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15 August 2018

After the bullets, the brushes: how the First World War transformed art

When the war finally came to an end, artists on both sides had to face the problem of how to paint the peace.

By Michael Prodger

Nineteen-fourteen was not a propitious time to announce a new artistic movement. In July of that year, however, the first edition of the artistic-literary magazine Blast appeared, declaring the birth of vorticism. Once a great deal of flim-flam had been sifted through, what the movement amounted to was a repudiation of both Victorian values and Bloomsbury aesthetics, and instead an acclamation of modernity, the machine age and non-traditional representation.

Vorticism was largely the brainchild of the painter and critic Percy Wyndham Lewis, who was supported by the upper echelon of the British-based avant-garde, numbering, among others, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, CRW Nevinson, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, William Roberts and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. “You think at once of a whirlpool,” wrote Wyndham Lewis. “At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated; and there at the point of concentration is the vorticist.”

Vorticism was simply the British wing of a Europe-wide movement, which held that art needed to be remade for the times. Italy had the futurists who, under the strutting Filippo Marinetti, worshipped violence, speed, the motorcar, the modern city and youth. France meanwhile had cubism, the invention of Picasso and Braque that fractured three-dimensional objects in order to reconstitute them on canvas, and Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual “anti-art”.

Just 33 days after the appearance of Blast, war was declared. This did not initially seem a threat to vorticism and its fellow movements, but rather an opportunity. As Rupert Brooke, a very different kind of sensibility, put it, many artists welcomed the onset of war “as swimmers into cleanness leaping”. A short and sharply brutal conflict was just what art needed finally to euthanise the past and slough off the fusty clutter of landscapes, nudes and the strictures of the academy. A new and modern art lay just on the other side.

Of course, as it turned out, these brave new movements turned out to be just another casualty of the trenches. Dissolving and faceting the human form was all very well on canvas but it didn’t look so clever in the light of the evisceration and vaporising caused by bullets and high explosives. The machine age promised a utopia in abstract but in practice the machine gun rendered humans merely a bloody and deliquescing smear. Blast was an early war victim: the second and final issue was published in 1915.

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The great majority of Europe’s most significant radical painters survived the war: the most notable casualties were the German Franz Marc, the Anglo-French tyro Gaudier-Brzeska, and the Italian Umberto Boccioni, all of whom had the potential to go on to great things. For the rest, the war offered them the choice to be either a propagandist or a witness. Among the most potent of the latter was Paul Nash who, in a letter sent home to his wife from Flanders in 1917, showed how far the conflict had shifted art from prewar theory: “I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

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Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran: Two Victims of Capitalism (1923) by Otto Dix

By 1918 the passion and bombast of Wyndham Lewis and Marinetti looked not just misplaced but trivial. The postwar years were marked by what has become known as a “return to order” as artists tried to regain a semblance of control over a world that had proved so terrifyingly chaotic: Nash retreated to Dymchurch in Kent to work on bleak seascapes; Bomberg took himself off to Palestine to paint the Holy Land in nougat hues; Picasso adopted a neo-classical manner, painting careful, substantial nudes and portraits; Giorgio de Chirico returned to classicism, becoming a strident critic of modern art in the process; Nevinson, having seen the worst of what the old world could do, went to New York to see what the new world could offer. The grand plan to house the paintings produced under the official war artists’ scheme – among them John Singer Sargent’s epic Gassed and Nash’s chilling The Menin Road – in a vast Hall of Remembrance above the Thames at Richmond was quietly shelved.

The immediate postwar years were a period of artistic retrenchment and a retreat from the abstraction towards which Wyndham Lewis and Bomberg had been heading with their prewar paintings of skewed and stylised buildings and robotic people composed of rectangular, girder-like shapes. Only in Russia did the experimentation of the early 1910s take hold, because the new Soviet regime demanded an unprecedented art to accompany its grand social experiment. So the angular and geometric constructivism of Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin and Liubov Popova was in effect a language that could not just be applied to art but to design, typography and architecture too. The new Soviet man deserved to live in a world free of the visual constrictions of the past.

The ways in which Western artists had to rethink their practice in the light of ten million dead, 20 million wounded and a swathe of the continent left a wasteland is the theme of two exhibitions running concurrently at the Tate’s London branches; “Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One” at Tate Britain and “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33” at Tate Modern. A selection of Nevinson’s postwar graphic work is also on display in “Prints of War and Peace” at the British Museum.

The initial task for many artists was one of remembrance. The Anglo-Irish painter William Orpen, sent to portray the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, created two grand group portraits of the delegates almost dwarfed by the magnificence of the Palace of Versailles, but he also made a third, less traditional painting. It showed the coffin of the unknown soldier draped in a union flag amid the marble and gilt of the palace but placed in front of a shadowed corridor signifying the transition from death to eternal life. It is a stately and symmetrical image, grave but full of architectural and symbolic detail.

The painting, though, was rejected by the government because Orpen had included two spectral figures of near-naked dead soldiers keeping an honour guard either side of the coffin. The reminder of physical frailty, mortality and suffering was deemed too insistent and the picture was only declared acceptable once Orpen had painted out the corpse soldiers. Remembrance was to be about abstract, valiant death and sacrifice, and not the undignified truth of the trenches.

During the Peace Day Parade in front of the Cenotaph in London on 19 July 1919, disabled veterans were allocated places in the grandstands rather than being given pride of place in the parade itself, as if their appearance was too indecorous to be seen. And for decades the extraordinary pastel drawings, “fragments” he called them, made by Henry Tonks, a surgeon and Slade art tutor, showing facially disfigured soldiers were used solely as reference works by reconstructive surgeons rather than being recognised as uncomfortable but deeply potent works of art.

The war-wounded were, of course, a common sight across Europe; and in Germany, in the hands of Otto Dix and George Grosz, they became an emblem of all that was wrong with society. If the British made the most striking work of the war years it was the Germans Grosz and Dix – whose work appears in both exhibitions – who best captured the universal anger and psychological trauma that followed the peace.

Christian Schad, Self-portrait (1927)


In 1924 Grosz, who had been invalided out of the army after a nervous breakdown, admitted that he had refined his rage: “Today I no longer hate people indiscriminately. Today I hate their bad institutions and those in power who defend those institutions.” This took in the bourgeoisie, profiteers, the military and the church. The institutions took revenge on his implacable satires though; he was arrested during the Spartacist uprising of 1919, fined 300 marks for insulting the German army in his Gott Mit Uns print series and prosecuted for blasphemy for his anti-clerical drawings.

In Grosz and Dix’s depictions, the war-wounded are usually contrasted with other morally, rather than physically, disfigured Weimar types. In Grosz’s Grey Day of 1921 a damaged soldier, one armless sleeve empty, a cane in his remaining hand, shuffles head down through a street in the midst of reconstruction. In the opposite direction walks a fat, squint-eyed businessman complete with starched collar and briefcase. The former is an emblem of someone who had a bad war, a broken man who can’t even find work, the latter the personification of a good one, complacently profiting from the postwar renewal.

In an unsparing ink drawing of 1923 Dix, a former machine-gunner who survived four full years at the front despite being wounded five times, made a related point. It shows two types of physical damage: a war veteran who has lost an eye, half his mouth and part of his nose – his functioning eye is locked into a stare of horror – and a prostitute way past her prime, scrawny and grotesquely made up, with syphilitic sores pocking her like mocking beauty marks. The responsibility for these misshapen wrecks is made explicit in Dix’s title: Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran: Two Victims of Capitalism.

Psychological war damage is a continuous undercurrent in their work. Dix’s 1920 etching of a Butcher Shop is a grotesque, Boschian scene in which two butchers carve pigs with bestial relish, one wearing the animal’s severed leg as a hat. Meanwhile, Lust Murderer, another etching of the same year and a recurring theme in his art, shows a prostitute dismembered by her crazed and grinning client, who dances in front of his limbless victim brandishing her bleeding leg in glee. It was a theme Dix revisited in an expressionistic watercolour two years later, the rapidity of the handling suggesting a repellent excitement in the painter and none of the doleful restraint and claustrophobia of Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Murder paintings of 1908.

This acerbic mixture of bitterness and psycho-sexual violence has no equivalent in British art. The nearest counterpart is Edward Burra’s The Snack Bar of 1930, showing a prostitute taking a break between clients and eating a sandwich in a corner house. The sinister element is contained in the conjunction of sex, flesh and a knife as a waiter, with smiling concentration, carves thin slices of pink ham beneath her nose.

George Grosz’s Grey Day (1921) contrasts the fates of a wounded veteran and a stay-at-home businessman

The war’s effects can also be traced in the development of dadaism, with its anarchist, anti-nationalist and anti-war roots, and later of surrealism. The painter Max Ernst summed up his four years in the army in terms of Christian allegory: “Max Ernst died on 1st of August 1914. He resuscitated the 11th November 1918 as a young man aspiring to become a magician and to find the myth of his time.” A painting such as Celebes of 1921, which shows a strange, near-spherical animal-mechanical creature with an elephant’s trunk and a buffalo’s head, is an amalgam of dada non-sense and war machines.

