Monday, 6 August 2018

Two Days in London - 1. Aftermath at Tate Britain

We went to London last week, where the parks looked as dry as they had when my brother and I went there following my father's sudden death fifteen years ago: at that time, we found everything looking so yellow that, had we been judging just by plants and trees and parkland, it would have been easy to think we'd been swizzed out of our plane fares and had actually never left home.

While there on this recent occasion, I wanted to go to the Tate Britain's exhibition called Aftermath . Sadly, I had to go alone. Not unnaturally, my husband and younger daughter baulked at the twenty pound admission price. For my part, despite agreeing that twenty pounds is a ridiculously large amount of money, I bought a ticket anyway - and I'm rather glad I did.

In case you agree with my husband and daughter and do not wish - or can't afford - to shell out that amount of cash, let me tell you about the exhibition. It sets out to "explore the impact of the First World War on the art of Britain, France and Germany between 1916 and 1932", looking at the war's "role as a catalyst for major developments in western art". It has been really well put together and during my visit I learnt several things I didn't know before I went there and was introduced to one or two artists I'd never heard of before.

The first information the exhibition supplied that was news to me was the fact that the original meaning of the word 'aftermath' was 'regrowth after a crop has been mown down'.

The next was a detail in a gallery wall note, which I thought gave an insight into the poignant need so many had for something to alleviate their post-war sense of loss and despair. This small statistic was part of a note attached to a very large but stylistically fairly straight up and down oil painting by Frank Owen Salisbury (a very prolific artist with an interesting story). The subject of  the picture was the procession that took the unknown soldier to his burial place. Salisbury chose to paint the picture at the point where the coffin is being taken past the cenotaph, which has just at that moment been unveiled for the first time. The actual ceremony that Salisbury depicted took place on 11th November, 1920, and the body in the coffin was a soldier selected from bodies exhumed from major Western front battlefields. In the painting, the King, the Prime Minister and the senior officers of each military service are shown marching behind the coffin. In the background are crowds of shadowy figures watching as the procession passes. The whole scene is drenched in solemnity, but the thing that particularly struck me was the information that in the first week that the tomb of the unknown soldier was open to the public to visit - just in the first week - 500,000 people took the opportunity to do so. What does that say about the grief that needed to be assuaged?

The next revelation related to the information provided by the exhibition curators about those wounded in the war and how they were treated on their return from the battlefields. In Britain, as I think Juliet Nicholson has documented, the maimed were treated very badly. In France, by contrast, thanks to the lobbying of an organisation called "les gueules cassées" (the broken faces), disabled veterans marched at the head of the Paris procession marking victory in 1919.

Lastly, the exhibition helped me to a much better understanding of why there was a rejection of traditionalism in art following the First World War. It is so obvious really - it was the old ways, the traditional order, that had led to the appalling four-year disaster. How could anything make sense after that? How could painting continue, sedately attempting to mirror surface reality? Surely, the post-war confusion, disruption, wreckage and waste of life - all of which could be said to have arisen from the flawed decisions of the established order - needed to be acknowledged and expressed.  In such circumstances, Dada and surrealism suddenly seem quite natural developments, (incidentally, I was intrigued to learn that the post World War One surrealists "also aimed to destabilise conventional gender roles", which made me wonder whether one can trace a direct line from World War One to the contemporary preoccupation with gender preoccupation.)

The works in the exhibition that struck me particularly were the following:

1. Torso in Metal by Jacob Epstein, made between 1913 and 1915. The catalogue entry for this work tells us the following:

"For this sculpture, Epstein originally set a plaster figure on top of a real industrial rock drill. This ‘machine-like robot, visored, menacing and carrying within itself its progeny’ was a symbol of the new age. Epstein’s attitude changed, however, as news of the very large number of casualties wrought by the mechanised warfare of the First World War was fully realised. Epstein removed the drill, and cut the figure down at the waist before casting it in bronze. Mutilated and shorn of its virility, the once-threatening figure is now vulnerable and impotent, as much a victim as a perpetrator of violence."

My memory is that the gallery also mentioned that Epstein suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after completing the work, but perhaps I have this wrong - no, I haven't I realise, having discovered an online version of all the gallery wall notes here - lots of very interesting reading there. For a professional image of Torso in Metal, see here.

