Tate Modern

The Disappearing Figure: Art after Catastrophe

Natalie Bell Building Level 2 East
Germaine Richier, ‘Chessboard, Large Version (Original Painted Plaster)’ 1959
Germaine Richier, Chessboard, Large Version (Original Painted Plaster) 1959. Tate. © The estate of Germaine Richier

Survey the impact of the catastrophic events of WWII on the art that followed

One of the fundamental questions for artists in the middle of the twentieth century was how to continue making art after the catastrophic events of the Second World War.

The Second World War signalled a violent upending of the social and political order. Cities were reduced to rubble, millions of people became refugees and the Nazi concentration camps fundamentally changed ideas about humanity’s capacity for evil. The use of nuclear weapons revealed the possibility of further, unparalleled levels of destruction.

Across the globe, artists felt compelled to respond, both to the war and to the regional conflicts and crises that continued to erupt. Some rejected the European high cultural tradition that now seemed tainted and took inspiration from non-Western art forms or the freedom of children’s drawings. In the United States, a new form of abstract art developed, characterised by seemingly spontaneous mark-making. Others experimented with unconventional materials like tar, soil and burnt plastic, seeking new ways to express the fragility of culture and nature.

Scars, scratches, drips and heavily textured surfaces emphasise the physical act of making the work, and with it, the artist’s presence in the world. When they represented the human figure, these artists didn’t aim to create a likeness, but instead sought to capture the essence of humanity. Some artists removed people entirely, using gestural marks to suggest landscapes, nature and architecture.

The unconventional organisation of works in this room was inspired by one of the landmark exhibitions of the period, International Experimental Art at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1949 which included works by Constant and Karel Appel, among others.

Curated by Kerryn Greenberg and Matthew Gale


Tate Modern
London SE1 9TG
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