It was no coincidence that André Breton, “the pope of surrealism”, spent the war as a medical orderly specialising in shell shock. In Britain, Paul Nash and Henry Moore were just two of the artists who experimented with surrealism, looking for what lay beyond the real in the unconscious, in what was, in part, an attempt to come to terms with their war experiences. Other artists simply wanted to paint the tangible, and portraiture was one means to achieve it. André Derain, who as a prewar fauve painter alongside Matisse, painted landscapes of vivid, non-naturalistic colour, wrote to his fellow fauve Maurice de Vlaminck that now “I want to do nothing but portraits, real portraits with hands and hair; that’s real life!”

The form of such portraits could, though, be wildly different: in 1927 Christian Schad painted a self-portrait of himself in a sheer shirt in bed with an angular naked woman with a scar running down her cheek; a cityscape is in the background, the bedclothes are tangled and a single white flower – not quite a lily, the traditional painterly symbol of purity – adds a layer of complexity to the tryst that has just happened. Whatever the drama, the scene is painted with immaculate precision and a cool eye.

A year later in England, Meredith Frampton depicted Marguerite Kelsey, a renowned model, dressed in a simple white dress with a basket of white flowers by her side, with the same detail and impassiveness. Despite one portrait being sexually charged (there is no hint of love present) and the other an elegant essay in observation and simplicity, the mood of detachment and intense focus in both paintings is identical.

As artists turned to the new themes thrown up by the postwar age – the rise of independent women, the dignity of the working man, the circus and the cabaret, the subconscious, the dehumanising city – it was the old theme, the need to remember and memorialise the 1914-18 generation, that nevertheless inspired some of the most profound work of the period.

William Roberts’s The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) (1923) depicts the search for oblivion


Three works in particular show how some artists were able to rise to the challenge of creating work that was powerful, entirely appropriate and timeless. Before the war the German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz had produced forcefully dour work extolling the pain of the working man’s existence. In 1914, however, her son Peter was killed at the front and she began to create a monument to him and his comrades called Grieving Parents. She destroyed the initial sculpture in 1919 and started again, and it was not completed until 1932, when it was placed in the Belgian cemetery that held her son’s remains. It is a work of the utmost simplicity and universality: a father and mother kneeling in grief, the man upright, the woman bowed, and each hugging themselves. Despite being in stone the sense that the keening figures are rocking is palpable. The fact that they are carved in two separate blocks means that the distance between them is, despite their loss being a shared one, unbridgeable.

Ernst Barlach’s The Floating One, meanwhile, depicts an androgynous bronze figure floating horizontally in the air. It appropriates Christian iconography but not explicitly: its arms are crossed like a tomb effigy, its eyes are closed, and it is dressed in a classical robe. Is this implacable figure an angel, a departing soul, a spirit witnessing the slaughter of the battlefield beneath, an emissary of death, a symbol of calm after the suffering, or indeed a missile? Its power comes from the fact that it is all of these at once.

On this side of the channel, arguably the greatest work of art to grow from the experience of the war is also one of the least seen. In 1923, Stanley Spencer was commissioned by Mary and Louis Behrend to paint a series of canvases for a memorial chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire dedicated to Mary’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who died of malaria contracted in Salonica shortly after returning from the war. The 19 canvases took nine years to complete and Spencer poured into them his own everyday war experiences as an orderly in Bristol and then Macedonia, and later as an infantryman. The chapel scheme was inspired by Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and Spencer’s patrons came to refer to it as the artist’s “God box”.

What the paintings explicitly don’t show is fighting; rather there are scenes of the quotidian war – of hospital shelving being disinfected in baths, of ward mattresses being turned on laundry day, of soldiers looking at photographs sent from home, or resting while an officer reads a map, of hair being washed and sandwiches being made. The devout Spencer found Christian humility in such nondescript episodes in the interstices of military campaigning.

The culminating image, behind the altar, is called the Resurrection of the Soldiers. It is a huge scene of confusion, a muddle of white crosses on a battlefield among which the fallen – both men and animals – emerge bewildered from death and come back to life. In the middle distance is the small white-robed figure of Christ to whom the soldiers present their crosses – they will need no such markers in everlasting life.

Spencer said of the work that the soldiers “are rising in a place in which they would like to rise, it’s a happy place, and that I was very keen about, that one makes this battlefield a happy place without altering anything”. While it is a struggle to imagine that the war generation could ever consider the battlefield a happy place, the mundanity that offset the tragedy, so quirkily depicted by Spencer, was something experienced by everyone. Here was the personal and the universal so affectingly expressed in a way that would have seemed parochial and naively traditional to the vorticists of 1914. But then the future they envisaged had turned out to be something beyond imagining. 

“Aftermath” runs at Tate Britain until 23 September, and “Magic Realism” runs at Tate Modern until 14 July 2019

This article appears in the 15 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad