The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Three

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.


Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

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French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part Two

Georges Braque Post-War

Return to Cubism

The question both during and after the Great War was the fate of Cubism. The forward thrust of the pre-war avant-garde in Paris was abruptly halted by what Barbara Tuchman called “The Guns of August.” Conflict and disruption are never helpful to artists who need peace and prosperity to contemplate their art, find collectors and make a living. The War, however, divided the leading pre-war movement, Cubism, in half: the Cubism before the War and the Cubism after the War. After the War Cubism acquired a totally different character, evolving from an armed rebellion assaulting the sensibilities of the public to a historical movement supported by a new generation of art dealers with respectable clientele. Before the War, Cubism, as a movement, had been divided into two different intellectual concepts, two separate aesthetic visions, one public, the colorful and, according to some, conservative, Salon Cubism, and the other private and studio based, the experimental projects of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Although both strands of Cubism could be traced back to Paul Cézanne, it was the Salon Cubists who emerged as the main “Cubists” after the War. Art history tends to neglect the Salon Cubists, such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and also has the habit of skipping over the way in which Cubism was established as a major force in the art market by these Salon Cubists after the War. In contrast to the Salon Cubists, after expanding its possibilities for his ballet designs with Parade, Picasso abandoned Cubism in a bid for wider acceptance. While Picasso developed a strategy to build his reputation as an ever-flowing artist, moving with each tide, each style and mastering it before moving on, his former partner, Georges Braque took a different road.

Braque, who had been wounded during the War, had almost died but struggled to recover and return to painting. Although Picasso had been solicitous and had visited him in the hospital during his rehabilitation, Braque became aware that their paths had diverged during the War, and, as he contemplated his comeback as an artist, he apparently made the decision to continue develop Cubism. Part of Braque’s transition out of the army and back into painting were two celebratory events, one to honor the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who seemed to have narrowly escaped death, and then a party honoring the painter, also recovering from a head wound and wondering if he would ever paint again. These parties in 1917, marking survival, marked the return of two prominent figures to the art world in the same year as Picasso’s Parade debuted. Picasso’s use of Cubist painting as costumes and sets in this “surreal” ballet were his swan song, his farewell to the style that made his reputation. For him, Cubism provided a way out, an exit to new artistic frontiers. For Braque pre-war Cubism beckoned to him as a way forward. As with Picasso’s work on Parade, Braque’s post-war paintings bear the memory of papier collé, with areas of strong color that were painted instead of large blocks of pasted paper. And, as with Picasso, these paintings use the old subject matter of Analytic Cubism and its characteristic sharp diagonal likes which now emphasize the shapes of the objects rather than fragmenting them. Rather than floating above the support, the segments of color build upon each other, locking each other down.


Georges Braque. Glass, Pipe, Newspaper (1917)

Interestingly Braque relied upon the audience’s ability to “read” the “clues” of Cubism, a skill that had been developed before the War and not necessarily in Paris. What the potential Parisian collectors could see, however, is a style called “Cubism” as interpreted by its inventor, Georges Braque. As several of his transitions works made during 1917 and 1918 demonstrate, the artist relied heavily upon the papier collé works he was doing at the end of the summer of 1914, especially those which introduced a textured surface.


Georges Braque. Rum and Guitar (1918)

Perhaps, however, when it comes to the choice of color, a more informative comparison of Braque’s paintings he made during his recuperation would be with Henri Matisse, for, like the former Fauve with whom he once exhibited, Braque went dark. In comparison to the monochrome paintings of the so called “Analytic” stage, these paintings are dark and brooding. In comparison with the open structure of the floating segments of “Synthetic” Cubism, the canvases are filled and closed in. Braque also announced, if you will, the new work with a new motif that would appear for decades in his work, the Guéridon, a small side table dating back to the era of Louis XIV. The top is round, a site where Braque would crowded bits a pieces familiar to those who knew his early studies–musical instruments, sheet music, newspapers, things to eat and drink, all the comforts of home. The Guéridon had made an early appearance in 1910 and then in 1911, with its characteristic curved top was clearly visible as an edge barely supporting a plethora of disintegrating objects.


Georges Braque. Le Guéridon (1911)

The side table still life paintings would be the center of Braque’s comeback in 1919 at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery L’Effort moderne, but they were also his version of continuing to develop Cubism. Picasso abandoned Cubism during the post-war years and wandered off, exploring new styles, slipping from one look to another, as if traveling. Once settled in his darkened and sober color scheme, blacks and greens and browns, once he had returned to the comfort of still life motifs, Braque settled back into his own trajectory and stuck with his darkened Cubist perspective. It is possible to read the deep tones as elegiac for all that was wiped away by the War–human lives ended, an entire world of international avant-garde art halted, the nineteenth century itself–for a new century was well and truly underway.


Georges Braque. Guitar and Glass (1917)

However, unlike Fernand Léger, Braque did not let his experience as a machine gunner penetrate into his art. Instead, his art was about being back home, at home, safe in a charmingly cluttered interior, surrounded by timeless and familiar objects. The three legged table symbolized peace and safety. Although Braque returned to the familiar stacking technique of Cubism, in which space was flattened by the tilting forward of the objects which offered themselves to the viewer, the confrontation with building blocks of color and pattern might take on a different significance post-war, becoming signifiers of an urge to recommit to all things familiar and insignificant and close to hand. In a very interesting article, ‘Trench Warfare on the Western Front, 1914-18,” Dorothee Brantz wrote of the odd vantage points and the unusual experiences with space and landscape for those, who, like Braque, lived in trenches:

Trench warfare forced soldiers to develop a new relationship with space, including intensified sense perceptions. To some soldiers, going to war, might initially have looked like an adventure, but they quickly realized the life at the front was nothing like tourism. For one thing, there was little to see. Trench warfare no longer privileged sight,particularly when it came to locating the enemy. Not only was the landscaper increasingly unrecognizable due to military destruction, most soldiers spent large amounts of time close to or even below ground, where their field of vision was limited to the boundaries of the trenches, creating a particular perspective. As a result, battlefields looked empty even thought they were actually saturated with bodies, both living and dead. Even inside the trenches, soldiers often could not see very far because of the trenches’ zig-zag construction. The view across no-man’s land was obstructed by barbed wire and upturned earth, and during a barrage this field of vision was even future reduced with smoke or poison gas filled the air.

This landscape had been were Georges Braque had spent almost two years of his life. It is no wonder that he surrounded himself, wrapped himself in traditional still lives, places at a distance where he could see them, study them, and revel in their simple existence. In contrast to the semiotic fragments of early Cubism that provided a narration of a visit to a café, for example, the post-war still lives are rendered in full, redolent with decorative, celebratory details. The verticality now takes on a different connotation when contrasted to the dangerous flatness of a non-landscape stripped of all identifying markers but dead bodies and barbed wire. The new distance, allowing for a full view of a still life on a graceful table or even including the table itself, allows for a verticality, indeed, even the possibility of the act of standing upright-a posture that would mean instant death for the inexperienced soldier.


Georges Braque. Still Life on a Table (1918)

Having survived when so many did not, Braque, according to Alex Danchev, regarded his former confrères who did not serve, such as Marcel Duchamp, or who managed to cut their service short, such as Albert Gleizes, with a certain contempt. Picasso, in his opinion, simply sold out and of his post war life, Braque said, “Je dos connaître ce monsieur.” The paintings of Braque demonstrated how cleanly the artistic break with Picasso had been: Picasso became a celebrity, Braque remained the historical champion of Cubism and its future; Picasso frolicked on the Cote d’Azur with movie stars and prominent members of the rich and famous class, Braque stayed at home and painted objects arranged and rearranged over the decades. Early on, as with Musician, his 1917 return to painting, and La Joueuse de mandolin of the same year, Braque insisted on continuity and these paintings, like the Guéridon, had previous versions in his former life.


Georges Braque. Musician (1917)


Georges Braque. La Joueuse de mandoline (1917)

Braque’s return to public exhibition at L’Effort moderne in 1919 and the review of his new work was penned by Blaise Cendres whose right arm had been amputated. Centers, a Swiss national, had served in the French Foreign and Cendres (FrédéricLouis Sauser), like Braque, was recovering from his wartime experiences, as were Luigi Russolo, who also had a head wound that was trepanned, and Fernand Léger, who had been gassed. Raymond Duchamp-Villon died in the service of his country. It is in the face of the sacrifices of the avant-garde artists during the Great War that Cubism, once spelled “Kubism” with a “K” to damn it in its supposed German-ness, that Cubism finally became French, part of the French tradition. Braque chose to remain within this continuity, established by Léonce Rosenberg who was both taking advantage of the Cubist artists and promoting their art for mutual benefit.


In A Companion to World War I, John House quoted Fernand Léger, who said, “To all those idiots who wonder if I am a or will still be a Cubist when I return, you can tell them that, yes, for more than ever. There is nothing more ‘Cubist’ than a war like this one which splits a chap up more or less cleanly into several bits and flings him out to the the four points of the compass.” But how should we read these key transitional works from Georges Braque, a recovering veteran of a war he would seldom mention and seemed to repress? One hundred years after Braque was called into service, Karen K. Butler wrote of “Georges Braque. Artilleryman” in Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged. As she pointed out the working process of Braque was largely “internal” and that his philosophy of art was to divorce his work from the real world. In writing of his experience with trench warfare, Butler commented, upon a statement by Braque:

“Visual space separates objects form one another. Tactile space separates us from the objects. VS (visual space): the tourist looks at the site. TS (tactile space): the artilleryman hits the target..It is my position the some of the irreconcilable aspects of Braque’s war experience that are found in this statement–a kind of perceptual gap between distance and presence, as well as an emphasis on tactility and physical experience before the mechanization war–find a way into his post-war paintings.


Georges Braque. Still Life on Table (1918)

Butler concluded, is difficult to connect these still lifes and interiors in any overt way wot the war. And yet it is worth considering whether the serial nature of these canvases ,which return again and again to the same motif with only slight variations in subject or perspective, is in some way suggestive of a psychological response to trauma–a response that is both a repression of the experience of war and an unconscious reiteration of its tactile space. For Braque, who, strives to hit his target like the artilleryman, I propose that his emphasis on the material qualities of the artwork is deeply tied to the devastating encounter with industrialized mass destruction that emerged in the trench warfare of World War I.

In 1996 the historian and art historian Philippe Dragen wrote Le silence des peintres: les artistes face à la Grande Guerre, taking an interesting stance, particularly when it comes to the French avant-garde artists. While the English artists rose to the occasion, looked the war directly into the eye of this first modern war and created, out of the avant-garde vocabulary, a language to express the death and devastation, the destruction of an entire swarth of landscape and the desolation that followed the loss of a generation upon which the future had once depended, the French artists looked away. As will be discussed in the next post, the vast bulk of French art was prints and posters, with almost none of the major pre-war artists approaching the war in any fashion expect indirectly at best. It is difficult to account for such a vast difference–eloquence on one hand and repression on the other, but it should be remembered during the first month of the War, France was delivered a death blow which was still bleeding in 1940, when on a fine day in June, the Germans once again marched down the Champs Elysees.

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The Art of Camouflage: The Great War, Part One

Artists at War

Hide and Seek and Camouflage

One of the odd aspects of the Great War is the surprising fact that it was during these four years that the British artists not only met the challenge of depicting a new kind of war but they also left behind a unique legacy which took a Cubist-Futurist based visual vocabulary and transformed it onto a language for conflict. It is only with the British and Italian artists that the avant-garde goes to war in 1914 and each group took up a specific area of battle. The Futurists, with their fascination with machines, especially those that flew, specialized in airplanes. The British, trapped in trench warfare and bogged down in mud and corpses, showed the horrors of the ground war to a home audience, hungry for information. These two bodies of work from the British and Italian Futurists have been largely overlooked by traditional art history because art historians tend to not take British art seriously and because these bodies of work fall into what is considered a specialized area–“art of war.” The Italian contribution to the translation of aerial warfare into avant-garde art has long been buried under the weight of their pitiless Fascism. Only slowly are these Italian bodies of art being resurrected, now that enough time has past to distance the art from the taint of the glorification of war.

But the British art of the Great War bear no such stain. Instead the art produced by the English painters was a patriotic endeavor undertaken by artists who went to the battlefield, often not as soldiers but as support staff, nurses and medics to the fighting soldiers. The contribution of Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) was a case in point. In 1915, a year into the War, Wadsworth, very fascinated with the machine, created an imaginary machine. In “inventing” a machine, the artist takes a typically Vorticist approach to mechanization–an artist does not copy machinery or, as one sees in the Cubist-based art of Fernand Léger, refer to it–an artist becomes an engineer and makes machines. The fact that an artist invented mechanical device might have no purpose is simply beside the point, Wadsworth was drawing a picture, if you will, of the new world that echoes the famous statement “mechanization takes command” by Sigfried Giedion (1888–1968) and now commands the battlefields of that narrow arc transcribing the front lines in Belgium and France. It was this mythic Vorticist machine that had transformed conflict in ways that have rendered all historical forms of battle obsolete.


According to Derweatts Bloomsbury Auctions, This 1936 lithograph was known for its controversial modernist depiction of a Vickers and Lewis Machine Gun from the Great War. Wadsworth’s offering for the 1936 poster campaign for the Lord Mayor’s Show caused public uproar as it was pasted on the London Transport network and was subsequently withdrawn from circulation after just 24 hours. Tainted by a climate of pre-war anxiety the British public took aversion to what they believed to be Wadsworth’s glorification of the weapons of war. Responding to these claims in the pages of the Daily Express the artist proclaimed, ‘If people object to this poster… they must object to the Lord Mayor’s Show. Better cancel the whole thing.’

One of the new machines that surfaced during the Great War was the submarine, perfected to a deadly threat by the German navy. The U-boat or Unterseeboot, “under sea boat” was at least two hundred fourteen feet long and carried of crew of over thirty. Hovering off the English coast and patrolling the Mediterranean, the role of the German submarine was to isolate Great Britain and cut off supplies, from food to munitions, vital to the war effort and to control shipping lanes to France. Like the newly formed air forces, the Royal Air Force or the Luftstreitkräfte, there were commanders in the submarine forces who proved to be all to adept at sinking Allied ships. The “ace” of the German submarine fleet was an officer who had French ancestry, Kapitänleutnant Lothar von Arnold de la Perière, whose prowess at sinking or damaging ships was astonishing. Commanding the U-35, he retired with a record of 195 ships sunk (455,869 tons) and 8 ships damaged (34,312 tons) and died in an air crash at Le Bourget airport in 1941.

