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Friday, 17 January 2020

ART AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR: “STEEL IS REHABILITATED”




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…

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