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Art of World War I

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1 Art of World War I

2 Soldiers as Artists Amongst the millions of conscripts there were painters of every nationality and every school of painting. Those who were born around the year 1880 belonged to the generation that was called up immediately on the outbreak of war. The war held no secrets for men such as these – they were the ones who did the fighting. Many of them drew and painted what they saw and lived through. From the sketchbooks of pencil drawings done at the front to the canvases painted on returning home, theirs is an intense and accurate testimony. " No entry! " Front line sentries on watch, "covering" the mobilization, in "Les Vosges". Georges Scott ( ), drawing published in L'Illustration on August 8th 1914.

3 The Fighting Men Mobilisation meant that civilians suddenly became soldiers plunged into a whole new world, governed by different laws: the world of military order and imminent death. In spite of the propaganda in both camps which depicted the artificial image of triumphant heroes, it was not like that at all. Up until the nineteenth century, war had mainly been the affair of career soldiers but now it was gradually absorbing greater and greater numbers of people. After 1914, one's social class and occupation were no longer taken into account. This war in which everybody was fighting against everybody else was first and foremost a war of civilians of all nationalities with compulsory conscription for those of an age to bear arms. William Orpen, Ready to Start, 1917, 60 x 50.8 cm, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum, London.

4 Otto Dix ( ) The Self-Portrait as a Soldier, lighted by reds and the white reserve, is a celebration of strength and violence verging on savagery. It can be seen as the quintessence of the image of war, proclaiming the necessity of the struggle and the intoxication of destruction with no remorse or regrets. Otto Dix, Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-Portrait as a Soldier), 1914, ink and watercolour on paper, on both sides, 68 x 53.5 cm, Municipal Gallery, Stuttgart.

5 Otto Dix (continued) On the back of the previous painting….
On the other side, the Self-Portrait as a Gunner is in opposition to this over-simplified interpretation, with the all-pervasive black, the shadow around the helmeted head, the worried look and the stark contrast between the warlike symbols of the gold facings against a background of night and death. Despite his youth and his attraction to the war as an experience of the unknown, Dix is not unaware of the horror of war, the appalling daily chronicle of which he later did drawings and etchings. Otto Dix, Selbstbildnis mit Artillerie-Helm (Self-Portrait Wearing a Gunner's Helmet), 1914, ink and watercolour on paper, on both sides, 68 x 53.5 cm, Municipal Gallery, Stuttgart.

6 Lovis Corinth ( ) Neither the subject nor the painter give in to the exalted belligerency of the moment. Despite the fact that Corinth paints with emphatic touches, he keeps his distance from all forms of expressionism, in order, more simply, to depict the worry, the melancholy and the unease of the artist in his soldier's garb. Lovis Corinth, Bildnis Hermann Struck (Portrait of Hermann Struck), 1915, oil on canvas, 80.5 x 59.5 cm.

7 André Mare ( ) This is his self-portrayal as a soldier. Mare’s job was to prepare and organise the camouflaging of the artillery positions. He lived close to the front lines in the same conditions as an ordinary private, with no privileges or pleasures. His natural language was Cubism, a style he had been using since He highlights the thinness of his face and the cap and around the faces he organises picturesque symbolic elements dominated by the three-coloured harmony of the French flag. Shortly after this self-portrait, Mare was seriously wounded by a shell whilst setting up observation posts in Picardy. He was operated on by the doctor and author Georges Duhamel at Ressons, and recovered from his wounds caused by three pieces of shrapnel. André Mare, Autoportrait (Self-Portrait), 1916, Sketchbook 2, p. 7, ink and watercolour on paper, Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne.

8 Egon Schiele ( ) A survivor after three years of war, he had been decorated; there are two medals on his tunic, but his face, eyes and joined hands indicate the weariness and the indifference of this prematurely old man. He portrays him in the same way as he had formerly depicted the Russian prisoners he guarded - with the same coldness and objective acuteness. The absence of the bust, uniform and any setting aggravates this feeling of loss and isolation. This could also be a depiction of Schiele's own loneliness (which his peers in Vienna considered distrustfully if not reprovingly, so much so that they took him to court for alleged indecency). Egon Schiele, Heinrich Wagner, Leutnant i. d. Reserve (Portrait of Reserve Lieutenant Heinrich Wagner), 1917.

