Saturday 25 January 2020


This final instalment in our tripartite look at art after the Great War looks at what was singular about German art, focusing on two Tate exhibitions, - 'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' and 'Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919/33’.

“Everything had broken down… new things had to be made from fragments… new art forms from the remains of a former culture.”
- Kurt Schwitters

The Viewer Finds Their Own Face

Germany is something of an expedited case. It not only lost the Great War and was emaciated and impoverished by the following ‘peace’ treaty, this was followed by a great period of tribulation. If people went hungry in post-war Britain and France, they went hungrier in Germany. If there was unrest elsewhere, there was more in Germany. The only place to rival it, ironically at least ostensibly on the winning side, was Russia.

But this was also a time of, to borrow Homer Simpson’s classic phrase, crisotunity. We should not forget the thing centenary celebrations of the war were most keen to gloss over, that it marked the most revolutionary period in world history, with Germany having a briefly successful revolution (during which many assumed that it would soon join Russia as the next major Communist nation) followed by a much more progressive government than anything gone before. And naturally enough, the art of Germany and Russia through this time are to me the most fascinating art scenes history has given us so far.

The term ‘magic realism’, naming one of these two shows, was used uniquely for Germany. It’s borrowed from contemporary art historian Franz Roh, perhaps not wisely as we associate the term with later Latin American novelists and it seems a poor translation anyway. (At one point the show uses ‘uncanny realism’, which works better.) The intention seems to have been to find a compound term for the combination of sharp observation and scathing satire. Which leads us onto…

Albert Birkle's ‘The Acrobat Schultz V’ (1921, above) is a striking image unsurprisingly used as the poster image for the show. His subject was an acrobat by profession, but in this picture those acrobatics are all going on in his face. It’s so plasticised as to be clownish and cartoony. Yet at the same time it’s so perturbed, with eyes upturned uneasily. It’s a reaction shot, so severe it’s like the face is retreating back into itself like a snail into its shell. What could he be reacting to? Thee art scene of its time, known for its challenging and shocking nature? Or the whole society around him at the time, in all its tragicomedy? As the show puts it, “the appetite for sensation could take unsettling forms”. The reaction of that face could stand for ours.

Whereas in Conrad Felixmuller's ‘Portrait of Ernst Buchholtz’ (above) from the same year the subject leans louchely to the side of the frame, looking decadently androgynous. His pursed lips are waspish, ready to emit cutting comments, his expression hard and cynical. This is the jaded, seen-it-all character of Berlin Cabaret. This is the Twenties as we’ve subsequently liked to envisage them, so gorged on sensation as to have lost appetite for life. Licentious excess so extreme it led to the opposite extreme of Nazism. (The actual Buchholtz was a defence lawyer who specialised in freedom of expression cases. But appearances are what art is about.) Is this also the face of Weimar Germany? Perhaps, given Roh’s double-termed label for the era, we should expect to come out wearing these faces in combination.

Good Taste is The Enemy

A feature unique to Germany was that it had been home to Expressionism, with the movement’s formal start normally held to be the launch of the Die Brucke group in Dresden (in 1905). Wikipedia says its “typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective”.

Felixmuller’s ‘The Beggar of Prachatice’ (1924, above) foregrounds the title character. As the show says he’s a ‘type’. As is not uncommon for art of this era, subjects become almost the human equivalent of zoological specimens. Yet we effectively see the world through the distortion of his eyes, as if we were inside his head. The sharply angled street is both a bed of uncomfortable-looking cobbles and a raging river, flowing against him like he’s detritus. The one passer-by ignores him.

Often, that subjective perspective was the artist’s own. At its most extreme it became like ‘angst goggles’, helpfully showing us everyday folk the way the tortured artist saw the world. But at other times, as here, it lay in an interchange between introspection and social commentary.

George Grosz’s ’Suicide’ (1916, above) has similar features, such as the distorted pictorial space of an urban scene. But most immediately noticeable is its bathing almost the entire frame in shocking red, as if none are untainted. The title clearly refers to the prone central figure, his head already a skull. As with Felixmuller’s beggar the others ignore him, but rather that just passing through the picture each seems wrapped up in their own troubles. One’s head is hung, with a proximity to a leaning lamp-post which makes it seem almost an actual hanging. Another is headless as he scurries out of the frame. Only the prostitute’s client looks to another figure, a look we can presume isn’t made out of solidarity. Miseries are universal but private, dividing lines lie everywhere. There is not the ‘in’ Felixmuller gives us by allowing us to associate with the beggar, which makes the work seem starker and more confrontational.

A mere two years later Grosz would co-sign the Berlin Dada manifesto whose central thrust was repudiating Expressionism and with it art as a means of self-expression:

”Expressionism is not spontaneous action. It is the gesture of tired people who wish to escape themselves and forget the present, the war and the misery… who have turned their backs on nature and do not dare look the cruelty of the epoch in the face. They have forgotten how to be daring. Dada is daring per se, Dada exposes itself to the risk of its own death. Dada puts itself at the heart of things. Expressionism wanted to forget itself, Dada wants to affirm itself. Expressionism was harmonious, mystic, angelic… Dada is the scream of brakes and the bellowing of the brokers at the Chicago Stock Exchange. Vive Dada!”

Which, translated out of rhetoric, I think means something like… By privileging the artist’s inner feelings over everyone else Expressionism seemed to rule out any kind of collective action. It could show the symptoms of a malaise but only through individual cases, and could offer no cure.

Each new Modernist movement would try to position itself over the corpse of the last, while actually inheriting much more than it would admit. Yet notably Expressionism is positioned not just as yesterday’s news but as a thing between, looking away from nature but not yet fully upon “the cruelty of the epoch”. And the focus on negativity (with the manifesto twice using the headline “No! No! No!”) is new. If it wanted to supplant Expressionism, this was only temporary. Dada was not a new way of producing art but anti-art, “the scream of brakes”, prophesying its own death. All of which seems nascent within ’Suicide’.

