Heartstopping horrors – Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War review

The Guardian | Adrian Searle

A body hurled into space and impaled on a stake, like a discarded coat flung on a fencepost. A soldier, his clothes blown off, coy in his nakedness and shock. Michelin Guides to the battlefields and ruins of Ypres, with their before-and-after views, and double page spreads of the devastation. An airship flies over the destruction, filming the view. Below, people walk in twos and threes. They might be tourists, or people looking for their lost lives. A painting by Richard Carline shows a similar elevated view: a road, a convoy of trucks, the pockmarked landscape. It could be a drone’s-eye view of Basra. Nothing changes except the name of the war.

The first room of Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One is a wasteland of churned mud and body parts, flooded craters and hollow helmets. Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill overlooks it all, a sinister, insectile machine-man, a Terminator robot before his time. Below Epstein’s creature is Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Fallen Man, on hands and knees, his buttocks raised, the top of his head against the ground, his inverted face looking back between his legs at his own drooping cock. Stalled in a position of extreme vulnerability and abjection in his attempt to crawl off somewhere.

What a heartstopping sculpture this is. Made in 1915-16 for a war cemetery in his hometown of Duisberg, Lehmbruck’s figure was reviled by the German art press. The artist, who fled to Switzerland in 1916, never recovered from his experiences as a medical orderly in a Berlin military hospital and took his own life in 1919. The Fallen Man deserves to be recognised as one of the great 20th-century sculptures…read more

Image: Reviled by the German art press … The Fallen Man, in front of A Shell Dump by William Roberts. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock