The Russian Avant-Garde at War, Part Two

Marc Chagall and the War

Vitebsk as an Art Center, Part One

The fable that the Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the Great War began early, put forward by those who could not comprehend that the German army had lost the Battle of the Marne in 1914. This, the first of several battles over the contested land in northern France took place in September 6th and 12th and became famous in French folklore for the timely arrival of soldiers motored to the Front by a brigade of taxicabs, to fortify the beleaguered French forces. The hard-pressed French army was fighting off the Germans who could see the Eiffel Tower through their binoculars. The fact that taxicabs from Paris could casually drive to the front lines gives a sense of how close the Germans came to taking the city. The French were saved by a combination of several events, not the least the timely intervention of the British Expeditionary Force but what the decided the battle was that the Germans made a fatal mistake. General Alexander von Kluck decided to pursue the retreating French, who he presumed were making a last stand with their tattered forces, and, in his eagerness, he exposed the flank of his army. An attentive Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, immediately attacked with what was left of the French forces. The sudden counter-attack caught the German high command by surprise.

It dawned on (them) at long last that the Allies had not been defeated, that they had not been routed, that they were not in disarray,” wrote Lyn MacDonald in her 1987 book on the first year of the war, 1914. “Instead, aided by reinforcements rushed to the front (although most of the ones that were engaged in the fighting came by train) Joffre and his British allies repulsed the German advance in what is now remembered as ‘The Miracle of the Marne.’ Miraculous, perhaps, because the Allies themselves seemed surprised at their success against the German juggernaut. “Victory, victory,” wrote one British officer. “When we were so far from expecting it!” It came at the cost of 263,000 Allied casualties. It’s estimated that the German losses were similar.”

The unexpected defeat was so stunning that German troops could not understand why they were retreating instead of advancing. In his book on the Marne, Holger H. Herwig, recounted the reasons for the setback were mundane: “a flawed command structure, an inadequate logistical system, antiquated communications arm, and inept field commanders.” Herwig pointed out that the official German history of the war, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, specifically stated, “In the hour of decision over the future of the German people, its leader on the field of battle completely broke down psychologically and physically.” Despite the facts to the contrary, rather than admit to an error of judgment made in the fog of war, the German high command in the person of Erich Ludendorff wrote in The Marne Drama that he blamed the “secret forces of Freemasonry, the machinations of world Jewry, and the baleful influence of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘occult’ theosophy…” In his book, The Marne, 1914. The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World, Herwig also discussed the work of German historian, Fritz Fischer, stating that “From the moment that German troops stumbled back from the fateful river of 9 September. Fischer argues, first the government of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and then the Army Supreme Command conspired ‘systematically to conceal’ the enormity of the defeat from the public.” Thus the “stab-in-the-back” legend was born, rising out of the smoke of the first Battle of the Marne. In 1916, the German army slandered the Jewish soldiers who served in their ranks by conducting a census under the assumption that the Jews were, by definition, shirkers when it came to service. When the results revealed that 80% of the Jewish recruits served at the Front, a percentage far higher than the rest of the population, the Army buried the report. It did not matter if Jews served and served bravely, the myth had taken hold—the Jews had stabbed the Army in the back. By 1919, the Dolchstoßlegenden–the Stab in the Back– had narrowed to a more familiar enemy, the Jews.

The idea of Jews being disloyal to their country was not confined to Germany. In his article, “How World War I Shaped Jewish Politics and Identity,” Paul Berger wrote,

About 90,000 Jews fought in German uniform, 275,000 Jews fought in the Austro-Hungarian army and 450,000 Jews fought for the czar. During the course of the war, these opposing armies advanced and retreated several times over the Pale of Settlement, a swathe of land on the Western border of the Russian empire where Jews had been forced to live for more than 100 years. Towns and villages were captured and recaptured several times. Each spasm of fighting brought with it new dangers and deprivations. After the Russian army was overrun by Germany, in 1915, the Russians began a retreat across the Pale of Settlement. Russian authorities saw Jews living in the Pale as a liability. As many as 350,000 Jews were either expelled or deported to the East under suspicion of providing intelligence to the enemy. The expulsions and deportations were accompanied by a wave of pogroms, characterized by rape and murder. Winter estimated that during the war between 30,000 and 100,000 Jews were killed.

This passage is interesting because the Pale was the home of one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who lived in Vitebsk, one of the cities in the Belarus region of the Ukraine. The Pale was defined in the 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia by Herman Rosenthal as, “A portion of Russia in which Jews are allowed to reside. Unlike other Russian subjects, the Jewish inhabitants do not generally possess the natural right of every citizen to live unrestrictedly in any place in the empire. Furthermore, they are permitted to leave the Pale of Settlement—that is, to move to another place for permanent or for temporary residence—only under certain conditions defined by law.” The Pale of the Settlement was a place where the Russian Empire deposited Jews and forbade them to practice agriculture, lest they compete with the Gentiles that lived there. Confined by law to establish only businesses and to participate only in trades, Jews could become wealthy. If a Jewish family accrued enough wealth, it was allowed move to other parts of Russia. Vitebsk, an old city, dating back to the tenth century, had long been a mercantile crossroads, and in the nineteenth century, the city had the distinction of being the terminus of the railroad line from St. Petersburg. This railroad was the connection between Vitebsk, one of the oldest settlements in Europe, to the rest of the world.

It was here that Marc Chagall (the French version of his Russian name, Movsha Shagal) returned from his years on Paris to attend his sister’s wedding the summer of 1914. Educated and trained in St. Petersburg, even after years of living in Paris and consorting with Cubists, Marc Chagall always remained a child of Vitebsk. A Jew, he was deeply engaged with the Jewish culture he grew up with, its myths and folklore, its social practices and its customs as carried on in Vitebsk. Cut off from the world and yet connected to it by the thread of a rail line, Vitebsk had preserved the Jewish culture of old and, in being confined to the Pale, could retain the old ways, despite the encroaching twentieth century. For Chagall, Vitebsk was a magical and mystical place, where people flew through the sky and cows had dreams, where Jewish life was wrapped up in a place of safety and peace. Chagall’s work remained deeply nostalgic for the rest of his life, keeping the Vitebsk of his youth inshrined in his imagination. Even though, from 1911, he lived in La Ruche (The Beehive) in Paris with sophisticated artists as his friends, Archipenko, Kisling, Lipchitz, Soutine, Leger, Zadkine, Pechstein, Léger, Brancusi, Rivera, Modigliani, and Delaunay, he retained the folk ways of Vitebsk in his paintings, which were structured by the Cubism shown in the Salons.

Because of the unique art of Chagall, which defied the “movements” constructed by historians, his early success in the Parisian avant-garde has been overlooked, but, of all the artists, living in La Ruche, Chagall was on the brink of establishing himself when the Great War began. There were many Russian artists working in Paris, but few who had to overcome the difficulty of being Jewish in a nation hostile to Jews. Chagall was able to quickly transform his folk art style into an up-to-date approach which allowed him to use Cubism to translate his autobiographical musings about his past and present. His new friend and fellow expatriate, Guillaume Apollinaire, called his art “surnaturel.” Within a year, his paintings were accepted to the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, where he caught the eye of the Russian art critic, “Sillart,” or Yakov Tugendhold. Sillart wrote,

Most interesting are the works of the Russian artist Chagall. He loves the art of the Lubok (colorful narrative folk paintings). The naïveté of its composition, the wild chaotic, drunken life of the peasants in the remote villages of Lithuania (Byelorussia). On the background of toy huts and exotic nonsensical scenes of village life, an immense figure of a peasant rises, drumming on a fiddle of drunken despair. Chagall invests this figure with some higher symbolic significance. It speaks with a more lucid and expressive power than long stories about dead boredom and longing, about the dark and oppressed peasant existence. Chagall feels deeply the mystery of daily life, the abhorrent assets of the people’s life..Chagall has his own works, he gives us the truth, which sheds an original light on reality..

What makes this review, quoted here only in part, interesting is its erasure of the unique Jewish identity of “village life,” which was as Chagall depicted it only because of the anti-semitism that placed the Jews within the confines of the Pale. Anatoly Luncharsky, who would rise in the ranks after the Revolution as the “People’s Commissar of Enlightenment,” was also in Paris and wrote of “young Marc Chagall,” who “is already well-known in Paris. His crazy canvasses with their intentionally childish manners, their capricious and rich fantasy, their typical grimace of horror and considerable share of humor, unwittingly provoke the spectators’ attention in the salons–an attention that is, by the way, not always favorable.”


Marc Chagall. The Praying Jew (1914)

Lunacharsky did not mention the Jewish roots of the “crazy canvasses.” Neither did Swiss writer, Frédéric-Louis Sauser, better known as Blaise Cendrars, who wrote extensively on Chagall for the Berlin journal Der Strum, describing him as ” a young man, some twenty-four years, colorful himself, with strange wide eyes, peeping out under tempestuous curls–gladly shows me a countless quantity of his canvases and drawings..all elements of his of his fantasy come form the boring, crestfallen life of the lower class people of a Lithuanian suburb..Chagall is an interesting soul, though, no doubt, a sick one, both in its joy and its gloom. A young (E.T.A.) Hoffmann form a slum around Vitebsk. More precisely: a Remizov of the brush a Remizov of the Pale of Settlement. And yet, his is not a great painter..” Although the review from Cendrars is an odd one, it shares, with the others, a complete erasure of the Jewish origins of Chagall’s work. It is possible that, because there was and would be a great deal of anti-semitism in the art world, the writers did not want to acknowledge Chagall’s heritage and thus compromise the reader’s judgment of the work, which they take pains to define as “Russian.”


Issue of Der Strum dedicated to Marc Chagall

Despite the lukewarm but extensive review by Cendrars, Herwarth Walden, proprietor of Der Strum Gallery, gave Chagall an important solo exhibition in Berlin in June of 1914. It was Apollinaire who introduced Walden to Chagall in 1913, and the German art dealer probably realized that Chagall’s eccentric and individualistic paintings would have been quite interesting to German artists. Being a rare Jew allowed out of the Pale with a merchant’s pass, the artist was educated in St. Petersburg, legitimatizing Chagall. Then he had joined other Russian expatriates in Paris and became, not just a part of the Parisian cutting edge, but one of its leaders. From then standpoint of Walden, the art dealer, Chagall fit well into the avant-garde ranks. In addition, his work certainly aligned better with Expressionism than with classical Cubism and the child-like fantasies Chagall painted fed into the German fascination with alternative or outsider art, such as that made by children. In fact, when the War began soon after the exhibition, Walden sold the work Chagall left behind during the War, when it was widely and conveniently assumed that the artist was dead. Once the Berlin show had opened successfully, Chagall, on the edge of major success, took a brief side trip to Vitebsk and, when War was declared, he was trapped in Russia, a condition he referred to as “stuck” “involuntarily.” His art was also, as he described it, “stuck” in Berlin and “three big pictures” were “stuck in Amsterdam in the Salon,” while “Two other pictures remained in Brussels.” Caught behind the lines, Chagall wrote to his friend and fellow Russian artist, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, “I am longing for Paris. As to my exhibition (in Berlin), alas, against its will, it will become a prisoner of war.”


Marc Chagall. Vitebsk (1914)

Obviously in Chagall’s mind, Vitebsk was better remembered and not lived in. He married his childhood sweetheart, Bella Rosenfeld, who was apparently of a higher social status. Her family was opposed to the marriage but allowed the wedding to take place and her brother saved Chagall from duty on the Eastern Front with the Russian army. The artist became a military clerk working under Bella’s brother, who had little patience with Chagall’s lack of organization and efficiency. Without showing any gratitude for his delivery from what could very well have been a death sentence, Chagall moved to Petrograd, previously St Petersburg, and now newly renamed when the War began into something less German sounding.


Marc Chagall. An Old Man and an Old Woman (August 1916)

Suddenly, Chagall, who lived inside of his head and painted out of his imagination, was thrust into one of the most horrific realities of the twentieth century–the Great War. This was a war that would disgorge misery and rebellion into the streets of the city he and Bella found themselves. Petrograd was the capital of Russia, until 1918 when the capital was moved to Moscow; and, as such, the city was as cosmopolitan and as connected as Vitebsk was as isolated and disconnected behind the Pale. The city was sophisticated but familiar to Chagall, for this was where he grew up and was educated. Therefore, perhaps because of this familiarity with Petrograd, there are paintings by Chagall that betray nothing of the War except a date, 1915 or 1916.


Marc Chagall. Birthday (1916)

But there are other works that attempt to grapple with the impact of War upon people The next post will discuss the reactions of Chagall to the miseries of war and the disruptions of the rebellion against the Czar and the establishment of the Soviets in Russia.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Russian Avant-Garde at War, Part One

The Avant-Garde Artists and The Great War

Popular Culture

While it is undoubtedly true that the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 was somewhat responsible for the next war, the Second World War, it is also true that the First World War put an end not just to some empires but, most importantly, to the idea of “empire” itself as being legitimate. The German Empire ended on the battlefields of Flanders, the Ottoman Empire was systematically carved up by the Allies, happy to share the spoils of victory with each other, and the Russian Empire, undermined by incompetent leaders and unstable monarchs, fell like a precarious soufflé. Before the Great War, artists in Russia had been political in the sense of being part of the avant-garde, biased towards modernism and against the old order of things. The Russian Empire, abetted by the Russian Orthodox Church, was notoriously opposed to change and to all things modern. But, given that Russia was a police state, seething with plots and counter-plots, it would have behooved the intelligentsia to make revolutionary art and to not make political revolutions. However, these avant-garde artists lived in a time of political revolutions and were witnesses to the collapse of an empire. As they came of age, Kasimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharov would have learned of–through the veil of censors–the Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1903, the first time a European power had lost to an Asian power. Vladimir Tatlin and Varvana Stepanova would have lived through the Revolution of 1905, which was brutally put down by the Empire in what would be its last gasp or grasp on power. The social and political forces gathering against the Romanov Dynasty were merely interrupted by the Great War, for, with hindsight, it appears that revolution was inevitable, war or no war.

The Russian participation in the Great War started with patriotism and ended in the collapse of the Dynasty and the fall of the Empire as the Communist forces, attacking internally, spread discontent within the fighting forces. Unlike the other nations, Russia was not industrialized and was not prepared to fight a modern war. Despite the fact that Russia had a larger and better equipped army than the Germans, it was not as well led and, over time, it became unclear to the Russian soldiers what they were fighting for–a Czar who was content to sacrifice their lives on the Eastern Front? In fact by 1917, mutinies among the British and French militaries were not uncommon, and the Italian commanders would routinely execute soldiers who did obey orders; but patriotism depends upon a basic faith in the leaders and in the government. There was enough faith in the English and French authorities and their governments to convince the bulk of their armies to fight to the end. This loyalty or trust was absent among the Russian troops, especially after the terrible and humiliating loss at the Battle of Tannenberg. As early as August 30, less that a month into the war, 92,000 men were lost. Then a week later, another 100,000 casualties occurred at the Battle of Masurian Lakes. The “winter war” of 1914-1915 cost yet another 190,000 soldiers. All these losses in a few months. By the end of the year, two million Russian men were lost to the War. Once the Czar personally took command of the army, the end was not far away.

When the Czar abdicated, a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky was formed and kept fighting a War that no one wanted to continue to fight, fueling the victory of the Communist revolution. Once in power the Communists negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, giving away large chunks of the former Empire in order to get out of the War and carry on with the Revolution. For the next four years, civil war ripped the new nation apart as the “Reds” and “Whites” fought for control over what would become the Soviet Union. The fact that the Communists ended a War began by the Romanov Dynasty meant that when the history was written by the Communists, the Great War was an “imperial” war of “empire” and not an event to be proud of. After the War, the other nations, even the defeated Germans, marked the sacrifices with memorials, but in her interesting book, The Great War in Russian Memory, Karen Petrone noted that “As the successor state to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union was unique among the combatants in the virtual absence of public commemoration of World War I at the level of the state, community, and civic organizations, or even individual mourning. Scholars generally agree about this erase of memory..The Soviet government generally ignored the war and instead poured its energies into creating a myth of the revolution, construction Sovietness through a conscious process of forgetting imperial Russia’s last war.”

