ART / The bitter truth about art: The First World War followed violent upheavals in Western art - and, says Tom Lubbock, stopped the avant-garde dead in its tracks

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The Independent Culture
Did they see it coming? The first room of A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War, at the Barbican in London, has a picture by the Berlin artist Ludwig Meidner, one of his Apocalyptic Landscapes. These paintings show cities rocked by convulsions, devastated landscapes, fire from the sky, explosions. They date from 1913. And the wall-caption can't resist saying what, in this context, one can hardly help feeling: 'It is as though he could sense the devastation to come.'

As though . . . But do we call this actually prevision (Meidner himself later claimed something of the sort)? Or simply an artistic vision, which draws on traditional apocalyptic imagery and compounds it with a mix of post-Cubist fragmentation and Expressionist hysteria? Do we say at least that Meidner caught the mood of a gathering storm? Or do we say, more generally, that the formal convulsions experienced in the arts in the early years of this century had, somehow, a common cause with and were part of the same phenomenon as the war itself?

Probing the mysteries of artistic clairvoyance, or the equally mysterious operations of cultural causation, is no doubt fruitless, but it's one of the several lines of thought which A Bitter Truth incites. Now, you couldn't say all the work in this show was itself great art. And the distinction between what is avant-garde, and what's not, is inevitably an arbitrary one. But the great thing that Richard Cork's exhibition does do is to pull together art concerning the war from all the combatant nations in the First World War (except Turkey). The artists themselves are often familiar. But it's the simple act of contextualisation which sheds most lights.

One immediate effect is to give a more than usual emphasis to the nationality of the artists involved. And, indeed, there were some temporary flurries of patriotic energy from, say, Malevich and Dufy, both adopting a folkish idiom for the purpose. But the object of the show is not, ultimately, to stress national allegiances. And if there is a general argument running through this complicated survey, I think it goes like this. At the start of the war, there were many thriving avant-garde styles. But these ways of painting proved inadequate to the experience of the war. Whatever artists may have been feeling and painting at the outbreak, such visions did not prepare them for what would be seen.

The reaction is summed up in a letter Paul Nash sent his wife in 1917, and from which the show takes its title. 'No pen or drawing can convey this country. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.'

'A bitter truth': I suppose those words set the tone for what we think of as war art. But, if so, it was a truth which in many respects early modernism was not just unprepared for, but inherently resistant to. And one can't but hear an irony in the second part of the show's title. For the 'avant- garde' is itself, of course, a military metaphor - and in this case not entirely an empty one. Many artists represented here had not only patriotic but also (so to speak) artistic reasons for giving the war some kind of welcome.

The compound of mechano-mania, mysticism, primitivism and Nietzsche-for-beginners that informed the prevailing artistic philosophies wasn't naturally philanthropic. I think that some of Wyndham Lewis's drawings from the front line are extremely beautiful, but one must admit that these beetling, robotic figures would be hardly sensible to pain. Lewis at least kept a half-decent cool. About the furious battle-hymns of the Italian Futurists, it's best only to say that this attitude is most easily maintained within the language of dynamic abstraction.

Such representations, neither bitter nor true enough, need disabusing - as do the very natural recourses to allegory and symbolism (also in evidence here). But as to a just alternative, this is not so obvious. And when I said that Paul Nash's words set a tone, that wasn't quite right. Rather, they set up a tension - between what 'no pen or drawing can convey', and the need to bring the message home; or, to put it another way, between the war as it was experienced and the need, for the artist, to make it into a picture.

Nash himself is a case in point - a landscape artist (not previously a very avant-garde one) confronted with the 'landscape revolution' of the trenches. Such pictures as We Are Making a New World (1918) or the more retrospective Menin Road of 1919, have justly become iconic images of the war. But, while I don't mean to suggest Nash was merely making a spectacle of warfare, he was surely finding in these scenes pictorial possibilities according to a pre- existing landscape tradition. The effect of this is, in part, a bitter formal irony: the landscape view is maintained, but with what changed sights. But another effect is also to make the horror panoramic, and to find a grandeur in this devastation. The moral perspective, like the visual, remains an overview.

What we think of as war art, though it sounds a general category, is in fact an art specifically born of the Great War. There had been battle-painting before, but war art is defined for us by a particular moral and emotional perspective - roughly speaking Nash's: the eyewitness to horror, but still the panoramic eyewitness - the miles of wasteland, the sky lit up by shell-bursts, the numberless dead. And it can't but become, to some degree, a 'vision'. (How anyway to get nearer to things? How to convey the experience of walking in line into machine-gun fire? It seems, from this show, to have been rarely tried, and never achieved.)

But if there's one war artist whose work is exemplary, it is Otto Dix. His actual wartime pictures, from martial self-portrait at the start, to lurid chaos-fantasias at the end, are not so interesting. But in War, the series of etchings he made in 1924, he manages to hold at bay, in a way against all the evidence, the powerful impulses towards the apocalyptic, the allegorical, the visionary, the panoramic. An eye-witness he is. But what we have are a series of traumatised glimpses and flashes, sights lodged in the memory, but for all that incredible. In this lies their integrity. Some artists may have thought they had seen it coming. Dix, looking back, still can't believe that is what he saw.

THE VETERANS: ARTISTS ON THEIR MILITARY COMMISSIONS

JOHN KEANE

It all seems unreal now. There wasn't a drastic alteration in my outlook. I painted about 50 paintings. You realise the basic extremes of human activity. The most disturbing thing was when we went through a gas alert - it came to nothing, but you don't know that at the time. I didn't see the most gruesome images out there. I only saw one real corpse. We are now so accustomed to seeing unpleasant newsreel footage. The job of the war artist is more clearly defined now. There's no point in recording a scene on canvas. The role of the war artist has changed to that of making a personal statement and also involves a political context. It's too easy to say 'that shouldn't happen'. We want to know why.

John Keane was sent to the Gulf War in 1991

PAUL GOUGH

Every so often the major would take me aside and say: 'Right. I'm now going to criticise your painting from left to right.' I got most of the things I asked for: a gunner model who ran off whenever the Naafi wagon came in sight and another who kept calling me Sir. I was taken out on exercise to make up numbers and hollered at by NCOs who volunteered me for various duties - including 'lifting the trail', which involves lifting the weight of the 'light' gun while one of its wheels is taken off. The experience nourished my painting - it showed me that I could draw complex technical and mechanical shapes and introduced me to new textures and colours that soon fed directly back into my work.

Paul Gough worked for the Royal Artillery in 1983

LEONARD ROSOMAN

Before I became an official war artist I was in the Civil Defence - in the fire service during the Blitz. I made studies of smoke and fire, and derelict buildings. By 1945 I'd had the opportunity to experiment. I spent most of my time sailing up and down the coast of Japan on an aircraft carrier. Turner was a 'painter on the run', looking at everything from the corner of his eye and it was the same for me. I had to record daily life aboard the carrier. Everything was over in an instant. I remember when we were attacked by kamikaze pilots. None hit us that time but we had been hit before. I was interested in the significance of materials of war. Aircraft on carrier decks seemed to epitomise man's attempts to kill his fellow man.

Leonard Rosoman was war artist to the Admiralty in 1945

(Photographs omitted)

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