German Artists at War, Part Two


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 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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Imagining The Great War, Part One

The Coming Apocalypse: Kandinsky and Marc

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word — the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Philip Larkin. MCMXIV (1964)

It was the war that everyone had been waiting for. For decades, the European powers, England, France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria, girded by their respective empires, had eyed one another with a volatile mixture of hostility and fear. The wars of the nineteenth century–the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the recent war over the Balkans–were distant dress rehearsals that settled nothing, addressed no problems, and freely created new grievances. The reason for the antagonistic struggles was an old one, territory, with each contending party wanting to grow, expand, conquer and, for a small nation, such as Germany, war was an excellent way of gaining land and space. All that was needed to set off an international explosion was a trigger, an event, that when it arrived, like an expected guest at a party, started, not the war than had been anticipated, but a war that no one could have imagined. When the nightmare war ended four agonizing years later and the sacrificed millions were uneasily buried, people would look back at the last year of the war with deep sadness and something like reverence for those carefree days of innocence. That summer of 1914, they wrote, was particularly fine, and those last sun-lit hours in August before an Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo took on a particular luster. Undoubtedly, the last summer before the War was a very nice one, but no better and no worse than countless other summers, and undoubtedly its ordinary days were magnified into wonder by regretful memory. It matters not whether or not the survivors remembered truth or a longing to return to the past, what is a fact is that after The Great War, the world was never the same again.

The world of art was ruptured as well.

Art history does not customarily study art done during times of war. For some reason, there is a scholarly skip from the beginning of the war to the end of the war, with little focused study given to the four years in between. One of the possible reasons for this historical lacunae is that the overall picture of art-making during the Great War is very complex and only a few specialists study this time period. Careful and extensive study of the art produced during the Great War reveals several tendencies. First, from patriotism or duty, artists were routed from their studios, their life’s work interrupted. Artists became soldiers, scattered across the battlefield, some dying, others suffering severe wounds, from which it took years to recover. Other artists, aware of the absurdity of the conflict, opted for going into exile when possible and commenting upon the madness that had overtaken the continent. In addition, second, the international art market and the cultural exchange among artists virtually ceased. Artists who had previously admired each other’s work, suddenly were cast in the role of “enemy combatants.” Art critics, once proponents of a open-mindedness, exhibited a sudden closure of free thinking and became sudden and extreme proponents of war. The resulting fracturing of the art world revealed the importance on international connections and the free flow of ideas for the nourishment of a truly avant-garde art. Once the bonds were broken, the historic avant-garde that had built upon decades of European artistic experimentation and innovation collapsed, never to return.

Patriotism overcame artistic ties, some of which could be reestablished only with great difficulty. The national differences that had been obscured by a sharing of styles within the pre-war art market asserted themselves after the war. When the art world returned to “order” or to normal after the war ceased, the pre-war art world had completely changed, as each country recovered from The Great War in its own fashion. France retreated to artistic conservativism; Germany became radicalized into representation. Other nations, such as Italy and America, where art-making was not as badly interrupted, soon found their own unique paths. Artists, such as Picasso, who stayed at home were able to continue their careers unhindered; artists who, such as Braque went to war rarely were able to resume their lives and found themselves unwilling or unable to continue in pre-war styles.

The artists who left for the War, carrying their reputations as avant-garde heroes with them, became yesterday’s news. Jean Metzinger faded from history, Albert Gleizes became deeply religious. Pre-war avant-garde art suddenly became history, and the writing of that history fell to the art dealers, such as Daniel Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg. Hardly neutral as art historians might have been, the art dealers had a monetary investment in writing a history that was favorable to the artists that they represented, and as the history the the pre-war avant-garde began to be written, the lived history experienced by the artists was interpreted in ways that privileged some artists at the expense of others, reversing artistic fates and evaluations. The leading artists of the Russian Avant-Garde, Mikhail Larinov and Natalia Goncharova, were displaced from their homeland and lived the rest of their careers in relative obscurity in Paris.