2. There were two small bronzes by Charles Sargeant Jagger, either of which I would happily have taken home. One, my favourite, was a small copy of one of Jagger's figures on the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, but the one I took a picture of is less well-known and therefore possibly more interesting to put in a blog post: "Soldier Reading a Letter', made between 1921 and 1922. Jagger designed it for a Paddington Station memorial for Great Western employees. Although I passed through Paddington just the other day, I was in too much of a hurry to see whether the memorial was ever erected and, if so, whether it is still in situ but perhaps regular users of Paddington Station can enlighten me:

3. In the room devoted to the wounded, I greatly admired the portraits Henry Tonks made, using pastel, of soldiers with facial injuries. These works were made purely for medical purposes but they show a compassion for the subjects that goes beyond mere recording. On the other hand, they are horrible in the wounds they show. Even thinking about them is alarming - how did those many, many hideously wounded men transcend the terrible damage that had been done to them - or perhaps the real question is: did they?

I was interested too that German artists took a quite different approach to the same subject. While it was treated almost blandly, although exceptionally sensitively,  by Tonks, the Germans went for an acidic kind of satire. For example, Heinrich Hoerle's Cripple Portfolio, of which this is a rather blurrily photographed example, has something of Ralph Steadman about it - it is certainly more than meticulous medical depiction; to me it is full of rage:
Otto Dix, in his depiction of a prostitute and a soldier, also seemed to have an agenda beyond mere recording - it is clear that he wanted the viewer to draw some conclusions. In fact, just in case they didn't of their own accord, he eventually affixed the phrase "victims of capitalism" to the picture's title.
For a better reproduction of the Dix work, plus some images of pieces that I did not photograph from the exhibition, see here

4. After such dark works, and some sculptures from the weirder end of surrealism, it was a relief to reach the exhibitions two final rooms. There I found the first painting by Dorothy Brett that I have ever seen. I may be mistaken, but I think Dorothy Brett was the model for the character Jenny Mullion in Chrome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley (the book where the young protagonist discovers the word "carminative" and is in raptures about its poetic qualities, while only guessing at its possible meaning). This is Brett's picture in the Aftermath exhibition:
It is called War Widows and is oil on canvas, painted in 1916. The gallery note tells us that "Brett's painting explores how the enormous death toll of the war affected women. This sombre group portrait is composed of a central pregnant figure dressed in black, surrounded by a group of fellow widows. It communicates both the social bonds formed by bereaved women and the impact of the war on the next generation." It is owned by Catherine Shuckburgh. I'm very grateful that she let the Tate show it. The only thing that puzzles me is the lack of reference in the gallery note to the sinister scissors held by the main figure.

5.  I loved this work by Stanley Spencer. It is called Christ Carrying the Cross and was painted in 1920. I knew a bit about Stanley Spencer, including that the main character in Joyce Carey's lovely Horse's Mouth may have been modelled on him,. Somehow though, I had not absorbed the fact that he was a devout Christian. This painting is part of a Spencer series that depicts scenes from the Passion of Christ. In it, according to the Tate, "carpenters walking down Cookham High Street form a link with Christ, carrying the cross through Jerusalem. The idea for this picture was partly suggested by a newspaper report of Queen Victoria's funeral which read 'Women publicly wept and strong men broke down in side streets', but this public response would also have resonated with ceremonies commemorating the war dead in the 1920s":
6. A complete revelation to me was the existence of a painter called Winifred Knights (1899-1947, worked in Britain and Italy). This oil on canvas is called The Deluge and, apparently, "Knights was one of several British artists who participated in a revival of religious imagery in the 1920s ... When this was painted, the scene of terrified people fleeing imminent danger would have been widely understood as a reference to the war. 'The deluge' was frequently used at the time as a metaphor for the conflict. Knights had been deeply affected by witnessing an explosion at a munitions factory at Silvertown, East London in 1917."

7. This oil on wood painting, called The Garden Enclosed, made in 1924 by David Jones (1895-1974) was intended to mark his engagement to Eric Gill's daughter Petra and the two figures represent the artist and Petra. The Tate tells us that "a walled garden was frequently used as a symbol for the virginity of the Virgin Mary in medieval art. In the aftermath of the First World War it also suggests a place of safety and a return to tradition". Presumably, given what we now know of Gill's parenting approach, Petra's virginity was only notional by the time David Jones first met her.