Grosz’s drawings are characterised by a frenzied, spluttering line. And his vindictiveness is as sharp and forceful as that line. The Tate website describes him as “violently anti-war”, almost the perfect descriptive paradox. Norbert Lynton wrote that he “worked out of anger… his hatred of injustice and cupidity… came close to being a general disgust with humanity.” (‘The Story of Modern Art’) He said himself, with rather telling phraseology “today I no longer hate indiscriminately. Today I hate their bad institutions and those in power.” He seems constantly attempting, but barely able, to channel his general misanthropy into class rage, which gives his work its enticing tension. Like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s film ’Stalker’ his art ”lets those pass who have lost all hope. Not good or bad, but wretched people.”

Which is about as removed from Socialist Realism as it’s possible to be. This is no workman artist obediently working to satisfy some party cadre. When he joined the Communist Party he was given his card personally by Rosa Luxembourg. He later travelled to Russia and met Lenin, experiences which caused him to leave it again - stories so fitting it’s hard to credit that they’re true.

Similarly see Otto Dix’s print ‘Butcher Shop’(1920). The woman serving smiles. But behind her two butchers, in the show’s words, “dissect meat with disturbing enthusiasm”. The butchers look themselves like the animals they frenziedly dismember. Are they animals killing animals or men killing men? Some years before Orwell, it’s impossible to tell which. The boy’s wariness must surely be enhanced by the two knives which point straight at him.

And if this seems straightforward, without need of art critics to intervene with explanations, remember this is a portable, copyable print. When Grosz savagely quipped “the bourgeoisie have art to hang in front of their wall safes”, the image he creates is of course an oil painting. It feels fitting that the first places I saw this work weren’t art books or documentaries but agitational political magazines. The Berlin Dadaists not only had a publishing house, Malik Verlag, they opened a bookshop with large display windows. But this content needs an aligned form…

Brecht had said “the masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply in reality than the intellectuals’ good taste.” Good taste wasn’t just an encumbrance, it was an active weapon of the enemy. So art now needed to emulate that bad taste. Dix’s etching ‘Billiard Players’ (1920, above) has no direct political message but essentially weaponises crudity. While the billiard table is given some perspective, a table alongside it is an upright rectangle, the beer jugs on it mere icons. One character seems to wear his legs in front of each other. The hatching on the back wall is rough and uneven, in fact the whole thing could have been gouged with a compass end. Yet, as we’ll soon come on to, when he wanted Dix was an accomplished artist. Why resort to such roughness? Because times called for graffiti not grand edifices, heckles not public speeches, spat out in a fury - ugly language for an ugly truth.

(German Dadaists were in this way quite a different creature to Marcel Duchamp, to the point it’s arguable they shouldn’t have shared a name. He was concerned with anti-art, with producing artworks which seemed to lack the signature touch of the artist, they wanted ammunition to throw art of its pedestal and let it fall into their hands. He wanted works which confounded you to the point you threw in the towel over this whole art business, they wanted works which would drag you down to their level just by looking at them. Their enemy was more high culture than the esteemed art object, their motives more political than philosophical. Grosz put it as “painting is manual labour, no different from any other.”)

Was this down to the savage burden of a war which had cost so much while winning nothing? Partly, yes. See for example Dix’s ‘Shock Troops Advance Under Gas’ (1925, above). This nightmarish image of gasmasked soldiers initially looks entirely unlike the anti-sublime of Nash or Nevinson (seen last time). Yet in a sense there are no human figures here either, for everyone has been dehumanised. And though those figures come out at you they hold German hand grenades, Dix’s own side are portrayed as if the enemy. This is the side of the soldier that surrenders to war, that never really comes home, that becomes a battlefield ghoul.

But there’s a twist. Check that date. This was not produced till six years after the War. He’d drawn during the conflict, but not with this imagery. He’d even been awarded the iron cross for bravery. He commented “people were already beginning to forget the horrible suffering,” suggesting what had initially needed suppressing now required remembering. Also check the style. ’Billiard Players’was a drypoint, with that savage incised line. This is an aquatint, giving it those nightmarish but sophisticated shades of grey. And indeed the mid-decade, which came to be called the Golden Twenties, were as near to the Roaring Twenties as Weimar got. War was no longer a brutal truth that others were hiding, but a suppressed memory. This time the point had to be well made.

The Broken Faces

And a frequent subject, matching this anti-aestheic style, was the war wounded, as in Dix’s print ’Match Seller’ (1920, above). In the Vorticism piece I described Jacob Epstein’s ’Torso in Metal From the Rock Drill’ (1916) as “a de-masculinated riposte to [his] first Rock Drill [sculpture] - drill now removed, limbs reduced to stumps, like a once-proud marcher returned from war an impotent amputee. This in fact is the actual, original Rock Drill, which Epstein modified to the point of vandalism for his new work.” Yet, much as a dented helmet was brought in to stand for a murdered man, that remains on the level of symbols. These German war cripples are far more in-your-face.

There may well seem an overlap here with the Surrealist veneration of those who lost their sanity to war, an action taken without exactly asking their permission. And unsurprisingly this was often the same people, those who came back physically disfigured by war were unsurprisingly also mentally scarred. But this time the whole question of questionable taste has a twist to it.

The term ‘cripple’ is used widely, for example in Dix’s ‘War Cripples’ or Heinrich Hoerle’s ‘Cripple Portfolio’ (both 1920). The show, in what’s now known as a trigger warning, explains this “was commonly used in the early Twentieth century without the negative connotations it holds today”. Of course the very opposite is true, the way to stop the war disabled being referred to pejoratively had been not to refer to them at all. 

(Though interestingly, while the same proved true for Britain, we’re told that in France an organisation for “the broken faces” kept them prominent at public events.) Hence Dix shows a war cripple as shunned, trying and failing to work as a street seller. And the work needs that sense, of forcing people to view something they’d naturally shy from.

Plus, while these works put the war cripples on view, we should note what we don’t see. The strong-armed job-happy Constructivist worker, most people’s default image of Communist art, is not to be encountered in German Dada. In fact the prole seems but a variant on the conscript soldier, overalls as another uniform, and the soldier himself half a beat away from the war cripple. So for example in Grosz’s ’Are We Not Fit For the League of Nations?’ (1919), disabled veterans are contrasted to a prosperous businessman who blithely ignores them.

In capitalism a worker’s limbs are effectively not his own. They are there to be sold, to become remote tools for his employer. They are the only thing he has to sell, so he has little choice in this ‘exchange’. So a limbless worker is a thing to throw away, as you would a broken tool. The cripple’s made less than a man by a system which never saw him as a man, and now disparages him for that very thing. While in those days workplace injuries were far more common, to the point they were effectively an occupational hazard of life.

But there’s also another, more aesthetic reason. Let’s more closely at the other Dix print mentioned, ’War Cripples’ (above). As mentioned, even in paintings and prints, people are frequently shown as unintegrated with one another, just scattered across the composition like thrown stones. Collage conveys this sense all the better, an anti-composition for a society in decomposition. (See the Schwitters quote up top.) So they had a penchant for collage, and of a particular type.

As I found over the Hannah Hoch show at the Whitechapel (which was splendid, but to my everlasting shame I never blogged about), this collage isn’t necessarily about combinations. Negative to its core, it’s at least as much to do with reduction, removal and abstraction. And Dix presents the cripples with their crudely replaced body parts as a living form of collage, where a leg might easily be swapped for a wheel, almost equivalent to the Exquisite Corpse game of the Surrealists.

Compare them to Grosz & John Heartfield’s assemblage, ’The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Goes Wild’ (1920, above), made for the first Dada exhibition. The artificial leg given to the mannequin makes the connection clear. A cannibalistic knife-and-fork sit where medals might. The show suggests a light bulb for a head is a reference to electro-shock therapy, then commonly used on those already shell-shocked. But it may also stand for the cartoon image of the light bulb above the head, the fully-formed thoughts which spring from the brow of the individual genius, a role so fetishised by bourgeois culture. It got the artists a conviction for slandering the military.

While Rudolph Schlichter’s ’Phenomenon Works’ (1919/20, above) deliberately confuses mannequins with human figures, and (behind them) window views with framed portraits.

The point is really not to see all these as separate explanations but combine them, like adding extra elements to a collage. The war invalids present the dysfunctional body as a synecdoche for a dysfunctional society, where any grotesquery they possess is also ours. They just wear their broken hearts on their broken faces, and so are shunned for being the true reflection of this twisted world.

Lust Murders

But bad taste… sometimes it was just bad taste. Dix’s print 'Lust Murder’ (1920) is so salacious in its sexual violence I’m going to just link to it and give people the choice whether they want to see it or not. The dismembered victim has a face in shock, as if this is all somehow happening to her instantly. But the focus is on the murderer, and there’s a creepy ambiguity whether we should recoil like the acrobat Schultz, or just look on jadedly like Ernst Buchholtz. Perhaps we’re even meant to share his crazed smile.

It doesn’t even look like a pen-and-ink precursor to a Video Nasty. It looks like the work of a disturbed teen asked to imagine a Video Nasty. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to it, a cartoonishness which reacts with the visceral horror in not at all a good way. Or if not a teen, however bizarrely for an artist later banned by the Nazis, you could imagine this to be the work of some Nazi Stormtrooper, scrawled drunkenly on a wall. But it’s not unique. Such lust murders seem a trope of the time, Dix made other works with the very same title and Pabst’s 1929 film ’Pandora’s Box’ ended with lead character Lulu killed by Jack the Ripper.

Similarly, in Grosz’s ‘Self-Portrait In the Studio’ (1930/7) one of the greatest artists of history transforms before your eyes into Benny Hill. The painter is supposed to look at his model, or else there’s not much point in having one. But the composition’s arranged to suggest him stealing a glimpse, just as he suggestively squeezes a tube of paint, as if he’s getting off on that stealing as much as the looking.

Works such as this are often given what I call ‘the Crumb defence’, after the underground comic artist. This is effectively “better out than in”, conceiving of artistic self-expression as inherently therapeutic. At which point I like to remind people that Hitler was also an artist. But there may be something about their overtness which makes them useful, in the sense that in being more open they’re more open to challenge.

Conversely, check out Rudolf Dischinger’s ’Back Yard Balcony’ (1935). With the woman figure bereft of both head and hand (both of which would signify agency), we’re looking at a bloodless decapitation. This is Dix’s frenzied murder, but sheathed in dispassionate aestheticisation. This is much, much worse.

Contrast these to Jeanne Mammen’s ’At the Shooting Gallery’ (1929, above). The attendant doesn’t just look her customer squarely in the eye but through narrow, black-rimmed eyes and a flat, firm mouth. This is not a subordinate service-encounter face, the customer doesn’t even meet her gaze. She’s a direct contrast to the swimsuited pin-up girls painted as targets behind her.

And, perhaps strangest of all, at other times Dix painted women more like this. It’s not included in this show but his ’Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden’, if not exactly flattering, represents her as herself, the way he would a male subject. Von Harden later commented he insisted on painting her because “You are representative of an entire epoch!” How could these clashing images co-exist?

The Twenties saw great advances in the role of women in society, of which the Weimar Republic was often in the forefront. The 1919 Constitution gave them the right both to vote and hold office. (Which didn’t happen in France till 1944.) They had by necessity done “men’s” work in all the warring nations, but in Germany things were slower to revert than in other countries. Alice Rühle-Gerste, who witnessed these times, commented:

”Women began to cut an entirely new figure. A new economic figure who went out into public economic life as an independent worker or wage-earner entering the free market that had up until then been free only for men. A new political figure who appeared in the parties and parliaments, at demonstrations and gatherings. A new physical figure who not only cut her hair and shortened her skirts but began to emancipate herself altogether from the physical limitations of being female. Finally, a new intellectual-psychological figure who fought her way out of the fog of sentimental ideologies and strove toward a clear, objective knowledge of the world and the self.”

And this inclusion of a new physical feature made for something eminently capturable in art.

The answer to the conundrum is that the two things, the lust murders and the confident new figures, go together precisely because they’re at odds. History suggests that women speaking up invariably leads to attempts to slap them down. These lust murders are an extreme form of “now see what you made me do”.

Ultimately of course the conundrum was settled by the rise of the Nazis. In ‘Mass Psychology of Fascism’ (1933) Wilhelm Reich concluded that primal sexual repression manifested in perverted ways, as obedience to authority and as vindictive violence. (“Sadistic brutality and mystical feeling go always hand in hand when the normal capacity for orgastic experience is lacking.”) And while for obvious reasons he concentrated on how this fed the rise of fascism, the theory’s as applicable to any authoritarian group. As if to prove his point, the Communist party soon kicked him out for writing it. He’d go on to describe Bolsheviks as “red fascists”.

