German Artists at War, Part Two

GERMAN ARTISTS AT WAR

The Good Soldier, Part Two

A battlefield is not an artist’s natural habitat. Fighting in combat is not an artist’s métier. But Franz Marc (1880-1916) wrote very militant and martial tracts for the Blue Rider Almanac. In 1912 he said stridently and forcefully:

In this time of the great struggle for a new art we fight like disorganized “savages” against an old, established power. The battle seems to be unequal, but spiritual matters are never decided by numbers, only by the power of ideas. The dreaded weapons of the `savages” are their new ideas. New ideas kill better than steel and destroy what was thought to be indestructible. Who are these “savages” in Germany? For the most part they are both well known and widely disparaged: the Brücke in Dresden, the Neue Sezession in Berlin, and the Neue Vereinigung in Munich.

His short essay was bristling with militaristic language and his images were borrowed from the barricades. Marc imagined the young artists with new ideas as “savages,” attacking the hills of old ideas guarded by the older generations, presumably the Munich Secession. The language of the Blue Rider artist, the images he conveyed can be seen as part of a phenomenon, on view mostly in Germany, which could be called portents of a coming war. The most famous writing on the necessity of a cleansing war, of course, came from the Futurist leader and poet, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, but the Italian desire for a modern war was different from the many paintings that emerged in Germany, picturing a total war, a cultural apocalypse that would leave a wasteland in its wake. The most famous of these visionary artists was Ludwig Meidner, but Franz Marc also seemed to be envisioning the future to come with his 1913 painting, The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol.

Franz Marc. The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol (1913)

Unlike Meidner’s many end-of-the-world paintings, the painting by Marc referenced the war in the Balkans, a skirmish in an uneasy part of Europe that acted like a tinderbox, predicting conflagrations to come. The horses, Marc’s beloved animals, are black and in the middle ground, a red-hilled cemetery is studded with black crosses that will be sprouting across the Western Front in a year. During these pre-war years, with Europe seemingly edging closer and closer to plunging into war, artists veered between metaphorical images and literal responses to actual events. Marinetti also reacted the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 with the poem, Zang Tumb Tumb, recounting in onomatopoeic words the sounds of the Siege of Adrianople during the first phase of these wars. While the Balkan conflicts were troubling, they predicted not so much a European war but were symptoms of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire which was losing pieces as territories were pulling away, seeking independence.

On the home front, in Germany, the nation was rattling sabers, imperial cavalry in full dress marched daily in Berlin, and the threat level seemed to be rising. In retrospect, Marc, like many artists, sensed the coming danger in his painting The Fate of Animals. But only in retrospect. In 1976, Frederick S. Levine investigated the origins of this work, dating it to May 1913, part of a larger group of animal paintings that the artist described as “utterly divergent pictures.” “They reveal nothing, but perhaps they will amuse you,” he wrote to his friend and fellow artist, August Macke. In addition to the reaction to the Balkans war on the Tyrol region, he was discussing The Tower of Blue Horses, The First Animals, The World Cow, and Wolves: Balkan War. The original title of The Fate of Animals was both extreme and poetic: The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Their Veins (Die Bäume zeigten ihre Ringe, die Tiere ihre Adern) and on the back of the canvas of a painting that Marc had declared would “reveal nothing,” he wrote, “And All Being is Flaming Suffering” (“Und alles Sein ist flammend Leid“). This complicated verbiage was distilled, on the advice of Paul Klee to Fate of the Animals (Tierschicksale), a more coherent title. The “fate” of animals in a burning forest is that of doom and death. They cannot outrun the flames that slash through the trees; the animals can only stand and wait or fruitlessly run for their lives. Certainly being caught in a blazing wood and being helpless would, in the near future, mirror the fate of the soldiers trapped in a war that would mow them down as ruthlessly as the flames would end the lives of the animals that stand in waiting for their “fate.” The painting was first shown in the Berlin gallery Der Sturm later that year, and its subsequent destiny or fate–of which more will be said later–was as eerie as that painting was as moving and prophetic.

Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913)

The intense clashing diagonals and strong and fearless colors that envelop the stalwart beasts are painterly echoes of the writing of the artist penned a year earlier:

The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define. Who can see clearly what their aim is and what is to come; But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today, sometimes independently of each other, and that they possess inner truth, makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch—they are the signal fires for the pathfinders. The hour is unique. Is it too daring to call attention to the small, unique signs of the time?

The question of the meanings of these “signs of the time,” was taken up by Milton A. Cohen in his article “Fatal Symbiosis: Modernism and the First World War.” He wrote,

As anticipations of the First World War, these images of war have been typically treated either as instances of artistic naivety (in glorifying a horror that artists could scarcely imagine) or as artistic prescience in sensing the blood that was already “in the air.” Yet such clichés miss the complexity of modernism’s relations to the First World War..Modernist artists had been at war long before they were mobilized in August 1914. Their primary enemies were the forces of artistic reaction: the hostile press, the conservative academies, the reactionary critics, the smug, self-satisfied bourgeoisie..By the early 1910s, however, as modernist innovation intensified, so did its struggle against reaction, and increasingly, modernists turned to war and violence for the vocabulary to depict it.

The author suggested that these paintings, like the language that accompanied them, were metaphorical and more directed to a desiccated art world than towards an imagined clash in the future. And yet, Marc depicted himself, riding a horse, in full dress uniform, in a 1913 painting that would prove to be a sad prediction of his own death.

Franz Marc. St. Julian the Hospitaler ( St. Julien l’Hospitalier ) (1913)

In another book Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914, Cohen described the end of all of the bellicose images and manifestos once the War began in August of 1914. Instantaneously, artists flocked to war, acting as patriots for their nations, and ending the international sharing of artistic ideas that had characterized the two decades before the War. Faced with the enormity of actual war, normal artistic life ground to a halt and the militant words of Franz Marc would quickly seem naïve in the face of real battle. Cohen quoted French artist Albert Gleizes, who observed, “The present conflict throws into anarchy all the intellectual paths of the pre-war period, and the reasons are simple; the leaders are in the army and the generation of thirty-year-olds is sparse.” He ended sadly by stating a commonly held sentiment, “The past is finished.”