9 The Battlefield Le Miroir May 2nd 1915
On May 2nd 1915, Le Miroir published the first snapshot of a battle: the exploding of a shell while infantry dragoons carried out an assault in a landscape of meadows and woods. The poor quality of the picture is given by the newspaper as ultimate proof of its authenticity. The "as if you were there" photographic style came into fashion, heralding a long run of photographs, years before the famous shot taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War, in which we see a republican soldier at the very moment of being brought down by a bullet as he runs. This did not, however, prevent painters from producing some war paintings in very different styles. 

10 Alfred Basel ( ) The first solution was to tell a story. The artist chose an episode and described it amid a wealth of detail. Basel, a Viennese painter and engraver, was called up as a reserve officer. He took part in the fighting against Russian and Polish troops in Galicia. He became a war painter in He chooses a precise moment, which he had probably witnessed, around which to build a narrative vision: a squad of Austro-Hungarian infantrymen stealthily approaching a village controlled by the enemy who surrenders and flees. A bombed-out farm is in flames. Basel avoids all stylistic effects, preferring the extreme simplicity of a painting that tells a tale. Alfred Basel, Erstürmung des Dorfes Stary Korczyn durch das Landsturminfanterieregiment Nr. 1, 22. Dez (Attack on the Village of Stary Korczyn by the Vienna First Infantry Regiment on December 22nd 1914), , tempera on canvas, 99 x 99 cm, Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna.

11 Eric Kennington ( ) In 1914, Kennington enlisted with the Kensingtons, the 13th London Regiment. He fought in northern France where he was wounded and sent home in June During his convalescence, he produced this portrait of a group of infantrymen who had halted among the snow-covered ruins of a village. Kennington himself can be seen, wearing a dark blue balaclava helmet and standing behind the soldier with a German pickelhaube strapped to his backpack by way of a trophy. First exhibited in 1916, the work created a sensation owing to the painting's attention to detail and total rejection of lyricism of any kind. Eric Kennington, The Kensingtons at Laventie, oil on glass, 139.7 x 152.4 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

12 C. R. W. Nevinson ( ) The son of a journalist and famous war correspondent, Nevinson went to Paris in 1911, where he discovered Cubism, which was to have a lasting influence on him and which taught him all about construction and the geometry of modern forms. His representation of the machine-gun and its operator is exemplary: the hard lines of the machinery dictate those of the robotised soldiers who become as one with the killing machine. The painting caused quite a stir, in France as well as in Britain. Apollinaire praised its painter as being one who "translates the mechanical aspect of modern warfare where man and machine combine to form a single force of nature. His painting Machine-gun conveys this idea exactly.” C. R. W. Nevinson, Machine-gun, 1915, oil on canvas, 61 x 50.8 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

13 William Roberts ( ) Although Roberts had distinguished himself through his brightly-coloured semi-Cubist style, this work reveals a different, more descriptive style. The painting commemorates one of the most symbolic events of the war: on April 22nd 1915, the first use of toxic gases by the German artillery against positions held by the Allies, French Zouave troops dressed in red and blue, and Canadian troops dressed in khaki. The clashes of colours add to the intensity of expression, as do the view from above, the expressions of horror, and the large number of figures in this monumental work. William Roberts, The First German Gas Attack at Ypres, 1918, oil on canvas, 304.8 x 365.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

14 Otto Dix ( ) Dix’s vision sometimes verges on the nightmarish. Seen head on, close up, throwing their grenades among the barbed wire and tree roots, the masked soldiers appear inhuman, just like the surroundings which appear unreal, the No Man's Land of the trenches. It is noteworthy that Dix chose to depict not enemy, but German soldiers. In 1924, which was one of a set of 50 plates entitled War, this engraving shocked public opinion in that Dix shows a complete lack of respect for his old comrades in the fighting forces. In place of the exaltation of heroism, he prefers to denounce the savagery of the destruction. Otto Dix, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor (Assault under Gas), 1924, watercolour, 35.3 x 47.5 cm, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin.