To See Things Without Art

New Objectivity was another art movement arising in Germany in this time. Ostensibly this seems closer to the Return to Order seen elsewhere in Europe (and in the previous instalment) than Dada’s scathing frenzy and insistence previous art movements had not gone far enough. Yet Otto Dix at least links them. He painted in traditional methods, including tempura, for which Grosz nicknamed him ‘Old Master’. But one link is the rejection of Expressionism. Dix insisted: “We want to see things completely naked, clear, almost without art.”

Its self-defined mission was to unsparingly tell the truth. So, in the essence of Modernism, it’s aim was never to merely reflect reality but always to change it. In this time innovations in photography, with both still and cine-cameras, made location shoots easier. The films of Pabst, mentioned above, are sometimes considered to be New Objectivity.

Which might make it sound like another term for social realism, but it has its own unique qualities. First, it tended to portraits rather than scenes or habitats. Further, social realism tended to be interested in case studies for general trends, and so dealt in types - the impoverished worker and so on. This art makes for a slightly strange combination of likenesses and cartoonishness, which makes its subjects into a combination of individuals and types.

See for example Dix’s ’Working Class Boy’ (1920, above). With no background, the emphasis is all on the boy. He’s effectively threadbare, his cap too big, his coat too small. Yet he has an assertive face, as if unwilling to accept his lot either in life or in art. Though the title assigns him to a group rather than naming him, he seems someone - not just a representative of a social relation.

Similarly, Curt Querner’s ’Demonstration’ (1921, above), is really a character study of two figures, each like the other only in dress. It earns it’s title by the way they stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s full of realist details, such as the way their knuckles whiten where their fists clench. But their features are too exaggerated for conventional portraiture.

I’ll confess I’m not entirely sure how this works. You could look at it reductively and say the portrait likenesses give the individuality, which are then set against the broader tropes of the cartoony elements. (Cartoons, after all, often occupy an interchange between symbols and likenesses.) But there seems more to it. It’s more like each work is a flipping coin, constantly spinning between the two without ever landing on one.

In this way some connect Birkle, seen on the way in, to New Objectivity. And even Grosz, despite his the arch-Dadaism and teasing of Dix, had his associations. In ‘Grey Day’ (1921, above) the figures are much more cartoonish, much more representatives of types than Dix or Querner. The bourgeois gentleman in the foreground is grotesque, the spade-carrying workman virtually a symbol. But they’re depicted dispassionately, a long way from the frenzied line of his drawing. This, and the closer approximation of pictorial space, underlines how oblivious of one another they are. The bourgeois is even walled off from the army veteran, though his extended briefcase handle looks about to trip him.

Coming soon! Art after the Third World War, the way things are going...

Friday 17 January 2020


This second of a two part series focuses more on Modernism being blown off course, and is based both on Tate Britain’s 'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' and the British Museum’s ‘Christopher Nevinson: Prints of War and Peace’. The first part here, the upcoming final instalment will home in on German art.

”On the first of August 1914 Max Ernst died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918”
- Max Ernst

“Ten years after the War, steel may at last be serving a noble cause, and so steel may at last be rehabilitated.”
-Florent Fes

Who Would Want to be a Futurist Once the Future Had Shown Up?

Christopher Nevinson proves a good case study of changes in Modernism over this period, for his style and approach changed considerably within a few years. I had been simply ignorant of his work until he appeared in the Tate’s Vorticism retrospective and particularly with the dynamic-yet-elegant ‘The Arrival’ (1913) I realised I’d been missing out on a major talent.
(While the small British Museum exhibition of his prints was welcome, in the unlikely event any Tate curators are reading this a full-size solo show would be very welcome.)

But in his day a flamboyant personality, with a penchant for self-publicity which included a ready and self-mythologising disregard for the truth - all served to make him into what the British Museum describe as a celebrity artist.

Of course people now tell you that Modernism was never popular in Britain, to the point his manifesto ’Vital English Art’ now seems almost an oxymoron. Alas prophecies prove self-fulfilling and his work was shortly forgotten, though hopefully it’s now coming back into memory.

He had studied at the Slade with Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. But more importantly before the War he had lived in Paris where he met Italian Futurists such as Severini and Marinetti, who had great impact on his art. His Futurism was always more genteel and elegant than their dynamic, convulsive forces, but that was what would give it its own appeal.

Perhaps more than any other artist, he saw Cubist geometry not as a means of representation but as something already present in the world. Like A Modernist version of Superman’s x-ray vision, his art sees past the skin of things to reveal the lattices of structures which uphold it. See for example (though not in this show), ‘Loading Timber at Southampton Docks’. (1916)

Which takes us to ‘Ypres After First Bombardment’ (1916, up top). Perhaps it compares less to any of Nevinson’s own earlier works than something like Wyndham Lewis’ ‘Workshop’ (1914/15), a city composed of rakishly dynamic angles with neither sky above it nor population within. Nevinson shows all that tumbling down, the same angles now associated with destruction. The way it’s lit by fire makes it seem some monstrous engine of self-combustion. The lack of human presence was once a sign of the sleek and futuristic, now makes it seem denuded. The show speaks of “the eerie feeling of a town emptied of life”, and despite its dynamism this is more an eerie than a dramatic work.

This painting needs its colours, particularly those blazing reds. But on other occasions it’s the print versions (over at the British Museum) which work better than the paintings. They’re bleaker, Futurist in style but with its patented vibrancy conspicuous by its absence.

Take ’A Dawn’ (1914, above). The marching army, crammed into that narrow street, could be stuck on a conveyor belt taking them to their deaths. (Nevinson used plunging perspective elsewhere, ‘The Road From Arras to Bapume’, 1917, staggers vehicles and figures along a hill almost impossible to climb.) The solid linework captures their impassive faces and the heaviness of their backpacks and - most importantly - makes them seem an undifferentiated mass more successfully than the colour painting.