Franz Marc. Fighting Forms (1913)

To imagine Marc at war was to imagine an apparently gentle and spiritually inclined artist in alien territory, the battlefield. For years he had celebrated animals, considering them to be uncorrupted and closer to the spiritual in the world than humans, who were hopelessly compromised and unable to redeem themselves. The artist imagined nature itself as living and breathing according to hidden mystical laws that people, bent upon disturbing the forests and the fields, could no longer sense. He used color to bring symbolic meaning to his spiritual paintings, attempting to create a new language that would be redemptive for humans and at least bring a soothing balm to benighted beings.

Franz Marc. Animals in Landscape (Painting with Bulls II) (1914)

Marc’s language of colors echoed the ideas borrowed from Theosophy as put forward by his colleague Vassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). Marc wrote that “Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” Writing in 2016, Eleni Gemtou noted that Marc projected human feelings of qualities, such as a lost spirituality, once the property of individuals, now found only in animals. In “Art and Science in Franz Marc’s Animal Iconography,” Gemtou discuss the empathy Marc felt for animals, imparting them with anthropomorphic qualities they probably did not possess. As the author explained,

Marc’s particular attitude towards animals must have been developed through many parameters and influences arrived at from both his own life experiences and the proceedings in contemporary science. He was familiar with animal iconography from his childhood up, as his father, Wilhelm Marc, was a professor at the Munich Academy specialized in animal and genre scenes. His approaches though were very different from those of his son, as he used to sentimentalize nature and anthropomorphize animal behavior in a more direct manner.

Despite this uplifting theme that drove his art, Marc, who came from a religious family, dreamed of a cleansing war that would bring about a new beginning. His last paintings of 1914 were marked by restless agitation on the part of animals who were instinctively sensing the dangers to come. In September 1914, the artist, filled with enthusiasm, volunteered and joined the calvary, a part of the military where he could ride a horse, but such units would soon become anachronistic. Romantic notions of a “cleansing” war quickly subsided in the face of reality. Marc’s close friend and fellow artist, August Macke died in October, very early in the war. Sadly, Macke’s wife, Lisbeth, had written, “And it’s wonderful to see how eager they all are to go.” Marc understood the magnitude of the loss of this man, his art and the future of his art. Correctly, Marc recognized the arbitrary nature of wartime death, writing of the “accident of the individual death which, with every fatal bullet, inexorably determines and alters the destiny of a race.” But he believed that this death would contribute to the greater good. “The blood sacrifice which turbrulent nature demands of nations in great wars they offer with tragic enthusiasm, without regret. The whole clasps loyal hands and bears the loss proudly under peals of victory.” Possibly through his own nationalism, Marc came to realize that any war ended globalism and watched the impulses towards a pan-European artistic network dissolve into an extreme nationalism. Instead of rising nobly and heroically to the great occasion, humans, faced with life of death circumstances, quickly descend to animal-like behavoir in order to survive. In his article, “A Murderous Carnival,” Richard Cork quoted Marc, writing in December of 1914, two months after the death of Macke, saying that “the most important lesson and irony of the Great War is certainly this: precisely the great triumph of our ‘technical warfare’ has forced us back into the most primitive age of the cavemen.”

Franz Marc. The Birds (1914)

In writing regularly to his wife and in asking her to make sure that the correspondence would be published, Franz Marc left posterity a remarkable record of a German soldier’s thinking and how his ideas evolved during the two years he served at the front. According to the analysis of Susanna Partsche in her book of his letters, Marc, the artist began with the belief that

Europe was sick and could only be purged through war. He spoke of an interntional blood sacrifice through which the world would be purified. He stricly rejected the view that economice interests had led to the War. He understood this War as a civil war, a “war against the inner, invisible enemy of the European spirit.On the other hand, he also believed that Germany would emerge strengthened from the War, and imagined a Europe under German hegemony. “Germanity will spill across every border after this war. If we want to stay healthy and strong and retain the fruits of our victory, we need..a life-force which penetrates all, without fear..of the unknown..which will bring us to our position of power in Europe..”

Like many artists, Marc tried to find the time to sketch the conflict, mostly in metaphorical rather than in documentary terms. For a brief shining moment, he was assigned to a camouflage unit where he painted “Kandinskys” on canvas, and he wrote of the new function of art in a modern war: “From now on, painting must make the picture that betrays our presence sufficiently blurred and distorted for the position to be unrecognizable. The division is going to provide us with a plane to experiment with some aerial photographs to see how it looks from the air. I’m very interested to see the effect of a Kandinsky from six thousand feet.”

But as the war dragged on, Marc became more and more disillusioned. In the beginning, the artist had believed that “There is something impressive and mystical about the artillery battles… I still do not think differently about the war. It simply seems to me feeble and lifeless to consider it vulgar and dumb. I dream of a new Europe, I … see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe, and make it ready… Europe is doing the same things to her body France did to hers during the Revolution.” By 1916, he was yearning for an end to his service, and he wrote of the hopelessness of the War itself: “The world is richer by the bloodiest year of its many thousand year history. It is terrible to think of; and all for nothing, for a misunderstanding, for want of being able to make ourselves tolerably understood by our neighbors! And that in Europe!! We must unlearn, rethink absolutely everything in order to come to terms with the monstrous psychology of this deed and not only to hate, revile, deride and bewail it, but to understand its orgins and to form counterthoughts.”

In 1916, the Western Front was mired in the rain and in the endless Battle of Verdun and Franz Marc was but one of the thousands of men fated to meet senseless deaths during a campaign that lasted for months. After two years of being in constant danger, in 1916 he wrote, In this war, you can try it out on yourself- an opportunity life seldom offers one…nothing is more calming than the prospect of the peace of death…the one thing common to all. [it] leads us back into normal “being.” The space between birth and death is an exception, in which there is much to fear and suffer. The only true, constant, philosophical comfort is the awareness that this exceptional condition will pass and that “I-consciousness” which is always restless, always piquant, in all seriousness inaccessible, will again sink back into its wonderful peace before birth…whoever strives for purity and knowledge, to him death always comes as a savior. Marc was now thirty-six years old and, had war not come into his life; Marc would be at the peak of his creative powers, with a long and distinguished career ahead of him. But he was beginning to feel haunted and stalked by death. He wrote to his mother that “death avoided me, not I it; but that is long past. Today I greet it very sadly and bitterly, not out of fear and anxiety about it–nothing is more soothing than the prospect of the stillness of death–but because I have half-finished work to be done that, when completed, will convey the entirety of my feeling. The whole purpose of my life lies hidden in my unpainted pictures.” In 2013, Mark Dober, in his article, “Franz Marc: utopian hopes for art and the Great War,” of the great irony of the artist’s death. On March 2, 1916, Marc wrote to his wife Maria, “For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine … Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you – the war will end this year. I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do.” Then two days later he wrote what would be his final letter to her, saying, “Don’t worry, I will come through, and I’m also fine as far as my health goes. I feel well and watch myself.” According to Dober, Marc was dead two hours later.