Although this class of U-31 high sea submarines carried only six torpedoes, Arnold de la Perière usually deployed his deck gun to dispatch his prey and remains to this day the most successful submarine commander of all time, having the lion’s share of Imperial sinkings. The entire German count for all of their submarine fleet was 230, and this extraordinary record of destruction can be explained by the novelty of this new weapon and by the lack of radar which, in the Second World War, could detect the under water vessel. As John Abbatiello, an military expert on anti-submarine warfare, pointed out, “Submarines had poor visibility, lying low on the water, but enjoyed the advantages of stealth, and escaping counterattack by diving.” For a slow and heavy laden cargo ship or a lumbering destroyer, there were few recourses to a foe lying concealed and in wait, but the Allies were able to combine into convoys which allowed the assembled ships to turn on an attacker. By the end of the Great War, the British also used airplanes to attack the submarines which had to surface in order to kill. In the end, the score was almost even, with the German submarine fleet losing one hundred seventy eight boats.


Willy Stöwer. Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool (1915)

For the first time, thanks to this scourge of submarine warfare, so expertly practiced by the Germans, it was necessary to conceal the unconcealable–large ships–through camouflage. Although the art of concealment was known in the animal kingdom, humans used camouflage in hunting with the idea of blending in with the natural environment. But the idea of camouflage in warfare was relatively new. On land, massed regiments simply marched towards each other and fired their weapons, which created clouds of concealing smoke. Until the mid nineteenth century, the loading of guns was a slow and laborious process and the soldier was limited to one shot at time. The early guns were difficult to aim and were less than accurate. On the sea, ships towered above the waves with billowing sails and guns mounted below the high decks. As on land, it was necessary to see the enemy in order to fight the enemy. The notion of “skirmishing,” developed by the British army early in the nineteenth century, in which riflemen in green uniforms harassed the front lines of the enemy. During the Peninsula Wars, Wellington proved to be a master at this new form of deployment against Napoléon’s occupying army, considered not only novel but also comical at the time. But skirmishing itself was a form of camouflage itself: the skirmishers were a body of snipers sent to attack the front lines of the enemy, disrupting the steady forward marching of the massed regiments. So effective could these offenses be that although the skirmishers lay in wait and fired from concealed positions, they could be mistaken for the main body, confusing the enemy.

Indeed, fifteen years before Wellington’s green clad infantry were sniping at the French in Spain, Captain Charles Hamilton-Smith conducted an experiment for the Royal Engineers and stated,

Under general circumstances; and in battles, when the distance, the smoke of cannon and musketry, partially, at least, concealed contending armies from each other, glaring uniforms may not have caused serious bloodshed; but in the later wars, and the mode of engaging introduced during the French Revolution, where the rifle service is greatly increased, and clouds of skirmishing light Infantry cover the front of their forces so far in advance as to be checked only by similar combatants pushed forward by the opposing army, the fire of both parties is commonly guided by individual aim, and good marksmen make considerable havoc. The colour of the uniform becomes therefore a question of importance, particularly where it is of so distinct a nature as to offer a clear object to the marksman.

Hamilton-Smith’s experiment was a clear warning that colorful uniforms could not withstand a modern war and his research indicated that the proper color for the modern military uniform was gray. It was take fifty years before the British army could be dislodged from its stylish preference for red, and it was in India in 1848 that the military began to use official uniforms that suited the climate and the terrain. These uniforms were not gray, as recommended by Hamilton-Smith in 1800, but a new color, “khaki,” meaning “dust,” derived from the mazari palm. Stationed in India in 1846, Sir Henry Lumsden, realized the bright white pants and hot red felt coat of the standard British uniform were simply unsuitable to India and he started with his own loose fitting pajamas which he dyed with mazari, an innovation that led to the khaki uniform, approved by the colonial army in India. The regiments who were not provided appropriate clothing took things into their own hands and devised their own uniforms from light weight cloth stained with tea. However obtained, these new colors and new outfits were instantly recognized as serviceable as camouflage out in the “land of dust” that was India. The exact sequence of the adaptation of the khaki color by the British military is a matter of some discussion, and it should be noted that these “khakis” were mostly home-brewed affairs until 1884 Spinners Co. Ltd. of Manchester developed a reliable dye for the uniforms.


And now one hundred years later, the unanswerable submarine warfare had to be answered by any means possible. There were precedents for camouflaged ships: in the age of cannons, some ships draped painted canvases over the ports to conceal how well-armed they were and two hundred years later, the USS Narkeeta covered itself with brickwork to confuse the enemy. One of the problems with large ships is that they were, in contrast to a motionless animal in nature or a stilled sharpshooter in war, moving, positioned between sky and sea, a dual background that was both static and in motion. The constantly changing weather at sea was another factor: how to conceal within a range from fog to to storm to rain to full sunlight? The other issue is that, unlike a large gun emplacement, which was immobile, the mind of the observer had to be confused in an entirely different way. In other words, one could visually and mentally construct continuity with between a motionless dappled covering and its surroundings, but the challenge with ships was to confuse the enemy, not with concealment, but with the disruption of aim. The precision of the guns had to be confused. Recall that the ace German submarine commander, who was probably responsible for the need to develop a special camouflage for ships at sea, destroyed ships more often with surface guns that with torpedoes.


