACS

Demonstration (1930) by Curt Querner. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © DACS

to the vision of an all-metal brave new technocratic future:

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

The promotional video

Related links

Other blog posts about the Great War and its aftermath

Politics and soldiers

Art and design

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Perspectives on Love @ Stanley Spencer Gallery

“Every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”

These lines from the gospel of John are inscribed on Stanley Spencer’s gravestone in Cookham cemetery and are the central thread of the current exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham.

Stanley Spencer's gravestone, Cookham churchyard

Stanley Spencer’s gravestone, Cookham churchyard

Spencer was born at Fernlea, a Victorian house in Cookham High Street, the tenth child of eleven children born to William Spencer, an organist and music teacher, and his wife, Annie. From these fairly humble beginnings the short, odd, intensely religious boy went on to become one of Britain’s most famous painters, a fellow of the Royal Academy and knighted shortly before his death in 1959.

His early talent was fostered by a local artist, followed by a year at Maidenhead Technical Institute, then in 1908 he went to study at Slade Art School in London where he was one of the “Crisis of Brilliance” generation described in a 2009 book by David Boyd Haycock and at the recent exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Although he didn’t live there all his life (apart from service in the Great War he had spells in Hampstead, near Burghclere chapel in Hamshire, in Dorset and so on) Spencer did spend most of his life in his home village which, from his earliest years, had an intense artistic, emotional and religious significance for him. He was a lifelong devout and visionary Christian.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery fittingly occupies the Victorian Methodist chapel where Stan was taken to worship as a child. It holds a large number of paintings, drawings, letters and memorabilia including the battered pram Stanley packed with his paints and brushes and wheeled around the village to his latest location. It’s open every day from 10.30 to 5.30 and admission is £5. (Interior view of the Stanley Spencer Gallery). It consists of one large room hung with paintings and drawings, with a staircase lined with more artworks up one wall to a small gallery. A few cases show objects and mementoes.

Every year the Gallery organises their collection into a themed exhibition. The current exhibition is Perspectives on Love and uses 41 art works to demonstrate the different kinds of love Spencer – and by extension all of us – are capable of. (For the sake of extending the argument I’ve included paintings not in the exhibition; those in the exhibition are in bold.)

Four Loves

Love of God A lifelong and visionary Christian, Spencer notoriously set scenes from the life of Christ in his native Cookham, making the serious point that, if there is a God, he is as much in Cookham High Street as anywhere else; that he is as likely to send his angels to help an old lady who’s slipped on the pavement as to Ezekiel; and, conversely, that the most banal incidents of the everyday contain the seeds of the divine. In one of his essays CS Lewis asks, What is the most holy object in a church? Answer: the person sitting next to you with their immortal soul. It is in this homely Anglican spirit that Spencer painted works like Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), The Last Supper (1920), Veronica Unmasking Christ (1921), The Resurrection, Cookham (1926) or Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta (unfinished) which dominates one wall of the Spencer Gallery. The more you are in contact with Spencer’s very English Christianity – akin to Blake’s visions of Ezekiel in Lambeth – the more appealing, the more reasonable, and the more loving it becomes.

Sexual Love According to Boyd Haycock the discovery of sex when Spencer married Hilda Carline, aged 33, came as a thunderbolt. His nudes are often grotesque, florid, platefuls of blotchy livid flesh which anticipate Lucien Freud: as in Nude (1935), Double Nude (1937), Patricia Preece (1935), Self Portrait with Patricia Preece (1937) . In the exhibition is the rather repellent Beatitudes of Love: Sociableness (1938), an uncomfortably distorted image which nonetheless, for Spencer obviously represents an ideal of physical and mental intimacy.

Love of People “The greatest of these is Charity…” Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933) records the old lady who thought the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1911 portended the end of the world. It captures Spencer’s charity, his love of really ordinary people, the old ladies of village life. there’s a fine pencil drawing of Mr Francis the Cookham baker, along with a sequence of pencil drawings of ordinary domestic scenes with titles like Shopping, Patricia and Gramophone, Cutting Nails by a Bed. Neighbours (1936) records his sister handing a bunch of tulips over the garden hedge to their next door neighbour. Crossing The Road (1936) records the village tradition of an old man who each day bought a bone from the butchers and was helped by a girl across the High Street to give it to a dog who lived opposite. If you consider what was happening in Spain and Germany in 1936, then a painting like this is a statement about morality, about Christian charity, and about what an ideal world, what Heaven, will look like, a place where people are kind to each other. and, by loving each other, worship their Creator.

Love of Nature The exhibition focuses on people but Spencer painted plenty of landscapes and pictures of the flowers and gardens of Cookham. These tend to be much more naturalistic in style than most of the others; Boyd Hancock calls them potboilers, that Spencer disliked making but which were easier to sell than the more personal religious works. The only work in the exhibition that captures his brilliance at Nature is Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill (1935) where, although the figure in the foreground is subject to characteristic Spencerian distortion, the landscape of yarrow, thistles and (hawthorn?) hedges is faithfully conveyed.

Spencer’s Styles: Distortion and anti-Naturalism

What is most disconcerting to the casual approacher to Spencer is his use of distortion: all his paintings are figurative – he is not an abstract painter – but almost always with a high degree of stylisation and mannerism.

More than the theme of love, what struck me about these 41 works is what I can categorise as Spencer’s four styles: Naturalistic, Shipbuilding-style social realism, Religious vision, and Grotesque.

1. Naturalistic – When he wanted to (or when he needed to, to make money) Spencer could paint truly marvellous portraits like that of Eric Williams (1954), or of Mr and Mrs Baggett (1956), or the wonderful pencil portrait of his daughter, Shirin Spencer (1947). He could do wonderful scenes like Turk’s Boatyard, Cookham (1931)  which looks like a photo,  or the famous images of Southwold (1937).

And then there’s the loads of paintings he made of flowers, country views and the gardens and buildings of Cookham, the lots and lots of paintings he made of flowers in the countryside or in the gardens of Cookham – Cookham Rise (1935), or the flowers of Bellrope Meadow (1936), or any of the flowery villagescapes on this blog page,

I didn’t know about  the landscape and flower aspect of his oeuvre until visiting the exhibition and discovered there is a whole book – Stanley Spencer and the English Garden – dedicated to it. But these were his potboilers. Paintings he made to sell for large amounts. Brilliant though they are, they weren’t where his heart, his creativity lay. It was an official or public style.

2. Socially acceptable distortion – what I call his Shipbuilding style after the marvellous paintings of shipbuilders on the Clyde he did during the Second World War. Here the figures are stylised, ignoring post renaissance understanding of human anatomy, bodies are arranged into tubular puppets or dolls, generally bending like toys rather than articulated human bodies. But they are generally set in highly detailed backdrops: in the exhibition exemplified by The Garage (1929) – a commission from the Empire Marketing Board – a wonderful picture travelling a long way to see in the flesh; and by the detailed backdrop of Hilda and I at Pond Street (1954) – note the precise clear decorative detail of the carpeting, the sofa, the bookshelves, of the male figures odd harlequin suit. It is the hyper-reality of the background detail which led some critics to say Spencer was continuing the tradition of the pre-Raphaelites.

3. Religious distortion – Most of the paintings people associate with Spencer are probably of the religious and visionary subjects –  Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), The Last Supper (1920), The Resurrection, Cookham (1926) or Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta (unfinished) , paintings which wonderfully combine profound religious conviction with an almost cartoonish simplification of the human form. People in these look like nativity figures made out of cardboard; there is a strange fascination to the way their bodies incline at impossible angles, devoid of all the usual human joints and articulations to become stiff hieratic figures. Spencer loved Giotto. You can see these figures as attempts to paint people as if the Renaissance had never happened. In this exhibition The Last Supper is an example: look at the patterning of the disciples’ legs sticking out from under the table, at the stiffly painted folds of material and the jumble of pale feet.

In fact I would place the Resurrection and Christ Preaching in the Shipbuilding category because of their attention to fine detail. The real religious visions – Christ carrying the Cross, the Last Supper, Veronica – are distinguished by their deliberate absence of detailing, by the post-impressionist use of simple blocks of colour, by stylised wedges of light and shade.

4. Grotesques – Finally, there is a definite category of grotesques: the glaring example in the exhibition is Toasting (1937), subtitled the Beatitudes of Love. Is it a portrait of intimacy? The exhibition guide speculates that the couple have just had sex which makes it even more punishing a picture. Why is the woman’s neck so distorted and elongated? What is happening to the man’s left leg? Or head? Similarly in the would-be cosy At The Chest of Drawers (1936) what is going on with the woman’s shoulders? Or back? Or in Sunbathers at Odney (1935). If we weren’t familiar with Spencer’s loving mentality we could see the naked grotesques as on the way towards Francis Bacon.

We know Spencer could paint a portrait of Eric Williams or his daughter if he wanted to: clearly he doesn’t want to in a whole set of paintings which combine heavily distorted human bodies with, more often than not, very frank nudity. This is his vision; or one of his visions; or one of his styles.

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