Franz Marc. Broken Forms (1914)

But the story is even more horrific than the final poignant letter. In the book, War, Violence, and the Modern Condition, Richard Cork quoted Marc’s commanding officer. The artist and his superior were on a reconnaissance mission, scouting territory during “a radiant early-spring afternoon..At the foot of the hill Marc mounted his horse, a tall chestnut bay, and as long-legged as himself..” The peaceful afternoon was violently interrupted by an exploding shell which burst open, spewing shrapnel. The shards hit the artist in the head so violently that he was nearly decapitated, instantly killing him. It is comforting to think of Franz Marc, living the last moments of his life in the radiant light, riding a horse that we hope was blue.

Franz Marc. Blue Horse I (1911)

In an odd postscript to the painting, Fate of the Animals was in storage at the storage unit for the Der Sturm Gallery, awaiting transport to a memorial exhibition in November. According to Levine’s The Iconography of Franz Marc’s Fate of the Animals, the storage area caught fire and the painting “..subtitled And All Being is Flaming Suffering, was itself consumed by fire. The immense task of restoration was immediately undertaken by Paul Klee who, with the help of Marc’s widow and the artist’s preliminary sketches, was able to reconstruct the structure of the original work..although the original structure remains intact, much of the continuity and much for the dynamism of Marc’s color scheme is gone from what..is one of the most vital sections of the entire work.” The restored ill-fated painting was purchased in a few years later for theMoritzburg Museum in Halle, but in 1936, Fate of the Animals was declared “degenerate art” by the Nazis, whereupon it vanished until 1939. As Levine explained, the painting was found and sent to the infamous Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, a money laundering operation performed by the Swiss for the benefit of the Nazis. The Fate of the Animals finally came to rest when it was purchased by the Basel Kunstmuseum.

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Christopher Nevinson: Modern Art Goes to War, Part Two

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946)

The Young Futurist Goes to War

1914-1915

In 2011 English art historian, James Fox, the very cute successor for Michael Wood, discussed Christopher Nevinson in his British Masters series. He explained that Nevinson was “lured” to a London theater where he watched Filippo Tomasso Marinetti perform one of his experimental sound poems, evoking war. Although the audience, Fox tells us, was divided in its reactions, Nevinson was fascinated. It is hard to believe that Nevinson had to be “lured,” unless one understands that Marinetti was a friend of his father’s and knows that the son and the father were rivals for their entire lives. Fox does not give a date for the meeting in the account, but we know that Italian Futurist Gino Severini made an introduction for the young artist to the infamous agitator and master provocateur so that the two could meet in Paris in 1913. Marinetti was frequently in London, giving performances and holding Futurist evenings, well attended by the young artists of London. By the time Nevinson returned from Paris to London, he was steeped in the languages of Cubism and Futurism. True, as Fox pointed out, his understanding of these complex movements was facile–gained during a mere year of observation–but he was able to put his own interpretation on the paintings of this period. In 1913, Nevinson was perhaps the most advanced avant-garde artist in England.

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Christopher Nevinson. Self-Portrait (1911)

Closely allied with the Futurist movement, Nevinson appeared in that exhibition that was an awkward marriage between Post-Impressionism and Futurism at the Doré Gallery. Here, Nevinson was reunited with classmates from the Slade Art School, such as Edward Wadsworth, who suddenly became known, with some exaggeration, the “Cubo-Futurist school.” Frank Rutter, the English supporter of avant-garde art, declared Nevinson to be the author of “the first English Futurist picture.” Suddenly, a young man, disaffected from his family, asked to leave Slade, was the center of attention in London. He now had enough élan to join a group of dissident artists, called the “Rebels,” led by Wyndham Lewis. The Rebels included William Roberts and Frederick Etchells, future Vorticist artists. The small group met with the famous Marinetti at a dinner in his honor in November of 1913. According to Michael J. K. Walsh in his 2007 article for the Apollo magazine, the artists were concerned over Marinetti’s determination to control everything in the name of Futurism, but Nevinson was unconcerned. He and Marinetti actually performed together at the Doré Gallery in April of 1914. The conferenza, as it was called, took place on the occasion of a massive Futurist show of eighty paintings and sculptures, featuring all the leading Futurist artists. The works of art served as backdrops to the readings by Marinetti of his sound poems and the earnest discussions by Nevinson of his newly honed theories on avant-garde art.

Marinetti asked Nevinson to produce simulated cannon fire on command and later described the performance as something that would have seemed familiar to those who witnessed Joseph Beuys at work decades later: “Blackboards had been set up in three parts of the hall, to which in succession I either ran or walked, to sketch rapidly an analogy with chalk. My listeners as they turned to follow me in all my evolutions, participated, their entire bodies inflamed with emotion, in the violent effects of the battle described by my ‘words-in-freedom.’ ” By the late twentieth century, performance art would be considered one of the important innovations of the avant-garde, and it is possible today to understand the significance of these Futurist evenings in London, where, unlike in Paris, Marinetti could receive a warm welcome. And Christopher Nevinson, even though he still spoke in the voice of Severini, was at the center of an important new tendency in modern art. But the possibilities of developing the nascent Futurism of London were, like time, rapidly running out. In June of 1914, Nevinson had attained the status of “Futurist artist,” to the extent that he issued a joint manifesto with Marinetti himself, “A Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art,” often called “Vital English Art” for short. Published in the The Observer on the 7th of June 1914, the manifesto was supposedly signed by his colleagues, including Canadian artist, David Bomberg. Marinetti with his typical bombast declared that he (and Nevinson) wanted “to cure English Art of that most grave of all maladies-paste-ism.”

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However, having their names attached to a document by Marinetti was an affront to the desire of the Rebel artists to establish themselves, not as an English outpost of Italian Futurism, but as a group of artists uniquely British and uniquely modern within the English context. Quickly the now-disaffected group published a reply in The New Weekly, expressing their anger at having their names used without their knowledge or permission. The result was a breach, during the last summer before the War, between Nevinson and his colleagues. The angry Rebel Art Centre now acted as a group and, in true Futurist style, disrupted a lecture Nevinson was giving at the Doré gallery. The breach was complete. Once again, Nevinson had to go his own way. He now had two major sets of enemies: the Bloomsbury group that surrounded Roger Fry and the Rebels who would become Vorticists. Although Lewis and the other Vorticist artists would eventually repudiate both Futurism and Cubism, both he and Pound would appropriate Marinetti’s confrontational technique of stringing together strident declarative sentences in their own magazine, BLAST. In a particularly nasty and racist invective rant against Marinetti, Lewis asserted that “you wops insist too much on the machine. You are always on about these driving belts, you are always exploding about internal combustion. We’ve had machines here in England for donkey’s years. They’re no novelty to us.”

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It is difficult to determine the extent to which the English audiences were aware of or understood the extent of Marinetti’s utter devotion to the cause of Italian national assertion against the Austrians. Obsessed with the Libyan War of 1911, he lectured constantly on the dangers posed by Austrians to audiences throughout Europe and his famed sound poems, composed on the occasion of the war in the Balkans in 1912, were couched in his concern for the future of Italy in the Dardanelles. Given that he lectured in French, it is possible that the English artists were more interested in Futurist art than in Marinetti’s imperialism. When the Great War began at the end of July 1914, Italy declared, to Marinetti’s fury, neutrality. On the surface, given that Italy was an ally of Austria and Germany, this neutrality should have been the preferred position for the poet. According to Ernest Ialongo in his 2015 book, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Artist and His Politics, Marinetti, “Italy had little public support to fight on their behalf or to engage in the war at all. For Marinetti, this was unacceptable. Italy, he felt should be on the side of France against the scourge of German/Austrian passatismo, and to conquer irredentist land. Milan was a hotbed of interventionist activity. Violent public demonstrations between pro and anti-war demonstrators had already begun by August 1.”

While Marinetti and his Futurist associates, such as Carlo Carrà, were busily attempting to turn Italian opinion towards intervening in the War, Nevinson and his former colleagues considered how best to approach the War, as soldiers or as artists, or both. By now Nevinson the younger was twenty-five and suddenly adrift: his English colleagues of the Rebel Art Center had rejected him and his Futurist friends had retuned to Italy. In the waning days of summer of 1914, Nevinson, who had experienced warfare only at his former school, Uppington, signed up for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit organized by the Young Friends or the Quakers. For the British, it had been a long time since they had last fought a war on the Continent and the experience of the Crimean War suggested that an ambulance service would be necessary. The Friends organized very quickly, only days after war war declared on August 4th, and began training volunteers in September. The Quakers immediately established themselves in Dunkirk on the coast and near the battle lines in France. Despite his youth, Nevinson was unfit for active fighting and the Quaker unit was immediately available to a conscientious objector, allowing him to do his patriotic duty and to shift his life into another phase.

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Nevinson in his Red Cross Uniform

The common view of the Great War is one of trench warfare and insane frontal charges resulting in the loss of the youthful flower of an entire generation. This image is correct but only after the opening months of the War. Until the winter of 1914, the war was mobile, with the Germans pushing through Belgium and into France, pausing at Marne, Eiffel Tower within binocular sight. As the Germans gored Belgium and stabbed towards Paris, these were the months when the vast majority of the causalities and deaths occurred. As Alan Kramer wrote in his 2008 book, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Making of the Modern World),

The enormous losses in August and September 1914 were never equalled at any other time, not even by Verdun:..the total number of French casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) was 329,000. At the height of Verdun, the three-month period February to April 1916, French casualties were 111,000. In fact, the three months April–June 1915, which included the failed Artois offensive, with 143,000 casualties, and the months June to August 1918, the checking of the massive final German onslaught and the victorious counter-offensive, with 157,000 casualties, were both bloodier than the height of the battle of Verdun, but still did not match the blood-letting of 1914. In general, French losses were higher than those of the Germans and the British, because French defensive positions and trenches were less efficient..Taking just one part of the casualty figures, the numbers killed, as reported by the medical service, confirm that the first three months of the war were by far the deadliest, with death rates of 1.43 per cent in August, 1.65 in September, and 1.04 per cent in October 1914. Such high rates were never again to be reached..Contrary to received wisdom, it was not trench warfare, but the mobile warfare of the first three months which was most destructive of lives. The death rate of September 1914 was at least ten times higher than those of December 1915, January 1916, and January-March 1917, and forty times higher than those of January and February 1918.

The Friends worked in evacuation sheds of Dunkirk, saving lives and sending the broken and dying men to the hospital ships, which would ferry them to England. This was the hell into which Christopher Nevinson stepped. Any notion that war was “glorious” or that this event was a Futurist dream come true was brutally extinguished. As the artist recalled, ““When a month had passed I felt I had been born in a nightmare. I had seen sights so revolting that man seldom conceives them in his mind and there was no shrinking seen among the more sensitive of us. We could only help, and ignore shrieks, pus, gangrene, and the disemboweled.” It was here in these railway sheds, called The Shambles, that Christopher Nevinson, known as “Richard” by his family, worked alongside his father, Henry, the war correspondent. In her 2006 book, War, Journalism and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century: The Life and Times of Henry W. Nevinson, Angela V. John related the story of Henry Nevinson, who, in addition to his work in the Ambulance corps, in the face of censorship, reported, as best he could, on the campaigns in France. The Quaker ambulance unit was headed by Philip Noel-Baker, who would become a Labour leader after the War, and he oversaw the rescue of the crew of a torpedoed cruiser in the Channel and then supervised at Dunkirk, where the volunteers found thousands of French and Belgium soldiers–later to be joined by wounded German prisoners with “suppurating, stinking and gangrened wounds.”

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The Doctor (1916)

When the Allied doctors refused to treat these prisoners, the Quakers, including the Nevinsons, took care of them. It was the job of the younger Nevinson to attend to the dying men. As he recounted later, “Our doctors took charge, and in five minutes I was nurse, water-carrier, stretcher-bearer, driver, and interpreter. Gradually the shed was cleansed, disinfected and made habitable, and by working all night we managed to dress most of the patients’ wounds.” These months would be among the last of the father-son rivalry. Having reconstructed himself from “Richard” to “C.R.W.,” the young Nevinson was still in the position of being rescued and supported by his father who would sponsor him to the “official” British artists, such as Moorhead Bone. But the war experiences, in The Shambles and later in Ypres as an ambulance driver, would reshape the art of Nevinson, whose paintings would parallel his father’s merciless recountings in print of a nightmare war. In 1915, after rising to chief medical orderly, Christopher Nevinson returned home, for health reasons.

