AFTERMATH – Art in the wake of World War One (this exhibition runs at the Tate Britain from 5 June to 23 September 2018)
The exhibition poster has a painting by William Orpen – A Grave in a Trench (1917) as its background. Although the original image is unexpectedly bright and colourful, taking into the account the subject of the painting, the poster works really well with the décor right outside the entrance to the exhibition gallery. Upon reflection, rather than presenting rose-tinted version of war, the different shades of pink in Orpen’s work can evoke the colour of healing flesh wounds.
Commemorating the centenary of the end of the WWI, the Aftermath shows the impact of the conflict on the art and artists in Britain, France and Germany. Over 150 works produced between 1916-1932 are on display. The artists took different approaches in order to depict the horrors of the war and its consequences, some of them saw the fight themselves and produced haunting images from the trenches.
The painting in the first room Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson was banned by the military censor. The artist exhibited it in 1918 with a slip of brown paper inscribed ‘censored’ covering the soldiers’ corpses.
Depictions of the front largely avoided wounded bodies. Some of artworks showed desolated landscapes or ruins, others, such as paintings by Marcel Gromaire, used simplified geometric forms which aptly represented the dehumanizing effects of war. In contrast, realistic portraits of disfigured soldiers by Henry Tonks and caricatured images of invalids, such as in Heinrich Hoerle’s Cripple Portfolio were used in anti-war campaigns.
Many artists focused on the combatants, their families and the society as a whole. Prints were a relatively cheap art form which allowed to spread the imagery across all classes of society. Room 5 – The Print Portfolio is an emotionally straining black and white display of prints by Georges Rouault, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. Georges Rouault’s series War and Mercy adopts religious symbolism to show the contemporary experience of war, prints from the War series by Käthe Kollwitz masterly depict the tragedy of those left behind – mothers, widows and orphans.
Rooms 6, 7 and 8 show the imagined return to order and visions of a new society. While some artists turned to new styles of art, the Surrealism, Expressionism and Abstract art, many attempted to return to classical forms, such as Winifred Knights in her large canvas The Deluge. Although the title references the biblical story, the restrained colours and simplified figures and buildings are closer to the contemporary experience of the artist, who painted this work in 1920, just two years after the WWI has ended. This painting was one of the most touching works I have seen in this exhibition. Even without realising when the image was painted, it is clearly a timeless depiction of the human suffering in the face of a catastrophe.
Aftermath leaves the visitor with a mixture of feelings, many artworks create a lasting impression showing different aspects of life during and after the war. The exhibition does not overwhelm with pathos, although many of the works displayed have an emotional or haunting quality. The selection of works is a testament not only to the people who died and lived through the conflict, but it showcases a rich and varied artistic heritage created during this pivotal period in modern history.