15 Frank Brangwyn ( ) Another example of a monumental representation, but from a later period. The work of Brangwyn is that of an artist who made large formats and brutal realism his personal hallmark. Paying great attention to detail in his skilful stagings of attacks, he composed pictures whose dimensions and composition seek a spectacular effect. In 1924, he was commissioned to do a set of wall paintings for Westminster Palace, including this one, where his expressionism was found unacceptably morbid for the official building it was painted for. Frank Brangwyn, Tank in Action, , tempera on canvas, 366 x 376 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

16 Félix Vallotton ( ) Before going to the front to attempt to paint the war, Vallotton engraved emblematic images of it. His album entitled This is War is a collection of his woodcuts - a technique he mastered during the 1890s - one which demands extreme simplicity, bold contrasts between black and white, and ruggedness of line. This makes it particularly appropriate for depicting warfare, groping with knives in the dark sapping trenches, between enemies who could hardly see each other. The details on the helmets are all there is to indicate the nationality of either side. Félix Vallotton, Dans l'ombre (In the Shadow), 1916, woodcut on paper, 17,7 x 22,5 cm, Galerie Paul Vallotton, Lausanne.

17 Fernand Léger Léger painted this picture, the largest and most accomplished of his war paintings whilst convalescing in Paris. Although there is nothing tragic or, strictly speaking, warlike, about the subject, here, for the first time on such a large scale, Léger develops the idea of the automaton that he puts forward in his drawings. The soldiers are faceless and expressionless, they are reduced to cones, barrels, pyramids and Fernand Léger, La partie de cartes (Soldiers Playing at Cards), 1917, oil on canvas, 129 x 193 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. tubes which can only be distinguished by the insignia showing their ranks, and their decorations. The space in which they are playing is the narrow enclosed space of a geometry punctuated by the vertical lines in the background and the broken lines in the centre. All that remains of any colour, in a painting dominated by the blue-greys of the greatcoats and the metal helmets, are a few touches of ochre and red.

18 C. R. W. Nevinson After a period of leave or rest on the home front, a march brings French troops to the front line. This was a possible opportunity for an epic picture of one of those lyrical visions seen in the propaganda. Nevinson however had by then already lost any illusions, despite the early dating of the painting, which was exhibited in London early in There is nothing enthusiastic or heroic about these soldiers. They are bent under the weight of the outsize packs and guns as they move forward as quickly as they can - towards the carnage. The reds and blues of the uniforms fade away amid the greys and ochres as Nevinson divides the foreground up with slanting lines in the Futurist manner in order to reinforce the feeling of precipitation. C. R. W. Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, , oil on canvas, 51 x 76 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

19 The Landscape Fire invented a new landscape, devoid of landmarks or colour. When Jean Hugo went to the front line for the first time during the spring of 1915, he discovered the battlefield with the rising of the sun: "The plain, which stretched as far as the eye could see, seemed to have been churned up by a mad plough. The entanglement of trenches formed in the grass a huge white net with much of the mesh gnawed away. In the middle, there was a pile of stones and beams from which emerged, here and there, a house and a tree with all its leaves: La Targette. Further on, some charred tree trunks and a few white stones: Neuville-Saint-Vaast (...) There were thousands of men on this plain and I could only see one of them. He was lying face down with his nose in the grass; he was dead." Jean Hugo, Le regard de la mémoire (The Look of Memory), Actes Sud, 1983. Photo from Le Miroir May 2nd 1915  

20 The Age of Artillery This is how Henri Barbusse describes the night-time bombardments on the Artois front in 1915: "The rumbling of the artillery became more and more frequent and ended up forming a single rumbling of the whole earth. From all sides, outgoing bursts and explosions threw forth their flashing beams which lit up the dark sky over our heads with strips of light in all directions. Then the bombing grew so heavy that the flashes became continuous. In the midst of the uninterrupted chain of thunder claps we could see each other directly, helmets streaming like the bodies of fish, gleaming black iron shovels, and the whitish drops of the endless rain, truly it was like moonlight created by cannon fire.” Paul Nash, Void (Néant), 1918, oil on canvas, 71.4 x 91.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 317 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

21 Max Beckmann Beckmann adds to the immediacy of this image by depicting the fraction of a second before the explosion. He makes it even more expressive by avoiding too much depth, with a pile of corpses in the foreground, soldiers firing or running away around the incandescent ball which is about to spew out flames and shrapnel. There is no escape for the man who has turned away with his arms spread out, or for the man firing the gun. A similar fate to that of the disfigured victims all around awaits them. Max Beckmann, Die Granate (Shell), 1915, dry-point on paper, 38 x 28.8 cm.