The narrator the the British Masters series, James Fox, stated that Nevinson was in the front lines only briefly, but he served with the Friends of two and half months, the worst months of the entire War: the months that nearly wiped out the French Army and the months that nearly destroyed the British Expeditionary Force. The disastrous fall was followed by a winter typhoid epidemic and Nevinson returned to London, ill and exhausted. Fox was also skeptical that he presented himself as a war hero, appearing in public in full uniform, walking with a cane. In fact, Nevinson had been weakened by rheumatic fever before the War and had walked with a limp ever since. For the British public, those who served, in whatever capacity, were heroes. Fox also said that Nevinson never served in the trenches, but during his first months of service in the Ambulance Corps, the trench system had not yet been set up. And in his later years of being a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, the artist would have a great deal of experience with trenches but ambulance drivers drove trucks and being in a trench was not his job.

From our experiences with “battle shock,” as it was called later in the War, it is possible to speculate that Nevinson might have been suffering from PTSD and needed a rest, but what we do understand is that his military service, working with soldiers of all nationalities, seeing them at their best and at their lowest, utterly changed his art. He had produced a few paintings of military maneuverings and fortifications when he was in Paris in 1913. Like his confetti strewn painting of the same year, Tum-Tiddly-Um-Tum-Pom-Pom, also known as Dance Hall Scene, these bird’s eye views of the French soldiers were examples of a semi-Futurist artist learning by imitation.

Paris Fortifications - 1913

Paris Fortifications (1913)

In comparison to the paintings he did on his return, it is clear that Nevinson had made an astonishing artistic leap from being an apprentice to being the master translator: C. R. W. Nevinson had taken Cubism, laced it with Futurism, and transformed a hybrid language into a visual vocabulary uniquely suited to recording the events of a thoroughly modern and completely nihilistic war where the main goal was mutual annihilation.

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On the Road to Ypres, printed in 1916, thought lost and rediscovered in 2012

Bravo! - 1913

Bravo! (1913)

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On the Way to the Trenches (published in the second issue of BLAST 1915)

As Nevinson explained, “Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence, and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe.” In speaking of his painting about sacrifices of the French soldiers, La Patrie, he said, I regard this picture, quite apart from how it is painted, as expressing an absolutely NEW outlook on the so-called ‘sacrifice’ of war. It is the last word on the ‘horror of war’ for the generations to come.” More than any other artist of the pre-War avant-garde generation, Nevinson paved the way for the acceptance of modern art, which in his hands suggested that only a modern visual vocabulary was suited for the depiction of a modern war. In the next and final post on Nevinson, the two styles developed by this artist to express and explain this War will be discussed.

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La Patrie (1916)

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Christopher Nevinson: Modern Art Goes to War, Part One

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946)

The Artist as a Futurist, Part One

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, outside of Italy, it was on the soil of England that Futurism found most fertile. After being attacked by Umberto Boccioni in the catalogue for the Futurist exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Galerie in 1912, the French artists may have eventually shown a sneaking interest in Futurism; but, for the most part, it was only patriotic to reject the Italian renegades. In the end, as appealing as the dynamic visual language of Futurism might have been to the Parisian artists, the paintings shown at Bernheim-Jeune were viewed through the prism of “derivative” of Cubism. Clearly, Paris, as the capital of the art world, and Cubism as the leader of the avant-garde in Europe, had the territory of leadership to guard. But in England, the terrain was quite different. Volumes of art history have tended to overlook or give short shrift to British art, comparing it unfavorably to the preferred the Modernist art coming out of the studios of starving artists in Paris. But, that said, from Whistler to Tissot, London had long been a thriving community of interesting and thoughtful artists. In addition, the largest city in the world was also the home of the art critic who had written, long before the French, multiple books on contemporary art, John Ruskin (1891-1900), author of Modern Painters (1843–60). The problem in London in the year 1910 was two-fold: the art scene there was considered a backwater and its days of glory appeared to be long past.

And yet, it was in London that the rambunctious leader of the Futurist movement, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944) built an audience of interested young artists. He published his Futurist Manifesto (1909) in a small British publication, Tramp, in 1910, and arrived in London that same year to shake his British audience out of its self-satisfied lethargy. One of Marinetti’s main lines of attack was on British art itself through the esteemed John Ruskin. The art critic had died ten years earlier and, it must be said, that it had been some years since he had been in possession of all of his faculties. But he had been, in his own way, a trailblazer, crafting a discourse for modern art and contemporary culture, as viewed from the vantage point of social moralism. In his own time, Ruskin was considered by his contemporaries to be not just a man of his own times but also a man of the future, deeply impacted by a nascent movement in Marxist thought. As Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, remarked, “One of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in future.” Marinetti disagreed. The Victorian critic was now in the twentieth century a man of the past and stood for everything that was old and outmoded. Nevinson biographer, Michael J. K. Walsh noted that Marinetti had spoken, in French, at the Lyceum Club, demanding “radical change and to catalyze the final demise of an outdated and reactionary order in London.” The title for the wide-ranging lecture (or harangue) was primly titled, “Lecture to the English on Futurism.”

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C.R.W. Nevinson. Bursting Shell (1915)

Even though Roger Fry had just opened the seminal exhibition, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” in November, a mere month before Marinetti’s talk to “the English,” the full import of the show was still being absorbed. For the English artists, the double blows of Fry’s definition of “modern art” and Marinetti’s attack on the past would have sounded like a wake up call–for those who were listening. In retrospect, as Walsh noted, Sir Herbert Reed said that “The modern period in British art may be said to date from the year 1910.” If Marinetti was part of the jolting of the artists in London from the past to the present, he confronted his audience with all its inherent intelligence as being bound and gagged by the past and stymied by ancestor worship. The man, called “the caffeine of Europe,” chided the listeners for their “sluggish ideology of that deplorable man, Ruskin..his morbid dream..his nostalgia..his hatred of machines, of steam and electricity..his infancy.” In hindsight, one could read this passage as perhaps the attack of a proto-Fascist upon a photo-Marxist, but at the time, Marinetti, arriving in the wake of Fry’s “post-Impressionists,” was reminding the British that, although they had led the Industrial Revolution, art had moved forward without them.

