Otto Dix once wrote that “artists should not proselytise or reform… all they have to do is bear witness”, a quotation that accompanies a fascinating selection of prints entitled The War that have much to say about the impact of the First World War both on the physical body and on the creation of art in Britain, Germany and France in the ensuing years. In Tate Britain’s carefully curated new show Aftermath, the physical, political and emotional cost of conflict is writ large in an extraordinary combination of work, predominantly from men who served, arguing that the depiction of loss, devastation and destruction had far reaching effects for artists across Europe.
As the four-year commemoration programme draws to a close, it is timely to reflect on the welcome diversity and creativity that has resulted in an insightful and more inclusive approach to public memorialisation. No longer a hymn to soldier poets alone, we have seen reflections on the role of all three services, with dedicated Great War exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum and RAF Museum, while the Science Museum’s focus on technological innovation delivered the impressive Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care about the medical response to war. A variety of activities and publications also examined the experience of war from the new perspectives and properly brought them into the public realm for the first time, giving voice to colonial recruits, allies, official “enemies”, female service personnel, refugees and those on the Home Front which has permanently enriched our understanding of this crucial period in European history.
Culturally, there have also been substantial and memorable contributions, not least from Paul Cummins and Tom Piper whose glorious display of poppies cascading down the walls of the Tower of London, filling the moat, was an unforgettable start to the programme back in 2014 – the sale and subsequent tracking of those poppies is a piece of social history that is of enormous value to our understanding of the longevity of emotional responses to this conflict. Equally powerful was Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s physical living artwork We Were Here where young actors dressed as soldiers appeared across the country at railway stations and on the tube as a poignant reminder of those who never came back.
This, then is the context in which Aftermath appears and, happily, one which its curation reflects – presenting a picture of a diverse and complex technological war that unnaturally ravaged the individual body with ramifications for the state’s duty of care. As you wander through the eight rooms of this exhibition, many of which are dedicated to images of suffering, neglect and decay, the question in your mind is “was it worth it”? The answer for many artists is surprisingly complicated, and far more nuanced than our embedded image of disillusion and slaughter.
Taking a multinational, multi-service perspective allows us to see that irrespective of victory, Britain, France and Germany were united by the devastating impact of war on their societies, that they shared the tricky post-war problem of how to appropriately design memorials to the fallen, and how to support the huge numbers of disabled veterans released back into society, many of whom were left poor and destitute. Aftermath grapples with the idea of renewal and rebirth at a time when the cost of war was so visible and how art, like poetry, memoir-writing and ex-servicemen associations, became a vital outlet for men to continually relive and revisit the most horrific, but also the most meaningful, experience of their lives.
What strikes you first is the pity of it, the human cost replicated in scene after scene showing the dead, dying or merely absent on the battlefield. The tin hat, Aftermath argues became a potent symbol of death in many art works, shorthand for the loss of life its emptiness implies, with three hats displayed in a central case. But artists were also honest about what they saw, and Room 1 on Battlefields and Ruins shows the carnage of broken bodies in a series of powerful paintings. Luc-Albert Moreau’s 1918 piece Chemin des Dames Assault may be abstract but clearly shows the brutal death of a soldier impaled on a tree. This is far from the quiet heroism that memorials usually suggest, here death is cruel and real and ugly. Nowhere more so than in Paul Nash’s Wire from 1918-19 showing a tree trunk smashed to pieces, a metaphor for the human body, or Christopher Nevinson’s Paths of Glory  whose coppery swirls glisten in the light of the gallery giving a strange ethereal quality to the dead soldiers face down in the mud. Nevinson’s picture is one of the most powerful in the show, not just a fine war image but one of the finest paintings ever created.
As soon as you step inside, the scale and breadth of the war becomes startlingly clear, and the diversity of artistic responses is striking. In this first room alone, paintings sit alongside sculpture, photographs and videos, positioned against other commemorative outlets including battlefield guides and souvenirs made from shell casing or bullets. Walking into Room 2, focusing on official memorialisation, you start to notice your emotional response to the pieces, where works by Charles Sergeant Jagger and Stanley Spencer are testament to the ongoing confusion and sense of fracture that remained in the years following the Armistice. Jagger’s use of realistic military clothing and weapons reflecting the technological advances in equipment drew praise from contemporaries, and in a model for his Great Western Railway memorial he dressed a soldier in a greatcoat with eyes downcast to the letters he’s reading from home, speaking volumes about the pain the outcomes of war were unable to reconcile. Spencer reiterates this in his painting Unveiling Cookham War Memorial  as people hang from net-curtained windows, and a sombre-faced crowd surge forward to see this architectural response to war, still grieving, still remembering at the annual recitation of the names of the fallen.
