Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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Gino Severini, Gun in Action, 1915, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, Museum Ludwig.

© SESAM, Paris, 1998. Photo : Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln.

The age of artillery

36 - Gino Severini

There remains one difficulty for the painter to overcome if possible: to add the great noise to the picture and give as complete a rendering of the feeling as he can. In the terms of Cubist "papiers collés", Severini introduces words and onomatopoeia, edging towards a poem painting. Some of his methods may appear pretty crude, like the "booom" of the blast.
Others attempt to specify the technique itself, "arithmetical perfection", "geometrical rhythm", "gradual earthward curve". The picture is to be read as much as it is to be looked at, especially as the figures of the artillerymen are only sketched in and the gun itself is not shown in any great detail. In 1916, shortly after painting and exhibiting his war pictures, Severini moved away from warlike subjects and what he called "ideist realism", painting Cubist still lifes instead. One can't help feeling that this move can be explained, if only partly, in terms of the conviction that painting cannot safely tackle themes that are beyond it. None can suggest the "acrid stench" of the "centrifugal heaviness", and tracing words on the canvas is not a satisfactory solution either.

36-Severini" The batteries are in line, and so are the snipers! In the middle of the battlefield. There are snipers everywhere. We walk on them. The number of guns that this attack has triggered off is amazing. (...) The band is very complete here. To appreciate the match, you had to pass through the suburbs of Verdun where the heavy guns are hidden. It was real hell there. I was walking down with a load of prisoners (the first taken). Boches and French together, we witnessed one of the heaviest artillery attacks of Verdun. The gunners were like madmen. They were screaming like crazy, as well they might: they had orders to step up the firing rate. I even saw officers in their shirt sleeves handing them shells so that they could go faster! "

Fernand Léger, Verdun, October 25th 1916.