In 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, the historian Sir Max Hastings stated for The Moscow Times, “World War I was very nearly written out of Russian history during the early years of the Soviet Union because of the Bolshevik view that it was a capitalist war in which the Russian people had been the victim rather than the protagonist.” But in August of that year, Vladimir Putin spoke in a rare commemoration ceremony memorializing The Brusilov Offensive in the Spring and Summer of 1916, when the Russians successfully attacked from the Eastern Front in an attempt to draw the Germans away from Verdun and the Somme. Although Putin was probably exaggerating when he spoke of the fame of this battle, he was literally the first Russian official to mark an event in the Great War. As he said, “Today, we are restoring the links in time, making our history a single flow once more, in which World War I and its generals and soldiers have the place they deserve, and our hearts hold the sacred memory that they rightfully earned in those war years. As the saying goes, ‘better late than never.’ Justice is finally triumphing in the books and textbooks, in the media and on cinema screens, and of course, in this monument that we are unveiling here today.”

The deliberate erasure of the memory of the Great War in Russia means that it has been in just the past few years that serious study of the War began among Russian scholars. But there is an existing and compelling narrative of the War, left behind by the artists who reacted to the War for the three years Russia was fighting. It is through their work that it is possible to view the patriotism felt by Russians when their country went to War. In the fall of 2014, the Grad Gallery for Russian Art and Design in London showed a collection of rare prints, popular art and outright propaganda pieces, many being displayed for the first time in a century. Some of these prints by Russian artists, both unknown and famous, are rather amusing and delightfully folksy, such as Aristech Lentulov’s The Austrians Surrendered Lvov to the Russians like Rabbits Defeated by Lions, 1914 (left) and others are outright fantasy propaganda, such as The Russian War Against the Germans (right), while others were visionary, such as The Great European War, A Battle in the Air, 1914 (below).
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Emerging unexpectedly in the midst of his Suprematist period, the series of prints executed by Kasimir Malevich supporting the War were totally uncharacteristic of the artist’s avant-garde oeuvre. The lithographs seem to be made for children for they are comic and not serious considerations of war and its consequences. But there are reasons for this unusual collection of prints from an artist who was working abstractly by 1914. In writing of the impact of the War upon Russia and its artists, Aaron J. Cohen noted that the Russian Empire did not have a tradition of heroic military painting and that Russian audiences for academic art seem to have preferred genre scenes to visions of martial glory. In addition, he noted that the defeat of Russia by Japan, which to us now seems to be a portent of things to come, went almost unnoticed or at least unreported in the Empire. The conclusion one can reach is that Russian artists rarely dealt with the topic of war and had not considered a modern war at all. Art was not necessarily supposed to react to war or to military affairs and, in contrast to England and France, the two spheres were kept apart. This history of detachment from war might explain the divided response of Malevich, who, on one hand, did a series of lithographs, which functioned within popular culture with simple slogans or descriptions aimed at a public with limited literacy, while on the other hand, participating in avant-garde exhibitions.

Kazimir Malevich, Our French Allies

Kasimir Malevich. Our French Allies Have Filled a Cart with Captured Germans, And our British Brothers have a Barrel full (1914)

In his book, Imagining the Unimaginable. World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917, Cohen wrote, “The main forum for Russia’s visual culture of war was not the art world but the mass media,especially the popular prints (lubki), posters, pamphlets, and illustrated journals that flooded the book market with wartime images during each conflict. War and art are seen to be mutually exclusive activities..War art did not exist within the official sphere.” It seems clear that Malevich was active in the area which had been traditionally available for artists and altered his art to fit the audience’s expectations, producing a group of semi-amusing lubki.

Kazimir Malevich, Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up, 1914, lithograph. Courtesy of GRAD

Kasimir Malevich. Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up (1914)

The work Natalia Goncharov (1881–1962) executed for the War followed the same pattern of doing prints in a folk style for a general non-art audience. Her series of lithographs, issued in the Fall of 1914, presented a powerful narrative of Good, as led by mystical and spiritual forces, against Evil, no doubt the Germans. This message that God was on the side of the Russian Empire was not merely a patriotic reassurance. By the fall, two major battles had been lost and the armies had been soundly defeated and decimated, so the news that heavenly help might be on the way, would have been welcomed. The saints and angels descend to earth and mix in with the humans, blessing them, protecting them, comforting them. Shortly before the War started Goncharova had produced a series of Neo-Primitivist paintings, based on Russian folk icons and was criticized by conservatives for a sacrilegious appropriation. But the reception for these prints, with her “style” being removed from the precincts of the avant-garde, was more positive.

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Natalia Goncharova. The Christian Host, no. 9 from the series Mystical Images of War [Voina: misticheskie obrazy voiny] (1914)

The war series is a follow up, if you will, of the exhibition that had in fact established her reputation in Moscow, a huge showing of nearly eight hundred works. This event, Vystavka kartin Natalii Sergeevni Goncharovoi, 1900-1913, took place at the Khudozhest vennii Salon in the fall of 1913. This Moscow show was followed by a highly successful joint exhibition, organized by her artistic partner and lover, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) for the Galerie Paul Guillaume. In 1914, therefore, Goncharova was the most famous Russian avant-garde artist, a leader in the international art world, with a major German exhibition to be mounted by Herwarth Walden at Der Sturm in the offing. However the War intervened. According to Natalia Budanova’s article, “Russian Avant-Garde Women, Futurism and the First World War,” Walden protected the large body of work, already in Berlin, for the artist and returned it to her at the war’s end. Larinov and Goncharova were forced to return to Russia, taking circuitous route. Larionov, an excellent promoter for Goncharov’s career, was drafted and badly wounded during the first year of the War. The round faced narrow eyed artist, who had invented “Rayonism,” could never as active as he had been before the War, and the couple returned to Paris. Intending to capitalize on her 1914 success with the Coq D’Or ballet, Goncharova continued her work with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When the couple left Russia in 1915, their exit was a rare exception, granted perhaps due to the prestige of the artist or the military service of her badly wounded companion, or the importance of the Ballet Russe. The couple was to never return to Russia. Budanova put their departure from Russia into perspective:

Larionov and Goncharova left the country at the very moment when the Russian avant-garde was gathering momentum. The mass repatriation of many Russian artists triggered by the war, however traumatic and disadvantageous on a personal level, produced a positive side-effect on the evolution of Russian modern art. In fact, it ‘marked the heyday for the Russian avant-garde,’ because such a high concentration of vigorous, creative and ambitious personalities, counting practically as many women as men, was destined to invigorate artistic life in Russian capital cities and reinforce the avant-garde Russian cultures.

One could ask “what if?” the famous art couple had remained in Moscow and mingled with Malevich and the returning expatriates, such as Luibov Popova, had been present at the creation of a revolutionary art, and had taken advantage of their fame. Although the pair lived the last thirty years of their lives in Paris in obscurity and poverty, the fate of those who stayed in Russia was equally tragic, for this was a starred and cursed generation of artists. Those who remained in Russia were impacted by the War and it can be argued that the jolt of being part of a “great,” as in expansive war, woke up that particular generation to wider social responsibilities. In Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe Before World War II, Tibor Iván Berend quoted László Moholy-Nagy of Hungary,At the time of the War, I developed a feeling of social responsibility, and today I feel it to an even greater extent. My conscience spoke to me: is it fitting to be a painter in an era of social change? In the past century, art and reality were a painter I can serve the meaning of life..”

Moholy-Nagy’s awakening to social responsibility would direct the rest of his life, and this artist would immigrate to Germany to work at the Bauhaus. But what of the Russian artists during the Great War? Certainly they must have reacted to the War as Moholy-Nagy did and were poised to enter into an art of the social if not immediately an art of the political. The artists made a distinction between supporting the Russia people and the Russian Czar, whom they viewed as an anachronism. The War, then, could be viewed as a prelude to readiness for the Revolution and the art they would gladly make on its behalf. The majority of histories of the Russian Avant-Garde divide the production of these artists in half, splitting their work between Pre-War and Post-War work, eliding the narrow slice that directly addressed the Great War. As was pointed out, there was almost no history of Russian artists gesturing towards any war and the normal behavior on the part of the art world was to simply carry on and make art as though nothing else was happening. For the purpose of this series, a distinction will be made, however, separating the avant-garde from the art made in Russia that directly addressed the War. This narrow task is difficult because the Russian government has suppressed this slice of time and then, in turn, hid the labors of the avant-garde artists from the 1930s on. That said, the next post will continue to discuss art in Russia during the Great War, between 1914 and 1917.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Futurists Go To War, Part Three

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

The Great War did not go well for the Italians. Aside from the enthusiastic Futurists and their nationalist sympathizers, such as Benito Mussolini, most Italians regarded the war with wary eyes. The nation had to be bribed into the war by the Allies who promised Italy not just territories that were “lost” to the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also were given “permission” to add to their African territories and could help carve up the Ottoman Empire. One could say that Italy had driven hard bargain if the promises were possible to fulfill–but that outcome was in the future. The two solid years of causalities and deaths on the Alpine Front cost the nation over a million lives and that figure referred only to the slaughter on the Isonzo River plain, the Carso plateau. There was another site of death for the Italian army and that was the nearly forgotten “White War.”

The Alpine Front amounted to a third front which wended its torturous path from the Julian Alps to the Ortler massif to the Adriatic Sea, a line of over 250 miles. When the collective memory considers the Great War, it is the muddied fields of Flanders that come to mind, but the Italians and the Austrians were fighting in the mountains over disputed territories that lay between the two powers. These age old enemies, which once had the relation of occupier and occupied, faced off against each other in what was a war of mutual mass destruction. In his eloquent book of 2008, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, Mark Thompson recounted remarkable instances when the Austrians, sickened by slaughter warned their Italian counterparts to not advance, to not run towards the very mechanisms of death so admired by the Futurists:

On one occasion, the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian captain shouted to his gunners, ‘What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be.’ The Austrians stopped firing and called out: ‘Stop, go back! We won’t shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?’ The author continued making the point that no where on the other Fronts did such events take place. “To take their measure, bear in mind that there was no shortage of hatred on this front, that soldiers could relish the killing here as much as elsewhere, the Austrians were outnumbered and fighting for their lives, and any officer or soldier caught assisting the enemy in this way would face court martial. These deterrents could be overcome only by the spectacle of a massacre so futile that pity and revulsion forced a recognition of oneself in the enemy, thwarting the habit of discipline and the reflex of self-interest.

Much of the Italian experience in this war was not just on the relatively flat plain but within the Alps themselves, or that stretch of the Alpine range called the Dolomites in the northeast of Italy. Once can attempt to envision a vertical war, some 6500 feet above sea level, a never-ending struggle encased in many, many feet of snow, carved out the ice and blasted out of rock faces. The weapons were then same as used on the plateau but they had to be hauled up slopes so angled that they defined mules or horses. Only humans, not well versed in the now familiar sport of mountain climbing, would traverse these mountain faces and they could not carry a cannon. Heavy equipment was hoisted upward by ropes and when fired, the cannon, would cause a shattering sound as the explosions, contained in the encircling peaks, would reverberate and echo. The cannon fire was often not directed against the other side but was used as noise, a noise so loud that it caused avalanches, burying troops by the “White Death,” so deeply that they were unrecoverable. This ninety degree war in the mountains would have an unexpected outcome. When the war finally ended in 1918, the Austrians and the Italians simply abandoned their aeries and went home, leaving the war and its detritus behind, including bodies of the dead, submerged in the snow.

Writing for The Telegraph a hundred years later, in an age of Global Warming, Laura Spinney explained, “As much of the front was at altitudes of over 6,500ft, a new kind of war had to be developed. The Italians already had specialist mountain troops – the Alpini with their famous feathered caps – but the Austrians had to create the equivalent: the Kaiserschützen. They were supported by artillery and engineers who constructed an entire infrastructure of war at altitude, including trenches carved out of the ice and rudimentary cableways for transporting men and munitions to the peaks.” Then in the early 2000s, the ice began to melt. Michele Gravino, for National Geographic wrote,

Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater. Never before had battles been waged on such towering peaks or in such frigid conditions..Entire villages of shacks were built, though officers generally lived in old mountain refuges, some outfitted with grand pianos and gramophones. On Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites, the Austrian Corps of Engineers built an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms dug out of the bowels of the glacier..Now, a century later, the warming world is revealing the buried past, as relics and corpses are melting free of their icy tombs.

Most of the 150,000 dead in the Dolomites were from avalanches, frostbite and causes other than traditional battle wounds. Now one hundred years later, with the dead returning, demanding to be named, and needing to be returned to surprised families to be buried. For the Italians, the First World War, even with its catastrophic defeats, was a better war compared with the Second World War, which is tainted with the history of Fascism and Mussolini. In the book Italy’s Divided Memory, J(own) Foot noted that archaeological reclamations on the Carso plateau, revealing trenches cut from “hard stone.” He wrote, “In the areas of the ‘white war,’ the rapid melting of glaciers revealed a series of structures that had been built in tunnels within the ice..Global warming threw up some surprises. In the mountains above Val Rendena in Trentino, excavations began in 2007 into a frozen cave known as the caverna di caveat. This cave had been occupied by both the Austrian and Italian armies during the war.”

For Italy, it was a long strange war. But that was the war the Futurists demanded. In the strange year of 1915, while the nationalists and interventionists were marching for war, Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) painted a series of semi-abstract works, depicting crowds acting en masse. For Mussolini and Marinetti, the “crowd” was a mystical and mythical being, feminine, in its penchant for being malleable, moulded for any cause. Balla’s depictions of crowds reflected the events in Italy when the demonstrators would wave the flag of the House of Savoy–“Savoy” would become the battle cry that would lead the soldiers into battle. In 1911, Gustave le Bon wrote Psychology of the Masses, a book that would become something of a Bible for the Fascists, because the crowd, under the correct circumstances and with the right leader, could dominate. Le Bon described the “crowd” as “under these circumstances, the gathering of people possesses new, completely different qualities form the qualities of single people who form this gathering. The conscious personality fades, the feelings and thoughts of all the individuals are oriented towards the same direction.”


Giacomo Balla. Patriotic Demonstration (1915)

Meanwhile Gino Severini (1883-1956) was in Paris, watching an actual war unfold. Because he could view the Denfert-Rochereau station from his apartment in Paris, Severini was apprised of the comings and goings of troops and the constant arrival of the wounded from the Front. The Hospital Train of 1915 would have been a common sight. As the corner of the newspaper Le Figaro would indicate, the press would report on the long journey the trains would take from the aid stations at the Front to the hospitals in Paris. When the trains arrived in the various stations, the wounded would be unloaded and volunteer nurses, pictured by Severini, would offer water and care to the wounded. We discern this process through the red cross, the train smoke, and other details which from a composite collage like “idea-image.”

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Gino Severini. Hospital Train (1915)


Gino Severini. Hospital Train Passing a Village (1915)

In light of the seriousness of the sight of the hospital train and its passengers, a similar topic, Hospital Train Passing a Village, is a reminder that Severini was always a painter of pleasant things and that he was probably ill-suited to the task put to him by Marinetti. The painting is simply silly, better suited for a child’s book on the war than for the adult audience which would be jarred by the jolly colors. In comparison to this rather illustrative and imaginary work, Virtual Synthesis of the Idea – War (1914) is darker in tone, combining elements that would appear in another painting of a similar name in 1915. Severini used Marinetti’s “words in freedom” unfailing near the bottom, referring to the “Maximum Effort” that would be needed to repeal the Germans. What is interesting about these two paintings is the extent to which they are not Futurist, not about speed or change or dynamism. Instead the paintings are static and immobile, composed of stacked elements, typical of Cubism.


As a painted collage, Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915) was successful for it at least captures some of the seriousness, from the reference to the mobilization order to the artillery and the airplane and so on, Severini combined, in a coherent fashion, his reaction to war, focusing on its technology and mechanization, eliminating the human factor.

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Gino Severini. Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915)

Given the success of Christopher Nevinson in rerouting Futurism towards paintings of the Great War, the awkwardness of the actual works by the founding Futurists is a surprise. Severini’s sketch of Lancers, mirror that of Boccioni in its lack of comprehension of the fact that the calvary charge was a historical memory, unfit for modern war. Equally questionable are the static reactions to a war that was admittedly static by both Severini and Carlo Carrà (1881-1966). The stilled nature of the works, compared to the mobilized imagery by Nevinson, seems to be connected to their use of words and letters which tend to not activate the surface but fix it in place.


Gino Severino. Gun in Action (1915)

Severino’s Gun in Action of 1915 is simply wooded compared to Christopher Nevinson’s powerful and iconic La Mitrailleuse of the same year. It is no accident that Apollinaire praised Nevinson and apparently said nothing of Severini, who was, to be fair, hampered by his illness and could have had no comprehension of what it meant to be on an artillery crew, like Braque. If Severini’s paintings done during the Great War show his individual ambivalence about Futurism and reveal his long time affinity with Cubism, then it can be suggested that it was his distance from Futurism central, Milan, limited his full incorporation of Futurist aesthetics or purpose. But it was not just Severini for whom the War caused an artistic crisis. Carlo Carrà’s Guerrapittura of 1915, a virtual copy of an idea pioneered by Marinetti in his work Zang Tumb Tumb (1912) composed for the Balkens prelude. Combining words and abstract forms, Atmospheric Envelope-Exploding Shell of 1914, Carrà did a number of collages, combining words, drawings and pasted paper, more in the style of Braque, rather than Picasso. As these collages make clear, he was struggling with the language of Futurism. In his article, “Carlo Carrà’s Conscience,” David Mather would describe the emotional and artistic crisis faced by Carrà.


Carlo Carrà. Atmospheric Envelope-Exploding Shell (1914)

Carrà, as was discussed in a previous post, worked closely with Marinetti. Along with Boccioni, these Futurists were enthusiastic supporters not just of entering the War but also of what Intervening meant–nationalism, the kind of nationalism that would become fascism. Indeed on the fifteenth the November of 1914, Carrà wrote about Mussolini, an individual in whom “resides the drama of our whole generation. We admire him if for nothing else, then certainly for the courage that he keeps demonstrating.” While the War and military service was, for Carrà, a theoretical prospect. Mather quoted from a letter the artist wrote to Ardengo Suffici at the end of 1914, in which he longed for “the real war–made of blood and heroism.” The collages he created for his book on war–his response as an artist–were also theoretical, a standpoint taken in his concluding essay, “War and Art,” which, as Mather said, “characterized war as an engine of new sensibilities closely allied with, and even emerging directly from the futurist movement.”


Carlo Carrà. Joffre’s Angle of Penetration Against Two German Cubes on the Marne (1915)

The Great War did not, of course, come from Futurism and Carrà would be confronted with the disconnect between the idea and the reality. This series of collages in Guerrapittura was not only a turn towards Cubism, also evident in the work of Severini, marked the end of Carrà’s time as a Futurist. Drafted in1917, he went to war, proved to be unfit for battle, and found himself in a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), who was working in the military hospital at Ferrara. As with the other Futurists who served in the War, Carrà found the actuality of fighting in trenches disconcerting. After all, he was a nationalist and a revolutionary, not a soldier.


It is possible, as Mather suggested, that Carrà’s conversion to Metaphysical Painting was the result of the trauma of the War, but he continued to support nationalism, even though he knew the reality of combat, and retained his devotion to Mussolini. As for Sererini, he, too, moved away from Futurism and Cubism, and, like Carrà became part of the post-War “return to order,” which, for these artists, would be a new form of classicism. The arc of the Futurism of the founders was a short one, with the energy and ideals drained away by the Great War. But Futurism was not dead. As was noted in a previous post, during the War years, new members joined Futurism and would carry Futurism on into the rest of the twentieth century. The new phase of Futurism would focus on the new technological hero that emerged during the Great War, the airplane, the machine that could fly and give the women and men who flew it wings.

The Great War ended disastrously for Italy. The military suffered 2,197,000 casualties, of which 650,000 died–or so say the official figures. For a nation that went to war on the promise of booty, the recovery of territories considered “Italian,” these losses had to count for something. Although they had been on the winning side, their War ended in a “mutilated victory.” However, at the Treaty of Versailles in the spring of 1919, the other allied nations made it clear that, in their opinion, Italy had not done its fare share and and not fulfilled its promises as a military partner. The Italian delegation was treated with contempt by the British and the French, while the Americans wanted to give Italy as little as possible. The Italian government was supported by the nationalists only and the nationalists wanted what was promised in the Treat of London plus the Adriatic port city of Fiume. However, a new player was on the field, America, and President Woodrow Wilson represented the new approach to diplomacy, ethnic and self-determination as opposed to the system of spoils. The Italians considered the Treaty of London to be binding, the Allies considered the Treaty an obstacle to be overcome. To the consternation of Italy, a new nation, on its borders, was carved out the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia, including territories claimed by the Italians, especially the city of Fiume. In the end Italy was placated, possibly because British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour said, “The Italians must be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to humanity.” In the end, Italy received a seat on the League of Nations, a share of German reparations and the Tyrol. The nation of Italy was deeply angry at the way it had been slighted and, despite the warnings of the delegation that such disparaging treatment only incited radical political forces, such as the fasci di combattimenti. Their warnings went unheeded and it was at the Treaty in Paris that the seeds for Italian Fascism was planted and the foundation for the rise of Mussolini was laid. For the Fascists, the humiliation in Paris had to be avenged.

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The Futurists Go To War, Part Two

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

Although in the histories of the Great War, Italy is usually written of as a “minor power,” or a minor player in the larger structure of the War. The nation was a latecomer to the conflict and had limited goals. Italy had not been invaded and there were no enemies rampaging through Italian fields and towns. Indeed, there seems to be little reason for Italy to enter into a war that, by 1915, was showing signs of being long and bloody and inconclusive. But, from the Italian point of view, there were against to be made. For decades during the nineteenth century, Italy had struggled to become an independent strong united nation and was thwarted at every point by the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had historically dominated and occupied northern Italy. When Italy finally unified–Italian Risorgimento–Italian unification–in 1861, far too much of ethnically Italian territory remained in the hands of the Austrians. The new nation had pried Lombardy from Austria and, eventually, was awarded Venice for siding with Prussia during the Seven Week’s War in 1866. Longing to retrieve the rest of its “lost” territories, Italy joined with Germany in the Triple Alliance on the hope that Austria would stop its attempt to grab land and that it would be protected from the Empire. In 1915, Italy entered into a secret agreement, the Treaty of London, in which it was agreed that it would enter the War on the side of the Entente Cordiale and receive in return Trento and the South Tyrol as far as the Brenner Pass, along with Trieste and the Austrian Littoral as well as northern Dalmatia, the so-called terre irredente (unredeemed lands), after the War was successfully included. The assignment given to Italy was to open an Eastern Front along the southern border of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The role Italy played in the defeat of Germany (and Austria) is often considered a side bar to the major action of the Western Front, but aside from confronting the enemy directly, one of the most important moves an adversary can make is to attack from the rear and force the enemy to open a new front. This new front, however, was complex. It was necessary for Italy to attack Austria, win quickly, and seize the advantage before Germany could react and come to the aid of its ally. There was another reason to move quickly–Futurists not withstanding most Italians were not entirely enthusiastic about going to war. The government could count on a brief burst or nationalism and patriotism but not on public patience for a long war. But geography in this alpine region was all but impossible. The border, disputed or not, between Italy and Austria, ran through the Dolomites and Carnic Alps, a nearly impassable mountain range unsuitable for modern warfare if one needed to make a quick breakthrough. There was only one place that seemed to be flat enough, the plain around the Isonzo River and it was here that the Italian high command chose to strike. In the early days, the commanders did not believe that their front lines would become stalemated, but they were wrong.

The Italians did not declare war on Germany right away, after all the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the main enemy and the prime goal was territorial. Therefore it was not until 1916 that Germany could intervene when Italy intervened and attacked Austria. From the beginning, Italy was on the offensive and the Austrians on the border were forced on the defensive, waiting for reinforcements. That said, the Austrians were dug in, with fortifications on the high ground, in the mountains above the river plain and the Italians mounted no less that twelve battles, all named the “Battle of Isonzo.” The commander in the region, the Italian Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna, initially made some advances but could not capitalize on any gains and the War on this front soon bogged down–literally for there were record rainfalls during those years–into trench warfare. In his book, The Italian Army of World War I, David Nicolle wrote, “Even though Cadorna soon realized that this was going to be a war of attrition, he continued to have faith in massed artillery and massed infantry attacks.” However it was not until the costly Battle of Caporetto (the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo) in 1917, with the loss of 300,000 casualties, that, as Nicolle continued, “The Italians were aware of the shortcomings which had exposed them to defeat at Caporetto, and the first half of 1918 was dedicated to changing the army’s outmoded tactics.” Although obscure today, the total casualties in relation to the many attacks and counter attacks at Isonzo were once legendary. The Italian high command had the supposed advantage of knowing how quickly the Western Front had stalemated due to the combination of old tactics and the defensive capabilities of new weapons against direct assaults, but they leaders did not learn the lessons and, like their counterparts in northern Europe, clung the Napoleonic strategies. John R. Schindler, author of Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, noted of the river, now in Slovenia,

The Isonzo’s tragic recent past has been all but totally forgotten. Earlier in the twentieth century, the name evoked horror and sorrow. Throughout Europe and North America, the name Isonzo stood alongside Verdun and the Somme in the collective memory of needless sacrifice of the First World War. The terrible bloodletting that scarred France and Flanders and shattered the lives of millions did not spare the Isonzo. From May 1915 to October 1817, the Italian Army attempted to break the Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the Isonzo and to advance deep into the Central European heartland..The cost was unprecedented. Twenty-nine months of fighting on the Isonzo cost Italy 1, 100,000 soldiers dead and wounded. The Austrians, desperately holding on to every inch of ground, lost 650,000. The Italians finally crossed the Isonzo in triumph only in November 1918, at the Great War’s end, following Austria-Hungary’s complete political collapse.

It is against this background of “bloodletting” that the paintings of hospital trains by Gino Severini (1883-1966) need to be understood. Unlike the other Futurist artists, Severini was not healthy–he had tuberculosis–enough to serve in the military and spent the War in Paris. While he was watching the unfolding of a disaster, the Futurists in Milan were demonstrating in public, demanding “intervention.” After a particularly spectacular event at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, during which they shouted “Viva la Francia”and “Viva la Guerra” and were subsequently arrested and sent to the San Vittore prison for a few days to cool off. In writing of this period in Marinetti’s life, Ernest Ialongo, stated that the poet and Futurist leader published “In This Futurist Year” “to court Italy’s university students, who had shown themselves receptive to Futurism and its nationalist message. He wrote that ‘our nationalism, which is ultra-violent, anticlerical, antisocialist and anti-traditionalist, is rooted in the inexhaustible vigor of Italian bold and is at war with the cult of ancestors which, far from welding the race together makes it anemic and causes it to rot away.'” Acting as the leader of the Futurist movement, Marinetti wrote to Severini in Paris on November 20th. By this time, late fall, the Western Front had already stalled and there had already been historic and devastating losses on the French side, and Marinetti was urging Severini, a witness to the actual costs of war, to, as Ialongo put it, “..even if it shaded into propaganda.” In his book, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Artist and His Politics, the author also quoted a passage from this letter:

This war will eventually take in the entire world..the world will be at war (even if there are breaks, armistice, treaties, diplomatic congress) that is, in an aggressive dynamic Futurist state for at least 10 years. Thus is imperative that Futurism no only collaborate directly in the splendor of this conflagration (and many of us have decided to commit our bodies energetically to it) but also become the plastic expression of this Futurist hour. I’m talking about a vast expression, not limited to a small circle of experts, but a truly strong and synthetic expression that affects the imagination and eyes of all or nearly all intelligent people.” Marinetti hoped Ialongo noted, “..we will have a new, bellicose, plastic dynamism..” and predicted that in the time of war, “significant artistic originality is possible.” The letter continued, with him suggesting that the painter should be interested “in the war and its repercussions in Paris pictorially. Try to live the war pictorially, studying it in all its marvelous mechanical forms (military trans, fortifications, the wounded, ambulances, hospitals, funeral processions). You have the fortune of being in Paris right now. Take absolute advantage, abandon yourself to the enormous military, anti-teutonic emotions that agitate France.”

In defense of this sheer cluelessness of this passage, it is unclear the extent to which Marinetti, the Futurists, even Severini could truly understand the actual destructive nature of this very modern war. That Marinetti would include funeral processions in his list of “mechanical forms” is so cold that one can only imagine that, at this point in time, he was uttering meaningless slogans unmoored from actual experience. While it would be anachronistic to call out the Futurist leader for not understanding the nature of the War at hand, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that Severini addressed the La grande guerra from a sanitized distance. In addition the artist was also attentive to his own career during the War. According to the Stieglitz and His Artists. Matisse to O’Keeffe, in 1915 he sent fourteen works to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where, along with the other Futurist artists, they were shown in a separate gallery and ignored by most critics. In the summer of 1916, Severini negotiated with Walter Pach and Marius de Zayas to arrange an exhibition at the New York gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, 291, an art dealer who disliked Futurism. The exhibition, which would be the last Stieglitz offered to a European artist, opened in March 1917, during which Stieglitz became somewhat mollified towards the style. Due to the War, Severini had to leave the art in New York and did not inquire about his paintings until 1921. It is not clear if they were ever returned and it is possible that they eventually were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a bequest from Stieglitz and the artist, who was still alive, was delighted to be included in the Museum’s collection. Among the donations were a rare diamond shaped work, entitled Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915) that is a combination of a spinning dancer, a swirling sea and a rotating propellor.


Gino Severini. Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915)

The more interesting work is a charcoal drawing, Flying over Reims (1915), probably a response to the German bombing of the Medieval cathedral in an action that would be termed a war crime today. The artist himself mentioned his limitations in saying, “I could not express my ideas of ‘war’ by painting battlefields littered with slaughtered bodies, streams of blood, and other such atrocities. My modern idea-image of war came from the concentration of a few objects or forms taken from reality and compressed into ‘essences’ into ‘pure notion.'” As shall be discussed presently, in order to create the idea-image, or a composite, Severini would have to move away from Futurism and move towards a Salon Cubism. The Reims drawing was a rare Futurist work during the War, showing movement and dramatic lines of force, foreshadowing the post-war Futurist fascination for all things aviation.


Gino Severini. Flying over Reims (1915)

Severini’s references to “slaughtered bodies” and “streams of blood” suggest that he did understand what the actual fighting was like, and it is known that he read the Parisian newspapers and used their imagery for his paintings. For example, the painting, Armored Train in Action (1915), was from an aerial photograph that appeared in a newspaper. In Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, Christine Poggi explained that the image was

..a Belgium armored train, published in the bimonthly Album de la Guerre on 1 October 1915. In transforming the photographic source, Severini centered and righted the overhead view of the train, giving it a distinctly phallic shape. He also eliminated two soldiers observing the action, so that in the painting all five depicted men point rifles toward an unseen enemy at the left..If in the photograph the varied posters and individual features of the soldiers were visible, in the painting the logic of standardization takes over..the glowing red forms of the entire car at the top of the canvas intensify the erotic charge of the armored train, investing this instrument of death with simulacra life.


Gino Severini. Armored Train in Action (1915)

The next post on Futurism during the War will further examine the Futurists reaction to an actual War.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Futurists Go to War, Part One

Italy at War

The Futurists Fall

When Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti (1876-1944) called for “war” in his famous Futurist Manifesto of 1909, he was not asking for actual war, as in clashes between nations. The poet was demanding a rebellion against the status quo, an uprising of downtrodden classes, and a recognition that the past was the past–over and dead–and a demand that the future would be acknowledged. For Marinetti, the future was present; it was here, but the future needed to be grasped. Marjorie Perloff, Futurist expert, pointed out that the his “movement” that required a “manifesto” to explain was first called Elettricismo or Dynamism, stating the the poet was demanding a “utopian cleansing,” or a new way of life for the future. The distinction between “Futurism” and its two earlier names was significant, not because Marinetti eventually decided upon “Futurism” but because these early names indicate that, for him, the metaphor for the future was the machine, that which was unnatural and mechanical and inhuman. The dynamism (Dynamism) of the rapidly moving machine, frequently powered by electricity (Elettricismo) which was systematically lighting up the big cities and powering industry was a signifier of the future, for all things to come. The question faced by Marinetti was how was the “future” to be acknowledged?

The question was not an insignificant one was Marinetti was writing and thinking out his ideas in 1908. The beginning of the twentieth century had come, not with a bang but without much ceremony and Europe continued its long lingering romance with the nineteenth century. This romance had to do with the determination to hold off progress and to maintain things as they were. The lower classes were restive and women were becoming annoying in their demands for political and social rights. The upper classes, upheld by their lands and rents, faced newly powerful people without pedigrees who had become rich, nouveau riche, through trade, business and industry. As Cinzia Sartini Blum explained, “At its inception, Futurism was a reaction against the fin-de-siècle malaise that took the form of a pervasive sense of a dislocation in the logical, causal relationship between past, present, and future. Marinetti’s antidote to the ills of modern decadence is the formulation of a mythical new subjectivity that rejects the limits of history and empowers itself by appropriating the marvels of technology to create a utopian Futurist wonderland infused with primal life forces.

Centuries old traditions were threatened and the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were years of a Götterdämmerung for the upper classes. Marinetti’s irritation and his subsequent strident poetic bombast selected his impatience with the social lag in the face of technological advances, accounting for his excitable utterances. Of particular fascination to historians after the Great War was the Futurist appetite for war–or Marinetti’s apparent longing for war. In article 9 of the Futurist Manifesto (1909) its author Marinetti famously wrote, “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” He continued,

For us today, Italy has the shape and power of a fine Dreadnought battleship with its squadron of torpedo-boat islands. Proud to feel that the marital fervor throughout the Nation is equal to ours, we urge the Italian government, Futurist at last, to magnify all the national ambitions, disdaining the stupid accusations of piracy, and proclaim the birth of Pan-Italianism. Futurist poets, painters, sculptors, and musicians of Italy! As long as the war lasts let us set aside our verse, our brushes, scapels, and orchestras! The red holidays of genius have begun! There is nothing for us to admire today but the dreadful symphonies of the shrapnel and the mad sculptures that our inspired artillery molds among the masses of the enemy.

The prevailing ideas of Futurism were war and power or power and war, which should be read in the original context as a call to what we might terms “power to the people” to go to “war” with the status quo through change as symbolized by the dynamism of the machine. Technology was a force that could not be denied. The concept of the internal power of technology was a new one at the beginning of the twentieth century and it would be decades after Marinetti when a modern understanding of technology emerged. The most famous discursive trope of “technique” was developed by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1964). He argued that technology or “technique” functioned according to its own laws, speeded or slowed, its direction shaped by its own inner logic. Although technique was cultural, it too had its own “natural” laws of development and would proceed in unforeseen directions, building part upon part, discarding what was not needed or was suddenly obsolete, and engaging in what a twenty-first century observer would term “creative destruction.” Although it is anachronistic to apply such a phrase to Futurism, the words give a sense of what Marinetti was sensing–a relentless and inhuman pressure building up and eroding history. “Creative destruction,” then, was this poet’s “war.”

But Futurism and its bellicose attitude towards an unbearable present and an overbearing past was not a novel phenomenon in Italy: the movement came out of a context that had been expressing the same frustration for years. It is only its art that eventually made Futurism into something unique when the sentiments put forward by Marinetti as part of a national discourse become disseminated internationally. Giovanna Amendola wrote in La voce at the same time Marinetti was thinking of his new manifesto,

Dissatisfaction and intense bitterness, still infused with too much inertia and skepticism, fills Italians who are not approaching thirty..Disgust and pity fills us when we look back over the past decades political and administrative life in our kingdom and see how they have been irremediably stamped by moral deficiency and intellectual poverty of our ruling class..With implacable intransigence we have to say No! to the present state of affairs, if tomorrow, with inevitable compliance, we want to say Yes! to our aspirations.

In his important book, Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909-1944, Günter Berghaus connected Futurists to these attitudes by saying that “Among this interventismo rivoluzionario, designed to fulfill the visions of the risorgimento that had faded in the post-unification era, we find the Futurists and the chief ideologues the later Futurist movement. Their theory of a guerra buona, that is, of war as revolution..” Ironically, when the actual Great War finally made its inevitable entrance, “the technological society” and the internal logic of change made itself manifest in a crazed and destructive development of deadly weapons. But the Futurists, or those who wanted a “real” war in the hopes that such an event would be properly cataclysmic and end the old world–which it did–would have to wait. Italy was historically aligned with Germany but had no intention of siding against England and balked at entering a war of aggression on the side of the aggressor. If there was a propaganda war fought in August and September of 1914, then Germany lost and Italy was its first casualty. Italy hovered at the brink of war, looked at the abyss and waited, biding its time.

The Futurists reacted to the Italian position of neutrality with anger. Despite his international celebrity, Marinetti was a strong nationalist and wanted Italy to join in immediately and come in on the side of France and England. This nationalism drove the poet and the Futurists to take an “Interventionist” position, insisting that Italy intervene, enter into the fray, and Marinetti missed no opportunity to make his position known, designing “The Antineutral Suit” with Giacomo Balla (1871-1958).

IMG_4 5af58d24e99b82ac2a9585a9cbea33ac c316500bc55220a69deb5f3b1c7b786a

Giacomo Balla and Filippino Marinetti. The Antineutral Suit (1914)

Marinetti’s allies, such as Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), who burned an Austrian flag in a Galleria, and composer Francesco Balilla Pratella composed a “Hymn to War,” and Carlo Carrà composed his famous Interventionist collage, were all part of the Interventionist movement, along with Benito Mussolini, an up and coming politician, who was expelled from his party for his position. It was at this transitional time, Futurism was gathering new recruits, such as Mario Sironi and Fortunate Depero who worked with Giacomo Balla on “plastic complexes,” while Marinetti was increasingly involved in political theater. The outbreak of the War had disrupted the Futurists trajectory in the international art market, cutting them off from one of the more receptive sites, Russia, and a growing art market in Germany. Now the group, largely congregated in Milan, was distracted by the Interventionist movement and nationalist designs, underscoring the fact that Futurism had long been a political movement bent on agitation and disruption.


Carlo Carrà. Interventionist Demonstration (1914)

When Italy finally entered the war in 1915, it was on the side of the Allies and Italian artists participated in an effort to mobilize public opinion against Germany. The tool they used were posters and postcards, mass distributed propaganda, depicting the Germans as being greedy for power and empire and encroaching upon the territories of others. For Italy, with its history of designs upon African territories, Eritrea, Libya and Ethiopia, it meant drawing a fine distinction between “legitimate” Empire and irresponsible aggression. Günter Berghaus noted that Italy longed to be a first rate power, and at the end of the nineteenth century, first rate powers had empires. He described the nationalism that emerged from this fin-de-siècle period as “an aggressive, bellicose, chauvinistic, imperialistic nationalism.” It was this attitude that fueled Futurism and it was this mindset of thwarted ambition that made it relative simple for Italy to change sides for its own self interest. As Ana Antic, in her article on “First World War Postcards” explained,

Interestingly, while WWI marked the failure of nineteenth-century liberal internationalism, it was also the origin of a new and highly ambitious concept of ordering international relations. In a series of Italian postcards from WWI, several cartoonists and painters, such as R. Ventura and Aurelio Bertiglia, articulated this profound disappointment with some of the predominant agents of internationalism at the time, and used the image of the globe in imaginative, sarcastic and unusual ways in order to reinforce their political message. These postcards were an essential part of WWI political propaganda, and contributed to the extremely extensive propaganda campaigns undertaken by the Entente governments to discredit German military conduct and involvement.

Largely agricultural, with conflicting dreams of empire inspiring it to take on ill-advised adventures, the nation was distinctly unready to enter into a massive conflict and held back, as if asking what was in it for Italy? First and foremost, Italy could go to war with its historic enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire with which it had territorial disputes. Being, hopefully, on the winning side of a global war meant that Italy could lay claim to parts of the Empire to the north, an empire that was unlikely to survive the War. Given that Italian males had acquired suffrage in 1912, it was necessary to persuade these new voters that a such a war was a just one and one worth participating in.


As Antic wrote,

The first postcard, from about 1914, depicts a ‘bloody handshake’ between the leaders of two Central Powers: Austria-Hungary’s Franz Joseph and Germany’s Wilhelm II. It is captioned ‘The Pact’, and uses the globe to articulate a pithy critique of the German- and Austrian-led attempts at (re-)ordering the international affairs: through their particular vision of internationalism, the Habsburg Emperor and the German Kaiser have plunged the entire world into a bloody conflict. The alliance between the two powers is then held solely responsible for the outbreak of the conflict, and their incompetent leadership as well as the malicious effects of their political friendship are exposed to ridicule and contempt.

This postcard, one among many of its kind, is instructive, because the image involved a delicate but decisive severing of Italy’s connection to the Triple Alliance, which included the Empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Once again, Italy, haunted by memories of the Roman Empire, wanted the bordering territories of Dalmatia, Trieste and Istria and it was with these hopes that they joined the Triple Alliance in 1882. After a long wooing to persuade Italy to give up its position of neutrality, these territories were the prize that was promised Italy by the Allies, and the homeland of Marinetti and the Futurist artists finally entered the War on May 24th. For the Italians on the Eastern Front, the war quickly bogged down into a position war, or “guerra di posizione” known as trench warfare on the Western Front. For the next two years, glory eluded Italy and whatever dreams or fantasies the Futurists may have harbored about the capacity of War to bring change were bogged down in trenches.

But what of the Futurist artists? Strangely, given their fascination for machines, they did not volunteer to fly planes or man machine guns or to guide artillery pieces, instead these warriors from the future joined the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists. Many of these battalions were know to be both patriotic and interventionist and seemed to offer a congenial home for the Futurists. As Selena Daly wrote in her article “The Futurist mountains’: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s experiences of mountain combat in the First World War,”

Prior to Italy’s entry into the First World War in May 1915, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, and a number of other prominent Futurists had enrolled in the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Motorists. Alongside Marinetti were the painters Umberto Boccioni, Luigi Russolo, Ugo Piatti and Mario Sironi and the architect Antonio Sant’Elia. In the summer months of 1915, the Volunteer Cyclists received training in Gallarate, near Milan, before leaving for Peschiera on the southern shores of Lake Garda at the end of July. In mid-October, the battalion was sent to the Italian-Austrian front line and stationed at Malcesine, on the eastern side of Lake Garda. The Volunteer Cyclists’ principal experience of combat was in the capture of Dosso Casina in October when they fought alongside the elite Alpine soldiers. Their experience of fighting on the front line was destined to be short-lived, however. By the beginning of December, the Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists had been disbanded. So the Futurist volunteer cyclists returned, at least temporarily, to their pre-wartime pursuits in Milan, although they ‘anxiously await[ed] the pleasure of returning to battle,’ according to Marinetti.

Umberto Boccioni, however, did not stay with the valiant cyclists and joined an artillery unit in July 1816, presumably to see more action, or at least a more modern war. It is unclear if he were the best of soldiers for he was offered release but he refused and continued to serve. Again it is interesting to note that this Futurist created a fanciful calvary charge in 1915, the kind of action that was both suicidial and rare in the Great War. This painting would be one of his last works of art.


Umberto Boccioni. Charge of the Calvary Lancers (1915)

Between the bicycle and the horse, there seems to be some distinctly unmodern nostalgia for an old-fashioned war. Marjorie Perloff quoted Boccioni from his diary as being disillusioned, writing, “I shall leave this existence with a contempt for all that is not art. There is nothing more terrible than art. Everything I see now is on the levels of games compared to a good brushstroke, a harmonious verse or a sound musical chord. By comparison everything else is a matter of mechanics, habit, patience of memory. Only art exists.” His life was soon over in a sad twist of fate described by Rosalind McKever in her article in Apollo, “Harnessing the Future: The Art of Umberto Boccioni,”

During cavalry exercises on 16 August his horse was spooked by a lorry and bolted. Boccioni fell and was dragged by the horse, suffering severe injuries and dying only the following day. Throughout his career Boccioni had painted horses and it is a cruel irony that, having named his steed Vermiglia after the flaming red beast in the centre of The City Rises (1910), his fall would imitate the scene of what has become his most famous painting.


Boccioni’s War Diary (1915)

It is ironic to note, in passing, that the last great Futurist exhibition was held, not in Europe, but in America at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Both Italy and America were natural at that time, a position Marinetti rejected, but nevertheless, working with J. Nilsen Laurvik, a Norwegian specialist in the international avant-garde, he arranged for fifty Futurist works to be shown in San Francisco. Two years earlier, Futurism had not been exhibited at the better known Armory Show in New York City in 1913. There were “futurist” artists in New York, speaking for Futurism, but it was Cubism that was called “Futurists” by the natives who thought any modern art was from the future. It was at the PPIE, however, that Americans, at a time of war in Europe, were able to visit the remarkable assemblage of Futurist paintings and sculptures, including works from Hungary, Austria and Italy all of whom were fighting each other. However, this exhibition has become a mystery in its own right. As curator Gergely Barki, who specializes in Hungarian art, stated,

50 Italian Futurist paintings exhibited at the event. On this photo you can count 14 paintings and a sculpture, but we know only one of the paintings. Only 10 percent of the entire material has been credibly identified, which means that, at the moment, nearly 40 (!) Italian Futurist works are missing, that is, lurking and waiting for identification. As far as we know, the collection was sent back to Europe in 1916, after the world’s fair, but if so, then why don’t we know these works? The mystery is further enhanced by the fact that a few previously unknown works that were nevertheless certainly exhibited at the PPIE have popped up in the United States, including the one identified Giacomo Balla painting which can be seen on the photograph I’ve just mentioned and which has not been exhibited at any other event in the past 100 years.


Futurist Room at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915

The next post will discuss other Futurist artists and their work during the Great War.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Great War and Traditional Painting

French Visual Culture and The Great War

Painting War

One of the oddities of the French response of the French to the Great War was that the visual reaction was in large part one of a barrage of popular culture. While the British, English, Irish, Scottish, produced a host of remarkable works of art, both modern and traditional, paintings and photographs and movies, the French disseminated posters and cards and prints to the public. Many of the prominent artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and Georges Braque referred to the conflict elliptically, often by turning away and seeking refuge in retreat. Others, such as Marcel Duchamp and Albert Gleizes, went into exile to America and withdrew completely, rarely recognizing the War. In his book, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War 1914-1925, Kenneth Silver wrote of Cubism that, because of its “visually explosive style,” it was especially appropriate language in which to describe the destructive powers of modern warfare. Cubism offered both a system for the breaking down of forms and a method of organizing pictorial decomposition. For a war that–with its trench fighting, new incendiary devices, modern artillery, and poison gas–was unprecedented in almost every way. Cubism’s lack of association with the past was the analogue of the poilu’s general sense of dissociation. As a new visual language with a radically altered perspective, Cubism was an excellent means for portraying a war that broke all the rules of traditional combat. For those who had been in the trenches, the image of a wounded cuirassier could not possibly translate or epitomize lived experience: Cubism, on the other hand, for rendering one’s comrade whether at leisure or in the midst of battle, seemed to have a ring of truth.

English artists, such as William Roberts, the Vorticist, certainly seized upon a Cubist-Futurist vocabulary to show the insanity of the war, while Fernand Léger deployed his own idiosyncratic version of Cubism to show the war. But most of Léger’s most expressive homages to the War happened during the twenties with his series on machines. At any rate, Cubism or “Kubism” was considered “German” and, in France, was controversial in France. The vast majority of art, traditional and popular, was either not based in the avant-garde or was a very tame response to modern art. In England it was the English Vorticists and the English Futurists who convinced the British public that their native adaptation of Cubism and Futurism was the modern language necessary to explain this strangely modern war. For the French, the topic of the War had to be undertaken in a language that was “French” and recognized as “French,” not Italian and not German.


