The Great War lasted for four years and caused the deaths of eight million men. It saw the collapse of three empires – Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia. It devastated the regions on both the eastern and western fronts. It was the first industrial war, with endless technological advances, mass production and the general mobilisation of all human, economic and mechanical resources. Its victims came from every nationality and from every background - from Europe and North America, from the Commonwealth nations and colonised peoples in India, Indochina and Africa. It happened everywhere, on the ground and underground, on the water and under water, and in the air. It was fought using every possible means, from cavalry charges to hand-to-hand trench warfare, from bombardments to assault tanks, using gas or phosphorus. In this war, the warrior was reduced to the dual role of servant and victim of the machine.
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.
Could they have done so even had they wanted to? Supposing they were able to overcome their disgust, did the Great War remain elusive to painters in robbing them of their traditional military genre? Contemporary war meant an elusive, mechanised war which did not offer painters the charges, ambushes, symbolic episodes and other themes that had inspired the successful battle painter up until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. What could a painter do faced with the trajectory of a shell or a bullet, a toxic cloud of chlorine gas, or dugouts only visible from their barbed wire entanglements and earth parapets? What good would it do depicting a smoke-covered desert which, for most of the time, was all there was to see on a battlefield? The essayist Robert de la Sizeranne wrote of his anxiety on this subject whilst the war was still on. According to him, "the modern 'battle' is of great use for writers, psychologists, poets, playwrights and moralists, but is of no use whatsoever to painters." (1) He went on to explain, "the major feature of this war, along with the trench and the machine-gun, is the role of the field gun and other machines: aeroplanes, tanks, submarines and torpedoes. Some are completely invisible and perform their task without being seen, which is how they are meant to operate. So they offer no subject for a painting. Even if others are visible, men very carefully deprive them of any meaning (...) the great killing machines are disguised as inoffensive objects, they have been "camouflaged" (2). As it turns out, those painters not serving in combat units worked, as of 1915, in the camouflage sections. The German Franz Marc and the Frenchman André Mare perfected optical illusion techniques which made landmarks disappear and targets unidentifiable. They were employed in removing the last chance of pictorial representation. These painters were actually contributing towards the defeat of their art, making unvisible the decisive moments of the fighting.
In 1915, the press overcame whatever scruples it still entertained, and began publishing increasingly painful pictures of death. Although for a time it was tacitly agreed that newspapers would only publish photographs of enemy bodies, this restriction was swept aside in 1916 when Le Miroir published a front page photograph of the bodies of a German and a Frenchman, propped up against each other in a hole. The papers kept up this loathsome race for sensationalism until the armistice.
|Le Miroir 21st May 1916||
" No entry! "
Front line sentries on watch, "covering" the mobilization, in "Les Vosges".
Georges Scott (1874-1943), drawing published in L'Illustration on August 8th 1914.
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.
1 - Robert de la Sizeranne, L'art pendant la guerre, 1914-1918, Hachette, 1919, p. 259. (back)