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

Currently on at the Tate Britain is Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. Marking the 100 year anniversary since the end of the First World War 'Aftermath' explores the impact that this infamously great war had on British, German and French art; exploring not only the physical but the psychological scars that this time left on Europe and its artists.

World War I (often abbreviated to WWI), also known as The Great War, was a global war that originated in Europe and lasted from 28th July 1914 to 11th November 1918. It was described as the 'War to End All Wars', with more than 70 million military personnel mobilised in one of the largest wars in history. Over 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died as a result of the war; it was one of the deadliest and gruelling conflicts in history, and precipitated major political changes. One of the triggers for the war was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in June 1914. As a result international alliances formed over previous decades became entangled and involved in the conflict. Within weeks the major powers were at war, and soon it spread across the entire world. After the war art was used in many ways, from the building of public memorials to documenting its destructive impact both socially and on the land itself. This heartbreakingly fascinating and moving exhibition shows how artists reacted to the memories and life the war created.

William Orpen's 1918 'Zonnebeke' shows a dark and gloomy scene, displaying dead bodies strewn about the place, like dolls tossed aside by children done playing with them. Orpen drew on his own experiences elsewhere to express the horrors and destruction of war. The scene is truly horrific, almost causing viewers to feel slight guilt as they can't help but admire the beauty in the piece that contains such awful images. The horrors of the painting are even more unimaginable when viewers are reminded that it is not a scene taken from one's imagination, but rather one that was, sadly, a very real daily view for so many people. However, amongst all the darkness and dismay, Orpen has painted a small crack in the dark black clouds, where a blue sky peeps though, offering just a glimmer of light and a symbol of hope amongst all the death and destruction.

One of the most inspiring artists featured is British artist Paul Nash. Immediately after the war Nash painted 'Wire' in 1918. Showing hoards of dead trees and nature, Nash documented the sad reality that was that not only human life but all life was taken as a result of the war. Every inch of the painting shows destruction of the worst kind, from charred, blackened trees with barbed wire wrapped around them symbolising mutilated bodies, to the soil that once held life, now burned, blitzed and devoid of any living thing. Nash grew up in Buckinghamshire, where he developed a love for the land. Nash found much inspiration in landscapes with elements of ancient history and the artworks he produced during WWI are some of the most iconic images of the conflict. Shortly after the start of the war Nash reluctantly enlisted as a private for home service. Nash's duties, which included guarding the Tower of London, allowed him time to continue drawing and painting. In December 1914 he married Margaret Odeh, an Oxford educated campaigner for Women's Suffrage. He then began officer training in 1916 and in 1917 was sent to the Western Front as a second lieutenant. Based at St. Eloi on the Ypres Salient Nash had a relatively quiet time. The destruction to the land was tremendous, however Nash was overjoyed when he saw that with the arrival of Spring the landscape was starting to recover from the damage inflicted on it. In May 1917 Nash fell into a trench and broke a rib and was sent back home to London. A few days later the majority of his former unit were killed in an assault. Nash considered himself incredibly luckily to have evaded death and adopted a new outlook on life. In November 1917 Nash returned to Ypres Salient as a uniformed observer, at this point however the war in this location was three months old and Nash often found himself under shellfire. Nash was horrified to discover the that the landscape he returned to was very different to the one he had last seen in Spring. The ditches and small canals had been all but destroyed by the constant shellfire, months of incessant rain had led to flooding and miles of deep mud. Nash was outraged at this desecration of nature, believing the landscape no longer capable of supporting life or recovering. This realisation led Nash into becoming angry and disillusioned with the war. Nash's anger, although painful, was a brilliant creative stimulus which led him to produce dozens of paintings a day, working with an angered frenzy that caused him to begin taking great risks to create his art which took him to the front line trenches.

Nash's 'Landscape at Iden', painted sometime after the war finished in 1929, shows a surrealist farm yard setting. A huge pile of logs to one side represents the piles of dead soldiers from the war, while the snake coiling around the fence symbolises the rod intertwined with serpents that was held by Mercury as he accompanied the dead to the underworld in classical mythology.

Many paintings show the graveyards that were created almost as monuments to the dead soldiers. They show the identical graves in rows, stretching far and wide into the hundreds of thousands. These mass graves show the mathematical perspective of the carnage and body counts that the war bought. Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson's painfully ironically named 'Paths of Glory' shows an unflinching depiction of soldiers whose bodies have been left to rot in waste land. The title is taken from the 1750 poem by Thomas Gray, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', “...the paths of glory lead but to the grave.

This exhibition serves as a painful reminder to viewers that death didn't just happen on the front lines of war, but that it was taken home to the citizens and other that had witnessed the horrors of war and could not escape them. Such is the case with Wilhelm Lehmbruck who sculpted 'The Fallen Man' in 1915-16. The statue shows a man on all four, begging, pleading, distraught, devoid of anything but hopelessness. Lehmbruck himself could not recover from the horrors he had seen and experienced at war and ultimately he committed suicide.

One thing each war artist had in common was the ability to show their revulsion of the war. Artists from all countries, some opposing, all showed the horrors as they truly were, there was no propaganda from any sides from any self respecting artists. Many artists also showed the dehumanising of soldiers, as they were all in their uniforms stood in rows waiting for death; each soldier just a number in the grand scheme of things, instead of a son; a father; a husband; a brother, just wanting to go home to their lives and their families.

Conrad Felixmüller's 'Solidet in the Madhouse I & II' are representations of the psychological effects the war had on people. The use of sharp edges, distorted forms, and twisted, confined bodies represent the feelings anxiety and pain and are a result of Felixmüller's time spent in a psychiatric hospital after he refused to join the German army after being drafted. He spent four weeks in the hospital and during this time he developed this distinctive fragmented style of art.

Many people during this time took to religion, including artist Winifred Knights, whose 'The Deluge' shows citizens fleeing form a great flood in reference to the Old Testament flood. It shows people with sheer terror on their faces, as the flood is used as a metaphor for conflict and bombing. The painting exudes a dramatic sense of panic. Pablo Picasso also used religious references in his works after the war. 'Family by the Seaside' includes Christian imagery of the pietà, the dead Christ mourned over by the Virgin Mary. His painting shows a mother and child lamenting over a dead fathers body, displaying the melancholy that remained even after the war.

Dorothy Brett's 1916 'War Widows' shows a group of women all dressed in black, surrounding a central woman who is pregnant. This painting is a result of the enormous death toll that affected the women of the war. Although not directly in the heart of the battles the women and children were deeply affected, suffering constant worries, pain and loss. This painting gives viewers the opportunity to reflect on the social bonds of bereaved women and how the war negatively impacted the next generation.

Tucked away in corner of this exhibition is an area of colour and hope showing paintings of golden fields, and vibrant green countrysides that remain beautiful and untouched by war. These thriving areas, full of colour and bountiful life, offer a quiet life away from the cities. Showing the hope and wonders to come after the war. They show the peace that so many longed for.

The painted images of twisted, mangled bodies that lay in the blackened, hellish landscapes of senseless destruction do not do justice to what was experienced during the war. As viewers to these tremendous pieces of art we can not even begin to comprehend or imagine how life was during this time. These artists take us back in history, giving us these small, heartbreaking glimpses of life during the war, creating pieces of art that though horrifying and disturbing are beautiful in a twisted way.


‘Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' is on display until 23rd September at the Tate Britain. More information may be found here.