William Roberts. Gunners pulling cannons at Ypres (1918)


Fernand Léger. Soldiers Playing Cards (1917)

In difficult and uncertain times, there could also be something quite comforting and suitable in an account of the Great War in a tractional language that could be “read” by all viewers. For the public the international language, the lingua franca was Post-Impressionism. When the Germans bombed the great cathedral at Reims in mid September 1914, Belgium artist, Gustave Fraipont (1849-1923), used nineteenth century, almost Impressionistic, images to express the French shock at the supposed “barbarism” of the Germans. To bomb Reims was to bomb French history itself–this was the site where the kings of France since the eleventh century. But politics aside the cathedral was a magnificent work of art, and, if war were a civilized affair, Reims would have been spared and even cherished. But the Great War was a modern war and a modern war, as fought by the Germans began to rewrite the code by which armies clashed.

image Cathedral_of_Reims_Burning

According to Thomas W. Gaehtgens, the Germans were stunned and aggrieved at being accused and fired back at public opinion by accusing the French of having “a base of operations” in the towers. The French countered that a Red Cross flag had been hanging off the cathedral, signifying that German troops were being cared for inside in a makeshift hospital. The exact truth may exist somewhere in the fog of war, but the paintings and prints by Fraipont fit the French mood completely. Like the Cathedral, France was attacked without cause by savages who had no regard for history or culture or even religion itself. For the Germans, nothing was sacred. The Cathedral is depicted in the balefully glowing painting (on the left) as being engulfed in shards of red as fire chews through the wooden timbers. The print (on the right) shows the building swathed in a cloud of dark smoke. Who else but beasts would attempt to destroy an ancient and beautiful Medieval monument to God? As R. Steenhard wrote,

On 20 September 1914, German shellfire burned, damaged and destroyed important parts of the magnificent Cathedral of Reims, seat of the Archdiocese of Reims, where once the Kings of France were anointed and crowned. Scaffolding around the north tower caught fire, spreading the blaze to all parts of the carpentry superstructure. The lead of the roofs melted and poured through the stone gargoyles, destroying in turn the Bishop’s Palace. The Cathedral was falling stone by stone and there was little left except the west front and the pillars. Images of the Cathedral in ruins were used during the war as propaganda images by the French against the Germans and their deliberate destruction of buildings rich in national and cultural heritage. Restoration work began in 1919, under the direction of Henri Deneux, a native of Reims and chief architect of the Monuments Historiques; the Cathedral was fully reopened in 1938, thanks in part to financial support from the Rockefellers, but work has been steadily going on since.


A comparison of Fraipont’s prints and painting with the photographs of the same event show not prosaic explosions in black and white but artistic expressions of national shock and outrage, conveyed to a French public. Indeed, with Fraipont, it was but one step away from propaganda as his later print of the “martyrdom” of Reims suggests.


A special issue of L’Art et les Artistes, which focused upon the outrage at Reims, contained accounts from America and England, all statements of shock at the crime. This international condemnation of Germany, in the second month of the War, revealed that Germany had already lost the propaganda battle with neutral nations. First, the burning of the university and library at Louvain and then the shelling of thirteenth century cathedral barely a month later. Even Italy, still hovering in a neutral position, demonstrated a public anger with the U Giornale d’ Italia commenting, Germany is entitled to the gratitude of the civilised world for many reasons, but when the excitement of war induces her children to mistake brutality for force, one recalls the infa- mous deeds of the Germans under Frundsberg at the sack of Rome, or the deeds of the bands of Wallenstein in the cruel Thirty-years war. The burning of the Cathedral is a useless act of barbarism, a lunatic outburst of wounded vanity and curbed pride. Fraipont made a print that buttressed the French case for innocence, showing the near-tragic fate of German wounded which had been rescued by the compassionate French. Images such as these played a prideful part in the propaganda war for winning the minds and hearts of the public of neutral nations, especially America, and uniting the French and the British against the Germans.


In fact the September assault was but the first that the Germans would launch: Erik Sass noted that by the end of the War the Cathedral would be hit by an estimated over 200 shells and when the Armistice was signed, only the walls were left standing. Apparently the Germans recovered from their protestations of innocence and it would be up to the American Rockefeller family to donate the money for its restoration, completed at the end of the 1930s.

In contrast to the eventual choice on the part of the English public to accept avant-garde in paintings of the War, the French based artists who were conservative preserved the historical visual vocabulary of the nineteenth century. The way in which Fraipont depicted the blazing destruction of Reims recalls both Turner and Monet, indicating that he was formed by the Post-Impressionist generation, as was his counterpart was Alfred Theodore Joseph Bastien (1873–1955). His famous painting of a Canadian artillery unit showed the actual colors of a bombardment, with the horizon on fire. What is interesting about these Belgium artists is the extreme color, which contrasts with the dark tones favored by Matisse and the grays one often sees in English paintings. The setting of the painting, Passchendaele, which is remembered as brown mud, gray skies and black smoke from the constant bombardments, becomes a glowing scene from Hades. The intense glow is surprising to those used to black and white photography and it is important to note that these paintings would have been seen in a context of mass media news in tones of grays and blacks.


Alfred Bastien. Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele (1917)

The forty five year old academic artist had served in Belgium’s Garde Civique until he began working as a war artist the Belgium army. William Maxwell “Max” Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express and early developer of mass media, collected the paintings of Bastien. A powerful man, he requested that Bastien produce works of art about the Canadian contribution to the War and apparently arranged for him to be embedded with the 22nd battalion. The British were quite familiar with his work which was often published in two page spreads in the Illustrated War News. But it was Belgium’s Prince Albert who suggested to him the work that would be his masterpiece, planned from 1914, the Panorama de l’user (1926). Completed in the mid twenties, this long extended horizontal stretch of an endless battlefield, composed of interlocking scenes.


Panorama de l’user (1926)

Measuring 115 meters in length and 14 meters in height, the massive work was eventually installed at Ostend to be of service of British pilgrims coming to Belgium to seek the final resting places of loved ones. In its final place by 1926, the panorama was arranged in the round, augmented by lighting effects, a combination of nineteenth century dioramas of old and images of modern carnage done in a Post-Impressionist style. But the Battle of Yser was among the first of what would prove to be a war that was as long as it was surreal. The Belgium defense of its sovereignty defied the German expectations of immediate capitulation and the Army fought the invaders ferociously in the beginning of the War, giving the French time to move forward to join in, the British enough days to arrive on the continent and back up the French, while the Russians mobilized in order to attack the Germans from the East. But the Belgium army continued to resist the Germans and in the flooding of the Yser by opening the canal locks at Nieuwpoort, bogged down their guns and infantry in a growing sea of expanding and deepening mud.


Speaking in London, in June 1915, the Belgium Minister, Justice Caton de Wiat, recalled how the land had once been, “Less than a year ago the region of the Yser was assuredly one of the most peaceful and one of the happiest countries under God’s sun. A country of rich pastures, intersected by ditches and canals, sown with towns and villages. Here and there, hidden in the verdure, were low, white farmhouses capped by red tiles.” He continued, “Today you must picture to yourself a bare, sinister plain, on which falls a rain of bombs and shells and shrapnel. The soil is broken by heavy traffic, plowed up by projectiles, watered with blood. Here and there the inundations have produced great sheets of water, whence emerge the ruins of farmhouses, and on which all sorts of rubbish is floating, and often corpses. And on this soil, from October 16, 1914, without respite, without interruption, men have been fighting and destroying and slaughtering one another.” It is this last stand by the Belgium people, willing to sacrifice their own land in order to fight back and make an honorable stand. The event was of special importance to the Belgium people who flooded their homeland and fought for two and a half months before they finally had to give in. The Battle of Yser was a prelude of things to come, a prediction of landscapes destroyed in the name of War.

Yser was where the Germans were stopped and for four years, the Belgians drew a line, making a front where they would continue to fight their adversaries for the next four years. The cost of the ten day battle was 76,000 Germans and 20,000 Belgians, some of whom had died of starvation. The flat plain of Yser was flooded until 1918, when the citizens of Nieuwpoort reclaimed their city in November of 1918. The large paintings, depicting a battle that changed the course of the Great War, made Bastien comfortable for life and he was able to sell volumes of infolding prints replicating the panorama for those who could not visit Ostend. The separate paintings, which were rendered in a very large scale and could be, therefore, full of details that would absorb the viewers who would scrutinize the segments of the panorama for information.

junifrangment 5-6


Perhaps the most famous of these artists was Georges Paul Leroux (1877-1957), who, like his Belgian counterparts was born in the nineteenth century and grew up with Impressionism and inherited Post-Impressionism and simply stopped there. This was the style, Post-Impressionism in that it was so belated, that was the leading style of the day. For most of the public, including those interested in art, it was artists like Leroux who exhibited in the Salon des Artistes Français, that were considered the prominent and famous. Leroux could not have been more acclaimed, winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1906 and spent the vaunted year painting at the Villa Medici. For the general public, avant-garde was a fringe phenomenon of little import and therefore it was these academic artists who were entitled to speak and speak frankly to the French public.

At the advanced age of thirty-seven, Leroux signed up to serve his country and was awarded two citations and the Croix de guerre. Calling up his classical learning and calling forth his academic training, Leroux produced an elegy of mourning in the pièta, Soldiers Burying Their Comrades in the Moonlight, April 1915 (1915). The painting is both real–the tragic job undertaken during rare moments of truce–burying the dead and mystical–the shining white face and shirt, dappled with bloodstains–the pale glow of the “beautiful death.” There is much in this painting that recalls Giotto, especially in the way in which the solider cradles the Christ-like soldier gently by his shoulders and the curved back of the soldier attempting to discern the identity of the dead. In the background silhouetted against the pale blue dawn sky, the crouching gravediggers, bow to the earth, like the Gleaners, and an air of sanctity blesses the sad passage out of pain and fear.


The most impactful work by Leroux is probably L’enfer (Hell) (1921), a simple title that sums up existence on the Western Front as witnessed and remembered. L’ender is not blue but red; the scene is not stilled but churned. As he recounted later, “I saw a group of French soldiers seeking refuge in one of the thousands of craters filled with water, mud and corpses.” Leroux, who was determined to represent the War in all of its horror, inscribed the scene upon his brain so that he could paint it later. At first glance the painting is hard to read, for it does not seem real at all but something out of a nightmare. The nightmare is depicted by a soldier, Leroux, who served in Verdun, and painted by a painter for soldiers in their memory and in their honor. The artist called forth the experiences that woke him up at night. At the heart of the frightening coil of brown smoke is a deep shell hole full of water. It is here where soldiers fight for their lives, struggling against mud and panic in the midst of shellfire.


Georges Paul Leroux. L’enfer (1921) The painting is also dated 1917 to 1918, but the Museum which owns it sets the “production date” as 1921.

This painting is in the Imperial War Museum which concludes its description of the painting by stating, “The artist reminds us that the earth, which in peacetime sustains health and life, has been transformed in time of war into an uninhabitable ‘Hell’ and as such L’Enfer may be construed as a most powerful anti- war image.” After the War, Leroux returned to his successful career as an academic artist and received the honors that would come to an artist of his statue. He became a member of the jury of the Society of French Artists in 1924, a great compliment to his work. In 1926, he was promoted to Knight of the Legion of Honor and photographs of the artist show him proudly wearing the medals bestowed by his nation. Another high honor was his appointment as a member of the Institut de France in 1932 and in 1945, after he lived through yet another war, he was elected its president. When he died in 1957, the art world had long since passed him by, forgetting academic and artists of the early twentieth century, but Georges Leroux left behind a horrific image of war that became the most famous of his entire career.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Great War: French Military Painting, Part Two

Modernity and Military Painting

François Flameng

It is one of the ironies of the first modern war that the oldest of artists painted the newest of things–the first airplanes that flew combat missions in the Great War. French academic artist François Flameng (1856-1923) produced one of the most extensive visual accounts of the first modern conflict, and yet art history has passed this artist by. There is very little research done on this artist, who, in his own time, was famous and well respected; but historically, the academic artist was a casualty of changing tastes for art and new expectations of audiences. However, Flameng died at the peak of his reputation and would not know that his very real accomplishments during the War would be slighted. Indeed a French source noted the immediacy of his obscurity by stating, “Rares sont les artistes à avoir été aussi connus en leur temps, et aussi oubliés par la suite, que François Flameng.” Flameng, who had been a young man and marked by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, studied under Alexandre Cabanal, a leading academic artist and became a history painter, best known for his military themes. For the bulk of his career, with the exception of portraiture, the artist lived in the past. Flameng was the Meissonier of his day, celebrating the heritage of Napoléon I in particular, reliving the glory of the era when France dominated Europe.

Edmond Bénard (French, 1838–1907) François Flameng, 1880s–90s Albumen silver print from glass negative; Image: 20.1 × 26 cm (7 15/16 × 10 1/4 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.1249)

Edmond Bénard. François Flameng (1880-90)

And then, when he was in his sixties, this mature artist was suddenly thrust into the twentieth century when the Great War ended his extended dream of Napoleonic drama and valor on the battlefields. Flameng rose to the occasion and visited battles without valor and recorded the rise of an entirely new branch of the French military, the Aéronautique Militaire, depicted the frightening gas masks worn by soldiers, watched the new tanks roll across the battlefields. At the same time, he watched the modern soldier slogging across the muddied fields of Verdun and the Somme, and watched battles shorn of anything glorious or exciting. As a witness to the twentieth century, François Flameng was confronted with a reality he was expected to record and report back to a curious and anxious French public.

The change in the artist’s approach to military painting could not have been more extreme, and, indeed, in the career of this one artist, Flameng, it is possible to watch the death of the traditional depictions of war inherited from the nineteenth century and the struggle artists had with showing the truth of a modern war. Flameng grew up doing those decades after the 1870s, while the French were dreaming of revanche or revenge against the German invasion and occupation of their soil. Somehow, the French narrative of the Franco-Prussian War elided the inconvenient fact that the French began the war and moved directly to the humiliating defeat at the hands of their foes, that must be answered in the future. Although some academic artists, such as Detaille, as was discussed in earlier posts, were able to find small incidents of valor in defeat during the humiliating war, other artists, Flameng being one of them, reached further back in time to the glorious days of Napoléon I. Under Napoléon, France experienced victory after victory, dominating Europe, just as Great Britain dominated the seas. Flameng shows the heroic aspects of Napoleonic rule, from the brilliant red uniforms, the glittering gold braids, and the celebratory mood under the young Emperor. Josephine’s Château de Malmaison is shown as a place of carefree and fashionable family life in the halcyon days before her husband’s ambitions cast the army and the country into chaos. Flameng did not shirk from painting the Emperor in defeat, pondering his fate after the decisive Battle of Waterloo. For the public who came to the academic salons, such history paintings were like visual textbooks told from the French perspective of nostalgia for victories. When Flameng was reaching his peak in his career as an artist of the past, the romance for the old century was a symptom of an underlying sense that modernity was intruding and demanding that the national mentality about war needed to get in step with the progress proffered by the twentieth century.


François Flameng. Napoleon and his staff reviewing the mounted chasseurs of the Imperial Guard before the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (1901)


François Flameng. Reception at Malmaison in 1802 (1892)


François Flameng. Napoléon at Waterloo (date unknown)

Nothing could be more different from the Napoleonic Wars, wars that consumed the first two decades of the nineteenth century, than the Great War in its dour colorlessness, its lack of adventure and glory, than its suffering condition as a lingering bloodbath. In contrast to the antique settings of the early nineteenth century which stressed the combatants rather than weapons, the paintings Flameng made of the four year war chronicled the new weaponry, brought forward by the increasingly urgent desire to break the stalemate on the Front. The military, perhaps remembering Napoléon’s genius with artillery, assumed that the big guns, which could fire over long distances, would solve the problem of the immobilized armies by pulverizing the German lines. However, the big guns, on both sides, did as much damage to the landscape as they did to human beings, with little result for the massive amount of shells fired and the extreme destruction they wrought–destruction that is still unhealed today. The guns fired but the soldiers used the trenches wisely in order to survive.


