On Hyde Park Corner in London, facing the Duke of Wellington’s old house, where one can still see a giant sculpture of a fully nude Napoleon towering over the hall, stands a curious monument known as the Royal Artillery Memorial. A huge sculpted model of a Howitzer gun points to the sky on top of a Portland stone plinth. Around this phallic symbol of deadly force, designed in the early 1920s by Charles Sargeant Jagger and Lionel Pearson, stand a couple of bronze soldiers. And on one side lies a dead artilleryman covered by his greatcoat. The text engraved in the stone under this fallen soldier reads: “Here was a royal fellowship of death.”
The monument commemorates the 49,076 men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery who died in World War I. There has been much controversy over it ever since it was unveiled in 1925. Some of the criticism concerns the questionable taste of paying such monumental tribute to a Howitzer. It might be construed as a crude example of militarism.
In fact, however, the problems some people have had with it, especially in the years soon after the catastrophic war, were about something else. Jagger, a veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, wanted to inject a note of realism into his sculptures; the bronze soldiers are not idealized in any way. They look weary, hardened by bitter experience, almost dazed, like those soldiers staring at nothing in the famous Vietnam War photographs by David Douglas Duncan. And then there is the dead man under his coat.
This was not the usual way the Great War was remembered officially in Britain, Germany, or France. Abstractions—tombs of the unknown soldier and the like—were favored, or classical allegories, especially popular in Germany, of soldiers as nude Greek heroes holding up swords, or Christ-like figures expressing the beauty of sacrificial death. One of Jagger’s soldiers, leaning back with outstretched arms, could be likened to a Christ figure, but he still looks far more real than people, or at least military and civilian officials at the time, would have wished for. What the monument shows, despite the Howitzer, is not military valor, but the pathos of war.
The Royal Artillery Memorial is one of the works featured in “Aftermath,” the Tate Britain exhibition comparing the impact of the Great War on artists in Germany, Britain, and France. Of the three nations, France is least represented. The really interesting differences are between German and British artists.
As far as war memorials are concerned, Germany too had its controversies. Official monuments tended to be abstract, heroic, and focused on the sacrifice of young blood for the nation. But one of the most beautiful sculptures commemorating the war is Der Schwebende (The Floating One), by the Expressionist artist Ernst Barlach. A war veteran like Jagger, Barlach went for the antiheroic. The floating figure is an angel with hands folded on her chest and the haunted face of a mother grieving over her sons. (The face was actually modeled after the sad countenance of the artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose younger son died in the war.) The melancholy angel was suspended from the ceiling of a cathedral in eastern Germany in 1927, then removed by the Nazis ten years later as “degenerate art” and melted down to manufacture gun shells. (The one displayed at the Tate is cast from a copy.)
The tension between celebrating the heroic and lamenting the horrors of war was especially strong in Germany. In Britain and France, victory could make up for, or disguise, or at least mitigate the sense of loss. And everything was done to encourage this. In 1919, the British government commissioned William Orpen to do a painting in memory of the Paris Peace Conference. The original idea was to show a tomb of the unknown British soldier set in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles amid the proud figures of various Allied generals and field marshals. Instead, Orpen, who disliked the military brass, decided to paint two emaciated, half-dead ordinary soldiers flanking the tomb of their unknown comrade. The Ministry of Information refused to exhibit the painting. Only once Orpen had erased these awful specters of war was the painting finally displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.
During the war, too, there was great official resistance to depicting anything approaching the reality of battle. One of the best British war artists, C.R.W. Nevinson, did an oil painting in 1917 entitled Paths of Glory. It shows two soldiers lying dead in the mud in front of the barbed wire of a trench they were perhaps ordered to make a dash for. The real thing undoubtedly would have looked much worse. But the picture was still banned by the military censor. A year later, Nevinson showed it anyway, covered with brown paper inscribed with the word “censored.”