At times Nevinson’s war work resembles the ‘negative sublime’ of Paul Nash’s war paintings, where war’s effects would be shown through the de-natured nature of a ravaged No Man’s Land. Including, as said in the Nash piece, 'After A Push’ (1917).

But Nash’s negative sublime came from him being essentially a latterday romantic artist. As said of his show, “the artist most keen to show us the land has a spirit is now exhibiting is slain corpse.” Whereas Nevinson was the very essence of Futurism.

So for example ’That Cursed Wood’ 
(1918, above), despite the title, diverts most of its space to… well space. The blasted trees which would have dominated Nash’s canvas, made into an inescapable maze, are reduced to a thin line. With the balancing bombers haunting the sky the phrase ‘creative use of white space’ seems almost an under-statement in context. It’s the opposite and companion piece to ’A Dawn’, where lightness is made to appear disconcerting. In that sense it is like Nash, albeit his absence-centred post-War works such as ’The Shore’ or ’Dymchurch Steps’.

Nevinson had been on front-line ambulance duties, but was discharged in 1915 after falling ill. He didn’t return for two years, and this time as an official War Artist. Perhaps partly as a result of this, his ‘second wave’ of works are often seem as more conventional.

’Swooping Down on a Taube’ (1917, above) seems something of a return to Cubo-Futurism, thrillingly dynamic, complete with the common Futurist motif of rays of light. It compares to the aerial paintings of Tullio Crali, if he’d ever been asked to draw war comics. Here there’s no land at all, but conversely to ’That Cursed Wood’ it looks more like modernity has overcome the ancient hand of gravity.

And ’Acetyline Welder’ (1917, above) shows a figure gazing into an arc of sparking light like an alchemist at a scrying glass. A lithograph rather than a drypoint, the linework here does not look overpoweringly weighty but smooth, contoured and vibrant.

When War was over, with Spencer back in Cookham and Nash recuperating in Dymchurch, Nevinson relocated to New York. It was as invigorating to him as Paris had been earlier, though it seems this was less with the art scene he encountered that the city itself - which he considered “built for me”.

’New York An Abstraction’ (1919, above) suggests this simply rekindled his original love for Cubo-Futurism. The elevated railway line (not something which existed in London) already gives a raised perspective, but a cluster of tower blocks are then raised above it, most of them breaking past the top of the picture. The feeling is of being pulled at dizzying speed into an equally dizzying cityscape. Plumes of smoke pass across, suggesting the city as a steam-powered mechanism or a life among the clouds, possibly both.

The term ‘abstraction’ in the title most likely comes from this being a distillation of images of the city, rather than an actual view. Yet at the same time the image is plausible, it functions as pictorial space where his pre-war work was more of a Cubist collage. Nevinson is returning to his old themes and images, but not necessarily the style which once seemed so inseparable from them. And yet the actual city already seems so Cubist that you might almost miss this.

From the same year the print ’The Temples of New York’ (above) is from an vantage point not just elevated but impossibly high. At its centre is the spire of Trinity Church which, prior to the arrival of the skyscraper, had been New York’s tallest building. Those new buildings not only surround but exceed it. The title suggests they are in their own way temples, while prominently placed geometric chimney acts as a contrast to the Gothic spire.

But doesn’t this contradict everything said in the first part? Isn’t this the Futurist vision the slaughter of the War is supposed to have scuppered? But then, why should it not be? Artists don’t normally start out with some philosophical agenda which they then express through their work, even the ones like Nevinson who issued manifestos. It’s more they respond to their environment, which usually means their immediate environment. Witness one machine that killed on an industrial scale and you react. Witness another that whisks you up to the seventy eighth floor, and of course you react differently. The Nevinson who witnessed the War was just not the Nevinson who experienced Manhattan, even if a timeline connects the two.

It was the formalised art movements, the Futurists and Vorticists, who were most derailed by the war. Their proclamatory manifestos soon became millstones for them. As said before “like an electric shock, war animated Vorticism and killed it in quick succession.”

Though Nevinson participated in Vorticist shows and appeared in (even naming) their ’Blast’ magazine, he was never an official member. This partly seems down to their perpetual personal feuds (Wikipedia claims he was “excluded”) though his style was ultimately more Cubo-Futurist than was the group norm. Hence he had less baggage to discard.

However, by 1925 Nevinson had become disenchanted with New York, retitling ‘New York An Abstraction’ ‘The Soul of the Soulless City’. The phrase stems from Marx’s critique of religion as “the soul of a soulless world”, suggesting something of a change of heart from ’Temples of New York’. However the show suggests this was less an overall discontent with Modernity and more due to the poor reception to an exhibition he’d staged there.

He re-crossed the pond, this time to Paris. And just as the New World of New York had inevitably influenced him, a return to Europe saw a return to old art. When aerial views had been predominant, ’Quartier Latin’ (1922, above) shows us old-style buildings from ground level. There’s even figures in it (!!!), though too far off to discern clearly. He depicts Paris as an eerie old city, thick with the mystery of history, populated by ghosts and shadows, more marinaded in its past than looking boldly ahead to its future.

Believing in the Modern World

And Nevinson’s trajectory, perhaps without the Parisian coda, can be found in other artists. I said of Paul Nash: “We use nature as a symbol of renewal. Here we see the ultimate in barren-ness, winter without spring.” And this fits with the most commonly used definition of the word Aftermath, “the consequences or after-effects of a significant unpleasant event.” Yet as the show points out, the dictionary gives us another: “new grass growing after mowing or harvest.” In other words, renewal.

And it is this second definition which comes to dominate. The War had burnt Modernism down to its roots. Yet, as ever, pruning was found to stimulate growth. It’s like the Chinese saying “only the end of bitterness is sweetness”.

With a slew of society-changing innovations, the Twenties came to prove more futuristic than the most wildly speculative Futurist could have conceived. While the ‘lost generation’, those who had not come back from the war, exacerbated the generation gap between those who’d been too old and too young to fight. The era’s perhaps best summed up by Edith’s line in Grant Morrison’s comic ‘The Invisibles’: "I believe in the modern world. I believe in the automobile and the Charleston and the dry martini. I believe that nothing we know will ever be the same again.” (Vol 2, No. 5, for those who like to know that sort of thing.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly given all this, the inter-war era may well be Modernism’s high point. The Ernst quote up top could be taken in two ways. One that war experiences transformed him, the other that it marked an impassive of a few years in an otherwise solid onward march.