That cost of war is stark too in Frank Owen Salisbury’s 1920 depiction of The Passing of the Unknown Warrior whose large-scale funeral cortege along Whitehall has representatives of all three services escorting the flag-draped coffin of this lasting symbol of war’s futility. Notably, the living are primarily high-ranked, middle-aged men, the leaders of war giving thought to the once young life they are about to inter in Westminster Abbey. Here, in the heart of the British Establishment, the “Traces of War” are vividly captured by Salisbury, making the perfect link to the next part of the exhibition that considers artistic representations of men who survived but were physically damaged by the conflict.
Although produced for scientific study, Henry Tonks’s images of facial injuries drawn in pale colours are remarkably graphic but full of empathy for his patients that make them difficult, but important, viewing. Likewise, Rosine Cahen’s work in Villennis Hospital are a thoughtful record of the injuries sustained by French soldiers. But there is a political purpose at work here too, with curators Emma Chambers and Rachel Smith selecting accompanying work that reflects the widespread failure to support disabled veterans. Not the first-time men had returned with bodily damage inflicted by warfare, the scale of returnees unable to work or resume their former lives was certainly new, and neither French, German or British societies were ready to respond to their needs, despite greater visibility of disabled veterans in France.
Conrad Felixmuller’s 1919 Soldier in the Madhouse I and II reflect the confusion of the psychological effect of war, their powerful lines and geometric shapes suggesting the distortion of the mind and anxiety of the sufferer – something health systems were largely ill prepared to support. More shocking is the way in which disabled veterans are depicted, often ignored or reduced to penury, their physical appearance surprising, and sometimes even frightening. This work by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz was designed to reflect society’s mistreatment of their veterans, and these simple pen sketches remain a powerful indictment of their failure.
Despite Dix’s claim to “bare witness”, his work is full of political fervour. His 1924 prints, on display in Room 5, are horrifying reflections of men at war; Wounded Man shows a face ravaged with pain and trapped in a kind of hell, while Mealtime in the Trenches at first glance looks like an arctic scene as a huddled and freezing figure eats tentatively in the howling blizzard, his fear emanating from the picture. Dix was even more candid in Skull and Dance of Death drawing on images of mortality as creatures begin to inhabit a now decayed head, while in the latter bodies are strewn across the barbed wire landscape of No Man’s Land. In the same room, Kath Kollowitz’s 1922 woodcuts were an outlet for her own grief at the death of her son, with a series of images of the Home Front as bereaved mothers, parents and pregnant lovers comment on the consequences of death for those left behind – not just emotionally but in the economic effect on entire families left without a breadwinner.
Resentment also continued towards war profiteers and the thoughtless public who enjoyed themselves while men died abroad, and this was reflected in numerous artworks. Max Beckmann captures a lovely geometric energy in his print of dancers called Malepartus , while in Room 7 on Post-war People, William Roberts’s incredible 1923 painting The Jazz Club (The Dance Party) cannot be viewed enough. Fantastically vibrant Roberts’s stylised image reflects the excitement of the new age, of music blaring from an overlarge gramophone which guides the dancing couples in a leaning pack. Meanwhile, Edward Burra and George Grosz focus on the venality of the public, so Burra’s The Snack Bar from 1930 shows a blowsy woman, over-made-up sitting at a counter while a man in the foreground slices a ham. There’s a whiff of death and decay about the scene, something garish and unsettling. Likewise, Grosz’s powerful image of a businessman ignoring the plight of the haggard soldier and working man behind him in Grey Day  is a striking indictment of those who turned their backs on veterans once the war was won.
It doesn’t all work and rooms focusing on surrealism, agricultural scenes and post-war cities feel out of place. They were legitimate reactions to war and are rightly encompassed by Aftermath’s wider examination of artistic change, but in light of the emotional reaction created by the other rooms, they feel bland and distracting – not that it isn’t a treat to see works like The Garden Enclosed by war veteran David Jones , last seen in the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temples Place, but pastoral landscapes by those who didn’t participate in the conflict seem somehow less important with the political power of Otto Dix and Christopher Nevinson fresh in your mind.
As we reach the final months of a four-year commemoration programme, there have been many significant artistic responses that have widened our general understand of the implications of the First World War and the men from all over the world who fought in all services on all sides. Aftermath feels like the summation of all that work, building-up to this thoughtful and important show. Our public memory of disillusioned soldiers unwillingly sacrificed is beginning to shift; from the first day of the war, reactions to it were complex, overwhelming and fluctuating. What Aftermath does is remind us that death was not the only outcome of the war, men came home and had to go on living in a fractured and uncertain society with no idea how to care for them and what it all meant. Their artistic responses captured in this wonderful exhibition shows they spent a lifetime trying to find out.
Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One is at Tate Britain until 23 September. Tickets start ay £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.