Present at the Marinetti presentation at the Club was Margaret Nevinson (1858-1932), mother of the future Futurist artist Christopher Nevinson. As Ellen Ross relates in her 2007 book Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920, Nevinson was a devout Christian and ardent feminist and early suffragette, a proverbial “daughter of a clergyman,” married, unhappily, to a man who was flagrantly unfaithful to her. Despite his obvious faults, such as complaining about how his wife contradicted him, Henry Nevinson (1856-1941), a journalist, was also a feminist. Margaret Nevinson worked for the poor of East London and taught young women, while writing for the betterment of the lower classes and fighting for the improvement of the legal and economic lives of women. Her artistic son, Christopher, would grow up to be a conscientious objector when the world war that Marinetti had called for in 1910 finally came to pass in the summer of 1914. Therefore it is most ironic that his sixty year old father, Henry, served and was wounded at Gallipoli. Most sources on Nevinson discuss his work as a Futurist, nominally connected to the Vorticist movement, and focus on his work as an artist during the Great War, but “Richard,” as he was known in his immediate family, was also the son of distinguished and prolific writers, who espoused social and political causes considered very advanced, even futuristic, for time. Angela V. John wrote extensively about a rather caustic family environment in “A Family at War: The Nevinson Family.” John quoted the elder Nevinson writing sadly that his son would not be, like himself, an intellectual or a journalist or a social revolutionary: “No, my son absolutely refuses to go to Oxford. He cares for nothing in the world but ‘art.’ It is a dreary prospect.” It should be pointed out that the father’s lament was uttered a year before Marinetti came to town.

In researching the back history of Christopher Nevinson (as he was known as an artist), it becomes apparent that the English artists who made the leap into the future, whether as Futurists or as Vorticists, came from singularly troubled and disaffected backgrounds: most of the men were in states of dislocation. Among them, only the well-to-do Edward Wadsworth, comes across as stable. Although he too came from a privileged family, Nevinson was an unhappy child, at odds with his older sister, who was a musician, often in conflict with his perpetually dissatisfied father. He cleaved, it seemed, to his encouraging and supportive mother, but he was a manic-depressive and prone to fits of rage, especially after the Great War. In his biography, written in the 1930s, Nevinson was still trying to work out his various resentments when he wrote, “If my mother does happen to be in for a meal she is so engrossed in other things that she hardly hears and certainly never takes in a word I say.”

One might speculate that Nevinson became a Futurist to defy his proper parents but that conclusion would be incorrect. In fact, his parents, especially his father, were adventurers. His father, a war correspondent when he was not a suffragette, had been in Bulgaria during the First Balkan War of 1912, stationed in the same town as Marinetti who would later write Zang Tumb Tumb (1914). In fact, Henry Nevinson, a veteran of the Boer War, even wrote on performance art, a Futurist invention, in the years before the Great War. And as Walsh pointed out in his article of Margaret Nevinson, she attended the lecture of the Futurist leader in order to review the ideas of this man who had dim views on women. According to Walsh in his 2005 article in Apollo on the relationship of the Nevinsons and Marinetti, Margaret Nevinson wrote of the Italian agitator in The Vote: “The members of the society are young men in revolt at the worship of the past. They are determined to destroy it, and erect upon its ashes the Temple of the future. War seems to be the chief tenet in the gospel of Futurism: war upon the classical in art, literature, music” So Nevinson’s parents knew Marinetti before the young artist even made his acquaintance.

The complications and compromises continued, as Nevinson’s father, who so objected to his chosen vocation, spend decades supporting and nurturing his artistic career, albeit behind the scenes. There seems to have been a contest between father and son over who was best known, and, as times changes and fortunes fluctuated, the honor was passed back and forth between the pair. During the Great War, as Nevinson acquired a reputation as an outspoken truth-teller of the real conditions of the battlefields, in direct contrast to the more censored accounts delivered by British journalists, such as his father. According to John, for years, the two were open and public rivals during their long an uncomfortable relationship. She also revealed in her article that Nevinson’s loyalty to Marinetti apparently extended to an exhibited sympathy for British Fascism during the 1930s. Today, it is the artist of war, Christopher Nevinson, who is the best-known, possibly because, as John wrote, “Richard Nevinson cultivated that seemingly modern construction, the celebrity. His apparent determination to behave badly and alienation of significant art critics came to camouflage his real achievements as an artist.”

Nevinson began his mature engagement with art at the famous Slade School of Art, which produced the famous generation of young British artist, educated before the War and schooled by the War. Although Nevinson was anxious to escape the horrors of English public school, where his father had consigned him, he was wary of Slade. In Paint and Prejudice (1937), he described his sufferings: “I went to a large school, a ghastly place from which I was rapidly removed as I had some sort of breakdown owing to being publicly flogged, at the age of seven, for giving away some stamps which I believed to be my own. I was not only described as a thief but as a fence. From this moment I developed a shyness which later on became almost a disease. During my sufferings under injustice a conflict was born in me, and my secret life began.” Given the dislocations within his family–his parents lived apart–his conflicts with his father and sister, and given the years of problems in school, it is understandable that the young Nevinson was shy and lacking in social skills when he arrived at Slade. But art schools are forgiving of the outsiders and, soon, he found himself part of a gang or group who called themselves the “Costers.” The Costermongers were street vendors who wore a distinctive small black hat and sold fruits and vegetables from a cart.

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The idea that the son of Margaret Nevinson, a reporter for London’s East End and a champion for the lower classes would appropriate such a “costume” for fun is a measure of the distance of the son from the ideas of the parents. The Gang included Mark Gentler, Stanley Spencer, John Currie, Edward Wadsworth, and the young men were later joined by Dora Carrington, the femme fatale of Slade. Both Nevinson and another student, Paul Nash, who would also become a famous war artist, fell in love with Carrington. But she had eyes only for the intellectual Lytton Stratchey (1880-1932), a gay man who was emotionally unavailable to her. Mark Gentler, Nevinson’s best friend, also loved Carrington and asked her to marry him. In fact Nevinson’s biographer Michael J.K. Walsh noted the futility of the non-affair with the beguiling and elusive artist, referring to “her notorious desire to remain unattached.” Nevinson had already suffered one romantic loss while he was attending a predatory school for artists, St. John’s Wood School of Art. He recalled, “My shyness went, and I spent a good deal of my time with Philippa Preston, a lovely creature who was later to marry Maurice Elvey. There were others, blondes and brunettes. There were wild dances, student rags as they were called… and various excursions with exquisite students, young girls and earnest boys; shouting too much, laughing too often.” Suddenly, as though weary of the onslaught of male attentions, Carrington broke things off with Nevinson and with Gentler who then ended his friendship with Nevinson. One reads these soap operas of the Slade set and the Bloomsbury group and recalls Nevinson’s difficulties with his equally elusive mother.