Werner Mantz’s photo ’Sinn Department Store, Berlin’ (c. 1930, above) perhaps shows this new world as it was made. There are buildings so richly decorative they seem waiting to be painted. Whereas with its clean lines and sharp angles this asks to be photographed. The work seems almost a collaboration between Mantz and architect Bruno Paul. The photograph’s taken from ground level but with that plunging perspective offset by a pure vertical it doesn’t look so commonplace.

The show states of Wilhelm Lachnit’s ’Worker With Machine’ (1924/8) “the artist has given the shiny assemblage of cylinders, pipes and bolts an equal sense of heroism and agency.” In fact it’s more than that, it seems something of a double-portrait, two figures aligned and facing right. And this is enhanced by the dryly descriptive style the two are depicted in, effectively the opposite of Futurist fury. It’s close to the New Objectivity style of post-War Germany (of which more anon), whose name has also been translated as ‘matter-of-fact-ness’.

Aesthetically at least, these two works seem to run together. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine it being of someone who frequents that store, perhaps even hanging inside it. However, other growths belonged to different crops…

Overall, the Tate show perhaps scrimps over French artists compared to British and German. One bold exception is Fernand Leger’s ’Discs in the City’ (1920, above), which in Matthew Collings’ words ”isn’t the largest painting in the show, but it seems so”.

As the show says it “evokes the visual and aural assault on the senses in the post-War city.” Unlike the Nevinson’s of New York there’s no need to label this an ‘abstraction’ because it clearly is one - elements of the modern city and of machines abstracted and then combined. It’s perhaps best seen as city and machine undifferentiated. Notably, unlike many abstracts but like its double subject matter, it includes spatial depth.

Everything in it is clearly a symbol, the human figures as much so as the letters or pointy arrows. Which makes it as harmonious as it is dynamic, eschewing Cubist fracturedness, painted in solid bright colours like a child’s toy. In fact its mood is similar to one of those diorama toys, of a garage or fire station, that children so take to - the satisfying sense of every component falling into its place.

The City and Modernist geometric forms had seemed mutually turning cogs, taking us towards a glittering future. The art of the war years had shown these gears jamming up, the mechanism breaking apart. Leger now puts the shine back again. The post-War years were in fact where he stopped being another Cubist artist and found his own style. And yet he had not only fought in the war, nearly killed by a poison gas attack, he always regarded those experiences as critical for his art. Interestingly, he seems to have mostly found the experience democratising.

Whereas at the other end of the scale…

Paul Citreon created ’Metropolis’ in 1923 (above), including it in the first Bauhaus exhibition. A collage of more than two hundred images it constantly plays with form. As the top is given over to tall buildings framed by sky, it appears to be approximating some kind of pictorial space. Yet perspective lines constantly jar against one another. ‘ODOL’ looks to be an actual sign photographed hanging off the side of a skyscraper, yet ‘SCALA’ is littered over the lower portion like a ransom note. The name suggests this is not any but city, combined. The overall effect is accumulative rather than juxtapositional, the City as an irresolvable jumble of impressions, impressions which are pressing in on you.

Unlike Leger or Lachnit it’s not harmonious, not easily apprehended. In fact it retains precisely what they’d removed, the giddying element of Futurism, the sense that travel into the future doesn’t come with a break or even a down gear. As said of the Vorticist show, there is a storm at the heart of this. Here, steel is not rehabilitated one bit. It’s just back.

This work’s thought to have influenced Fritz Lang’s film of the same name. Perhaps like the image, the film is evocative and yet at the same tie critical of the modern city. There is something enthralling about it, even as its officially labelled a dystopia, as sublime as any sea storm or exploding volcano.

Coming soon! Far from quiet on the Eastern front. A closer look at post-War German art…

Saturday 11 January 2020


Some very belated comments on the final Star Wars trilogy, which I never intended to write but somehow did. (It will make no sense if you haven’t seen them, and possibly not even if you have.)

The first instalment, ‘Force Awakens’, had the wit to work out that wit wasn’t required. We don’t want the story extended into new territory. What we want, at least from Star Wars, is someone to sing the songs of yore again. So it works like a sympathetic cover version. It keeps the same beats but shifts the stresses a little, makes the most of having a new singer.

Then ‘Last Jedi’ was like the overtly unsympathetic cover version. ‘My Boy Lollipop’ done as death metal, that sort of thing. And like an unsympathetic cover version, it establishes its most essential rule from the first note. (A symbolic passing of the baton from one director to the next deliberately scuppered.)

‘Force Awakens’ is like Andy’s room in ‘Toy Story’. The much-loved, well-looked-after toys are taken back out for another play. ‘Last Jedi’ is like shifting to Sid’s room, where the toys have been snapped and broken and stuck back together in wrong combinations.

‘Force Awakens’ comes from a fan director, who just wants there to be more Star Wars. ‘Last Jedi’ is like the franchise was taken over by an irreverent tech bro, who keeps chanting “move fast and break things”. And when you ask him where he’s moving fast to, he looks at you like that’s a stupid question then checks his smartphone.

But if the big weakness of ‘Last Jedi’ was that it just wanted to undo things, the even bigger weakness of ‘Rise of Skywalker’ is that it just wants to re-do all the undone things. In a film series obsessed by lineage, maybe Rey’s parents were nobodies. Da-dum. On the other hand, really they were somebodies. De-der. Maybe it’s not like you think. No wait, turns out it’s like you think after all. Phew, that was close.

More Star Wars turned out to be good, but not necessarily interesting. Anti-Star Wars was interesting, but not necessarily good. (Hence me blogging about one but not the other.) Anti-anti Star Wars turns out to be neither particularly good nor particularly interesting.

True, there’s individual scenes which are strong in themselves. (Mostly when focused on the Rey/Ren connection.) Shown in isolation, they could convince you this was a film working as well as ‘Force Awakens’. Try sticking them together, and it became obvious they’re broken toys some poor kid’s trying to let’s-pretend are still whole.