USS Narkeeta

As with static camouflage, the artists were deployed to create special effects. It is a measure to the difficulty the problem of camouflaging ships that it was not until 1917, three years into the war, that an effective method was finally developed by a marine artist Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971. Wilkinson, a rather bad artist of seascapes, largely derived from Turner, was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on a minesweeping vessel. The artist had served in Gallipoli and so he was an experienced soldier interested in serving his country. In sharp contrast to the French artists, only some of whom served in active combat, even older English artists joined up. One of these indefatigable mature soldiers was Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927), an Anglo-Jewish painter, not to be confused with the Pre-Raphaelite artist, a famous gay artist, Simeon Solomon who had been charged with sex crimes in 1873 and died alcoholic and destitute in 1905. Like Wilkinson, Solomon was not the greatest of artists but he had game, and the English portraitist became an “R.A.” and depicted King George V, the Queen Mary and Edward the Duke of Windsor in the famous Coronation Luncheon group portrait of 1911.

coronation-luncheon-by-solomon-joseph-solomon-british-pre-raphaelite-eremf6 (1)

The fact that he was fashionable and important and portly did not prevent Solomon from joining, as a private soldier, a volunteer corps for home defense, The United Arts Rifles or “The Unshrinkables,” according to Nicholas Rankin author of A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars, a 2008 book that briefly discussed Solomon. The home guard drilled in Piccadilly, near the Royal Academy, and somehow in the fertile brain of Solomon an idea based upon nature came to his head: camouflage. In 1915, he advertised his skills as an artist to The Times in 1915, under the title, “Uniform and color”–“A knowledge of light and shade and its effect on the landscape is a necessary aid to the imagination of a designer of the uniform in particular, and the appearances of war in general.” His suggestions for military uniforms were both based on previous British experiments with khaki and added some advice on “warships. The North Sea is almost invariably a pearly green, and experiments with models should evolve something more subtle than their metallic hue.”

Solomon had spent some time screening trenches with dyed and tinted sheets of muslin to shield trenches from the cameras of aircraft flying above. In these opening years of the War, airplanes were largely used to photograph trenches and almost a half million aerial photographs were developed for the Allies alone. The idea of camouflaging trenches was a good one, but it was also highly impractical, given the constant barraging of the lines and the impossibility of hiding hundreds of miles of emplacements–and four lines of trenches at that–that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. Interestingly, although Hamilton-Smith’s report was one hundred years old and khaki was over fifty years old, according to Rankin, the word “camouflage” was not included in the Encyclopedia Brittanica before the War.


Camouflaged Communication Trench to Company HQ, Picantina: panoramic sketch of communication trenches and a bomb damaged building amongst bare tree stumps just behind the front line. A barrel stands in the left foreground (September 1916)

But in 1920 camouflage expert Solomon,who had already written The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing in 1911, published another and very different book, Strategic Camouflage. In a section devoted to camouflaging buildings which concealed trenches and other strategic points, he wrote advice to an artist,

Or you can make a lean-to against the south side of a roof, and cover up the whole yard without any but an expert being the wiser, if you use a little skill. But you must be careful that the airman does not take an oblique view of your camouflage, if other houses in the same line or parallel are left to expose their whitewashed sides, windows, and doors, to mark the contrast with what you have shut off from view by your lean-to. In every case it is not wise to interfere with the rigid outline of your roof at the eaves.

It should be noted that Solomon’s approach to concealment in that he is thinking in terms of trompe l’oeil is purely academic and based upon his studies of reproducing nature in art. While the French artists were inspired by avant-garde art, particularly Cubism as Picasso famously claimed, the English artists came to the fine art of concealment and confusion by more circuitous routes. The extremely difficult of hiding a huge ship slowly ploughing the waves of the changeable sea was solved by Norman Wilkinson, two years after Solomon was spreading his muslim tarpaulins over trenches. The next post will discuss the joint operation between Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth.

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School of Paris: The Waning of the Avant-Garde

School of Paris

The Young Artists

The significance of the School of Paris lies chiefly, not in its innovations, but in the lack of innovation. The decades between the wars were conservative on several fronts. First, there was the well-known “Return to Order” which, like all nostalgia movements, looked back to a golden past that never existed. It would be more precise to use the term popularized by the poet Jean Cocteau, “Recall to Order,” implying that it was time to call the proceedings to order. The world of avant-garde art before the Great War was a disorderly scene with a jumble of movements, emerging one after another—Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Russian Avant-Garde art, and so on. The art audience simply had had enough and needed to take the necessary time to digest what had been a very rich meal.

