ART / No beauty except in strife: The subject is war, and the pity of war. The Barbican's new show puts the 1914-18 generation under a savage spotlight

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The Independent Culture
THE SUBJECT of Richard Cork's exhibition - and of his book, A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War - is so harrowing that no one should expect a happy expedition to the Barbican Art Gallery. I didn't find a single work there that lifted the spirits, though there are plenty of paintings and sculptures that are moving in other ways.

The show must be seen, however, and I expect that its visitors will go in homage to those who fought and fell. It's not clear how much it adds to our total understanding of the war. For the most part the exhibition is a succession of dark moments in the lives of terrified or outraged artists. A larger picture isn't apparent. The show does try to divide its material thematically and its progression is roughly chronological. None the less, it's hard to see beyond each individual horror of the trenches, the bombarded towns, the dressing stations, the mass graves. And so it was, without a doubt, for those involved. There's one question that turns up time and again in all the literature, the titles of many works of art, and in the cries to generals and politicians: Why? To this day we haven't got a credible answer.

If Cork had wished to rise to the larger questions of the Great War he might have written an extremely good book. As things are, he has given us a very useful one. A Bitter Truth (Yale University Press, pounds 45) is subdivided in much the same way as the exhibition, with chapters such as 'Hostilities Commence', 'Deadlock', 'The Great Carnage', 'Offensive and Defeat', 'Aftermath', 'Despair and Redemption' and so on. But there is no overriding vision. Instead we find short accounts of dozens of European artists whose work was concerned with the war, the relevant parts of their oeuvre smoothly written into a survey that deftly summarises the existing art-historical literature.

'The outbreak of the First World War coincided with an exceptional period of creative energy in Western painting and sculpture,' says Cork, incontrovertibly. He might have gone on to consider whether the whole enterprise of modern art was not damaged by the war - not just individual artists but art itself. Serious critics believe that it was, and that high visual culture in the 20th century has thereafter been far more fragile than literature, and perhaps any other art form. Wisely, I think, Cork avoids such questions. But he is wrong to have evaded the crucial issue of Dada. Many artists went into combat as cubists, futurists, expressionists or whatever, and they carried those styles to the theatre of war. Dada, on the other hand, was the direct child of the Great War. Dadaism was born of the conflict yet doesn't appear in the exhibition and is mentioned in only half a dozen tangential comments in the book.

This book is exceptionally well illustrated, and for that reason the exhibition feels like a concentrated and abbreviated version of the written work. Concentration is indeed a leading characteristic of war art. The impulse to get things down on canvas or paper as quickly, concisely and brutally as possible led to work of striking brevity. Meditative art tends to come after 1918 but Otto Dix, who is well represented at the Barbican, preserved bellicose fury at least until the mid-1920s. Beside his Self Portrait as a Soldier, a fierce work in oil on paper, is his War Series of 1924, etchings with aquatint that must count among the most extraordinary prints of the century. They are all the more gripping because we realise that the black-hearted Dix is glorifying his own part in the carnage.

There were many other artists who took war as a stirring and exciting theme, prominent among them the Italian futurists. We don't see a lot of Giacomo Balla and Carlo Carra these days, and now we are reminded of their art and their political views. Both men actively encouraged the Italian government to join the war, 'the only health-giver of the world'. In addition there's a painting by Mario Sironi, Composition with Propellor, and a rare early de Chirico, The Sailors' Barracks of 1914.

Britain had one committed futurist, Christopher Nevinson, who in 1915 informed the Daily Express that 'this war will be a violent incentive to Futurism, for we believe that there is no beauty except in strife, and no masterpiece without aggressiveness'. He is represented by a handful of paintings. Mostly they are familiar, but Returning to the Trenches of 1914-15 (borrowed from the National Gallery of Canada) is not a well- known work and is of great interest. Stylistically, it is still a futurist work. Emotionally, however, it has begun to criticise rather than glorify patriotic emotions. Cork adds some telling information about Lady Butler, the Victorian battle painter who was still working in 1915 and came to have mixed emotions about a war that she had at one time supported.

Lady Butler isn't in the exhibition, for Cork quite strictly limits his show to artists of the avant-garde. He has also - unusually, these days - kept photographs, documents and videos to a minimum. In their place is an excellent selection of the graphic work that gained such importance as the war went on. Besides Dix, there are impressive German works on paper from George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Erich Heckel. Russian graphics are equally notable, their attitudes complicated by all sorts of references to peasant traditions. Kasimir Malevich's lithographs have some primitivism in their style, while Natalia Goncharova's series Mystical Images of War manages to mix up angels and saints with aeroplanes and modern armies.

Although the nature of the exhibition prevents it from coming to any firm conclusions, it does provide vivid and unusual glimpses of a number of artists. Ludwig Meidner's Apocalyptic Landscape is a splendid and haunting work, German Expressionism at a high level. One wonders whether the Germans were not, on the whole, more eloquent war artists than the British or French. Perhaps I have this feeling because the British works by David Jones, Eric Kennington, Henry Lamb, John Nash, Wyndham Lewis and others are so well- known to us. And it could be that the French are under-represented. Note, though, the uncharacteristic Vuillard, Interrogation of the Prisoner, the big canvas by Roger de la Fresnaye, and the drawings by Dufy.

The exhibition becomes more like an anthology as it spreads out beyond the British and German artists who dominate the show. None the less, it's very good to see some Americans, in particular George Bellows. Marsden Hartley's picture makes me think that his colour must have been owed to German sources. These pictures seem rather isolated, but the disparate pictures in the show are to some extent bound together by the use of sculpture. There isn't quite enough three-dimensional work, but the looming sculptures by Lehmbruck, Bourdelle and Epstein stand watch over the exhibition, very properly reminding us that if the show really does have a theme, it is death.