22 C. R. W. Nevinson Nevinson's painting shows a syncopated geometrical transcription of an explosion. It combines two kinds of geometry: one of angles and triangles, suggestive of flying shrapnel; the other of curves and spirals, evoking the flames and curls of smoke. Nevinson adds colour, a chromatic analysis of the flash of an explosion in a restricted space - ruins, a dugout or a well, we cannot tell which. C. R. W. Nevinson, A Bursting Shell, 1915, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

23 C. R. W. Nevinson A year later, when he returned to this subject, his treatment was simpler and more narrative. Nothing remains of the phosphorescent spiral, and Nevinson reduces his language to a proliferation of oblique lines radiating out from a central point - the point of impact - which he also places at the summit of two dark triangles. He again abandons nearly all the colours of the spectrum, using only greys and browns, so much so that his treatment of the explosion is almost photographic. While the painting retains its symbolic force, it has lost some of its experimental value. C. R. W. Nevinson, Explosion, c.1916, oil on canvas, 61 x 45.8 cm.

24 George Grosz In January 1917, Grosz, who up to then had been convalescing, was recalled to his unit. The following day he was hospitalised and shortly afterwards, owing to the seriousness of his depression and the nervous disorders which affected him, he was interned in an institution for the mentally ill. He experienced repeated attacks accompanied by nightmarish hallucinations. In April, the painter was declared unfit for further service. Explosion was painted shortly afterwards, not as the memory of the fighting, but rather as an allegory of the destruction: a town is razed and catches fire in a bombardment and cannot escape the destructive fury that had taken hold of Europe. This is Cubo-Futurism in a dreamlike vein. George Grosz, Explosion, 1917, oil on panel, 47.8 x 68.2 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

25 Félix Vallotton Félix Vallotton, Le plateau de Bolante (Bolante Plateau), 1917, oil on canvas, Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine - BDIC, Paris In Vallotton's landscapes where there is no sign of the thousands of men hidden in the trenches. We may well look far into the distance, as far as the horizon, scour the slopes of mutilated trees and the plain in the distance, there is nothing living to be seen, there are only a few wisps of white smoke and the barely perceptible furrows of the communication trenches dug in the ground. The work is disappointing, being short on picturesqueness, pathos, and intensity - Vallotton was certainly aware of this and yet he refused to cheat. He wished to paint only what the soldier saw: earth, patches of grass, tree trunks and sky.

26 John Nash Oppy was a village not far from Vimy. Fortified by the Germans, it withstood the assaults of the British, Canadian and French troops until September John Nash's painting depicts with careful didacticism the circumstances of the confrontation - the destruction of nature, the plain ravaged by shell-holes which had been turned into lakes, shelters dug deep in the ground, and trenches with cemented floors and arches reinforced by sheet metal, and - once again - the immobility, the void, the lookout on his watch with his face at ground level among the roots and clods of earth. John Nash, Oppy Wood, Evening, oil on canvas, 182.8 x 213.3 cm, Imperial War Museum, London

27 Georges Leroux Leroux (1877- ?) belonged to a camouflage unit and served in northern France and Belgium. He told how on returning from a reconnaissance mission he had seen "a group of French soldiers taking shelter in a great shell-hole full of water" and how he later painted the picture from a sketch made that same evening. With a realism quite unlike the style of Nash or Léger, he produced a work which attempts to represent as accurately as possible the unrepresentable reality of war. Georges Leroux, L'Enfer (Hell), , oil on canvas, 114.3 x 161.3 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

28 C. R. W. Nevinson During the Great War, aerial bombing raids were carried out against civilian targets by both the artillery and the airforce. Here, Nevinson denounces the German airforce - the Taube and its attacks against civilian populations - even though such attacks were more often carried out by airships such as the Zeppelin, and the Allied airforces had also attacked German towns in the Ruhr as the bombers' range of action increased. A closer perusal of the painting is highly instructive in that it prefigures all those photographs and paintings which, during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and those which followed, chose civilian targets - an even more odious crime as there were children involved, as is the case here. C. R. W. Nevinson, A Taube, , oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

29 C. R. W. Nevinson Because Nevinson was so bold as to paint the bodies of two Tommies in front of the barbed wire, this painting was banned from an exhibition in Nevinson refused to take it down and covered it with brown paper on which he wrote "Censored". This gesture earned him a reprimand from the War Office, for it was forbidden either to show reality or to denounce censorship. Nevinson had only painted what every soldier had seen dozens of times: comrades who had fallen under fire during pointless assaults. C. R. W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory, 1917, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 61 cm, Imperial War Museum.