During the 1920s and 1930s the School of Paris was dominated by the aging art lions, Pable Picasso and Henri Matisse. No longer rivals but now colleagues these two eminent artists extended their pre-war styles and presided over the younger artists who were clearly lesser lights. By extending their pre-war experiments into saleable and accessible styles, Picasso and Matisse set the tone for the School of Paris. Matisse continued to paint his odalisque fantasies in attractive, decorative canvases that were so pleasant one never tires of the endless variation on the theme of decorative interiors provided with a nude. Picasso proved he could keep up with the latest stylistic trends, but essentially he settled into a post-Cubist style that safely combined his Analytic and Synthetic phases and there is a clear connection between Three Musicians in 1921 and his late studies of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in the 1950s.

The outbreak of the Great War marked the end of an era and with August of 1914, Cubism passed into history. With surprising swiftness, the reputation of the Cubists were rated by art dealers, according to whom was in their stables. Historians would later assert that the “major” or “true” Cubists as those who were in the group supported by Daniel Henry-Kahnweiler: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. Everyone else was deemed a “minor Cubist.” Georges Braque and Fernand Léger were in a secondary position to Picasso but these artists were still contenders. Their art was founded upon the concepts of good taste, a good time, and a respect for belle peinture, in other words, a reasonably respectable avant-garde art based upon classical order. Barque parlayed his early Cubist fame into a series of acceptable post-Cubist still life painting that comprised the remainder of his career. Léger, on the other hand, was able to revamp his early Cubism into a more mainstream version of the prevailing “classicism” favored in these conservative years. His Three Women of 1921 was a rounding of and clarification of his earlier rather jumbled and busy approach to Cubism. Léger’s post-Cubist style would, like that of Braque’s, be the consistent signature look for the rest of his career.

The attitude in the art world was laissez-faire and, rather then the previous parade of “isms,” co-existing styles were tolerated. Certainly open-minded acceptance of all kinds of styles that could be labeled “avant-garde” boded well for the art market and its collectors. While the pre-war generation of artists enjoyed their well-deserved reputations, a new generation of artists emerged in the new artists’ neighborhood, Montparnasse. Les peintres maudits, many of whom were foreign artists, lived bohemian lives of sex, drugs and jazz. Nevertheless, despite their vivid expressionist colors and distortions of form for emotional purposes, their art tended to be agreeable and tasteful. These artists did not attempt to go forward and only looked backward to the immediate pre-war past which they tamed into submission. Clearly, the interruption of the Great War had taken its toll, for the art of the next generation revealed that the creative momentum had been lost.

The biography of Amedeo Modigliani, who had sad love affairs and died young, was perhaps more compelling than his paintings and sculptures. That said, his tasteful and erotic nudes and his African-esque sculptures combined the classical heritage of Ingres with something vaguely “primitive” in an visually appealing fashion. Like Modigliani, Chaim Soutine mined the historical avant-garde with his art, expressionistically painted in vivid colors. But his inoffensive paintings did not show the vivid imagination of the Fauves nor the angst of the German artists. Former artists’ model and an accomplished artist, Suzanne Valadon and her son, Maurice Utrillo, were among the most reckless of the hard-living younger generation. Because both did female nudes, Valadon makes an interesting comparison with Modigliani. Passive and supine, Modigliani’s nudes are typical of the male tradition of the “nude:” body upturned and revealed to the male gaze, eyes closed and unaware of the voyeur. But Valadon, who was quite used to revealing her body (she is one of the nude women in Renoir’s The Bathers of 1887) but this painter showed women in their private moments in their boudoirs and allowed them their modesty and privacy.

Picasso had produced a number of innovative three dimensional works—constructions and assemblages that changed the course of conventional sculpture. The way in which he reanimated a moribund medium was arguably one of his most significant accomplishments. The Romanian sculptor, Constantine Brancusi, was more conservative than Picasso but he assimilated the ideas from Cubism quite well. The many versions of the pre-war, The Kiss were an admirable conceptual realization of what a kiss is—a merger of heart and body into one solid unit. Likewise, Bird in Space, a post-war work of 1919 seamlessly continues the conceptual approach to sculpture.Julio Gonzales, a follower of Picasso, was also inspired by Cubism but took the idea of assemblage and used a collage approach to materialize lines in bronze. Among the most interesting sculptors was Alberto Giacometti. His most interesting and compelling works were made during his Surrealist years—Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) and The Palace at 4 .m. of the same year. He renounced this Surrealist phase and the rest of his career was devoted to the tall thin and heroic men in the tradition of Rodin’s male figures.

This essay began with the assertion that the significance of the School of Paris was that it had no significance. Indeed, this extended period of conservatism and complicacy marked the waning of Paris as the center of avant-garde experimentation and the rise of Paris as the center of an international art market. The need to innovate, the urge to create, the urgent desire to make statements about art or life, or both, had been drained out of the city. The Paris of the post-war period was far more noteworthy as a center for literature, film, photography, jazz, fashion, and design than it was for the fine arts. The passion for the traditional visual arts had shifted to a nation the least equipped to deal with an artistic renaissance—Germany. But it was to Berlin that the avant-garde traveled, leaving a vacuum in Paris and an opening for the artists in New York who would later “steal the idea of modern art.”

