For the last four years we’ve been immersed in memories of the First World War as centenary of its conclusion approaches and it’s been fascinating and moving to review the art which recorded the slaughter and devastation on a scale the world had never seen before. Those images of shell-blasted battle fields, ruined trenches, mud, puddles, corpses and dreadful injuries fix in the mind.
This exhibition at Tate Britian assembles some of those images of conflict to set the context – well known paintings by artists such as Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson and William Orpen – and the absolute misery and relentless horror of what they witnessed is captured in both literal terms and in bleak abstracts. And indeed it includes many images made from the German and French viewpoint, which we haven’t seen so much of but are no less powerful in their evocation of the suffering which was endured by everyone involved.
What this exhibition is does is look at the aftermath of the conflict and how artists started the process of recovery, repair and resolution. The First World War became memorialised very early on. The ubiquitous war memorials in every town, village and hamlet bear testament to the appalling loss of young lives but this exhibition gathers together an impressive collection of sculptures, bronzes drawings, prints and paintings which capture the impact of not only the fallen but those who have been left behind.
The enduring costs of conflict were only too apparent in the injuries endured and the pain of maimed bodies . I’ve seen these portraits of soldiers by Henry Tonks before and they are very impressive, conveying a quiet dignity; there’s nothing sensational about the making of these portraits – just honest medical recording of the damage done and how the injuries were treated.
Anger at what young men were forced to endure seems to roar from the prints and drawings of German expressionist artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and George Grosz. These drawing, prints and sketches suggest that all pleasure and innocence had been chased away and replaced by a kind of self-destructiom fuelled by domestic cruelty and unfair treatment of those who endured the conflict .
I enjoyed the selection of collages by artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Rudolf Schlichter and Hannah Hoch which seemed to express the chaos of the post-war years as people resumed their ‘normal’ lives and tried to put the horrors behind them.
It’s almost a relief to get to the gallery entitled Return to Order and see images of sun soaked landscapes, portraits and families enjoying themselves. But there are still images which capture loss – widows, families where husbands and families are missing – and a feeling that the world is now an emptier place.
The final room in the exhibition looks to the future – images of machines taking over, of society being rebuilt with the help of new technology and innovation. But nothing can override those initial images of wartime devastation and, no matter, how people strive to repair, recover and redeem the situation, the reality of conflict does nothing good for us.
Art in the Wake of World War One, Tate Britain, 5th June – 23rd September 2018.