Was there a way to take the stuff from ‘Last Jedi’ which actually pointed somewhere and cannibalise it for a final part which managed to combine the best of both? Perhaps. If it had been handed to a brand new director, willing to say “kids, maybe you both have a point”.

As it is?

We shall never know.

Coming soon! Back to all that art after the First World War…

Saturday 4 January 2020


The first of a three-part series on Modernist art after the Great War, with each section fairly self-contained. This looks at the most immediate responses, taking its cues from Tate Britain’s 'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' and Tate Modern’s 'Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919/33’.

“Even the ruins have been destroyed!”

-Georges Rouault

Self-Assassinating Art

A short film by Lucien Le Sant, ’An Airship Over the Battlefield’ (1919) was wisely given place in the first room of the show. Though it should have been the very first thing the attendee saw, setting the context for all that followed. Mile after mile of devastated land in Flanders is laid out, destruction of an industrial scale.

Interestingly those images were aestheticised from the start, with Michelin publishing battlefield guides in both French and English. And, while cameras were officially banned from the front line, they were still smuggled in. Perhaps for the first time, art’s role as reportage was being upstaged.

Further, the show includes copies of ’Assassinated Art’ magazine, published in Paris during 1917. Its purpose was propagandist, the damaged sculpture and architecture it showed always caused by the Hun. But the term could be applied more widely. It wasn’t just that artworks were destroyed by such events, they struck at art’s very ability to respond.

For how could art hope to capture something this size? It’s the larger and more ostentatious works which attempt this and fail, such as William Orpen’s heraldic ‘To the Unknown British Soldier In France’ (1923). (Though stand by for more Orpen coming up.) True, the larger works tend to be official commissions and formally commemorative, but then that is two problems getting aligned. For art to get a purchase, it needed to bring a human scale to inhuman events.

Take Lemenbruch’s ‘Fallen Man’ (1915/16, above). This sculpture is simple and striking, taken in within a few seconds yet so resonant. I said of the Henry Moore Tate exhibition that his sculpture is auto-chthonian, showing life as emerging from the earth. This is the reverse, the figure seeming to sink back into its plinth, the faceless head already semi-buried. (And we should remember that many of the war dead drowned in mud.) The weight of the material, that heavy bronze, something we normally just accept with sculpture, thereby becomes part of the piece.

The sculpture is life-size, so when you stand by it you cannot help but associate yourself with it. But at the same time the positioning of the arms mirror the legs, as if this fallen thing had never stood. And if this all makes for a despairing work, three years later Lemenbruch took his own life.

And if Lemenbruch seems Moore’s antithesis, it’s become a truism to comment how the Great War upturned Modernist values. One of which was the veneration of the machine. Now the Great War was being referred to as ”the machine war.” (Though we should note this characterisation comes from it being the first war fought between advanced capitalist countries, not the first time machines were used for killing.) A fighter pilot in the TV documentary ‘I Was There: The Great War Interviews’ commented “our enemies were not the men in the machines. Our enemies were the machines themselves.”

In one sense Lemenbruch’s statue returns to Classicism, in that it shows an anatomically accurate human figure. Whereas Marcel Gromaire’s ’War’ (1925, above) seems to be using Modernism’s tools against itself.

He shows soldiers turned not even into machines, which at least have some dynamism to them, but bunker-like architecture - as though in the four-year face-off of trench warfare they became subsumed by their roles. This is emphasised further by the metal sheet with a slit upon the hillside behind them.

Back in 1906, in his acclaimed novel ‘The Jungle’, Upton Sinclair wrote “It was stupefying, brutalising work; it left no time to think, no strength for anything. She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. There was only one mercy about the cruel grind - that it gave her the gift of insensibility.” This is the ‘gift’ these figure have been given.

The show then smartly places this next to a maquette for Eric Kennington’s ’Soissons Memorial for the Missing’ (1927). Here the soldiers seem to be taking on the geometric form of their kit as if by osmosis, hands becoming cubic blocks. Yet the effect here is not of dehumanisation but, if anything, of mass-produced toy plastic soldiers. Kennington was after a combination of “majesty and peace.” (Photo of the finished memorial via this link.)

Where the Bodies Aren’t Buried

As covered when looking at Paul Nash, there’s a widespread view that British War art was held back by shirking from showing its horror. His blasted trees referred to dead bodies euphemistically, like those who ask for directions to “the smallest room”. Yet, as seen previously, even the presumption is untrue - bodies were sometimes shown. See for example Christopher Nevinson’s ironically titled ’Paths of Glory’ (1917, above, with more on Nevinson next time.) The title comes from an equally ironic 1750 poem by Thomas Gray. (Whether that inspired the 1935 novel by Thomas Cobb then adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick in 1957, I could not tell you.)

Nevinson manages to imbue his still scene with a sense of savagery, partly by incising lines into the paintwork to represent barbed wire, as if he’d graffitied his own work. It extends forwards, to the edge of the frame, as if seeking to snag us.

When the work was censored, he exhibited it with brown paper covering the offending bodies bearing the word ‘censored’. In an Orwellian twist, he then discovered the word ‘censored’ was itself censored. This might seem to fit with the way cenotaphs, set up post-war in both Britain and France, are quite literally empty tombs. Even remembrance was to be euphemistic, the slain whisked off-stage.

While William Orpen, previously a society painter, painted the aftermath of Passchendale with ’Zonnenebeke’ (1918, above.) He was, and remained, profoundly affected by the loss of life he encountered. Nevertheless, it has to be said none of that makes it into the work. Rather than visceral or immediate, with that grand and tempestuous sky suspiciously giving just the right amount of mood lighting it looks staged.

Whereas his ’A Grave In a Trench’ (1917, above) uses a helmet as a symbol of an absent man, a frequent trope. Yet the work is much stronger. It’s an oil painting, but in its brightness without solidity it looks more like a watercolour. The ground is virtually bleached white, yet dotted with brightly coloured flowers and patches of grass. It looks like one of those early spring days where buds have started to sprout, but the lack of warmth in the air makes the slight seem unreal. This is the Spring those who saw war cannot experience.

I am not what you would call a great fan of censorship. But censorship necessitates compliance, and necessity can begat invention. And in art new and less familiarised ways of conveying something, creeping up upon the point, are often more effective.