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The Cubists: Artists and Writers


Today Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) are considered to be the “True Cubists,” to borrow a phrase from art historian, Edward Fry. But at the time Cubism was famous or infamous with the Parisian public, from 1910 to 1914, “Cubism” meant the Salon Cubists. To the art audience, the “Cubists” were those artists who showed and exhibited publicly in the large Salon exhibitions in Paris and in other European capitals. Because these were the artists who exhibited, those were the artists and the art works referred to when the art reviews were published in the mainstream press.

To the writers in the know and to the avant-garde artists, Picasso was the acknowledged leader of Cubism and possible source of inspiration for the Salon Cubists, with Braque being a shadowy figure, mentioned only occasionally by the art press. Protected by their art dealer, the German expatriate, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), Braque and Picasso were supported financially and were able to work out their own version of “Cubism” in the privacy of their individual studios and display the results privately in Kahnweiler’s unadvertised gallery, far from the madding crowds of the Salons.

Who were the Salon Cubists? These artists, some sculptors but mostly painters, were a varied and complex group, strongly influenced byPaul Cézanne and dedicated to producing an avant-garde art which also maintained the French tradition of structure, clarity, logic, balance and classicism, as seen in French art from Poussin to Chardin. These artists were not really interested in so-called “primitive art,” nor do they go through the phases or periods of Cubism as Picasso and Braque did. They cannot be said to have had an Analytic Period or a Synthetic Period, and these artists did not have a great interest in collage, developed by the “true Cubists.” Thoroughly conventional and bourgeois, they lived in the suburbs around Paris, Purteaux and Corbevoie. Only Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) lived in the more bohemian environs of Montmartre, near Picasso and Braque.

The extent of the interchanges and mutual influence between the Salon Cubists and the “True Cubists” is difficult to determine. Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), Metzinger’s co-author of Du Cubisme, published 1912, did not meet Picasso until 1911, for example. By then, public or Salon Cubism was well underway. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that avant-garde art, by this time, had become an international phenomenon and avant-garde was exhibited and exchanged globally. These artists were in close touch with the Futurist artists and Russian art collectors were in contact with Picasso and Braque. French art traveled to other capitals in Europe and the Futurists chose to make their biggest splash in Paris. The 1913 Armory Show in New York rocked New York City, rattling the sensibilities of the provincials. Despite the rapid diffusion of ideas and styles, groups of artists and individual artists, can be clearly distinguished, for each maintained his/her national or personal characteristics.

The Artists

The Salon Cubists included Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, who based their version of Cubism upon the ideas of Cézanne, which the authors of Du Cubisme understood as examining that which was seen through multiple points in time and space. Like the Cubists who showed in the Salons, they were not adverse to color. In fact, the so-called Orphists, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, Frank Kupka, and, sometimes Francis Picabia based their brightly colored art on the notion that color, like music, could transcend into abstraction.

The grouping of the Salon Cubists, such as, Andre Lhote, Auguste Hebrin, Louis Marcoussis, and Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) and Marie Laurencin, etc. into sub groups was imaginary and artificial, the product of the art critic, Guillaume Apollinarie. Fernand Léger showed publicly for a time and then, with the Spanish follower of Picasso, Juan Gris, later became part of Kahnweiler’s group of Cubists. Completing the Cubists who showed in the Salons were the Duchamp Family, the painter, Jacques Villon, the sculptor, Raymond Duchamp-Villon (who died in the Great War) and Marcel Duchamp, who stopped painting in 1913, and the painter, Suzanne Duchamp.

Historians will later accord Léger and Gris a place of prominence in Cubism, largely due to Kahnweiler’s historical account of “his true Cubists” in Der Weg zum Kübismus. (The Rise of Cubism, 1915). It should be noted that Kahnweiler was reluctant to include “his” artists with the Salon Cubists and was very negative towards the very word, “Cubism.” During the peak years of Cubism, 1910-1914, the number of “Cubists” was substantial; after the Great War, the artists were ranked as “major” or “minor.” This ranking was done after the fact by the first historians of Cubism who were art dealers supporting the artists in their stables.

Art Critics

Like the art world itself, the circles of art writers was divided among the conservative and the radical and those in between. During the early Twentieth Century, the close ties between avant-garde artists and writers, forged in the previous century, persisted. And, as before, the art critics were also serious poets and novelists in their own right. The artists and writers were a close-knit community and the writers supported “their” artists in newspapers and journals. Often the writer would publish art reviews in mainstream newspapers with a general art audience and then write more substantive commentary for the journals, often short-lived petites revues.

Adventurous small publishers were willing to take a chance and even produce books on controversial art. It is important to note that the contents of these early writings, published before the Great War, were usually generalized, referring mostly to the Salon Cubists. After the War, these books were re-read and interpreted from the standpoint of a post-War re-evaluation of the Cubist artists. Readers tended to assume, incorrectly, that the writers were discussing Picasso and Braque, but these primary sources need to be read carefully, for those two artists were seldom directly discussed.

