Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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Pierre Bonnard, Un village en ruines près du Ham (A Village in Ruins near Ham), 1917, oil on canvas, 63 x 85 cm, Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine - BDIC, Paris.

© SESAM, Paris, 1998.


79 - Pierre Bonnard

Bonnard (1867-1947) was one of the group of painters who were assigned at the end of 1916 to go and paint the war. He is also the one who seemed the least prepared for such a task, not that he was indifferent to the war, but because he found his inspiration in an altogether different field, painting female nudes and interior scenes. He did his duty with a single unfinished painting. French troops are waiting among the charred ruins. An old man crouching symbolises despondency and destitution. In the background, there is a Red Cross van - a sign of more disasters. In the state in which the artist left it - incomplete, blurred in places - this work reveals an even more poignant sense of the desolation that rendered any kind of effort useless. We may suppose that, in Bonnard's eyes, a 'finished' painting would have been misplaced at such moments, with art itself apparently having lost its purpose.

79-Bonnard" In the space of a few days, the heavy artillery had turned a peaceful lodge into a horrific spectacle. Whole houses had been flattened or cut in two by a direct hit, so that the bedrooms and their furniture hung above the chaos, like stage sets in the wings of a theatre. The stench of corpses rose up from much of the debris, as the first bombardment had taken the inhabitants completely by surprise and had buried a large number of them under the ruins before they had a chance to get out of their houses. A little girl was lying in front of a house, in the middle of a pool of red. (...) The roads were now only small pathways, zigzagging across and underneath huge piles of beams and masonry. Fruit and vegetables were rotting in gardens ploughed up by shellfire. "

Ernst Jünger, Storms of Steel.