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...

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