“Cubism” usually designated the public Salon manifestations of Cubist art, created by the Salon Cubists. Those who supported Cubism and who wrote important early books on these artists include the poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Maurice Raynal. The well-known critic-biographer, André Warnod, also weighed in, writing in Comedia. Other critics, such as Louis Vauxcelles and Arsène Alexandre, spoke against Cubism but were important supporters of Post-Impressionists, a group of artists still relatively unknown to the art audience, and favored art from non-Western countries. The main site of Cubism in America, where avant-garde art had a small audience and collector base, was the vanguard gallery owned by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. The legendary 291 hosted the cutting edge art from Paris and the gallery’s publication, Camera Work, published some of the first writings of Gertrude Stein, discussing Matisse.

Shortly before Apollinaire published The Cubist Painters in 1913, Gelizes and Metzinger published On Cubism in 1912. André Salmon, the poet-critic who had written of the mysterious painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and was a strong supporter of Picasso, wrote Young French Painting, also in 1913. In her 2006 book on Cubism, Anne Ganteführer-Trier, stated that Picasso was concerned that Salmon was neglectful of Braque. “He treats you with great injustice,” Picasso wrote to his partner. Perhaps of less interest to Picasso was the book written in 1914 by the American author, Arthur Jerome Eddy, Cubism and Post-Impressionism. With the exception of the writings of Apollinaire, who reproduced black and white photographs of Cubist collages in his book, Les Soirées de Paris, written in the same year, the sources of the ideas of Cubism would have almost certainly come from the Salon Cubists.

If one accepts that the main source of writings on Cubism were the Salon Cubists, then the lack of writing on the collages is explained. Apollinaire commented without explanation, that Picasso dissected like a “surgeon,” almost certainly a reference to the constructions. Most of the writing on Cubism centered on the multiplicity of viewpoints, the destruction of classical Renaissance perspective and the resulting fragmentation of forms. There were erudite references to poorly understood ideas that were floating about Montmartre, such as the Fourth Dimension or the dimension of time, but these appropriations were used, as Maurice Raynal later disclosed, less to explain Cubism and more to sell the new style as a serious movement in modernism.

The Salon Cubists: “The Cubist Heroes”

The Salon Cubists-to-be looked at Paul Cézanne, now widely available in various gallery retrospectives, especially those at the Salon d’automne in 1904 and 1906. It would not be an exaggeration to state that these exhibitions changed the direction of French avant-garde art, putting and end to Fauvism and making the beginning of Cubism. Cézanne’s attempt to go beyond the limitations of one-point perspective in depth, invented during the Renaissance. The result was what appeared to be distortions of space and form in his paintings, which provided much food for thought. Cézanne had also suggested that nature could be reduced to basic shapes—the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, thus introducing a certain basic geometry as the basis for creating form. But, far from being a disrupter of tradition, Cézanne’s investigations were a sincere and life long effort on his part to turn Impressionism into something solid, something fit for museums.

Avant-garde artists were searching for a new means of expression in a new age. This search was thwarted by the Academy, the art schools, which taught an official and accepted and acceptable art and insisted on continuing tradition. To the avant-garde artists, the academic formulas were now worn out and should be shed. But it is important to make a distinction between overworked visual conventions and a respect for past art. The Salon Cubists seem to have shared Cézanne’s need to innovate and to search for new answers, but they shared his adherence to the classical French tradition. For Cézanne, the classical meant the clean and simple structure of Poussin, and he objected to the supposed lack of composition rigor in Impressionism. Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists always looked back to the masters of French painting.

Like Cézanne, the Salon Cubists turned their backs on the Impressionists but for different reasons. The Cubists objected to the passivity of the Impressionists who, they charged were too simple minded, too optically orientated. There was more to nature than merely recording the shifts of light and the changes of color—there was structure and form and solidity that were, paradoxically, broken by the mobility of vision. However, as was mentioned previously, the Salon Cubists did not follow the logic of Cézanne into the dissolution of form itself. The art of Cézanne provided a kind of stylistic armature, a sort of grid or network from which the Salon Cubists could “hang” or organize their subjects.

The results of their studies became visible from 1910 on when the Salon Cubists began appearing publicly as a group, hung in particular rooms of the major avant-garde salons, the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Some had been working independently until then and became aware of each other in the Salon context. By October 1912, these Salon Cubists had their own exhibition, called the Section d’Or exhibition at the La Boétie Gallery. Although this was the year Picasso and Braque, working privately, developed Synthetic Cubism, the Salon Cubists continued their version of Cubism as an extension of Cézanne. The public considered with art very radical and shocking and, because of public ridicule and critical opposition, these were the artists who became the true “heroes” of Cubism. However, art history would, after the Great War, re-name them the “minor Cubists,” a categorization that must have come as a great shock to the veterans of one of the great avant-garde skirmishs.

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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