‘The Dance Club (The Jazz Party)’ (1923) by William Roberts © Estate of John David Roberts
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“Four years without colour” was how Fernand Léger described the first world war. He was a sapper, and a legend in his engineering corps when his wife disguised herself as a soldier to visit and make love to him in the trenches. In 1917 he nearly died in a mustard gas attack and, while convalescing, began to consider the effects of technology as a subject: “The breech of a 75mm in the sunlight taught me more than all the museums in the world.”

Back in Paris, Léger created Ballet Mécanique (1924), a film montage of wheels, cogs, spokes, wine bottles, a cockatoo, close-up eyes and lips all whirling in Constructivist designs, set to a score of wailing sirens spliced with jazz piano. This mesmerising experimental film is among many unexpected, contradictory works starring in Tate Britain’s impressive, generally sombre commemorative exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, which unpicks how the trauma of 10m dead, 20m wounded, bankrupt economies and upturned societies left indelible marks on 1920s European visual culture.

Dada’s fragile anarchy — Kurt Schwitters’ “Picture of Spatial Growths”, a collage of torn envelopes, newspaper scraps and tram tickets — coexists with savage Expressionist satire: the show’s poster image is George Grosz’s “Grey Day”, where a blockheaded businessman with coiffed moustache and crossed eyes walks smugly away from an amputee veteran. German Neue Sachlichkeit — Christian Schad’s “Self-Portrait”, the artist in transparent green shirt insouciantly ignoring the cold nude who shares his bed — glares across at French rappel à l’ordre, embodied by Georges Braque’s “Bather” in undulating white drapery, a statuesque yet almost hallucinatory figure set among soft foliage.

Schwitters was a wartime draughtsman in a machine factory, Grosz medically exempt, Schad a pacifist, Braque an exemplary soldier, trepanned and awarded the Croix de Guerre. The human stories here are as unpredictable and fascinating as artistic responses of rage, nihilism and classical restraint. What unites them is the sense that the catastrophe of 1914-18 demanded fresh, extreme, unprecedented art.

‘Grey Day’ (1921) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz

At the exhibition entrance crouches the earliest of the first world war’s anti-heroic memorials: the hunched, etiolated “Fallen Man” (1915-16) by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, a precocious sculptor who served as a medical orderly and killed himself in 1919. Overhead soars a two-metre bronze angel of mourning, Ernst Barlach’s “The Floating One”, looking down on memorabilia such as shell-damaged helmets, and records of destruction including Lucien Le Saint’s “An Airship over the Battlefields”, filmed in 1919 above Flanders and taking in the razed city of Ypres.

Can art even compete with such raw documentary evidence? “(Artists) must only bear witness,” Otto Dix once said. And they did so most eloquently, sometimes with harrowing intensity, in monochrome — Léger’s world “without colour” — and Tate’s central black-walled gallery displaying German graphic art is the exhibition’s deeply moving heart of darkness, as well as revelatory of formal possibilities within different print media.

In September 1914 Käthe Kollwitz persuaded her husband to sign papers enabling their younger son Peter, who was under age, to enlist; a month later he was killed. In the woodcut “The Volunteers”, Peter stands next to the charismatic figure of Death leading a procession of surging, ecstatic youths off to war. “The Sacrifice” features a modern Madonna offering up her baby. “The Mothers” is a huddle of blank-eyed anguished women, wrapped within one elongated protective arm, dissolving into a single gesture of despair.

Kollwitz, her life determined by grief and guilt, is a one-note artist, but how magnificently she sounds that note. This large-format simplified series “War” (1921-22) uses woodcut’s coarse linearity and contrasting black-and-white effects, devoid of intermediate tones, to concentrate emotion in images that are stark, airless and compressed.

‘The Snack Bar’ (1930) by Edward Burra © Estate of Edward Burra

Two years later Dix published his portfolio “The War”, his recollections as a machine-gunner. He did not entirely regret the experience — “you have to have seen people in this untamed state to know anything about them” — and that unflinching sensibility determined etchings that recall Goya in their mix of brutality, urgency and a nightmarish unreal quality. Soldiers are gaping ghosts with gas mask faces in “Shock Troops Advance under Gas”; worms wind through eye sockets, maggots settle in tufts of hair in “Skull”. The corrosive etching technique — acid on metal — enhances the impression of decay of rotting bodies and blackened wastelands.

Why did German graphic art express the pity of war much more forcefully than anything made in post-1918 France or England? Germany’s graphic tradition since Albrecht Dürer is one answer; defeat leading to social breakdown must be the other. That is the subject of Max Beckmann’s jagged lithograph narrative of chaos and claustrophobia, “Hell” (1919), which opens with “The Way Home” and “The Street” — the artist returning to Berlin’s twilit underworld choked with disfigured soldiers, prostitutes, profiteers — and concludes with “The Family”, where Beckmann’s young son mistakes a grenade for a toy.

Emerging from this black box into Tate’s bright, long gallery called “Return to Order” is like going from night to day, with the greatest painting here, Picasso’s small, pale pink-and-blue wooden panel “Family by the Seashore” (1922), borrowed from Paris, an affectingly direct contrast with Beckmann’s final image. Painted at Dinard, Picasso’s composition looks at first sight like a neoclassical version of a holiday snap: father dozing on the beach interrupted by his little boy, mother leaning forward attent­ively. But Picasso attenuates the stiffness of the horizontal figure to suggest a corpse, with the woman bending in lamentation: this is a Pietà, not an escapist idyll but death in Arcadia.

Jacob Epstein’s ‘Torso in Metal from Rock Drill’ (1913-16) © Estate of Jacob Epstein

In a stroke of curatorial blindness in an otherwise sensitive show, Tate hangs this subtle wistful masterpiece next to Dod Procter’s clunky, dowdy “Morning”. Procter’s large-scale depiction of a reclining teenager in a creamy shift, painted to suggest the weight of stone, was voted Picture of the Year at the 1927 Summer Exhibition; the Daily Mail purchased it for Tate.

If British artists, inevitably, do not come off sparklingly at the side of Picasso, Braque and Beckmann, juxtapositions with their French and German contemporaries do allow intriguing insights into the distinctive ways in which the more subtle English painters negotiated compromise with European avant-gardes.

Paul Nash crossed surrealism with English romanticism in pallid, eerily still pastorals such as “Landscape at Iden”. Meredith Frampton’s icily smooth, hyper-detailed portraits such as “Marguerite Kelsey”, glamorous, melancholic, have affinities with Neue Sachlichkeit. They are also evidence of Frampton’s powers of precise scrutiny; in the war he studied aerial photographs to map enemy trenches. “On 4 August 1914 civilisation came to an end,” Frampton declared; nostalgic throwback was perhaps the particularly English response to the conflict.

To September 23, tate.org.uk

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