François Flameng. Batterie 400

Tanks were another new invention, a British innovation, designed to end what had become a battle of mutual annihilation and bring the War to a decisive end. Since the fall of 1914, the Germans had been dug into defensive trenches that cut into Belgium and French territories, leaving the onus upon those nations to attempt to push the Germans back and out of their homelands. But nineteenth century battle tactics, artillery bombardment, followed by infantry advance, resulted in high casualties and, no matter how many times, the time honored strategy was tried, it failed. Even poison gas and flamethrowers, horrific weapons, did little to change the stalemate created by trench warfare. Previously, trenches had been dug prior to and in preparation for siege warfare, but with the Great War, the zig-zag ditches became the defining feature of the Western Front and the Eastern Front. The plan then became to see which nation could kill the most young men–there seemed no other way out. There were two decisive moves that finally ended the War, without changing the status quo. First, was the arrival of the Americans in 1917. Badly trained and ill-equipped to be sure, but there were many, many Americans, an inexhaustible supply, compared to the depleted German generation, spelled an end to the Kaiser’s hopes of victory. The second change, also debuted in 1917 was the new tactic of using the tank to push into no-man’s land ant to break through barbed wire and, with the infantry following closely behind, taking the German trenches. The first major battle in which the tank, a lumbering beast of an armored vehicle, played a decisive role was a British offensive at the Battle of Cambria between November 20 and December 8th. At first the British advanced, surprising the Germans and forcing them to retreat but the Germans counterattacked before the Army could fortify and solidify its initial gains. Flameng’s depiction of a tank shows what a tank could do–crush everything in its path–but is rather bloodless, compared to Muirhead Bone’s powerful drawing, which positioned the viewer in the frightening position of being under a tank which is rearing up, poised to pounce.

Flameng_Tank_02 (1)

François Flameng. This is a painting of a British Mk 1, sporting 1916-camouflage, and followed by cheering infantry; surely an attempt to recreate the Tanks debut on the Somme, and the taking of Flers: “A tank is walking up the High Street at Flers, with the British Army cheering behind.”

It is difficult, from the vantage point of a century later, to grasp just how primitive the machines of the first modern war really were. Airplane pilots had no seatbelt and the seat was so shallow that there was no room for a parachute. Tanks did not have rotating turrets until the French tank, the Renault FT combined the rotation from an earlier model with Faible Tonnage or low weight. In contrast to the heavier tanks of the past, this 1917 model was nimble and lightweight and could attack in numbers as opposed to intimidating by size. The “female” version was armed with a machine gun, and the “male” model had a howitzer. By the war’s end, Renault had produced almost two thousand tanks, an extraordinary accomplishment.

If one compares Flameng’s military paintings set in Napoleonic times with his work during the Great War, it is clear that he considered himself as an illustrator. There is little in his work that goes beyond the mechanical reportage. This distanced approach is odd, considering Flameng’s imaginative take on life during the nineteenth century, a history he did not witness. Confronted with a genuine history, the artist wrung pathos and empathy from the sights he observed, as if by eliminating feeling he could present the view with a dry dissected version of a painful war. Flameng always kept his distance. Comparing his watercolor of the dead, sprawled near a barrier of barbed wire with those of Nevinson or Orpen, discussed in earlier posts, the emotional divide is clear.


François Flameng. Prise du Plateau de Californie. Chemin des Dames, Aisne, 15 mai 1917 (1917)

And yet, there is something to gain from this comprehensive view of a war and its many battles. Flameng shows a war that is impersonal, death is done at a safe distance for some, and for those for whom death comes hand to hand, face to face, their demise is not individual, merely numerical. His studies of soldiers in groups has the same frozen look of alienation, one of the major themes of this War. One of the new rules of this War with such high casualties is to not get close to the men with whom you serve for any friend is likely to be dead the next day. This cool tone from Flameng, buttressed by the colors he selected for this bleak conflict, may have been necessary, considering that by the end of 1915, France had lost two million soldiers, half of whom where dead–a million dead in one year. The nation was literally on its knees, broken but unbowed, and not allowed to weep.


François Flameng. Near Peronne, 1916 (1916)

In his previous works set in the nineteenth century, Flameng tended to concentrate on the leaders or officers, but for this very new war, it was the common soldier who captured the country’s attention and sympathy. The humble infantry, the pioupiou, mired in the trenches, trudging wearily towards almost certain death, became the symbol of the futility of the War, the cry of which was attaque à outrance. Only the airplane, a relatively new invention, a mere decade old, offered escape from the mud and an opportunity for personal glory. Interestingly, after making a career celebrating military drama, Flameng divided his attention evenly, showing men below the ground and the magnificent airplanes, built by French technology, which soared high above the earth.


François Flameng. Artois, 18 décembre 1915 (1915)

The French Air Service is considered the world’s oldest air force, but very little writing on the topic of this air force, to use American terms, has been either done in English or has been translated into English. Even one hundred years later, it is difficult to find an objective account of its history. As Alphonse Nicot wrote in 2015,

L’aéronatique pst une science entierement français; c’est en Allemagne, grâce à l’effort persévérant des pouvoirs public, due l’aétonautique militaire a trouvé son plus grand development..L’aviation, elle aussi, pst uno science français. Ses débuts, ses progress not en lieu en France, et ce sont des aviators français qui établirent tour les “records du monde..” De sort due l’aviation, créée en France par la génie français, fut surtout utilisée par les Allemands au point de vue des applications à la guerre moderne.

Nicot’s writing indicates a lingering enmity towards the Germans and an insistence upon the primacy of the French “genius” in aeronautical sciences. It would be pointless to note the accomplishments of the Wright Brothers in America, because it was indeed the French who realized the military possibilities the air plane as early as 1910 when the Aéronautique Militaire was set up under the French Army, where it would be ‘housed” until 1934. When the War broke out, the French were ready with twenty one squadrons or escadrilles. However, the first uses of the airplane at the beginning of he War was largely for reconnaissance. Pilots, sometimes accompanied by another crew member, would fly over the trenches and photograph the landscape below. One of those pilots was a young German named Herman Goring.


As Spencer Tucker pointed out in his book The Great War, 1914-1918, “The most important aircraft of the First World War were two-seaters used for reconnaissance, aerial photography, and artillery observations..Control of the air over the battlefield soon became vital, with most aerial combat occurring over or near the trench lines where the bulk of reconnaissance and spotting took place.” At first, pilots on opposing sides merely waved at each other in passing but then, the significance of the aerial photographs became clear, they began to shoot at each other with side arms or rifles. Fighter planes, designed with the idea of protecting the reconnaissance operations, did not emerge until 1915. Bombing, however, began in 1914. In his essay, “The First Air War Against Noncombatants. Strategic Bombing of German Cities in World War II,” Christian Geinitz wrote,

At the beginning of the war Britain’s ally, France, possessed the most modern military planes in the world. With them the French sought to spot the mobilization of German troops while they were still on German soil. Haphazard strikes against points of German mobilization gave way in the autumn of 1914 to a strategic concept of bombing military targets and the infrastructure of the German war economy..the first strategic bombing squad, the “Groupe de bombardement Numero 1,” formed in Belfort.

Despite the premier position of France in developing air craft and tactics and strategies for aerial warfare, it was not until 2007 that René Martel’s 1939 account of L’Aviation Française de Bombardement (Des Origines au 11 November 1918), a history of aerial bombing was translated into English. Although strategic bombing would have long reaching and controversial consequences, public fascination, then as now, fixated on the fighter planes and the dashing pilots, the Knights of the Air. As Tucker noted,

..the best way to shoot down enemy aircraft was to arm one’s own planes..In April 1915 Frenchman Roland Garros, a stunt pilot before the war, mounted an automatic rifle on the hood of his monoplane and installed a primitive synchronizer gear designed by Raymond Saulnier that allowed bullets to pass safely through the plane’s propeller. Because the device was imperfect, Garros also fitted the propeller with metal cuffs to deflect stray bullets that might hit the blades. Although crude, the process was effective and over the next several weeks Garros shot down several enemy planes before he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing run on a German train. Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, working for the Germans, took it a step farther. He developed a truly effective cam-operated synchronizer that allowed bullets to miss the propeller altogether. He combined his synchronizer with the Spandau or Parabellum machine gun mounted on an Eidecker. In August 191 there began an eight-month period known as the ‘Fokker Scourge,’ when the Germans dominated the skies over the Western Front before the Allies developed their own effective synchronizer gear.


François Flameng. Magazine Cover

The two sides were locked into a race for the most lethal technology. The airplane was but one weapon the combatants had to learn how to develop as a machine in its own right and how to deploy the new apparatus for War. This history of the airplane–on both sides–is instructive because the story that is told is one of learning on the job, how to build the craft–monoplane, or biplane or triplane–how to mount the engine–back or front–how many seats–one or two–how to fly–in a straight line or in circles or in curves–all of these interlocking elements had to be worked out independently and together. And yet the myth of the fighter pilots captured the imagination of the public. Writing about the Americans who served with the French during the War, Kyle Nellesen discussed this glamorization of the air war:

Fighter pilots took to the skies alone in their planes, engaging the enemy in combat which would end with one’s death. The image created around these men was essentially a revival of the warriors of antiquity. The ideals of chivalry and gallantry were manifested in the public’s view of the “knights of the air.” The elevation of the aviator as a hero comes largely from the nature of the ground fighting during the war..From the very beginnings of air combat, fighter pilots were seen as heroic figures.


François Flameng. Combat aerien’ L’avion ennemi s’abattant en flammes (1918)

The Germans were the first to celebrate their pilots. Kaiser Wilhelm personally awarded the Pour Le Merite, or “Blue Max,” to pilots Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann in January 1916. The award was the highest military honor of the Prussian kingdom, and from this point on it was almost exclusively awarded to high-scoring German pilots. Consequently, fighter pilots became extremely popular in Germany, even appearing on collectible cards. The French government followed suit by mentioning successful pilots in nationwide press releases. The term “ace” comes from the French, as they would refer to pilots with five or more victories as “the ace of our aviation” (“l’as de notre aviation“). The press attention garnered by pilots had an enormous effect on popular opinion, and the public invested their new-found heroes with the same qualities as the heroes of old.


François Flameng. Champ d’aviation, février 1918 (1918)

Interestingly, Flameng’s view of the air force in which the Allies flew a variety of planes shows a more pedestrian standpoint. His view, again, is not about the pilots but about the aircraft themselves as major actors in the War. His role as an artist in this war was, first of all “official,” in that he was acting for the French government and second, he was working within a mode of distribution that was based upon prints, not paintings that would be shown at exhibitions.


François Flameng. La Grande Guerre. Vue par les poilus

The fact that the audience for Flameng was the general French public no doubt explains his sanguine matter of fact approach. As honorary President of the Société des peintres militaries français, his art is important because each work is a carefully researched and observed historical document. One learns from viewing a reproduced work by Flameng–one learns about the patriotism of the soldiers, not their spirt or their élan, but that which gave them to the will to continue fighting, the sense of duty that it is right to die for one’s country.


François Flameng. Le défilé de la Victoire, le 14 juillet 1919 (1919)

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The Great War: French Military Painting, Part One

French Artists at War

Fernand Léger: A Case Study

Equipped only with an inadequate and dysfunctional language inherited from a mouldering nineteenth century, artists were forced to contend with a War like no other. The assumption might be that only the young, only those from the Front, only those who experienced the dangers first hand had the authority to speak. It would seem self-evident that those who possessed the keys to the new codes of avant-garde languages were able to show the truth of the Great War to those who could not serve but who wanted to understand. One of the oddities of the First World War is the trope of separation, the separateness of the civilians from the sites of fighting. With then exception of those caught up in battle zones, such as the civilians in Belgium who had the misfortune to cross paths with the German invaders, this war quickly settled into a specific strip where rows of trenches striped the continent like a gash from the North Sea to neutral Switzerland. It was here in this ribbon of modernity that the soldiers were faced with the technology of progress, express through killing machines. Beyond the band where the twentieth century was roaring into terrible life, existence in nineteenth century terms continued in security and safety. Less than one hundred forty miles away from Paris, hell had moved into Verdun, and the soldier on leave could return to a city where life went on, seemingly untouched and unmarred by the War. Although the French civilians were fully engaged in the struggle to defeat the Germans, they were not necessarily immersed in modern life.


Poilus en permission, Paris 1916

“Encounter with modernity,” a phrase written by Paul Blum to describe the experience of the soldiers who fought in the Great War. His essay, “Forces Unbound, Art Bodies and Machines After 1914,” in the book, Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I, grappled with the sudden vault into the modern age of mechanization and machines, of dehumanization and rational organization that supersedes sentiment. Blum quoted Hugo Ball, the Dada poet and performer, who presented a talk on Kandinsky at the Galerie Dada in 1917. Ball was attempting to explain the profound change thrust upon a Europe completely unprepared for the future:

God is dead. A world disintegrated. I am dynamite. World history splits into two parts. There is an epoch before me and an epoch after me. Religion, science, morality—phenomena that originated in the states of dread known to primitive peoples. An epoch disintegrates. A thousand-year-old culture disintegrates. There are no columns and supports, no foundations any more—they have all been blown up. Churches have become castles in the clouds. Convictions have become prejudices. There are no more perspectives in the moral world. Above is below, below is above. The transvaluation of values came to pass. Christianity was struck down. The principles of logic, of centrality, unity and reason were unmasked as postulates of a power-craving theology. The meaning of the world disappeared. The purpose of the world—its reference to a supreme being who keeps the world together—disappeared. Chaos erupted. Tumult erupted. The world showed itself to be a blind juxtapositioning and opposing of uncontrolled forces.

According to Ball, “The artists of these times have turned inward. Their life is a struggle against madness. “ And the poet was certainly correct, for many artists turned away or retreated or escaped during the war, especially in France. After the War, the appetite for images of a war everyone wanted to move beyond wasn’t large, to say the least. The art done during the conflict, therefore, fulfilled very specific purposes and was confined to a four year island. Many of the English artists, who were so eloquent when describing the destruction of the war on land and human faded from prominence, and the French artists adjusted their art towards the emerging post-Cubist collector base. The power of what Jean Cocteau called Le rappel a l’ order (1926) or Call to Order brought art back to a severe classicism that would reorganize the disorderly experimentations of the pre-war avant-garde. In reviewing the art of this period exhibited “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France Italy and Germany, 1918-1936,” art critic Ed Voves wrote,

This “call to order” actually had its roots in French wartime propaganda. The virtues of France’s Latin-based civilization were ranged against the Teutonic brutalism of the Germans. Before the war, néoclassicisme had languished like a discarded stage prop. In 1918, with the “Huns” surging for a second time toward the gates of Paris, Cocteau and others summoned the cultural icons of Greece and Rome to join the Allied ranks. That year, Cocteau published a book, Le Coq et l’Arlequin, which he revised and renamed in 1924 as Le Rappel a l’ordre. The message was the same, without the “us versus them” jingoism of the war: civilization must look to its ancient past to regain its bearings and enhance its vitality.

In the 1920s, Cubism had been run through the sieve of the Parisian marketplace until it had been flattened into a tamed decorative and harmless aesthetic, as in “look” or “appearance.” Order had been restored. The transformation of the art of Fernand Léger (1881-1955) is an interesting case in point. One could argue that Léger did not practice Cubism long enough or well enough to find his own voice. True, before the War, he found a distinctive style, but it was only after the war that he had something to say; and his message became one of modernity as uttered through the language of classicism. His wartime experiences seem to have been informative and transformative, maturing his art. Léger is famous for having said, “To all the blockheads wondering whether I am or will still be a cubist when I return, you can tell them more than ever. There is nothing more cubist than a war like this one, which can more or less cleanly section a man into several pieces and blast him to the four cardinal corners.”


Fernand Léger at the Front, Verdun

As a sapper or miner it was the job of the artist to tunnel under no-man’s land between the lines and to blast the Germans in their trenches “to the four cardinal corners.” After he was exposed to mustard gas at Verdun, Léger tried his hand at camouflage, hiding the objects of war, shielding trenches when possible, smothering all that could be seen with trompe l’oeil nature. As a camoufleur it was his job to make sure that everything matched the endless sea of mud, the expanse of dun colors. Consequently, one of his less well known statements touched on the experience that soldiers had in a landscape that was difficult to “read:” they developed an acute sensitivity to sound and acquired a large aural vocabulary of reverberations. As a sapper, he would have learned to listen to the sounds of the enemy digging underground in the opposite direction, so it would be natural for Léger to make this statement:

The war was grey and camouflaged. All light, colour and even tone were banned on pain of death. A blind existence in which anything the eye could register and perceive had to hide or disappear. Nobody saw the war hidden, concealed, crouched on all fours, earth coloured; the useless eye could not see anything. Everyone ‘heard’ the war. It was an enormous symphony that no musician or composer has yet been able to equal: Four years without colour.