National differences become particularly clear in the depiction of maimed soldiers. Thousands of men in all three countries had half their faces blown off, or had missing limbs, or were horribly disfigured by mustard gas attacks. In France, these men often appeared in public events celebrating the victory and were shown in photographs to remind people of the suffering of common soldiers. This did not happen in Britain. There is a famous series of portraits by Henry Tonks, displayed at the Tate, of men with mutilated faces, but at the time these were only used for medical purposes. It was left to German artists to produce the most gruesome images of battlefield carnage. A famous example is the series of etchings made in 1923–1924 by Otto Dix, entitled The War: rotting corpses in waterlogged trenches, skulls filled with maggots and worms, faces that are barely recognizable as human.
Inspired by Goya’s prints of wartime atrocities, Dix did these prints from memory; he had been a machine gunner on some of the worst battlefields. Whereas Tonks’s drawings were initially only seen by doctors, Dix’s etchings were published as folios and widely shown. Even the techniques of the two artists tell a story. The drawings by Tonks are in pastel colors, not so different in tone from the landscapes by genteel English watercolorists. The monochrome pictures by Dix are dark and aggressive, as though etched in a fury. Dorothy Price writes in her essay for the exhibition catalog:
Many scholars have observed how the corrosive processes involved in the etching technique, in which large holes can be bored into the plate by acid, mimics the expressive potential of Dix’s subject matter.
There is nothing like this in British or even French art. There are French paintings of ruined landscapes, like André Masson’s ochre oil painting La route de Picardie (1924), and pictures of barbed wire, trenches, and bomb craters by British war artists like Orpen, Nevinson, and Paul Nash. Some are very good: Wire (1918–1919), by Nash, for example, gives a vivid impression of the ruined landscape in Flanders or northern France. But the atmosphere is melancholic. These artists, some of whom had witnessed the same shocking scenes as Dix, lacked the ferocity of German artists.
One of the most interesting British painters of the period was Stanley Spencer. Like Nevinson, he had served in an ambulance unit on several fronts. And like so many artists of his generation all over Europe, he was marked by the war forever. But far from glorifying manly action or wallowing in the gore, Spencer related to the dead in an intimate and gently spiritual way. Dead soldiers and horses rise from their battlefield graves in The Resurrection of the Soldiers (1929). In a painting from 1922, Unveiling Cookham War Memorial, villagers in Cookham, where Spencer lived, mourn their kin as the War Memorial is unveiled (see illustration on page 84). But there is no rage in these pictures, just sadness, Christian faith, and a certain air of whimsy; while some mourners look distressed, others in their striped blazers and white ducks lounge on the sun-dappled lawn. The dead are recalled in a country at peace.
This was far from being the case in Germany, a nation that was morally unhinged and torn apart by violent revolutionaries and roaming war veterans lusting for revenge. Compare Stanley Spencer’s Christ Carrying the Cross (1920) with Albert Birkle’s Cross Shouldering (Friedrichstrasse) (1924). Spencer’s Christ can barely be seen as he passes by a very English house in the High Street of Cookham, surrounded by clerics and ordinary folks, looking like angels in the moonlight. Gentle Cookham is a long way from turbulent Berlin, where the torment of Birkle’s emaciated Christ is observed with a mixture of amusement and contempt by hard-faced men and women who, in a different setting, could be among the typical crowd at a lynching. What is missing in Spencer’s art, and that of most of his peers in Britain, is the menacing air of violence.
The historian George L. Mosse, who escaped from Nazi persecution in Germany as a young man, argued that German life was brutalized by the militarism of World War I. People had become inured to death and cruelty. Men tested by the fire and steel of battle were exalted by nationalist writers such as Ernst Jünger. War veterans felt emasculated, humiliated, and useless in peacetime. Only the camaraderie of collective violence would revive their spirits. Mosse wrote in his book Fallen Soldiers, “War itself had been the great brutalizer, not merely through the experience of combat at the front, but also through the wartime relationships between officers and men, and among the men themselves.”1
This may have been true. But why wouldn’t such relationships—and such experience—have had a similar effect on British and French men? The difference must lie in the outcome of the war. Mosse also wrote:
England and France, the victorious nations, where the transition from war to peace had been relatively smooth, were able to keep the process of brutalization largely, if not entirely, under control. Those nations like Germany which were not so fortunate saw a new ruthlessness invade their politics.