Nevinson’s exit from Slade might have also been participated by Henry Tonks (1862-1939), the famous teacher who presided over this unruly group of students. One of the males–Tonks thought it was Nevinson–impregnated a young female model, and the compassionate Tonks started a fund for the mother and child, a fund to which Nevinson refused to contribute. Tonks, at some point thereafter, announced to the wayward pupil, now bereft of the woman he loved and without his best friend, that he would never be an artist and had no further future at Slade. It was perhaps a shock to Tonks when, two years later, four of his pupils, Wadsworth, Nevinson, Spencer, and Nash, and himself, all became artists of the Great War. But whatever the psycho-dramas of the entangled group of teenagers, it seems clear why Nevinson left Slade and travelled to Paris where he completed his studies at the Académie Julian and Matisse’s Cercle Russe.

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C.R.W. Nevinson. The Old Port (1913)

Nevinson ran in fast and promising company during that brief year (1912-1913) in Paris where he shared an atelier with Modigliani. At some point during that year he also met his parents’ “acquaintance,” Marinetti, through the Parisian-based Futurist Gino Severini (1883-1966). Severini was at the Futurist exhibition at the Sackville Gallery in 1912 when he met the young Nevinson. According to Walsh, the definitive guide to the Nevinson family, in his 2007 article in Apollo, Serverini dined at the Nevinson household and explained Futurism in French to the English family. At some point the Italian artist introduced young Nevinson to Marinetti through a letter: “I have to tell you about a young painter whose name is Nevinson. I met him during my exhibition, and he introduced me to other young artists, who, with him, all became convinced futurists … Nevinson will thus introduce himself to you on my behalf.”

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Christopher Nevinson. Dance Hall Scene (1913)

Once in Paris, Nevinson seems to have quickly assimilated both Cubism and Futurism and quickly created his own style, which combined both vocabularies of the Salon Cubists and the vivid colors and mobile forms and the fragmentation that was the slicing of Futurist lines of force. These pre-war paintings were surprisingly upbeat and pleasant, lacking the heritage of Cézanne that haunted the Salon Cubists and the political drive that pressed against the Futurists. At this stage of his career, Nevinson’s Cubo-Futurism is a young man’s assessment of two very serious styles, superficial and attractive, but, compared to his English counterparts, light years ahead. His departure from Slade had made it possible for him to sprint ahead of Spencer and Nash and allow him to use the slashing diagonals of Futurism less than expressions of the rushing restlessness of modern life and more as statements of the pity of war. When Nevinson returned to London, the world was on the edge of the Great War.

The Arrival c.1913 Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946 Presented by the artist's widow 1956 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00110

The Arrival (1913)

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Cubism, Futurism and the Great War, Part One

Creating a Modern Visual Vocabulary of War

Part One

In 1911, the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) organized an exhibition of fifty Futurist paintings for the working class. Called Esposizione d’ate libera, the show featured Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) and Luigi Russolo (1885-1947). This spring showing of Futurist art attracted at least one detractor who defaced the organizer’s work, Laughter (1911). Although Boccioni was routinely lecturing on the topic of dynamism, a major Futurist concept connected to modernity, apparently the artists had yet to find the ideal vehicle for their ideas of speed and movement through space. It was Gino Severini (1883-1966), who lived in Montmartre and who was familiar with the new styles emerging in Paris suggested that the Futurists of Milan visit certain ateliers in his adopted city. It is this fateful fall visit to Paris at the end of 1911, that sealed the fate of the Futurists in the eyes of the French. Immediately the Futurist paintings and sculptures showed the impact of the venture to Paris–Balla painted the childish Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Boccioni fashioned Development of a Bottle in Space both early in 1912. What is particularly interesting about the works of 1912 is the abandonment of the visualization of social theories compared to the works of the previous year.

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Futurists Luigi Russolo, Carlo Carrà, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini in front of Le Figaro, Paris, February 9, 1912

Something had happened to Futurism–its visual and conceptual language became less political and more directed to an abstracted modernity. In her book, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (2009), Christine Poggi discussed Boccioini’s struggle to reconcile politics, class concerns, style and symbolism with the concepts of modern machine propelled dynamics. The Futurist artists were fascinated with technology and were witnesses to the changing relationship between humans and the mechanics of labor but while it was relatively straightforward to write of the abrupt change from traditional to modern, the precise visual language eluded them. Clearly, the geometrics of Cubism compared to the dappled brushwork of neoimpressionism suggested a more compatible and more expressionistic approach to dynamism. One could say that the Futurists were freed from illustrating and could now express movement formally and neutrally. To get a sense of how quickly the Futurists had to scramble, adjusting their style from post-Impressionism to what seemed to the Parisians to be a style inspired by their visits to Parisian studios, it needs to be stressed that the Futurist exhibition in Paris opened a mere few months later.

Understandably, the Futurists were very sensitive about being understood in terms of their own context, which would be the writings of their leader, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944). Enamored by speed and enchanted with the force of rapid change, their philosophy was directed towards modernity not only towards modern art but this distinction was lost to the French who saw the stylistic debt owed to the Cubists. Ever since their debut in Paris, February 1912 at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, the Futurists had been slighted by the French critics who initially denounced the interlopers as being derivative of Cubism. To be fair, the French were merely striking back. The catalogue essay, written by Umberto Boccioni, was impolitic at best and extremely combative towards Cubism. Futurism and Cubism had developed during the same time, but in different places, and, while the two movements seemed superficially stylistically similar, the goals and aims were quite distinct. Rather than making the concept of Futurism clear and instead of outlining its differences plain in a cool and dispassionate manner, Boccioni took it upon himself to confront the French artists in the famously provocative Futurist manner.

Writing in manifesto-style, the artist stated, among other things that the Cubists “continued to paint objects motionless, frozen, and all the static aspects of Nature; they worship the traditionalism of Poussin, of Ingres, of Camille Corot, ageing and petrifying their art with an obstinate attachment to the past, which to our eyes remains totally incomprehensible.” He asked, referring to the Cubists, “is it indisputable that several aesthetic declarations of our French comrades display a sort of masked academicism? Is it not, indeed, a return to the Academy to declare that the subject, in painting, has a perfectly insignificant value? Boccioni seemed to find the Cubist adherence to tradition particularly worthy of contempt. “..To paint from the posing model as an absurdity, and an act of mental cowardice, even if the model be translated upon the picture in linear, spherical and cubic forms..”

