Not on display
Corporal Grünewald, Privates Dürer, Cranach and Brecht. Thuringian infantrymen looking under a dead horse. Bapaume area, winter 1916 1978−9 is a landscape drawing on paper using conté crayon and gouache to depict a group of German soldiers – part of a horse-drawn artillery battery – attending to a dead horse while under shellfire. It is an example of a group of works made by Atkinson between 1976 and 1982 in which he wished to develop an art practice where art and politics might have a more direct relationship with each other. Where some works of this type, such as The long-winded hysterical and pretentious titles of Marxist prejudice … Event: Tankshit. Shrapnel, (made by Krupp, Essen) bursting upon Mark 1 tank (made by Metropolitan Wagon and Finance Co., Wednesbury), Black Watch (Dundee) and New Zealand (Otago) infantrymen, Battle of Fleurs-Courcelette, Somme, September 1916 1979 (collection of the artist), depicting a group of infantry soldiers and a tank coming under attack, portray the war as a continuation of the struggle indicated earlier by the industrial revolution, others – typified by Corporal Grünewald, Privates Dürer, Cranach and Brecht – frame imagery of the First World War according to a class struggle that could be traced back to the related agricultural revolution.
The titles of these works additionally point to ways in which the image might be read and understood. One is about Empire, Capital and Industry; the other about a projection of culture and critique into imagery of the conflict. The identification of the soldiers with German cultural figures is a device used by the artist to insert the work ‘into a tradition of Western art/literary practice. An attempt to emphasise the general historical debt to prior cultural practices set within the historical weight of the event of WW1 on any practice after the start of the Cold War.’ (Terry Atkinson in email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 28 September 2017.) By extension, the depicted act of ‘looking under a dead horse’ has a metaphorical charge about looking for, or observing, the traces of history. For Atkinson the course of the First World War provides a blueprint for the subsequent Cold War and its continued aftermath – the truth of which might be revealed by ‘looking under a dead horse’. His titles also reflect the degree of research he carried out into the subject. For instance, Thuringian infantry were indeed stationed in the Bapaume area during the winter of 1916; research that lends the work a historical and documentary accuracy.
Atkinson was a pioneer of conceptual art in the late 1960s through his collaboration with Michael Baldwin in forming the group Art & Language (initially alongside David Bainbridge and Harold Hurrell). In the early 1970s he started to move away from Art & Language to create a singular practice that used the conceptual strategies of indexing but was realised through a continuing and developing attention to the genre of history painting and the ways it could communicate ideological positions and class struggle. Allied to this was the feeling that Art & Language’s critique of modernism was becoming increasingly blunted and inward-regarding. One task that Atkinson set himself, as a socialist, was to examine how history might be represented most adequately so that its real complexity could stand revealed. Atkinson turned towards the subject of the First World War as a way of codifying his move away from an Art & Language position as a more radical extension of what Art & Language had termed a ‘second order’, or interpretative approach, to conveying different complexities of meaning. The critic John Roberts has explained: ‘The work referenced WW1, but through various textual strategies sought to make the issue of historical transmission through images a problematic one. It was precisely the epistemological status of the images as truthful representations that was the basis of the work.’ (John Roberts, ‘Terry Atkinson’s History Paintings’, in Mute 2: Terry Atkinson, Derry 1989, p.2.)
Atkinson’s works that drew on the imagery of the First World War were formulated at a time that marked a return to a range of approaches to figurative painting with which his work connects. The use of drawing and pastel for most of these works results in part from the impact that an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1976 of drawings by Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) made on Atkinson. The adoption of Millet’s technique provided ‘a forewarning mimic function of then emerging expressionism of artists like Baselitz’ (Terry Atkinson in email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 28 September 2017). Atkinson held to a need to theorise both the figurative and the expressive elements of what later came to be identified as a ‘New Spirit in Painting’ (the title of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1981 co-curated by Christos Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota). To Atkinson, such a ‘new spirit’ embodied a ‘recoil from complexity – a yearning to have things simple and straightforward again, just like, we are told, the old days were before we were all set adrift in the simmering stew of modernism.’ (Terry Atkinson, ‘Remarks from Hindsight’, in Whitechapel Art Gallery 1983, p.58.) His own use of figuration, expressionism and realism was not enacted by him as a ‘return’ but instead a continuation of the interpretative and critical approach that had been theorised by him and Michael Baldwin (born 1945) at the short-lived Art Theory course they had run at Coventry School of Art between 1969 and 1971.
Atkinson’s critique of representation and the construction of the history painting genre is in one sense his theorised intervention into debates in the late 1970s and early 1980s concerning the return of representation, craft and individualised expression in painting. His adoption of the form and subject of an expressive realism defines a practice that is unacceptable within the orthodoxies of modernism, and is used to critique it and attendant histories of class and capital. For John Roberts, addressing such works as Corporal Grünewald, Privates Dürer, Cranach and Brecht. Thuringian infantrymen looking under a dead horse. Bapaume area, winter 1916:
The question of realism here turns less on aesthetic considerations than on the substantive historical issues associated with the Great War that Atkinson seeks to put into view. Atkinson’s work is realist not because it ‘shows things as they really are’, but rather that in dealing with WW1 he is addressing and uncovering a set of historical events and relations that shows how political power in the world actually works. WW1 merits representation because of what it tells us about the place of WW1 in the objective dynamics of capitalist development. (‘Terry Atkinson’s History Paintings’, in Mute 2: Terry Atkinson, Derry 1989, p.3.)
Terry Atkinson, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1983, illustrated p.12.
Terry Atkinson, The Indexing, The World War 1 Moves and the Ruins of Conceptualism, Manchester 1992, illustrated p.33.
Andrew Wilson (ed.), Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2016.
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