7. At first I thought this picture called The Road, Winter Morning, (oil on canvas, 1923) by George Causen, (1852-1944) was saccharine, but then I decided that the mysterious driver in his cart and the curve of the track he is travelling down makes it beautiful. The Tate explains that it is a painting that "depicts a farm near the artist's home in Essex. It exemplifes the nostalgia for traditional rural life that dominated English landscape painting after the war". It does suggest to me a longing for a more innocent pre-war world:

8. As already noted, generally the German artists featured in the exhibition took a less gentle approach to their post-war subjects than the British artists whose work is on display. The next two pictures demonstrate that difference particularly clearly. In the second of the two, entitled The Toads of Property, by George Grosz (one of Barry Humphries's favourite artists) there is a refusal to recognise any scrap of decency in his subjects - (or perhaps targets would be a better term). In the first, by contrast, titled rather unwieldily He Gained a Fortune but he Lost a Son, Christopher Nevinson takes a more balanced approach. The subject, (whose figure he modelled not on a plutocrat but a butler in real life), is supposed to have been someone who, like Grosz's Toads, profited from the war. However, as indicated by the small framed picture on the mantlepiece to the left of the canvas, Nevinson acknowledges that he suffered by losing a son:

With regard to the difference between German and British art post war, the Spectator's critic makes the interesting point that, while:

British artists tended to represent the conflict as a violation of nature, through shattered landscape; Germans saw it in terms of Bosch, Bruegel and the Dance of Death.

I must add that Nevinson was the discovery of the show for me, as I was entirely ignorant of his existence beforehand, (perhaps his work was suppressed for a while as the influential Kenneth Clark was critical of his later work and as a result Nevinson and he became enemies). In Aftermath he was everywhere, with a picture by him in almost every room.

As I've made many, many visits to Ypres, I was particularly struck by one he did in 1916 called Ypres after the Bombardment, which doesn't come up terribly well in reproduction but is strangely haunting when you are face to face with it. In the room devoted to casualties,  another of his, called Paths of Glory, a quotation from Gray's Elegy, depicts two soldiers' bodies left to rot in wasteland. Painted in 1917, it was banned by the military censor In 1918 Nevinson exhibited it with a strip of brown paper glued across it, emblazoned with the word CENSORED. 

The final Nevinson in the show was originally titled "New York - Abstraction". However, Nevinson later changed its title to The Soul of the Soulless City, an alteration that the Tate speculates may have been prompted by embitterment due to his art's poor reception in New York: 
All in all, I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough, if you have the money. If not, I hope this post and some of the others I've linked to - (plus this one, which has images of many works I haven't included - the exhibition is so rich it would repay more than one visit) - goes some way to providing at least a kind of ersatz half experience of it.

Incidentally, to provide an added frisson of country-mouse-meets-metropolitan-excitement, after I'd left the exhibition I made my first sighting of a gender neutral lavatory:

However, as my daughter pointed out, it is really just a disabled loo and nappy change room renamed. Which could make it seem like a gesture that ends up being slightly insulting to every category involved -  the all-gendered, the disabled and the baby population.


  1. Thank you for this. I visited Aftermath yesterday after work (10 minutes walk from work, and with a Tate membership, it was less of a commitment than yours). I absolutely agree with you about the flow of the exhibition with the oppressiveness of the earlier rooms opening out into the post-war pieces. This was emphasised by the painting of the gallery walls, I thought.

    I too had never seen many of the artists, and was particularly struck by 'War Widows', returning to it a number of times and for a last look before I left. A very strong composition, use of colour, and theme, although what did the gold cloth and scissors mean? The proud and haunted faces of the women have stayed with me. I obeyed the photography prohibition thinking I could easily find a picture of it online, but was glad you didn't as it is nowhere to be found (having read your blog for years it amused me to be directed to it while searching for the picture).

    I also chuckled at the All-Gender toilet sign, and wondered at my ignorance with the note about the change in meaning of cripple.


  2. Thank you for your very nice comment, Huw, but are you telling me there was a photography prohibition? If ONLY I'd known. I think Aftermath is one of the best put-together exhibitions I've seen in ages. I found the difference in national approaches to similar subjects really intriguing and, while this is a sign of my own obtuseness, it was only after seeing this exhibition that I began to think about the way that art can be a way of understanding a particular era and the way that artists express, not necessarily consciously, their own time.