Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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Max Beckmann, Die Granate (Shell), 1915, dry-point on paper, 38 x 28.8 cm.

© SESAM, Paris, 1998.

The age of artillery

42 - 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. The construction of the work and the tragedy of the scene are so effective that the representation of the explosion itself is no longer a problem. A bare sketch of black fragments around a white mass is sufficient because what really matters is not the explosion, but the announcement of the destruction and the description of the terror. In a letter to his wife on October 11th 1914, Beckmann wrote: "When an enormous salvo lands here, it's as if the gates of eternity have been opened. Everything is suggestive of space, distance, infinity. I would like to paint the din if I could." He did not paint it, but he did engrave it.

Coquelicot" Twenty yards behind us, clods of earth flew out from a white cloud and cracked through the high branches. Their echo resounded through the undergrowth for a long time. Frantic eyes met each other and bodies, crushed by a feeling of powerlessness, pressed together on the ground. A hail of shots rang out. Noxious gases infiltrated under the thicket and heavy smoke enveloped the treetops and trunks, branches came crashing to the ground, and cries could be heard. We got up quickly and left, groping our way, harassed by the explosions and the deafening impact of the shots, from tree to tree, turning around huge trunks like hunted animals searching for cover. A dugout towards which many of us were running and which I was heading for myself received a direct hit that shattered its log roof and sent its heavy pieces of wood flying in all directions. "

Ernst Jünger, Storms of Steel..