But historically the most difficult period to navigate is those four years of the Great War itself. Some artist simply ignored the War and continued to work with little or no acknowledgment of the carnage. Other artists threw themselves into the task of transforming art into a means of expression and a visual mode the explained and illustrated an event that was unprecedented. Some expatriate artists were displaced and were stranded outside their own homelands, struggling to resume their art. Or artists reacted against the war with rage and anger and mounted campaigns to re-write artistic language. Some artists celebrated and enjoyed the drama and excitement of the war and, in the process, created a visual vocabulary still in use today. It is important to realize that the artists of each participating nation had unique reactions to The Great War. But one of the odd and perhaps unprecedented aspects of art and The Great War was that a surprising number of artists seemed to have premonitions of something dark and terrible coming their way.

In the Spring of 1915, German artist, Franz Marc (1880-1916), less than a year away from death in the trenches, received a post card of one of his own pre-war paintings. The postcard was Fate of the Animals (May 1913) and he wrote back to the sender, writing of “its immediate effect on me when I saw it, as an utterly strange work, a premonition of war that had something shocking about it. It is a curious picture, as if created in a trance..” Later that same day, Marc wrote to his wife, saying that “At first glance I was completely shaken. It is like a premonition of this war, horrible and gipping. I an hardly believe that I painted it!” And Marc continued, “It is artistically logical to paint such pieces before wars, not as dumb reminiscences afterward. For then, we must paint constructive picures indicative of the future not memories as it now the case. I have only such thoughts on my mind..” According to Frederick S. Levine’s 1976 article, “The iconography of Franz Marc’s Fate of Animals,” the painting was originally titled The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Their Veins and that on the reverse side, Marc wrote “And All Being Is Flaming Suffering..” Upon the advice of friend and colleague Paul Klee, Marc changed the title by the time it was shown at Der Stürm Gallery the Fall of 1913.


Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913)

In that same year, Marc’s collaborator on The Blue Rider Almanac (1912), Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) painted an Improvisation No. 30, subtitled “Cannons,” and exhibited it at the Allied Artists Association. Founded in 1908, the AAA was modeled on the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and held annual Salons in the Albert Hall as an alternative exhibition for avant-garde artists in England and Europe. It was indicative of the international scope of avant-garde artists, that the founder, Frank Rutter, set aside space each year for “foreign artists” and was especially interested in Russian artists. As Louise Hardiman explained in her 2014 article, “‘Infantine Smudges of Paint… Infantine Rudeness of Soul’: British Reception of Russian Art at the Exhibitions of the Allied Artists’ Association, 1908–1911,” when Kandinsky began showing at the AAA in 1909, a year before Roger Fry’s famous show of Post Impressionism at the Grafton Galleries, his work, according to Rutter, caused “a large amount of interest and heated controversy.” In those years, Kandinsky was moving out of his version of Art Nouveau and towards his version of “Russian Primitivism,” works that seem transitional and tame today. A year later, at the next Salon, the British press reacted strongly against Kandinsky’s radical paintings, complaining, as one writer expressed it: “Wassily Kandinsky offends from malice aforethought. Shapeless patches of garish colours, strung together in meaningless juxtaposition by bold, black lines, are dignified by the names of ‘Composition No. 1’, ‘Improvisation No. 6’, and, save the mark! ‘Landscape’. These atrocities are really only suitable for the badge of the Wagner Society.” Another critic grumbled that “I entirely failed to unearth his secret..I was unable to understand anything except that I was confronted by an apparently promises medley of color; color pure and strong and fervid; wherein I could detect the adumbration’s of strange forms, reminiscent of the nursery..”

Irritated by such reception, Kandinsky showed only prints in 1911, and then in 1912, according to Richard Cork, writing about the Origins and Development of Vorticism in 1976, he decided to send the British nothing–no paintings, no prints. But Kandinsky returned to the Salon in 1913 with even more abstract works, including Improvisation Number Twenty-Nine, Landscape with River Poppeln, and Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), now at the Art Institute of Chicago. Perhaps due to the efforts of Roger Fry, critics in London began to understand Kandinsky’s paintings. Fry, himself, wrote of the Russian artist in The Nation, “They are pure visual music, but I cannot any onlooker doubt the possibility of emotional expression by such abstract visual signs.”


