When Modern Art Met Modern Warfare

This year, exhibitions across Britain join others around the globe to showcase the art of World War I and its effects on artists 100 years later

In 1913, British sculptor Jacob Epstein unveiled his modernist masterpiece Rock Drill, a looming and threatening figure that was half man, half machine. The sculpture was a fusion of plaster flesh and an actual pneumatic drill, symbolizing the rapacious nature of industrial technology. But by 1916, when Epstein re-created the work for another exhibition, World War I had intervened, and the figure was transformed.

“Three years later, he’s not interested in that predatory aggression. He gets rid of the drill, chops the figure in half, amputates the arm, and shows us the Frankenstein monster we have become —mutated, amputated, and cowering. His art responds to his experience of war,” says curator Paul Moorhouse, who is featuring the piece in “The Great War in Portraits” at London’s National Portrait Gallery through June 15.

All this year, Britain is commemorating the centenary of World War I with a coordinated series of art exhibitions. Starting July 19, the London branch of the Imperial War Museums will host “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War.” The British Library is examining cartoons, posters, and ephemera from the period in “Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour” (opening June 19).

Remembering the Great War,” which opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on August 4, will look at Scots involved in the war effort. And in November, Tate Modern will showcase photographs from many different war zones. These are accompanied by smaller exhibitions throughout the nation, along with centenary events around the world.

World War I (called the Great War at the time) was in many ways the first modern war, in which mechanized weaponry wrought mass destruction. Airplanes dropped bombs from the sky. Advanced designs for machine guns, flamethrowers, artillery shells, hand grenades, mines, tanks, and poisonous gas made killing easier and less personal. Soldiers from the Allied Forces of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and their enemies in the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary dug complex systems of trenches to protect themselves from these lethal devices—which, nonetheless, killed or maimed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians. Artists responded to the devastation with their own innovations.

Beyond Epstein’s Rock Drill, “The Great War in Portraits” contrasts official portrayals of world leaders and famous generals with the individual faces—cocky, wistful, haunting—of anonymous soldiers. Moorhouse believes that seeing these faces helps the viewer move past the facts and figures. “The extraordinary numbers—17 million men deployed, 9 million dead—pose a problem for any exhibition,” he says. “These men are no longer with us, so how do we reconnect with that human experience? Portraits are a unique record of the people involved—not only what they look like and what they wear, but what they’re thinking and feeling. From heads of state to ordinary soldiers, everyone in it together, trying to make the best of an impossible situation.”

The show features 80 works by celebrated British painters like Paul Nash and William Orpen alongside lesser-known artists and even a few Germans. Before they became famous, German Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann were soldiers mired in the trenches. Their inclusion in the show illustrates a major break in art history.

“Faced with the carnage and cruelty of World War I, the British pulled back from modernism. Modernism was identified with the enemy. It was seen as uncertain, unpredictable—everything the British didn’t want to engage with anymore. You see them reaching backward to the steady, reassuring hands of tradition,” Moorhouse explains. “The Germans go in a different direction. There, you see Expressionism taking root. Kirchner and Beckmann are on the losing side and don’t want to connect with the past. They want to sever ties with all that.”

Paul Liss, a dealer specializing in the art of World Wars I and II, is showcasing part of his substantial collection at Morley Gallery, the exhibition space at Morley College in London, this September. The sculptures, paintings, drawings, photos, and artifacts on view will touch on themes such as propaganda, conscientious objection, industrialization, sea and air battles, and the roles of women in World War I.

George Clausen’s allegorical painting Youth Mourning, 1916, will be featured at London’s Imperial War Museum in July. ©IWM

George Clausen’s allegorical painting Youth Mourning, 1916, will be featured at London’s Imperial War Museum in July.


It’s a companion show to the much larger “Truth and Memory,” which inaugurates the newly revamped Imperial War Museum. “The art of World War I signifies a change in British society,” says Richard Slocombe, the museum’s senior curator. “World War I ended the notion of a liberal progression of civilization, which was the great idea of the Victorians—that imperialistic notion of the civilizing mission of empire.” The war, he adds, brought about “the birth of the modern, self-aware society.”

Accordingly, “Truth and Memory” features iconic pictures like Nash’s desolate and shattered landscape in We Are Making a New World (1918). But there are also less familiar works, such as Youth Mourning (1916) by George Clausen. An allegorical representation of war painted by an artist who was in his 60s at the time, Youth Mourning depicts a female nude—Clausen’s daughter—grieving her lost lover, and all the others who would never return.

These British exhibitions join dozens of centenary art shows across continental Europe and beyond. At the Leopold Museum in Vienna, “And Yet There Was Art!” (through September 15) focuses on the wartime experiences of young Austrian modernists such as Egon Schiele, who died of Spanish influenza in 1918. German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lost a son in battle, created sculptures and paintings that comment on the evils of warfare. In “Warning and Temptation: The Pictorial Worlds of War of Käthe Kollwitz and Kata Legrady” at Berlin’s Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum (through November 9), Kollwitz’s anguished works are juxtaposed with contemporary Hungarian artist Kata Legrady’s assemblages of candy-covered combat paraphernalia.

The Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels will have “Avant-Garde and the Great War” (opening August 1), a major exhibition exploring the illusions and disillusionment of the era, when many Belgian artists fled the destruction of their country. And a few miles from the Belgian border, the Musée de la Chartreuse Douai in northern France puts Corot’s Shepherd Bathing at the center of a show (through August 26) focusing on works looted during World War I—possibly as revenge for Napoleon’s earlier ravaging of German treasures.

Across the Atlantic, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa examines how Canadians depicted their wartime experiences in “Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War” (through September 21), while the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia is planning a Great War exhibition of American art for 2016–17, timed to coincide with the centenary of U.S. involvement.

At the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norfolk, dozens of contemporary artists from France and England present sculptures, installations, and performances on the theme of war monuments in the exhibition “Monument: Aftermath of War and Conflict” (through July 27).

The repercussions of military action are at the heart of Tate Modern’s offering, “Conflict, Time, Photography.” A meditation on landscape, ruination, reconstruction, and the human cost of war, the show features images of many different combat zones photographed minutes, months, or years after the event.

Contemporary works at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts: Jocelyn Cottencin’s performance and video Monumental, 2014 COURTESY THE ARTIST

Contemporary works at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts: Jocelyn Cottencin’s performance and video Monumental, 2014.


“The original idea came from a Kurt Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The idea that he endured this incredible war experience, and then took 20 years to write a book about it,” says Simon Baker, the museum’s curator of photography and international art. “Conflict is not a short-term impact—it’s very, very long. And it makes a deep impact on people, places, and the way we live. This exhibition is about both remembering and forgetting.”

Images from Kikuji Kawada’s photobook The Map (1959–65) portray the consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States during World War II. These will sit alongside Simon Norfolk’s layered scenes of damage in Afghanistan. “It’s not photojournalism,” Baker says. “There’s more intent in doing a considered project where people go at a specific moment, say ten years later, to try to think about how to represent what happened there.”

After presenting photographs of Berlin, Vietnam, Iraq, and Ukraine, the exhibition will return to its departure point: the battlefields of World War I. Titled “100 Years Later,” this final section will be grounded in the present day. “This anniversary is difficult. No one wants to celebrate—but we do want to look back on the moment,” Baker says. “The last surviving member of that generation is gone, so we have to think of new ways, different ways to remember. We’re giving viewers the chance to rethink, from our moment, the First World War.”

Ann-Marie Michel is an independent journalist writing about arts and culture from her base in Northern England.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “When Modern Art Met Modern Warfare.”

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