In other words, it was not so much war itself that brutalized German politics as the much rockier transition to peace. The humiliation of losing the war no doubt had something to do with this. It is harder for defeated soldiers to adapt to civilian life than victorious ones. But the militarization of German life had begun well before the war. Kaiser Wilhelm II was already spouting a lot of the belligerent and anti-Semitic rhetoric that was later taken up by the Nazis. And the contempt for democratic politics, both on the left and the right, was much greater in Germany than in Britain or France. Certainly the consequences of wartime defeat were more devastating in Germany: the economic dislocation, the moral collapse, and the harsh conditions in German cities where men and women would do anything to scrape by. No wonder that the prostitute became one of the main symbols of Weimar Period culture, especially in the visual arts.
Like the maimed veterans, war profiteers were a conspicuous presence in all the nations at war. They, too, found their way into paintings. But consider the difference between Nevinson’s portrait of such a figure in He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son (1918), and Heinrich Maria Davringhausen’s The Profiteer (1920–1921). Superficially, the two men look remarkably alike: well fed, self-satisfied, thin-lipped, beady-eyed. But on the mantelpiece behind Nevinson’s profiteer is a photograph of his son, who died in the war that made his father rich. The painting is ambiguous, both slightly repellent and sad. Davringhausen’s figure, sitting in a sterile ultra-modern office with a smoldering cigar at his elbow and a glass of wine on his desk, is more threatening; not quite the fat-necked brute you see in pictures by George Grosz, but still swinish enough.
Grosz’s graffiti-like caricatures of life in Weimar Germany express a kind of voluptuous loathing for the dislocated society of postwar Berlin. Men are either wrecks of war, begging in the streets on crutches, ignored by well-dressed passersby, or they are lecherous pigs, obese cigar-chomping bosses, or uniformed thugs. Grosz wrote in 1922:
People have created a rotten system—with a top and a bottom. A handful of them earn millions, while untold thousands have barely enough to exist on…. My task is to show the oppressed the true faces of their masters. Man is not good; he is like cattle.
Bertolt Brecht could not have expressed it better.
What gives so many drawings by Grosz their louche allure is that he reveled in the rottenness he professed to hate. The streets of Berlin, with their cripples and whores and pimps and plutocrats, provided the inspiration for his best art. The British artist who was most clearly influenced by Grosz was the marvelous Edward Burra. He, too, loved painting shady dancing halls, lesbian bars, hookers, and other lowlife characters (not just in London but in Paris, Mexico, and Harlem). His art can be as lurid as Grosz’s Berlin pictures: the strutting prostitute in her pink finery in Saturday Market (1932) or the goons ogling a naked dancer in Striptease (Harlem) (1934). What is missing is the loathing. Burra doesn’t hate; he is fascinated, amused, and invigorated by the seamy vitality of urban life.
Grosz, together with such artists as John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, was part of the Dada movement, a nihilistic, absurdist artistic reaction to the supposedly rational world that produced the slaughter of World War I. Originating in Switzerland during the war, Dada spawned groups in Paris and New York, as well as in Berlin. Parisian Dadaists, led by such figures as André Breton and Tristan Tzara, scandalized people with zany theater performances, ballets, and manifestos. But the scandals were more artistic than political, and often injected with doses of mad humor. French Dada was a major influence on Surrealism.
German Dada was more aggressively political. In the words of Grosz:
If [Dada] expressed anything at all, it was our long fermenting restlessness, discontent and sarcasm. Any national defeat, any change to a new era gives birth to that sort of movement. At a different time in history we might just as well have been flagellants.2
Collage was a favorite Dada form—fragmented images patched together that made no logical sense or were deliberately provocative, such as John Heartfield’s Fathers and Sons (1924), showing Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg with uniformed children and skeletons marching in the background. Heartfield and Grosz also made a grotesque human figure out of a tailor’s dummy, with a prosthetic leg and a light bulb for a head. It was called The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild (1920).
Kurt Schwitters was one of the main practitioners of this type of art. He coined the nonsensical word Merz for his collages, sculptures (Merzplastik), and interior designs (Merzbau). The idea was to assemble works from the most disparate sources—he built a kind of memorial column out of old newspapers, photographs, and figurines, topped with the death mask of his first-born child, who died as a baby in 1916. Schwitters explained Merz as follows: “Everything had broken down…new things had to be made from fragments…new art forms out of the remains of a former culture.”
The other movement that fanned out across the world, all the way to Iowa, where Grant Wood did his strangely detached, slightly eerie paintings, was Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity: reality seen and depicted through unflinching eyes, devoid of sentimentality. This was Otto Dix’s definition: “If you are painting a portrait of someone it is best not to know him. I only want to see what is there, the exterior.”
British artists like Paul Nash painted landscapes from this point of view, with the same hallucinatory realism as Wood. But Grosz, Dix, Max Beckmann, and other German artists added a distinctly political twist. Their sharp eyes took in the worst, most brutal aspects of postwar urban life, to protest the hideous social conditions of their society. Their pictures of sex murders, torture rooms, and rape were labeled “degenerate art” under the Nazis. Hitler favored heroic classicist nudes, sentimental German landscapes, or paintings of wholesome blond German farmers tilling the native soil. The “degenerates” were often sympathetic to the political left, whereas the classicists (think of Arno Breker’s sculptures of muscle-bound Aryan males) are associated with the right.
Things were not quite that simple, however. One of the revelations of a recent show at the Neue Galerie in New York, entitled “Before the Fall,” as well as the catalog of a recent exhibition in Frankfurt, “Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic,” was that the German artists of the 1920s and 1930s could not always be so neatly classified. New Objectivity had both a “left” and a “right” component; realism could be a form of social criticism but also an expression of restored order. Even those categories could be quite fluid. Franz Radziwill, for example, was affiliated with New Objectivity, was friendly with Otto Dix in the 1920s, and mixed with the radical left. His paintings of airplanes and battleships, of ruined houses under doom-laden skies, owe something to the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, something to the modernist fascination with technology, and something to New Objectivity too.
In 1933, Radziwill joined the Nazi Party and the next year painted Revolution, a morbid image of a dead stormtrooper in front of a kind of ghost house with two hanged men outside. Another painting from that period, The Steel Helmet in No Man’s Land, shows just that: a dead soldier’s cracked helmet in a bleak and broken stretch of land under a beat-up barbed wire fence. It isn’t quite clear what these paintings, done in a spooky magical realism, are supposed to mean, especially since Radziwill repainted parts of them after 1945 to conform to changed times. The hanged men were not in the original painting. And he claimed that the helmet picture was a protest against war, even though in 1933 it was seen as a tribute to patriotic sacrifice.
A more interesting artist than Radziwill was Rudolf Schlichter. His 1924 painting of a weary-looking prostitute named Margot, holding a gold-tipped cigarette, adorns the cover of the splendid catalog of the “Splendor and Misery” exhibition. Schlichter was a typical example of what the Nazis regarded as degenerate: an early Communist, a friend of George Grosz, a Dadaist, a member of the New Objectivity, and a painter of Berlin decadence (he was especially fond of high-heeled women’s boots). But in the late 1920s, he spent more time with right-wing intellectuals like Ernst Jünger, whom he portrayed, joined the Nazi Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, and turned to Catholicism. This didn’t stop the Nazis from confiscating his art. After the war, he became a Surrealist, and is sometimes called the German Salvador Dalí.
By the time Hitler came to power, the extraordinary flowering of German art was over. The democratic decade after World War I in Germany was marked by corruption, violence, and vice, and it produced some of the greatest art of the twentieth century. After 1933, under one of the most brutal regimes in human history, German art was lifeless, mediocre, and sentimental. Some of the more conservative New Objectivity artists, like Georg Schrimpf, were still permitted to show their neo-Romantic landscapes. Dix, whose earlier work was banned and who was fired as an art teacher, resorted to painting dull landscapes and family portraits full of just the kind of sweetness that the New Objectivists had tried so hard to avoid.
I believe it was Jean Genet who once remarked that he no longer had any interest in traveling to Germany after the Nazis took over. Once the state itself, and not an urban underclass, had become the main source of crime, art lost its subversive purpose.