top of page
  • Writer's picturetimeless travels

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War, is a powerful experience, at times heart rending. Aftermath explores the human impact of the conflict, both physically and psychologically, on British, German and French art

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889–1946) Ypres After the First Bombardment 1916

(Museums Sheffield)

Most exhibitions tell the story of war from a national perspective. Tate, however, looks at this tumultuous period from three points of view. It centres on the art worlds of London, Paris and Berlin, and shows over 150 works from 1916 to 1932 by artists including Otto Dix, George Grosz, Fernand Léger, André Mare, John Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson.

At its outset few thought the war would last long. But by its end in 1918 more than 10 million soldiers had died and over 20 million were wounded, while parts of northern France and Belgium were left as ruined wastelands.

William Orpen (1878 – 1931) A Grave in a Trench 1917 Oil paint on canvas © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2976)

The exhibition begins with the imagery of the abandoned helmet. British, German and French helmets in a vitrine surrounded by paintings employing the same metaphor, including William Orpen’s deceptively bright A Grave in a Trench, prompt us to think of death on the battlefield.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s The Fallen Man (1915-16, bronze), an impossibly affecting, yet elegant portrait of a man who is utterly spent, literally on his knees, is the perfect if poignant centrepiece for this room.

Like many artists shown here, Lehmbruck (1881-1919) was called up into the army during the First World War, serving in a military hospital in Berlin; the experience affected him greatly and informed many of his works, including Fallen Man. Overseeing this and other brutal realities is Jacob Epstein’s menacing robotic Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14).

The physical and psychological scars left at an individual as well as societal level in Europe are the subject of the next galleries. First, Tate examines the culture of memorial, from official public remembrance to the more personal. Then come Henry Tonks’ renowned pastel portraits of soldiers with awful face wounds; made as clinical records, some men are named but most are labelled simply as ‘an unknown serviceman’. Plaster statuettes from Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris reveal some of the disturbing psychosomatic effects of shell-shock.

George Grosz (1893-1959) Grey Day 1921 Oil paint on canvas

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Acquired by the Federal State of Berlin.

© Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. 2018.

Large veteran populations in each country, many with visible injuries, bore witness to war’s destructive effects. In daily life, people laughed at or shunned disfigured soldiers. In Grey Day (1921), George Grosz caricatures a well-to-do suited official walking by downtrodden crippled veterans; a broken wall separates them; it’s his explicit statement about the lack of support for veterans facing difficulties in post-war life.

Drawings capture elements of the dreams and nightmares that plagued many. Dada, which emerged in Zurich during the war and flourished in Germany and France in the 1920s, offered outlets for satirical reactions to the horrors and senselessness of war. Hannah Hoch’s Dada Rundschau (Dada-Review) photomontage of cut up pictures and text from the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Berlin illustrated newspaper) from 1915-19 delivers an ironic kaleidoscopic view of the period.

Damage to minds and bodies also shaped surrealist art and writing. This same section shows works by Max Ernst, Edward Burra, and André Masson among others. I found Masson’s La route de Picardie (1924) particularly haunting: a dreamscape populated by tree stumps and tomb-like structures and is that a hand waving from a hollow?

But it is not all gloom. Not all disaster and dehumanisation. There is also beauty here, and reconstruction and modernisation. Beauty in the nostalgic landscapes that many artists returned to, expressing desire for peace and harmony - a cart going along a sunlit rural road, for example, in George Clausen’s The Road, Winter Morning - and French art picked up on a key motif, the agricultural worker, for example in Marcel Gromaire’s The Reaper.

William Roberts (1895 - 1980) The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) 1923

Oil paint on canvas Leeds Museums and Galleries

© Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor

Despite social unrest and political uncertainties, optimism permeates some works: pictures of the new jazz or dance clubs that swept London, Berlin and Paris, of bathers, of pleasure seekers, and pictures of new cities, new technologies, as reconstruction got under way.

Women’s roles had changed dramatically during the war years. Artists depicted contrasting images, from nurturing figures of women (Picasso’s Seated Woman in a Chemise) to the emancipated ‘new woman’ with short bobbed hair.

There might be a new buzz about town, but reality was not forgotten. Dorothy Brett’s large painting of War Widows (1916), all pregnant, all in black, all helping one another, reminds of the huge death toll of the war, the women facing an uncertain future deprived of a husband’s support. Aftermath is an important show indeed.


Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Tate Britain, London

5 June – 23 September 2018

For more information, CLICK HERE


bottom of page