Having read this diatribe, it is no wonder that the art critics and the Cubist artists struck back. Cubist supporter, poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) took aim at Boccioni’s paintings. ‘This is the most dangerous kind of painting imaginable. It will inevitably lead the Futurist painters to become mere illustrators.” True, the triptych States of Mind (1911) by Boccioni, had been repainted in response to Cubism, but its meaning, as explained in the catalogue stated, “We thus create a sort of emotive ambience, seeking by intuition the sympathies and the links which exist between the exterior (concrete) scene and the interior (abstract) emotion.” To be accused of being “mere illustrators” meant that Futurism would have to fight for its rightful place in avant-garde art as innovators, and, more than that, as true modernists, more modern than staid Cubism. For decades, the Futurists were still considered to be “derivative” of Cubism, but this judgment was based upon a morphological similarity and such a formalist comparison can be very misleading.

First, the word “Cubism” was not a specific term at that time and, second, in the pre-war period, there were many manifestations of “Cubism” in Paris, from Albert Gleizes to Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso, all of which looked to Paul Cézanne as the founding father or the fountainhead of the Parisian avant-garde. As late as 1978 Georges Édouard Lemaître, writing of modern literature, said bluntly, “Futurism may be considered as a derivation of Cubism.” And this was a very French perspective, lingering long after Apollinaire. But today, contemporary scholarship stresses that which is Italian about Futurism and the 2014 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Italian Futurism 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, attempted to restore the original Futurism, a decades long movement that, regardless of its “derivative” status, inspired numerous movements by simply evoking the word “futurism.” In fact, although the Futurists did not exhibit in the notorious Armory Exhibition in New York in 1913, the words “futurist” or “futurism” were evoked as a synonym for “modern art,” which itself meant “the future.”

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Regardless of what “futurism” would mean in other contexts, the Italian Futurists were aware of the trends in French art and had been exposed to Cubism in its many Parisian manifestations and were well aware that Cubism was advertised as being on a historical line, part of a traditional sequence that extended back to Courbet and linked to Cézanne, who inspired the present avant-garde. The artists certainly had some idea of Cubist philosophy, the aims of the movement, and its historical lineage as put forward by Gleizes and Metzinger in Du Cubisme of 1912. Once the Futurists moved beyond the Paris-Milan trajectory, the chain of mutual awareness was broken and the distinctions between the two movements were lost in translation. The catalogue essay, which followed Marinetti’s famous 1909 Manifesto, spend three or four pages discussing Impressionism and Cubism in order to separate Futurism from French movements. It is unclear how the opening duel with Parisian artists played in other cities, the various Futurist exhibitions in Europe.

This exhibition of thirty-six paintings traveled to London, horrifying the British, an event to which I will return, then landed in Berlin, where it fell into the hands of Herwarth Walden’s Galerie Der Stürm. Here, in Berlin, where French chronology did not matter, Futurism suffered its cruelest fate as it careened from being misunderstood to being misrepresented. From the standpoint of the international art market, Berlin was, like Paris, a place of exhibition and selling and buying, and to show well in Berlin was extremely important, because here, unlike parochial Paris, people would buy art from many nations. The marketplace of Berlin was truly international and the artists there were receptive to outside influences. However, the Italian artists were distinctly unhappy with the presentation of Futurism in Berlin. They had reason to be perturbed.

The exhibition which was a month long was accompanied by the catalogue that was traveling with the Futurism art, Zweite Ausstellung : Die Futuristen : Umberto Boccioni, Carlo D. Carra, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini : Berlin, Königin Augusta-Strasse 51 vom 12. April bis 31. Mii 1912, clearly stating the stance of these artists. The best discussion of the Berlin excursion comes from Günther Berghaus in International Futurism in Arts and Literature (2000). In this book edited by Berghaus, John White, in “Futurism and German Expressionism,” noted that by the time the Futurists reached Berlin, the larger movement was already spreading to literature. The visual artists preferred to not confuse the movement of their international début in the Spring of 1912 and arrived in Berlin as a unified group, minus Balla, represented by Boccioni, and absent a presentation of one of the famous Futurist evenings. White attributed the low key presence of Futurism in Berlin to the minor role the city played in constructing the avant-garde, but Berlin was an important regional depot for modern art, a gathering place as it were for eastern Europe.

It is in this context that Boccioni’s displeasure with the exhibition at the Der Stürm Galerie can be understood. Given the gallery’s significance as a seller of avant-garde art, the lack of publicity on the part of Walden would have seemed odd to the Italian artist, but, then, this exhibition space hardly needed to advertise. Most importantly, Futurism could not be hung here–installed on the gallery walls–as a movement in its own right, properly distinguished from other artists of other nations. After all Der Stürm was a sales room, not a place where a group of artists could establish their historical role in art. The prothelyzing goals of Futurism was thwarted in Berlin.

White analyzed the way in which Waldern, a master salesperson, marketed the Futurists in ways that were apparently confusing for an artist, like Boccioni, who was on a mission.

It is worth bearing in mind that the main reason for the Italian Futurists’ decision to exhibit in Berlin, the heartland of Expressionism, was the presence of Herwarth Walden, a genius of an impresario with enviable contacts to a whole galaxy of modernist painters sculptors, writers, and musicians. Walden’s copious network of artistic connections, both within Germany and beyond in most of Western Europe,was probably unparalleled. Here was someone through whom Marinetti hoped to establish a bridgehead into German Expressionism.

Whether or not Boccioni was dismayed at the way in which the paintings were arrayed–adjacent to inhospitable neighbors–becomes less important than the impact of Futurism on Expressionism and upon Expressionist artists. On the eve of the Great War, Futurism was caught up in a battle of styles and of attribution, fighting for its place in the emerging twentieth century avant-garde. The catalogue essay written by Boccioni had words of interest to the Expressionists: “We thus arrive at what we call the painting of states of mind.” He wrote of “force-lines.” And a few lines down, the artist presents what seems to be a prediction of the state of war: “Confused and treipdating lines, either straight or curved, mingle with the outlined hurried gestures of people calling one another, will express a sensation of chaotic excitement. On the other hand, horizontal lines, fleeing rapid and jerky, brutally cutting into half lost profiles of faces or crumbling and rebounding fragments of landscape, will give the tumultuous feelings of the persons going away.” Once the war broke out, the position of Futurism as a style suddenly changed. As shall be seen in the next posts, these descriptions will resonate in pre-war paintings of Franz Marc and the most eloquent artists of the Great War, the British painters.

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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