One can imagine what it meant to the artist to emerge from below ground and into the light of day, to push aside the camouflage netting to greet the rising sun. Under such circumstances, the eye, always straining to see and to read the landscape, would be intently aware of objects. In a more familiar statement, reflecting this new curiosity to the world of light, the artist recalled his reactions to being removed from his studio habitat and his artist colleagues and being thrown into a war and new experiences.

It was during these four years which threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me..Suddenly I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people. Posted to the sappers, my new comrade were miners, laborers, artisans who worked in wood or metal. I discovered the people of France. At the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breech of a .75 canon on full sunlight, confronted with the play of light on metal. In needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-1913.

The gun of which Léger spoke was an artillery piece, described as Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897. As Ralph Lovett, an authority on historical artillery described it, the gun had a hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism, which absorbed the force of the firing of the shells, so successfully that, once they had developed this light-weight gun, the French “wanted no other artillery.” But there is a range limit to this gun that became apparent in 1915 in the face of German superior weapons. It can be assumed that the gun Léger admired had been modified. As Lovett explained, “By 1915, the French Army had begun to put together a balanced combination of the 75mm gun with the 155mm howitzer.” The French Soixante-Quinze is consider by some to be the first modern artillery piece because it used smokeless power and the new invention so admired by Léger, the rating screw breech, designed by Société Nordenfelt. The breech would be opened with a crank, the projectile could be trust inside, down the sleek tube and then the handle would be rotated again, closing the breech for firing.


When America entered the War, weapons had to be purchased from the French, who, by that time, had a well-stocked arsenal, and a brief film from 1918 shows the “Doughboys” or the gunners firing this large gun, mounted on two wheels, demonstrating only a slight jump back. The AEF bought some two thousand of these efficient machines. The famed .75 could fire as fast as the crew could load it with the time-fused shrapnel shells up to thirty rounds per minute or every thirty seconds, the gun could fire a shell. By 1918, these guns had become the primary conveyors of shells containing gas to the German lines. Towed by a team of six horses and served by a coordinated team of soldiers, this was the gun commanded by Georges Braque. Léger, described by Romaine Sertelet as mediocre troupier, who wanted nothing more than to return to Paris, was inspired by the business end of the gun that started all things “modern” for the French military.


There are but a few images by Léger during the War years, but a progression of sorts can be suggested. The Solider with a Pipe of 1916 is perhaps the closest to his pre-war work, which tended to be monochromatic, but the color scheme is also emblematic of the colors of the Great War–grays and browns.


Fernand Léger. Solider with a Pipe (1916)

But more characteristic of his future course would be his watercolor of a sapper in Verdun, which is a patchwork of bright colors on white ground. There are glints of blue, indicating the optimistic and ill chosen French uniforms of sky blue, but the forms are more naturalistic and anatomical that the dis-articulated pipe smoker with his tube like limbs. The artist had little opportunity to do full scale paintings, such as The Card Party (1917), discussed in an earlier post, but, at Verdun, when he had time, he did a number of drawings.


Fernand Léger. Verdun. The Trench Diggers (1916)

Although these drawings are minor works, but they also show the thought process of the artist as he inhales the new machines and the new mechanisms around him. Although he is part of a crew doing ancient work–digging–when Léger was above ground, he was able to take stock of this new kind of war, and, after the War, the artist shifted into what was later termed “The Machine Aesthetic.”

2 T UMAX Mirage II V1.4 [2]

The image of a crashed airplane is jaunty and colorful, an odd reaction to what was probably a fatal crash for an aviator. Men, who, like Léger, served in the infantry on the ground envied the “Knights of the Air.”


Among the drawings Léger produced while in the service are rather conventional sketches of military life among the soldiers, ordinary soldiers, the poulis, in the trenches in moments of leisure. Léger does not appear to have been an officer as was Georges Braque and he relished mixing and mingling with the motley crew that was the ordinary French man. But other drawings sideline the human interest and foreground the mechanical with increasing abstraction. A French blog examining the question of how the Grande Guerre changed or impacted art, the author wrote, Le fait de se battre, l’action individuelle est réduite au minimum. Tu pousses la gâchette d’un fusil et tu tires sans voir. Tu agis à peine. En somme on arrive à cici: des être humains agissant dans l’inconscient et faisant agir des machines. Dans res représentations des poilus, Léger donne à la guerre son caractère abstrait par l’elimination de l’humain. Cette guerre-là, chest linéaire et sec comme un problème degéométrie. » Ainsi pour Léger, “il n’y a pas plus cubiste qu’une guerre come celle-là qui te divise plus ou coins proprement un bonhomme en plusieurs morceaux et qui l’envoie aux quatre points cardinal.

th_69d32fefe879cbcae962890a6796b540_134452383795019729 2-0 tho02_leger_01f The drawings demonstrated an increasing interest in how things work, as in machines. But Léger was also drawn to the hospital where men–in pieces– were taken in on stretchers to be put together again after they been blown en plusieurs morceaux et qui l’envoie aux quatre points cardinal.fernan11


Fernand Léger. Study for Mechanical Elements (1918)

As early as 1918, Léger refined his experiences of a modern war into the next phase of modern art in which art design, and engineering have been combined. The idea of machines, which, for the artist become abstract design elements–in other words, is not necessary to define the machine in terms of what it does or how it functions, it is necessary only to show its home, the factory, where the machines live. The machine has “elements,” but it not necessary to understand what they are. When one goes back the the artillery gun, the “Seventy-Five,” it was the detail of the breech and its handle mechanism that fascinated him–not what the gun did, not how the latch opened and closes, but the abstracted mechanism itself, isolated from its purpose and examined on its own.


Fernand Léger. In the Factory (1918)

Using bright colors and simple clean forms, Léger becomes almost child-like in rendering what is a very sophisticated understanding of “machines,” in that each one does one mechanical action that is often isolated and while it is, at the same time, part of the an assemblage of machines. Together these machines in combination produce and make a final product that has no relation in form or shape or function to the machines that made it. The actual topic, whether it is of Disks (on the right) or something else, such as the rotating Propellers (on the left), human or inhuman, is reduced and reinterpreted as cogs and gears and wheels, whirring and purring in colors.


Fernand Léger Composition (The Typographer) 1918-19 Oil on canvas 98 1/4 x 72 . in. / 249.6 x 183.5 cm Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

As can be seen in paintings of the period, such as The Typographer of 1918 above, there is a sense that no matter how human, the body is a machine in its own right. Elements go in to the factory and an object emerges in a kind of modern miracle that is explainable. But Léger, during this transitional post-War interlude, insists upon abstraction to indicate the gulfs between concept or design and process and execution, until finally a modern thing that we never see is produced. Later, when he reaches his “classical” phase, Léger will reintroduce the human being in his art but these works of 1918 and 1919 start the movement towards an aesthetic inspired by the machine. Here, all that is natural and/or anthropomorphic is banished: this is the brave new world.

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Cameras at The Great War: The Battle of the Somme (1916)

The Great War and the Movies

Propaganda and Mass Media

The Crimean War (1852-1856) taught the British government a very useful lesson: in case of war, censor. One of the famous thorns in the side of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, William Howard Russell (1821-1907) was a famous war correspondent who was assigned by The Times to cover the war in Crimea. As his biographer, John Atkins wrote in 1911, “Most war correspondents, indeed, are war correspondents by accident. They become war correspondents because they are, or are thought to be, competent journalists, not necessarily because they understand war.” In fact, Russell himself was no soldier as he stated, “Though I had always been fond of military matters- I knew nothing of what is called by soldiers soldiering. My early ambition to wear a uniform could not be gratified. I tried to get into the Spanish Legion,! but I was too young. When I became an ensign in the Enfield Militia I was too old, and I had little taste and less leisure for the training.” But he cut his reportorial teeth in wars that were small and did not directly involve British interests. Then came the Crimean War. In these early years, it was clear that the military had no idea of the importance of the role of war correspondents and the significance of mass media and the public reach of The Times. Russell was on his own, visiting the battlefields, attempting to talk to reluctant leaders and all the while noticing everything. He wrote to his editor,

I have just been informed on good authority that Lord Raglan has determined not to recognise the Press in any way, or to give them rations or assistance, and worse than all, it is too probable that he will forbid our accompanying the troops. I have only time to say so much to show you that the promises made in London have not been carried out here. Part of one Division, Brigadier Adams’, has got no tents. There is no beef for the men for the last three days, only mutton which the doctors say will bring on dysentery. Just imagine this : the sappers and miners sent out to Bajuk to survey do so in full dress, as their undress clothes were not ready when they left. Am I to tell these things or to hold my tongue ?

Of course Russell did not hold his tongue and revealed the dangerous incompetence at command level and the mismanagement that prevailed at all levels, impacting on the health, safety and lives of the troops. But he was still at loose ends, floating freely, and, as would become plain, not carefully controlled by the government, and unsure of how he should write of this war. After the Battle of Alma, about which he wrote honestly, he mused, “What will they say in England ? That question,” writes Russell, ” never occurred to me in my distracted career till I had to deal with the misery that fell upon us in the winter, and then indeed I thought, as I wrote, that they in England would say that their army should not utterly perish. Better had I discoursed upon the weather and said everything was for the best: though more men might have died, I should not have made so many powerful and relentless enemies.” In other words, having little information from those in charge, Russell used his eyes and ears, cultivating relationships among the ordinary soldiers who were dying for cholera and whose lives were being thrown away. But he had a turn of phrase that made his reports–as incisive as they were–exciting to read. Shortly after the Charge of the Light Brigade, he describe the Russian calvary riding towards a line of Highlanders, standing firm awaiting the attack: “The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet ; gathering speed at every stride, they dashed on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.” But in December of 1854, Russell wrote to his editor at The Times, “Lord Raglan now and then rides out to the front. He has not been down to Balaclava for a month, has never visited a hospital, and never goes about among the men. Canrobert visits the Kamiesch hospitals and the men repeatedly. You hear nothing now but grumbling against the General; but no one doubts our ultimate success. One hour of Wellington, of Napier, or five minutes of Marlboro’ or Napoleon, would have saved us months of labour and thousands of lives.”

The rest, of course is history: the Queen and the Prince complained. Victoria was not pleased with “infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers,” and Albert railed against “the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country.” The Royal couple called upon the services of Roger Fenton, and, as discussed in a previous post, the photographer was sent to the Crimea–his mission: to erase the writings of Russell with consoling photographs. But it was too late. Russell’s condemnation of the British conduct of the War were so powerful that they brought down the government, forcing Lord Aberdeen to resign. When the Great War broke out and England reluctantly joined in, two things were clear: the military had to control war correspondents and the government had to control the media in an age when media was now “mass,” mean polyvocal, newspapers, magazines, photographs, and motion pictures, not to mention fine art. As Stephen Badsey pointed out, “British generals had also learned before World War One to treat the press and its owners with respect, although always with a certain disdain for war reporters..The experience of earlier wars had convinced most governments and military authorities that unrestricted newspaper reporting was an unacceptable security risk. In the strict interpretation of military regulations, virtually any contact with the press by a member of the armed forces was an offence. Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War in 1914, was also personally hostile to the press.” He added, “ strict military regulations, cameras were forbidden on the Western Front, but a few soldiers carried them and took photographs which later appeared in local newspapers.”

Quickly, on the 4th of August, the Defense of the Realm Act was proposed and subsequently passed, with section C being of particular interest to communicators, either visual or verbal: it was unlawful “to prevent the spread of false reports or reports likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty or to interfere with the success of His Majesty’s forces by land or sea or to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with foreign powers.” A counterpart to control would be mass distribution of the “facts” the government wanted to circulate and the War Propaganda Bureau was set up in Wellington House where it would operate secretly to control public opinion. Immediately a conflict became apparent. It was one thing for the WPB to organize well-known authors to support and justify England’s role in the War, but words needed authentic images and the military was not cooperative and restricted photographic access to the front lines. According to Stephen Badsey in his book, The British Army in Battle and Its Image 1914-18, by 1915 Wellington House decided to incorporate its own film unit, set it up in house, operating through the Topical Committee of the Film Manufacturers’ Association of what were at that time called, “newsreels.” It was with this Committee, also called the “Topical Committee for War Films,” in tow that Wellington House would make a movie,, not a few brief moments of footage, but a full length film of the coming Battle of the Somme. In these early years of film-making, a new art form barely twenty years old, a documentary this ambitious would be the kind of venture the film-makers wood have to make up as they went along, so to speak. Two cameramen, Geoffrey Malins and E. G. Tong were sent to France as early as November of 1915 and produced a series of short and uninteresting newsreels. Tong became ill and was replaced by J. B. McDowell and was the latter who would continue the project with Malins.

By June of 1916, the military had granted permission for the team to have access to the front lines at the Somme. The cameraman, a skilled photographer and practiced filmmaker, was Geoffrey Malins (1886-1940) and John Benjamin McDowell (1878-1954), were embedded with the troops, filming on the front lines under difficult conditions, shooting when the smoke cleared. As Badsey noted it was safer to film at a safe remove and concentrate on the actions of the big guns. In their article, “How the Battle of the Somme was Filmed,” Laura Clouting and Ian Kikuchi wrote that, up until this point, film or the motion pictures, was mostly enjoyed by the lower classes. This is an interesting observation because Wellington House had previously targeted the opinion of the elite and now with film the WPB was reaching out the larger public. The public wanted a narrative and a story, a convincing account of why this War was worth the sacrifice. Like all the artists and photographers that would subsequently called upon by Wellington House, the filmmakers would have been given instructions as to what to film and why. It was the goal of Wellington House to bend the story arc in the desired direction.

PHO 152

These movie makers, called “kinematographers,” carried cameras, the mechanism contained in a wooden box about the size on an ammunition box, and when they wanted to capture a scene, they cranked a handle. Malins was given the courtesy rank of lieutenant, while his partner McDowell, a projectionist, was not, or, depending upon whom you read, preferred to remain a civilian. The pair was going to war with highly flammable nitrate film, with cameras that looked suspiciously like guns, with the lens catching the light of the sun. It was safer to film from behind the lines from a position of safety. The newsreel photographers arrived in time to capture the build-up for the Battle of the Somme, a battle, which was postponed by the Battle of Verdun interjecting itself into the schedule of the British high command. Although Wellington House could not have known of the unprecedented deaths on the infamous first day of the battle, the arrival of the film footage on July 10th was timely. Due to the stunning lack of success of the opening days of the Battle, it was urgent that the the Propaganda Bureau make some sense of the carnage and explain its purpose to the public.


Constructed as a narrative, the resulting The Battle of the Somme (1917), was a combination of truth and fiction, with some scenes being “constructed” for the sake of the safety of the cameraman. McDowell apparently attempted to film some of the charges towards the German trenches but, predictably, the film was too shaky to be of use. The famous “over the top” sequence was staged and filmed behind the lines by Malins who was sent back to France and attended a training camp about twenty miles behind the Front to get the necessary footage. With the sight of the troops going “over the top,” the climax was in place and the film could be released.


For the British public starved for information and desperate for images, the documentary looked absolutely authentic. BBC noted that half the population of Great Britain saw the film, making it more popular than Star Wars. Its distribution was huge, thirty-four theaters, opening on August 21st, as the Battle dragged indecisively into the Fall. One million people saw the documentary the first week, recoiling at the impactful montage of dead bodies, wounded soldiers, and agonized close-ups. James Douglas for the Evening Star reported that “the Somme pictures have stirred London more passionately than anything has stirred it since the war. Everybody is talking about them. Everybody is discussing them. Everybody is debating the question whether they are too painful for public exhibition.” Laura Clouting, writing for The Guardian, stated that “These shots had a tremendous impact in the cinema, with audiences cheering the men. There are reports of a woman crying out Oh God, they’re dead! at the ‘deaths’ played out for the camera alongside unflinching real shots of the dead and wounded.


The audience of 1916, unlike those of today, were not used to “war films” and not understanding editing or replication for the sake of safety, would believe, because it was on film, everything they saw was “real.” The Battle of the Somme might be considered the first war movie or the first documentary filmed during a war and, it must be stressed, it was released while the Battle was still going on, showing in some two thousand theaters after the first six weeks. When Malins wrote his book in the 1920s, How I Filmed the War, he did not mention McDowell. He occasionally referred to his “companion,” who could have been his driver, and his adventures seem to have been his alone. Nevertheless, his description of being on the battlefield was compelling:

“I was kneeling filming the scene, when I heard a shell hurtling in my direction. Knowing that if I moved I might as likely run into it as not, I remained where I was, still operating my camera, when an explosion occurred just behind me, which sounded as if the earth itself had cracked. The concussion threw me with terrific force head over heels into the sand. The explosion seemed to cause a vacuum in the air for some distance around, for try as I would I could not get my breath. I lay gasping and struggling like a drowning man for what seemed an interminable length of rime, although it could bave only been a few seconds.”

He called himself “Malins of No-Man’s Land,” and later he explained the atmosphere of the destroyed landscape:

“While I was lying here, there crashed out a regular infemo of rifle-fire from the German trenches. The bullets sang overhead like a flight of hornets. This certainly was a warm corner. If I had filmed this scene, all that would have been shown was a dreary waste of mud-heaps, caused by the explosion of the shells, and the graves of fallen soldiers dotted all over the place. As far as the eye could see the country was absolutely devoid of any living thing. Thousands of people in England, comfortably seated in the picture theatre, would have passed this scene by as quite uninteresting except for its rnemories. But if the sounds I heard, and the flying bullets that whizzed by me, could have been photo- graphed, they might take a different view of it. Death was everywhere. The air was thick with it.”

On the occasion of the centenary of the War, the Imperial War Museum restored the historic film which had been viewed by forty six million people when it was released in 1917. One can only imagine the impact of the film upon the British people, who by then had lost so much, whole villages wiped out, streets without adult men. This film might give some lucky sister or mother a last brief glimpse of her brother or son, a young girl might see a father who never came home one last time. As one of the movie goers wrote, “I have lost a son in battle and I have seen the Somme films twice. I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life and the life-in-death that our dear ones endured and to be with them again in their great adventure.” The writer was referring to the fact that the movie was divided into five parts, with a three part structure. In his 2011 article, “The Battle of the Somme (1916): An Industrial Process Film that ‘Wounds the Heart,'” Michael Hammond noted, that “The first depicts the build-up to the attack on 1 July 1916; the second the attack itself, which includes staged footage of the men going over the top. The third and final section has scenes of the wounded being carried in, prisoners being brought back and the dead collected and buried; it ends with an upbeat scene of the Worcesters waving and “continuing the advance.”


As Hammond pointed out, the British audiences were fully informed about the vaunted “Big Push” towards the Somme, which was also the first major British-only operation for the War. Therefore the film provided for the audiences scanning anxiously for familiar faces on the screen what the Italians called sceneggiata, or a collective “mode of reception,” or a unique experience that was very rare–the first full length documentary film released at time when the viewers still perceived photographic processes as “realistic,” and watched by a desperate and needful nation while the battle was underway with no end in sight.

© IWM (HU 59419)

Nicholas Hiley of the University of Kent reported that in 2006, The Battle of the Somme was entered into UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register” as an historical document of world significance. However, the reception of contemporary historians has been mixed, Badsey criticized the film for not showing the enemy, the dreaded Hun, or explaining to the audience the battle plan or strategy–“patternless” and “bewildering.” As the book written by Malins indicated, it would have been both dangerous and impossible for him to capture scenes of the Germans attacking and, at its time, according to historians, the Battle and the experience of simply being there would leave the soldier with a sense of purposelessness. Indeed in his 1997 important article, “Cinema, Spectatorship, and Propaganda: The Battle of the Somme (1916) and Its Contemporary Audience,” Nicholas Reeves stated that he was impressed with “the extent to which the film revealed some of the brutal realities of war on the Western front that seem so especially was precisely the lack the film’s lack of that kind of special pleading which seems an inescapable quality of most propaganda films with gave it its extraordinary power. The lack of a sophisticated structure, the roughness of some of the editing, the sparse, factual character of the inter titles, coupled with its remarkable cinematography, are at the very heart of its unique appeal.”


What can be discerned from the reception of The Battle of the Somme in its own time and now in the centenary of the War is that the production propaganda and the purpose of propaganda films were apparently mixed in with the historic notion of reporting. In its rough and primitive form, it is clear that movie, altered as it was, was nearer to a documentary than to a propaganda film. It is also clear, in light of its enormous success, that this seminal and mostly forgotten film set the standard and precedent for future “war movies,” such as the post-war All Quiet on the Western Front, a fictional account, to Victory at Sea, a true documentary.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Sir Muirhead Bone: Official War Artist, Part Two

Sir David Muirhead Bone (1876-1953)

The First Official War Artist

It is one of the ironies of British military history that Wellington House decided to take two steps that would change the way in which the Great War was depicted for the public in the fateful summer of 1916. This is the summer of the Somme, perhaps, for the British, the most famous battle of the war, an engagement which gave rise to the idea that the high command cravenly and ignorantly and stubbornly led hundreds and thousands of young meant to their deaths, deaths for the sake of a few years of blasted soil. Of course Wellington House, in charge of a modern propagandizing of a modern art, had no way of knowing what the summer of 1916 would do the the citizens of the United Kingdom when it appointed Muirhead Bone, an otherwise respectable if undistinguished artist, as its first Official War Artist. Most remarkably, the War Propaganda Bureau also decided to do something remarkable and unprecedented–to make a film of the Battle of the Somme. Once again, the Bureau could have not known that the first day of the Battle, July 1st, would be the bloodiest day of the War, tens of thousands of young men ending by the end of the day.


Muirhead Bone at the Somme

The Somme was the site of the “Great Offensive,” long planned by the French, but interrupted by the unexpected German attack on Verdun. Georges Braque was on this part of the Front, Matisse’s mother was caught in a German-occupied town in Picardie, and the battle of the Somme, like that of Verdun, lasted long enough to allow many war artist, most of whom were “official,” to survey what rapidly became a ruined bombed out landscape. For a traditional artist, such as Muirhead Bone, the lack of “scenery” was disconcerting. In this flat terrain, relieved here and there by a slight hill, human habitation would be shelled from miles away by huge guns–French and German–artillery heard but not seen. The procedure, repeated over and over despite repeated failures, was to bomb the trenches of the enemy for, not hours but days, in the belief that the inhabitants of the trenches would be killed.


Muirhead Bone. Battle of the Somme (1916)

However, although they might be deafened and stunned, even driven mad, the soldiers usually survived the bombardment. They could rise up, drag out the machine guns and destroy the advancing troops. For the artist, the sight before him resembled the dark side of the moon, pocked with craters, filled with water, glinting in the summer sun, the earth itself, made of sticky clay, heaved with dead bodies, some buried, sone not. In such a landscape, the people, who usually were placed in a landscape, were hiding below ground, and the artist looked out over a blank field of destruction. In his article, “Why Paint War? British and Belgium Artists in World War One,” Paul Gough wrote,

A distinguished Scottish etcher more used to drawing industrial and architectural scenes than distant battlefields, Bone was nicknamed the ‘London Piranesi’ for his ability to depict vast and complex construction sites, shipyards, cathedrals and docksides.[1] Nothing daunted him. But on the static battlefields of the Western Front he struggled to locate the face of modern war; it was elusive, distant and nocturnal. By daylight, the battlefield, or what he could safely see of it, was empty and deserted, with tens of thousands of combatants secreted in the trenches or hidden far behind the lines. At night it was crowded with activity but too dark to draw. Like the few official photographers who had been sent before him, he became frustrated at the huge scale of the war on the Western Front..

The official photographer of the Australian imperial Forces during the Great War, Frank Hurley (1885-1962), “the mad photographer,” found the bleakness of the battlefields of Flanders to be extremely difficult to photograph. He described “Figures scattered, atmosphere dense with haze and smoke – shells that would simply not burst when required. All the elements of a picture were there, could they but be brought together and condensed”. Hurley who had accompanied Shackleton to the Antarctica turned to composite photography to inject some conventional composition into what would otherwise be an image with few features other than dead bodies. The artist and the photographer alike were defeated by the reality of modern war. Keeping in mind that the worst battle of the War was going on while he was sketching, Bone, a true professional, worked quickly in pencil, pen, charcoal and soft chalk, and he functioned efficiently on the ground and in a period of a mere six weeks produced one hundred fifty drawings. It took a fair amount of courage to keep one’s cool and to keep drawing while the British troops were under attack.


Muirhead Bone. Battlefield at the Somme

As one of the soldiers who witnessed Bone working recalled, “It was heroic of him to bring out his sketch book and make rapid notes of the scene around him. Once when a shell burst near him his pencil went clean through his paper, but he carried on while our men were taking cover under bits of wall, and wounded were being carried off.” When his work appeared courtesy of a somewhat unlikely sponsor, Country Life, acing for the Authority of the War Office, published catalogues of The Western Front. Drawings by Muirhead Bone, available for the interested public. Published in a ten part series, each section selling for two shillings, the segments sold some 30,000 copies. In writing the article, “A century of war art that began with Muirhead Bone,” BBC quoted the author of the 2014 book, A Chasm in Time, Patricia Andrew, who said of the artist, explaining his struggles, “It was always a sea of mud, shattered trees, shattered buildings, and it all looked rather the same..If you look at his pictures of the Western Front, they’re not the best examples of his work..He’s struggling to make some sort of individuality in pictures that are just mud, trees that are shattered, houses that are shattered, the odd chateau that is shattered. It’s a bit samey.”


In comparison to his rather dull drawings of day to day life on the front, Bone’s writing could be more vivid. In The Western Front, he described the Somme in these words:

Many skilled writers have tried to describe the aghast look of these fields where the battle had passed over them. But every new visitor says the same thing—that they had not succeeded; no eloquence has yet conveyed the disquieting strangeness of the portent. You can enumerate many ugly and queer freaks of the destroying powers—the villages not only planed off the face of the earth but rooted out of it, house by house, like bits of old teeth; the thin brakes of black stumps that used to be woods, the old graveyards wrecked like kicked ant-heaps, the tilth so disembowelled by shells that most of the good upper mould created by centuries of the work of worms and men is buried out of sight and the unwrought primeval subsoil lies on the top; the sowing of the whole ground with a new kind of dragon’s teeth—unexploded shells that the plough may yet detonate, and bombs that may let themselves off if their safety pins rust away sooner than the springs within. But no piling up of sinister detail can express the sombre and malign quality of the battlefield landscape as a whole. “It makes a goblin of the sun”—or it might if it were not peopled in every part with beings so reassuringly and engagingly human, sane and reconstructive as British soldiers.

The introduction to the Drawings was written by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, an extremely controversial general, who was in charge of the offensive at the Somme, and less controversially, a fellow Scotsman. But the controversy over Haig’s role in the slaughter emerged after 1917 and was based upon a few lines from the memories of his counterpart at the Somme, Erich Georg Anton Sebastian von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) who wrote this bit of remembered dialogue between German commanders: Ludendorff: “The English soldiers fight like lions.” Hoffman: “True But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys.” This phrase, “Lions led by donkeys,” became applied to Haig, the leading “donkey.” The reputation of Haig has been batted around like a shuttlecock by historians for the past one hundred years, but at the time he wrote the introduction for Bone, the War was still dragging on and his eventual fate was still unknown. Was he “The Butcher of the Somme” or “The Man who Won the War?” In his own time, he was criticized by Winston Churchill for the loss of life on the Somme, where there was “a welter of slaughter.” Churchill also wrote that the general “had sent the flower of British youth to death or muti­lation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors in the slough of despond.” Haig, who spend much of the Battle of the Somme convinced that the future of the military was the calvary, went on in 1917 to command at another costly battle at Passchendaele, where there were so many shell holes filled with water that soldiers drowned. But he persisted in his tactics of hurling human beings at machine guns, even though as Churchill said, “Lads of 18 and 19, elderly men up to 45, the last surviving brother, the only son of his mother (and she a widow), the father, the sole support of the family, the weak, the consumptive, the thrice wounded—all must now prepare themselves for the scythe.”

The unbelievable losses at the Somme and Verdun and subsequent battles were the result of a tragic lack of military imagination and unwillingness to come to grips with modernity. As late as 1926, Haig wrote, “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.” And yet he seems to have understood the battlefield and the problem that Bone, the first official war artist, faced in trying to explain this new kind of war:

The conditions under which we live in France are so different from those to which people at home are accustomed, that no pen, however skillful, can explain them without the aid of the pencil. The destruction caused by war, the wide areas of devastation, the vast mechanical agencies essential in war, both for transport and the offensive, the masses of supplies required, and the wonderful cheerfulness and indomitable courage of the soldier under varying climatic conditions are worthy subjects for the artist who aims at recording for all time the spirit of the age in which he has lived.


Muirhead Bone. Shells in Munitions Factory (1917)

Despite Haig’s glowing introduction, Bone’s efforts were meet with scorn by art critics and civilians alike. His renditions of the War were simply too realistic and too truthful to be interesting. The public was hungry for images and eagerly attended the exhibition at Sheffield’s Mappin Gallery in 1917 of one hundred of his war prints. However, as Gough recounted, his work was so well-regarded by the Propaganda Bureau that the officials hired more official artists, and thousands of people in Great Britain and America became familiar with the War though his work. In his article, “A War of Imagination?: The Experience of British Artists in Two World Wars,” Paul Gough, wrote,

By his own admission he recognised that modern war was an elusive and remote activity: “I’m afraid that I have not done many ruins … But you must remember that on the Somme nothing is left after such fighting as we have had here – in many cases not a vestige of the village remains, let alone impressive ruins !” Bone drew the aftermath of the fighting, he was rarely allowed near the front-line. As a result his panoramic sketches of the battles of Mametz Wood or the bombardment of Longueval show little more than hazy smoke on a distant horizon. As one critic noted it was “like a peep at the war through the wrong end of the telescope.”

In reviewing The Western Front in 1917, “C. L.” in Volume 31 of The Burlington Magazine, wrote,

Mr. Muirhead Bone has clearly justified the action of H. M. Government is employing him as an official artistic chronicler of the greatest of all wars..Huge as the scale of warfare has been, it has all the same been somewhat featureless, and certainly lacking in picturesque interest. It has therefore been difficult for Mr. Bone to discover and select subjects, which stimulate the creative fancy and produce a picture, which is something more than mere illustrated journalism. The danger of this kind of work lies in the artist being merged in the mere journalist..Huge guns pervade his later work, and much as one may admire Mr. Bone’s technical skill in dealing with such monstrous objects, one may doubt if he has really been able to infuse any artistic interest in them. Guns are inhuman and immobile, devoid of plastic sensibility.

But despite the rather boring accounts put forward by by an artist baffled by his task, his drawings could often be informative and his work with the new weapon, the tank, produced truly iconic images.


Muirhead Bone. Tank (1917)

It was here, with the machines, that Bone found his footing. The aesthetic and artistic different between the anemic sketches of the battlefield and the dramatic and strongly felt depictions of the machines that were making a new world is stunning.


From The Western Front: The doors of the furnace have just been thrown back and the heated gun tube is about to be lifted by the giant pincers of the crane.

Suddenly a rather boring and prosaic artist, uninspired by being a witness to the greatest carnage of the twentieth century, closed his eyes and turned away, muted by the slaughter and the suffering. The machines of war were another matter. More than any other artist of the Great War, Bone captured the menace of the guns, the destructive capabilities of modern weapons, the size of these objects of destruction.


Muirhead Bone. Giant Slotters (1917)

He drew the nearly unrecognizable weapons–they were so new–as things of darkness, inventions rising up from hell. Going through The Western Front, is like taking a journey into the heart of the pit of the War and into its pity and pathos as well. Bone never allowed his viewer to see the other side of the guns, the men targeted, the men destroyed, the men who became “the missing” of the Somme.


Muirhead Bone, Mounting a Great Gun (1918)

It was those weapons of mass destruction, depicted by Muirhead Bone, that were utterly fascinating. Perhaps the most vivid image was the lurching and looming tank, thrusting itself into the pitted landscape, nosing its way towards the enemy, symbolizing the new modern war.


Muirhead Bone. A Dead Tank (1918)


Muirhead Bone. A Line of Tanks (1917)

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]