• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Victims of War and Capitalism

Victims of War and Capitalism

Victims of War and Capitalism

About the exhibition Aftermath. Art in the Wake of World War One, Tate Britain, London [5 June-23 September 2018]; cover image: Ernst Friedrich, Krieg dem Kriege, 1924 (photobook)

Over the past four years of commemorating the centenary of World War One a series of exhibitions, performances and publications have been released reflecting on the bloodshed of never-before-seen proportions and its far-reaching consequences. By the large, the effects of these traumatic events can still be detected nowadays. Germany, the big loser of this global war for territory and economic domination, saw economic collapse and a huge turn in cultural and art production in the years following its military surrender and consequent armistice. At that time, a number of artists joined popular movements in their demands for systematic change of the existing social and economic order. Otto Dix’s painting Whore with War Cripple. Two Victims of Capitalism (1923) lucidly outlines the political climate in the newly formed Republic of Germany (the so called Weimar Republic) as well as the rest of the post-war world. After the long-lasting war, fought in the interests of their empires, masses of people were plunged into poverty and scarcity was prevalent while, at the same time, the already deeply unjust socio-economic relations were aggravated to the point of complete insubordination.

Otto Dix, Whore and War Cripple. Two Victims of Capitalism, 1923

Set against this background, the Aftermath. Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition at Tate Britain in London explores and showcases the influence of this brutal conflict on art making in Great Britain, France and Germany. It is divided into several thematic chapters among which three stand out especially – those that remain deeply inscribed in the history (of art). The first part is dedicated to the immediate response to the war from the perspective of its participants: the soldier-artists who documented and depicted the bloodbath through different creative means. If the beginning of the conflict was greeted with great enthusiasm and faith in a quick victory on all sides, it was soon overshadowed by the grim reality of the unfortunate combination of military tactics of 19th century warfare (all-out frontal assault) and modern weaponry (heavy artillery, aviation, chemical weapons). In his painting Assault at Chemin des Dames (1917) French artist Luc-Albert Moreau doesn’t show the classic heroism of soldiers but their dismembered bodies in muddy trenches amidst the apocalyptic landscape.

Luc-Albert Moreau, Assault at Dames des Chemines, 1917

The other segment of the exhibition showcases examples of public monuments to fallen soldiers. Despite the, nowadays, prevailing and wide-spread consensus that the so called Great War was, above all, an unnecessary massacre, many monuments and memorials were raised by participating states, especially the winners of the war, in the years after the armistice. In spite of that, many artists replaced the expected glorifying iconography with subtle critique and protest. British artist Charles Sargeant Jagger, whose Royal Artillery Memorial (1921-1925) still stands in London’s Hyde Park, equipped the figures with sinister details of modern weaponry. Other monuments, on the other hand, soon became disturbing and unwanted due to the changing political situation. German artist Ernst Barlach cast a bronze figure of a levitating angel for the memorial church in Güstrow (1927), which undoubtedly had anti-war connotations, however, it was removed and melted down in 1937 by the Third Reich. The sculpture at the exhibition is a copy made from the original plaster mould.

Charles Sargeant Jagger, Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park, London (1921-1925), 1926


Charles Sargeant Jagger, Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park, London (1921-1925), detail

The third chapter showcases works of artists who pushed the boundaries of the then conventional expressive forms of art and who directly inserted acute socio-political commentary into their works. Members of Surrealist movement in France and the second wave of the Dada movement in Germany became deeply politically engaged. Many of them were supporters of the socialist cause, which seemed the most efficient (and the only) way of changing the predominant capitalist model for the benefit of greater social equality and emancipation of ordinary man from the century-old tradition of established social hierarchies. Beside the aforementioned Otto Dix, this chapter presents, among others, the works of Hannah Höch, Georg Grosz, Max Ernst and Edward Burra. But capitalism, the undisputed godfather of the First World War (and most modern wars), has survived. For a short period of time, capitalism managed to show a much more human face and submitted to limited public control. Later, however, it went haywire and, once again, is threatening to throw the world into conflicts of unimagined proportions. The line between cold, trade and total war may be very thin. And, if the 20th century started in 1914, then the 21st century may not have even begun.

Alice Lex-Nerlinger, Lorenschieber, 1929 (photogram)


Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende, memorial church in Gustrow, 1927


© Miha Colner, July 2018 / proof reading Ana Cavic