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Picturing the Great War, Part I

By: Brian Allen
November 7, 2018

wo London exhibitions, the Tate’s "Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One" and "Making a New World" at the Imperial War Museum (the "IWM"), are the concluding exhibits in the round of shows commemorating the Great War’s centenary, which ended–"paused" may be a better word--on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Though marked by unprecedented, industrialized violence, the collapse of empires, the ascent of America to superpower status, and the dawn of the Soviet Union, the "war to end all wars" seems to play second fiddle to the next world war, which, of course, wouldn't have happened without it. I've seen at least two dozen shows on the Great War since 2014, mostly in Europe and primarily about the European experience. So compact was America's wartime experience that one big show, "World War I and American Art," done last year by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, thoroughly covered the topic.

The war started on July 28, 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. On November 11, 1918, with 10 million soldiers dead and millions more wounded, the main combatants agreed to stop shooting at each other. The Tate show treats the shortlist combatants: Britain, France, and Germany. The IWM is both more and less expansive. It's mostly about Britain and its colonies but considers the massive refugee and demobilization problems the war caused throughout Europe. Both shows touch the home front. There and everywhere, civil freedoms were frayed, rationing bit hard, and labor shortages grew worse. Everyone knew someone in harm's way.

Combatants came and went. Russia's war, for example, was truncated. It joined as an imperial ally of the French and British and ended its participation in 1917, the old state gone and the new Bolshevik regime accepting an imposed settlement. Italy entered late, suffered immensely, and gained almost nothing.

America's war was different still. It was a neutral power until April 4, 1917, when Congress declared war, but the Yankee thumb weighed heavily on the British side of the scale from the start. Our experience was short but ruthlessly, and inexorably, decisive. Without American troops and supplies, especially in the spring of 1918, the Allies might have lost. American casualties were modest. At home, war was more about slogans, novelty, and inconvenience than actual privation. 

Austria, the Ottoman Empire, Africa, India, Japan, Australia, and the other parties each had its own war. But there was one dirty little secret everyone shared: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, nothing really ended.

Over time, history will most likely consider the two world wars as one, new Thirty Years War. Bitter, gruesome fighting continued until the mid-1920s, just not in France. Starting in 1918, thousands of Allied troops poured into Russia to side with the anti-Bolsheviks. The Armenian Holocaust was fallout from the Ottoman collapse. The Spanish Flu epidemic had the perfect accelerant in movements of soldiers and refugees. There were the Irish civil war, civil wars throughout the Balkans, a violent civil war in Finland, Greece's invasion of Turkey, a war between Poland and Russia, the rise of Italian Fascism in 1922, when Mussolini took power, and, in 1931, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Japan was among the Allies in World War I. Aside from the Americans, it was the only big power to emerge stronger than before. In the early Thirties, Europe started rearming. By 1933, the Nazis were in power. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia and Germany abrogated much of the Versailles treaty.

The two British shows are very different—the IWM is a history museum whose shows combine text, graphics, interviews, photographs, and ephemera while the Tate show is an art exhibition—but they're complementary. The range of emotions—shock, grief, pride, guilt, atonement, anger, impotence, and optimism—are well examined.

These are big emotions, and some media just can't convey them. That starts with painting. Most of the paintings in the first gallery at the Tate are perfectly fine studio oils but they seem too fine, too discreet, too contained by their frames, and too decorative. Christopher Nevinson's "Paths of Glory" from 1917, done while he was an official war artist, depicts two dead soldiers, lying in the mud, a row of barbed wire running the length of the canvas. It was considered too horrible to show and was censored. The contemporary eye is more jaded when it comes to violence, but there's something about paint, its viscous texture, probably, that makes even the dead seem too buoyant. Color and paint animate even the most sincerely defunct.

The official British war artists had an implicit propaganda purpose. The British government wanted them to make war look rough—the work was purported to be documentary—to keep the public in the loop, but not so rough it aroused anti-war feeling. Many of the painters were young Modernists. Even when they conveyed instant, violent, youthful death in a trench, they couldn't help themselves. Horror is abstracted away, sacrificed to concerns of form and color. Charles Sims's "Old German Front Line, Arras, 1916" [see picture, above] was commissioned for an official memorial gallery and done in 1919. The pictures were to evoke sacrifice and heroism and to be part of the tradition of Old Master war memorial cycles. Paolo Uccello's huge "Victory of San Romano" cycle from 1432 was a model, displayed at the National Gallery and thought the exemplar of triumphalism. Sims's picture has grandeur on its side. It's also quite lovely, too lovely, a Modernist Constable.

A good critic always watches what people look at in the galleries. At the Tate show, people were drawn not to the paintings but to a case with a helmet with bullet holes and a black and white film of battlefields shot from a hot air balloon in 1918. The film and the helmet spoke volumes while the painting, meant to place us face to face with death, seemed pretty.

A frank portrayal of the war meant confronting the nature of the fighting. The war was mechanized, with millions of shells fired from a distance, tanks, and machine guns doing more damage than lances, swords, and cavalry. It was a war less of valor than of technology, of iron and steel, of mass killing, of men blown to smithereens.

In suggesting how truly awful the front was, three media in the Tate show are successful. The first is sculpture. Stone and metal are substances as old as the earth. They come from the earth and, unlike canvas and oil, they give grudgingly. They're malleable only when altered in a crucible or with sharp or blunt tools. They're wrought from violence. The German artist Wilhelm Lehmbruck's "Fallen Man" [see photo, by Oliver Kurmis, above] from 1916 is a statement of misery and beleaguerment, the life size bronze of an attenuated nude man reduced to crawling, striped of all markers of dignity and status. Ernst Barlach's "The Floating One," from 1927, a floating bronze figure of an angel, combines the look of a figural buttress in a Medieval cathedral with that of a modern airplane or a bomb. It's not a mixed metaphor but an honest admission that war is old hat. Was the war the divine wrath of God, as the Old Testament delivers over and over? If the sculpture has beauty, it's drawn from a rough, hard aesthetic, not a dainty one.

The second is photography. In the show, Dada is senseless art making sense from the senselessness of war. Hannah Hoch's and John Heartfield's photomontages ooze anger and combustion. Bizarre juxtapositions point to a disturbed and nonsensical world order. A photomontage is a puzzle, and here the puzzle pieces put together look crazy.

Prints work, too, and the most effective art is in a gallery of print portfolios by three Germans—Max Beckmann, Kathe Kollwitz, and Otto Dix—and the Frenchman Georges Rouault [see Kathe Kollwitz's "Die Freiwilligen," above]. Most of them are woodcuts, an old German medium that evokes medieval antiquity and transmits the primitive honesty of images that look hewn from wood. They're much smaller than paintings, and they're mostly from portfolios, which means they were meant to be seen closely, by individuals, and studied intimately. They're black and white, which removes the distracting beauty of color, but black and white are extremes, and these images are extremes in violence and degradation. Since the days of Durer, the Germans have been happy to make the Devil visual and present. Dix and Beckmann aren't afraid to give us shattered faces of the wounded or the rotting dead. It's graphic journalism. Rouault, an ardent Roman Catholic, took a spiritual tact, too, but less grating. His work looks like heavily leaded, grisaille stained glass and has a feel of a New Testament parable.

If the medium is at least part of the message, "Making A New World" at the IWM has a powerful tool in its gallery of oral history clips called "I Was There." The space proves that the human voice offering an eye witness account will sometimes be the best rivet of truth to understanding. They're clips of half a minute or less, and none is a battle story. Some are about sound, like the slow trailing off of distant shelling at the 11th hour, like thunder as a storm ends until there's nothing. Then there were the awful stories of men dying on the 11th day, having stayed the course for so long, or the mother whose heart soars with relief when she hears the news of the Armistice only to be shattered moments later when she gets the telegram reporting her son's death a few days before. Some witnesses report scenes of celebration, some stunned disbelief.

The IWM show keeps the focus on the personal. It's organized mostly through the experiences of soldiers, with the aftermath of the war a practical enterprise. The Tate show encompasses many big social, economic, and political questions, and that's appropriate. After all, empires had collapsed, new movements were born, and radicalism was rampant. There were two dozen new countries and nearly thirty violent transfers of national power among them just in the two or three years after the Armistice. The individual, as a consequence, often bobs on the waves of turmoil and history’s tide. It's big picture stuff, and while socialism, anarchy, class struggle, and privation are massive topics, it's a story told from a high altitude.

The IWM show's first section treats demobilization. Millions of soldiers went home to the business of daily life, which isn't one big story but a million little stories, each different and with its own cast of characters. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war were freed and repatriated. Some stayed in the army, shipped off to the colonies or to any one of Britain's new mandates. Again, it's a soldier's story made more compelling through individuals. It's well told, too. Unlike most history museums, the IWM always lets the objects speak. There are no distracting, busy graphics and any text that's needed is intelligently written.

Every war leaves a mess, and no mess is more heartbreaking, poignant, or microscopic in detail than the rehabilitation of the wounded. Both shows have a section on war injuries. Anti-war and socialist themed art in Germany often included horribly wounded soldiers, but in Britain and France the subject was a touchy one. Artists like Henry Tonks recorded plastic surgery on faces, before and after, but these weren't seen outside of a medical context. They're in both shows and among the most difficult things to see. The IWM show is a material culture show so it includes artificial limbs, a Braille watch, and a poster advertising a concert by a blind chorale. "Les gueules cassees," the Broken Faces, were French veterans with horrible face wounds. They appeared on command like the chorus in a Greek tragedy during the peace treaty negotiations at Versailles to mortify the Germans delegates.

For British art, the most distinctive response to the war wasn't meant for the walls of galleries but on the ground, or, more directly, in the earth. The Government's construction of thousands of official war cemeteries in every country where the British lost soldiers was arguably the biggest architectural landscape design project in human history [see photo of Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Belgium, above]. By the late 1930s, the Imperial War Graves Commission built thousands of cemeteries, all owned and operated by the United Kingdom. The movement had few precedents—dead soldiers were often abandoned where they fell, looted by robbers, or buried ad hoc. For the British, the Gettysburg Address’s 50th anniversary in 1913 was an inspiration. Lincoln's speech inaugurated a war cemetery. It was always internationally renowned, and the peaceful 1913 reunion of old Union and Confederate soldiers was a worldwide story.

(This piece will continue in Part II)