Vassily Kandinsky. Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) (1913)

However, it was an adventurous American collector, Arthur Jerome Eddy (1859-1920), who purchased the best work of that Salon, Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) and wrote to Kandinsky inquiring about the meaning of the title. Eddy, converted to avant-garde art in 1913 on the occasion of the Armory Show in New York, had met Kandinsky in Munich. When he purchased Kandinsky’s Cannons, Eddy was writing the first book on the avant-garde to be published in America, Cubism and Post-Impressionism (1914), which introduced the Russian artist to American audiences. In a second edition published in 1919, the author wrote a forward, acknowledging the way in which–five years–later the book would be read. Eddy opened the new edition with these words, “The book was written in 1913 and published in March 1914. Six months later Europe was in war..” Then he wrote eloquently, “As we look back we can see that the war was preceded by a period of strange restlessness. National which had long been sleeping turned in their beds and stretched themselves. They had had dreams of conquest, of world domination, of uplift and power and they sought to realize those dreams. Scarcely awake they began fighting.” This extraordinary book, in its original form and its odd organization, is a remarkable primary document, written in the last years of the avant-garde and capturing the last bursts of creativity as the author traveled across Europe, learning as he wrote.

Kandinsky’s 1914 reply to Eddy was quite long and extensive, indicating that he was educating not only a collector and a patron but also an inquiring writer and future historian. The entire letter is available in the 1994 book, Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, but several passages were relevant to the title. As Kandinsky wrote, “The designation ‘Cannons,’ selected by me for my owns is not to be conceived as indicating the ‘contents’ of the picture. These contents are indeed what the spectator lives, or feels, while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture..The presence of the cannons in the picture could probably be explained by the constant war talk that had been going on throughout the year. But I did not intend to give a representation of war; to do so would have required different pictorial means, besides, such tasks do not interest me–at least not just now. This entire description is chiefly an analysis of the picture which I have painted rather subconsciously in a state of strong inner tension..”

Increasingly nervous about the bellicose tones of European leaders, Kandinsky, a Russian national, had begun thinking about the very real possibility that he might have to leave Germany quickly. For two years, the concern had hovered in his mind, but the extent to which the possibility of war impacted his art is difficult to determine definitively. It is possible that his use of Apocalyptic themes, which came from Revelation of Saint John the Divine, filtered through Theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, reflected the growing tensions in Europe. As with the painting of Marc, it is possible to read backwards, after the fact and see announcements of a war that actually arrived, both late and on time. But as Jeffrey Morrison pointed out in Text Into Image, Image Into Text (1995), Kandinsky’s responses to the New Testament tended to be rather literal, implying that he did not stray off the religious and spiritual path and wander off into the political. However prophetic some of his painting say have been, the coming of an actual war itself was a shock to Kandinsky. He wrote to Herwarth Walden (1879-1941) of Der Stürm on the second day of August, shortly after the assassination of the Archduke: “Now we have it! Isn’t it dreadful? It’s as if I had been torn out of a dream. I have been living mentally in a time when such things are completely impossible. My delusion has been taken away from me. Mountains of corpses, horrible torments of veers sorts, suppression of inner culture for an indefinite time.”

On the occasion of a 2010 Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, art critic, Donald Kuspit, made the argument that the paintings the artist did just before the Great War were entirely personal and divorced from the culture. In discussing the abstractions in his article “Falling Apart and Holding Together: Kandinsky’s Development,” Kuspit stated that, “They convey the psychic truth that one has lost control of one’s consciousness and has no control of the world and thus become helpless. I am arguing that Kandinsky — and through him art — suffered not simply an identity crisis, but the insanity of a complete breakdown, and that his apocalyptic landscapes are its abstract expression.” What ever the source of the artist’s apocalyptic visions–the Bible, the pre-war culture or his own mental state, the end of the world did come in an all too real sense. When War was declared, Vassily Kandinsky was forced out of Germany, a move which had the impact of sending him home to his home to a very changed Russia at the end of what had been a lovely summer. Older than Marc, who was enthusiastic about the war, Kandinsky was more somber, leaving his German friends, now his “enemies” to fight his countrymen on the Eastern Front. He returned to Moscow, where artists were in the process of interpreting Cubism and Futurism to their own ends. Kandinsky was a middle aged man, wrenched out a career that had been carefully built on the German art scene, out of place and out of step at home. But his dreams of the Apocalypse, once symbolic and allegorical, would now come true in ways that even St. John, however Divine, could not have foreseen.

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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