The French helmet of a fallen soldier lies on the ground of Kemali Valley, surrounded by a gun, a boot and, only a few meters away, a small wooden cross. Next to the helmet, the silhouette of a blossoming tree sets a stark contrast to the desolate atmosphere of the scene.
It’s the subject of A Grave in a Trench 1917, which Paul Jouve painted on the border of Serbia and Greece, where Serbian troops faced the Bulgarian army in August 1916. Like other artists, Jouve joined the army’s photographic department to document the horrors of the First World War. The reaction at the sight of this wasteland was so deep that he could only use a symbol to translate universal grief.
The impact of WWI on British, German and French art, and the ways artists processed the physical and psychological wounds left on Europe, is the theme of Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. During the conflict, heavy artillery and automatic weaponry resulted in a death toll of more than 10 million soldiers and the obliteration of entire areas in Northern France and Belgium.
Spread across eight rooms, the exhibition masterfully reconstructs the collective consciousness of a shaken world that found itself completely reshaped by unprecedented violence. Starting with paintings, photographs and postcards of life in the trenches and aerial footage of destroyed towns, focus moves to the public memorials that followed the war and the artistic movements that tried to describe the suffering of people and the new life of veterans.
Particularly poignant are the portrayals of the soldiers’ wounds. British surgeon Henry Tonks depicted young men with facial injuries to show the dramatic effect of mechanical weapons on human bodies. Likewise, artists George Grosz and Otto Dix denounced the inequalities in German post-war society through imagery of disabled veterans. In Grosz’s Grey Day 1921, class divisions are embodied in the figure of a bureaucrat walking away from a veteran, highlighting the lack of support for those who fought for the country and came back to unwelcoming cities.
War also damaged the mind of its survivors. Post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as shell shock or war neurosis, affected veterans who struggled with anxiety and paralysis and were often confined to psychiatric hospitals. Emerging movements such as Dada and Surrealism channeled their symptoms in works that refused any form of rationality and social order, as seen in the photomontages of Hanna Höch or André Masson’s ghostly landscapes of the unconscious.
But in this impressive gallery of grief and social injustice, there’s also room for bittersweet hope. The last part of Aftermath gives a glimpse at how society slowly began to rebuild itself. In the 1920s, CRW Nevinson and Paul Citroen painted New York, with its skyscrapers and elevated railways, as the epitome of a modern metropolis. They looked forward to technological progress with excitement, but also with the somber melancholy that comes with the realisation that the world you thought you knew will never be the same.
Aftermath: Art in the wake of World War One is at Tate Britain, SW1 (tate.org.uk), until 23 September.
Cristiano Dalla Bona
William Roberts (1895–1980), The Dance Club (The Jazz Party), 1923. Oil paint on canvas 762 x 1066 mm Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts. By permission of the Treasury Solicitor;
George Grosz (1893-1959) The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture 1920900 x 450 x 450 mmBerlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Berlin© Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J. 2018;
Edward Burra 1905-1976, The Snack Bar 1930. Oil paint on canvas762 x 559 mmTate© The estate of Edward Burra, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London