So the complaint that these artworks show us a more sanitised representation of death rather than the thing itself, that kind of misses the point. Showing representations of things is what art does. It is never going to be as immediate as reality. Me and, I would guess, most folk who attended this show have not been to war. We haven’t seen the equivalent of a work colleague die bloodily in front of us. An artwork, however unsparing, isn’t going to convey that. And it is not the task of art to try.

Art For the End Times

There’s a room in the show titled ‘Return To Order’. A phrase I’m (semi) familiar with after Norbert Lynton’s ‘The Story of Modern Art’ one of the first books on Modernism I read, devoted a chapter to ‘Calls To Order’. In the show’s words, people “looked back to earlier art forms (for) longed-for harmony and regeneration”. This was normally the comforting, regularised world of Classicism. The Pallant House devoted an interesting exhibition to this development in British art recently.

Yet the orderliness here seems more to do with Romanticism than Classicism. Not all the paintings in this section are bad. Some are, while others are accomplished but dull, doing the done-before. To the extent that I half-wondered if the show was rigging things in order to prove it’s thesis. Notably some of the German artists, such as Georg Schrimpf, were later taken up by the Nazis as ‘non-degenerate’.

Paul Nash’s brother John painted ‘The Cornfield’ (above) in 1918 while still officially a war artist. And it’s genuinely corny. After first the sublime and then the negative sublime we’re back to the tweely pastoral, a tidy nature, as if those bad memories need speedy over-writing. It’s the sort of thing people think Paul Nash painted, without bothering to look at his work properly. (And yet some of John’s war work is good, such as ‘Over The Top’.)

The same room contains Stanley Spencers. Post-War Spencer returned to his home village of Cookham in Berkshire, and often painted local scenes. Yet while they might ostensibly seem as parochial, as much a retreat from difficult subjects as John Nash, there’s actually far more going on.

For example ‘Christ Carrying The Cross’ (1920, above) links Cookham carpenters carrying ladders with Jesus bearing his cross, the mundane with the eschatological. (Jesus of course having been brought up by Joseph in the carpentry trade.) As he does so often, Spencer provides a strange combination of homeliness and yearning, of the mournful and the mystical, of a deeply personal vision conveyed via busy crowd scenes.

The show tells us he believed “God could be found in everyday events”. This seems true, but insufficient. The thin curtains around the figures at the windows resemble angel wings, but also the thinnest of membranes around portals. The whole painting is pallid, as if the colour has been eked from it.

Spencer said “I still feel the necessity of this war”. But his was not a political or even earthly necessity. The War proved to us that this world was no more than a hinterland for the next. In the early days of the Christian Church believers often assumed the second coming was imminent, that materiality itself would shortly fade and all become spirit. Spencer seems to inherit this sense. It’s clearer still in other works such as ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’ (1924/7).

And if Spencer is linked to the well-known post-War rise in mysticism, as the bereaved turned to mediums and spiritualists, so were other artists. Albert Birkle painted another cross-bearing scene transplanted to modernity, this time Berlin, in ’Cross Shouldering (Fredrichstrasee)’ (1924, above). However Spencer’s Jesus is almost lost in a crowd he seems to belong in. Brikle’s is foregrounded and placed low in the frame, emphasising the weight of his burden. While he’s singled out by his halo, the grotesque faces of the crowd either ignore or actively jeer at him. A suspicious mounted cop presides over proceedings. The crowds are crammed into a long horizontal frame, unlike Spencer offering no blue sky. To Birkle, religion and modernity vie with one another, and that weight will be borne forever until that grimacing crowd repent.

While Herbert Gurschner’s 'The Annunciation’ (1929/30, above) seems to do everything it can to set itself in Biblical times. The term it makes me think of is Jacob’s ladder, a past time where heaven and earth were connected, depicted by the co-existence between (a kind of) realism and symbolism. The title suggests this is when Gabriel visited Mary. And the positioning of their hands is mirrored, as if this is the two realms connecting.

There was a perpetual doctrinal debate about whether angels had a corporeal existence or not. The painting gives us not only pictorial space, but an open door through which he could have walked. Yet he’s barefoot while Mary is shod, and looks so much like a creature of spirit. It’s painted as though he, and in particular the flower he carries, is the light source. His gestures suggest he’s magicked up the flower, which presumably stands for God’s message.

Ernst Barlach’s ’Floating One’ (1927, above) is almost a bookend to Lemenbruch’s ‘Fallen Man’. Both use the physical weight of a life-sized sculpture in bronze, but Barlach then literally elevates his. The show tells us it’s “often described as an angel”, yet with no wings, arms crossed and eyes closed, it suggests that death goes with resurrection. It was displayed in Gustrow Cathedral. (Destroyed by the Nazis, it was recast after the Second World War.) Perhaps significantly, if the two sculptures point in different directions, they both point away from this life.

Art After The Sense Is Gone

There were also other directions to take in search of other worlds. It could be argued, if a little reductively, that war turned Nash from a Romantic into a Surrealist artist. But then it could be argued that it was war which created Surrealism. Had not all that was supposed to make sense turned out to make no sense at all?

Shellshocked soldiers were venerated as having a more authentic response than flag-waving patriots, the Surrealists “channelled these symptoms into approaches that rejected rationality and conscious thought.” This fetishising of ‘the mad’, as if they were a lost tribe functioning outside of society rather than individuals broken by it, is typical of the Surrealists. (And succeeding bohemian groups.) Though it’s also true many Surrealists saw war for themselves.

Andre Masson was wounded in combat and sent to a mental hospital. His ’The Picardy Road’ (1924, above) is thought to recall the time he was stranded in a battlefield overnight. Notably it has multiple connections with Nash; trees, vegetation, tomb-like structures, all set in a maze-like composition. (Compare it to Nash’s ’The Ypres Salient At Night’, 1918.)

But Masson’s trees are not blasted stumps, they’re sprouting sinister growths, tendrils appearing all over the painting. Where Nash was so often crepuscular this is nocturnal, as if what’s a mere wasteland by day blooms strangely by night, a prominent moon summoning up an other-world in silvery brown. The id-space that appears when consciousness leaves the stage. Where Nash was elegiac it not funereal, Masson imbues everything with sentience and menace.

Coming soon! How steel was rehabilitated...