30 Otto Dix The light of the flares reveals what was hidden in the night: a mound of twisted bodies, skulls, limbs torn apart - a dance of death. This, one of Dix's most expressionistic works, boils down everyday experience into a central theme. The clashes of colour intensify the violence of the painting as can be sensed in the artist's vigorous brushstrokes, in the deformations, the explosions of red and white and the patches of blue partly covering the grey and green. Later, Dix returned to this theme in an uncompromisingly realistic style; and yet this chaotic, vehement painting of 1917 conveys the revulsion and the terror no less effectively. Otto Dix, Lichtsignale (The Flare), 1917, gouache on paper, 40.78 x 39.4 cm, Städische Galerie, Albstadt.

31 William Orpen During the summer of 1916, a fierce battle took place between the Germans and the British at Thiepval in the Somme and the surrounding region. A few months later, Orpen returned to the scene of the battle to find the stones littered with skulls, bones and fragments of clothing. Typically, Orpen refused to choose, his eye and his painting enumerate the human remains and broken objects without distinction. The weather is fine, and tufts of grass and poppies, are growing in the chalk ground around the scattered, soon to be forgotten skeletons. William Orpen, Thiepval, 1917, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

32 Otto Dix At a time when the Nazis had banned him from teaching and exhibiting, Dix secretly produced this last painting in memory of his war and its dead. Even more so than the triptych, the style is inspired by the old German masters, notably the treatment of the sky, the roots and the branches. The literary allusion helps to specify the subject - no longer the carnage, but the flooding of the trenches, which made fighting impossible and forced soldiers from both sides to flee their dugouts with no thoughts of killing each other. Otto Dix, Flandern (Flanders) (after Le Feu by Henri Barbusse), , oil and tempera on canvas, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin. During the night they sought shelter out of the water's reach. At dawn, they discovered that they were close to one another. Barbusse wrote: "It had now become an uncanny field of rest. The ground was dotted with beings sleeping or gently stirring, lifting an arm, raising their heads, coming back to life or else dying. The enemy trench finally collapsed in on itself …. All these men with cadaverous faces in front of us and behind us, exhausted, drained of speech and all will, all these men weighed down with mud, almost carrying their own burial, looked like each other, as if they were naked. From both sides, men came out of that dreadful night wearing exactly the same uniform of destitution and dirt."

33 John Lavery Many hospitals for British troops were set up in Etaples and many men died here, to be buried in the countryside above the River Canche and the Paris-Boulogne railway line. Before the Imperial War Graves Commission brought them together and arranged for their upkeep, this is how it appeared to Lavery as it had done to Vallotton: crosses, a few flowers and interminable rows among which women tend the graves. John Lavery, The Cemetery, Etaples, 1919, oil on canvas, 59 x 90 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

34 Félix Vallotton From Vallotton's time in Champagne and Argonne, this is the most straightforward painting, the one in which style and means are not an issue. It relies on the repetition of a sign - a cross - in the depth of space. The graveyard thus appears immense, the crosses countless, and death omnipresent as is the case in the cemeteries remaining both from this war and from World War II. Here and there the wooden crosses are adorned with wreaths and decorations. Using the 'unknown soldier' symbolism that Vallotton introduced here a long time before it became the official French symbol under the Arc de Triomphe, not one name is legible. Félix Vallotton, Le cimetière de Châlons-sur-Marne (The Cemetery of Châlons sur Marne), 1917, oil on canvas, 54 x 80 cm, Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine - BDIC, Paris.

35 Discussion Questions How were these depictions of the war different from the war propaganda shown in the postcards and recruitment posters? How might a painting be able to portray war more accurately than a photograph? Why do you think many of these painting were not welcomed by the authorities? How does art work as a form of history?

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