Aftermath & Shape of Light
Aftermath explores the response of artists from 1918 -1940. While some wanted to return to more traditional forms of representation, others were committed to experimentation and to criticising the unequal society which they believed had caused the war. Among those that responded to what Cocteau called ‘the call to order’ was Maillol whose Venus with a Necklace conveys the sense of ‘a moment in time’ apparent in Renoir’s Venus Victorix.
Meanwhile artists such as Otto Dix, Grosz and Beckmann took their cue from Dada and Surrealism. Some revived medieval German printmaking techniques in ways that combined expressionist shock tactics with a reassertion of national identity. Others including Ernst, Schwitters, Heartfield and Hoch used the equally subversive medium of collage.
Both Schwitters and Brecht were forced to escape from the Nazis while others such as Barlach had their work destroyed or exposed to ridicule. Barlach’s Floating Angel may not be as serene as it appears since its title suggests the phrase ‘an angel passes’, which in German denotes an awkward pause or something deliberately left unsaid.
The work, like Christian Schad’s Self-Portrait or Edward Burra’s Snackbar, is a useful reminder that the return to realism did not necessarily imply conservatism. Both were influenced by the apparent naturalism of Neue Sachlichkeit but their mood is anxious and the characters extremely sexualised. Other figurative works include Dorothy Brett’s painting of a heavily pregnant war widow and Winifred Knights’ Deluge, inspired by her traumatic memory of a war-time explosion in a munitions factory. While both images reflect changes in women’s roles and expectations, the latter shares with David Jones and Stanley Spencer an interest in the religious revival of the 1920s.
There are only a handful of abstract artists in the exhibition associated with the Bauhaus, Constructivism, Purism or de Stijl. Coincidentally, however, their dedication to deconstructing the language of art and to creating a more rational and democratic society through architecture and design are very much in evidence in Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art.
Even before 1914, Stieglitz had argued that ‘unless photography has its own possibilities of expression separate from those of other arts, it is merely a process’. His researches are the direct equivalent of the investigations by Cézanne, Mallarmé, Schoenberg and Nijinsky into the materials and processes of their own respective disciplines. Similarly, Paul Strand emphasised the shapes and shadows of his still-lives while Moholy-Nagy, Rodchencko and Bourke-White photographed radio towers from very low or aerial view-points by. Others created ‘photograms’ by placing objects on sensitised paper and exposing them to light or took the practice of working without a camera one stage further by experimenting with unusual combinations of chemicals. The surrealists’ interest in ‘estrangement’ encouraged photographers to use chance techniques such as unpredictable lighting conditions and double exposures or the technique of moving the camera while taking a photograph. Others de-familiarised their subjects through radical cropping and extreme close-ups.
After 1918 John Nash used a sniper’s viewpoint to portray a peaceful corn field and William Roberts transferred his depiction of robotic wartime figures to a dance hall. Aftermath does not find room to explore some of the biggest changes, which occurred in the work of older artists. Yet it would have been interesting to have compared Lavery’s portrayal of an airship over Norway to the mesmerising footage filmed from the same viewpoint over the western front. The film seems an endorsement of Moholy-Nagy’s claim that photography and film had enabled us to ‘see the world with entirely different eyes’. Yet the seeming detachment of the footage seemed in keeping with the cool and impersonal approach of many of the politically motivated photographers in Shape of Light. This is because the absence of cold, wind and noise appeared artificial and the pilot’s decision to maintain a constant height began to seem increasingly arbitrary.
It reminded me of Barlach’s insouciant Angel and of the experimental photographs that Man Ray made by swinging a Polaroid camera over his head. Their title, Unconcerned (but not indifferent)’, was repeated on his gravestone and seems a fitting epitaph to a hundred years of photographic abstraction.
Aftermath is on at Tate Britain until 23 September 2018 and Shape of Light is on at Tate Modern until 14 October 2018.
There is a study visit to Shape of Light on the 1 July.
Featured image: Ernst Barlach – The Floating Angel, 1927