Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Art of the First World War

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.

The aim of this exhibition is not to review the facts of the war, but to show how they were portrayed by artists on either side of the front line, and indicating the difficulties involved. 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. Boccioni, Macke, Marc, La Fresnaye and Gaudier-Brzeska died during, or as a consequence of, the war. Only the citizens of neutral countries (for example the Spanish nationals Picasso and Gris) were not called up. Many enlisted out of patriotism or because they could not bear to be away from the action. Until now, with very few exceptions, artists and writers had witnessed wars without actually becoming involved. In 1914, for the first time, they all had to take part: Germans, Britons, Italians, Austro-Hungarians and Frenchmen. Léger became a stretcher-bearer, Kokoschka a cavalryman, Beckmann a medic, Derain an artilleryman, Camoin a camoufleur, Dix a machine-gunner. 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.

And yet, many of these works have been little researched, if not altogether forgotten. Because they recalled painful memories they were not much looked at once the war was over. Even the men who painted them - with the crucial exception of Otto Dix - had grown away from their work, and made no attempt to exhibit them. For example, Beckmann and Léger were no sooner demobbed than they set to work painting very different subjects, such as contemporary life and the city. Others went even further in making a fresh start. Among those who were called up were Braque and Derain, who left Avignon station together on August 2nd 1914 to join their regiments, accompanied by Picasso. Braque took part in the fighting during that autumn and winter. He was seriously wounded on May 11th 1915, was trepanned and, after a long convalescence, returned to his workshop a year later. He left not a single drawing or canvas alluding to what he had been through and no representation of the war is present in his work. Derain was attached to an artillery unit and served in the Champagne region, at Verdun, on the Somme, and on the Chemin des Dames until 1917. He was not demobilised until after the armistice. Of this five year period there remains no trace, apart from the title of one painting, the Cabaret on the Front seen by André Breton in Derain's studio in 1921, but which disappeared and was probably destroyed. Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff and Kokoschka also refrained from painting what they had seen and experienced...

Nevertheless, new art works did appear, and in larger numbers than might be expected. They expressed violence, fear, exaltation, suffering, pity and disgust. They appealed to the persistence of the human conscience at a time when it was being enslaved and ignored by war. Some of the older ones, those most set in their old ways, tried to do this with the tools of pictorial realism handed down from the previous century. They observed biplanes, artillery guns and soldiers in close detail, and equally methodically reproduced what they saw. Illusion and illustration were their main resources. However, their themes, being all about movement, speed and the instant, were bound to suffer from being fixed as if suspended in a still picture. These works still have their documentary value however, which today is heightened by their picturesqueness from another age.

Younger painters trained during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, attempted combinations which nowadays we find surprising, such as bright, sharp colours and macabre subjects, or cut-out shapes and white light. Whether they were painting the ruins of a bombed-out church, a mountain artillery post or two bodies lying forgotten in a trench, Vallotton in Argonne, Horovitz in the Alps and Orpen on the Somme introduced purple shadows, sinuous lines and Japanese-inspired flat tints - as if it were still possible, a quarter of a century on, faithfully to apply the lessons of Gauguin and the Nabis...

The artists belonging to the European avant-garde movements - the German Expressionists, French Cubists, Italian Futurists and British Vorticists - rejected once and for all the rules which had previously governed the painting of battle scenes. They worked to overcome the difficulties involved in devising new themes and methods suited to the monstrous new reality. Those methods were largely those of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Abstract Art. In May 1915, Léger was in Argonne from where he wrote to a friend: "All the same, it is a funny kind of war (...) This war is the perfect orchestration of every means of killing, both old and new. It is intelligent to its fingertips, which actually makes it damned annoying as there are no more surprises. We are controlled on either side by very talented people. It's as linear and as arid as a geometry problem. Such a large number of shells in such a short time over such a surface area, so many men per metre and in order at the specified time, it is all triggered off mechanically. It is pure abstraction, much purer even than Cubist Painting "itself". I can't deny my allegiance to this method (...)" (6). In devastated Verdun, he discovered "completely unexpected subjects to gladden (his) Cubist soul" (7). Drawings and watercolours are the satisfactory result of these new contacts. Léger portrays dehumanised automata serving the machines that crushed them. He brings out the collapsed shapes of his ruins and the broken lines of a shot-down plane.

Dix, Nevinson, Severini, Wyndham Lewis, Nash and Grosz also came to understand that modern warfare needed to be painted in a modern way. The time for heroic realism and patriotic allegory was up. To interpret the explosions of shells, the all-powerful artillery and total war demanded transcripts and not imitations. In order to convey a feeling of its inhuman violence, rather than represent the particular details of the battle, lines had to be broken, and colours had to burst out.

From the website The Art of the First World War

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