The Great War: French Military Painting, Part One

French Artists at War

Fernand Léger: A Case Study

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

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Poilus en permission, Paris 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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Fernand Léger at the Front, Verdun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fernand Léger. Solider with a Pipe (1916)

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

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Fernand Léger. Verdun. The Trench Diggers (1916)

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

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

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

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

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Fernand Léger. Study for Mechanical Elements (1918)

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

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Fernand Léger. In the Factory (1918)

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

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

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

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

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Dada and the Great War

DADA: 1916 – 1922

History of Dada

“In Zurich in 1915, losing interest in the slaughterhouse of the world war, we turned to the Fine Arts. While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all out soul, we searched for an elementary art that would, we thought, save mankind from the furious folly of these times.”

Hans (Jean) Arp, from Alsace-Lorraine

Founded the midst of the Great War, Dada was an anti-movement movement dedicated to anti-art. Dada as one of its founders, Tristan Tzara explained, “is nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything is Dada.” He elaborated: “The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art but the beginnings of disgust.” Dada cannot be understood without understanding the context of a war that was destroying the fabric of a social and political system that had existed for hundreds of years. The last of the Empires were disintegrating and an entire generation of young men lay dead on the battlefields of Belgium and France. With the dead lay the end of hope and faith. The disillusioned young generation felt that it had been lied to. They had been promised that war would be a grand and glorious adventure, over in a few months but with ample opportunities for heroism.

But the Great War was a psychological catastrophe. With cultural myths and norms undermined, a certain segment of the population simply refused to participate in what seemed to be a monstrous waste of human beings, all at the the whims of would-be despots. It wasn’t just the entire nation of Russia that dropped out of this War; it was also the intelligentsia. True, some artists and writers served bravely, such as Georges Braque, some even died, like Wilfred Owen, but others went into exile. Dada was composed of artists in exile, in nations that were either safe, like America, or neutral, like Switzerland and Spain. German artists, who were horrified at the slaughter on the Western Front founded Dada in Europe. One by one came to Zurich to express their disgust with the twentieth century and came together by 1916.

The first to arrive in 1915 were the husband and wife theatrical team, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. Ball, a German, had worked in the theater in Berlin where he had met Richard Huelsenbeck. In February of 1916, the pianist founded Cabaret Voltaire at No. 1 Spieglgasse, an entertainment district of the city. Although the Russian exile, Vladimir Lenin lived across the street in Number 12, the Swiss authorities were more suspicious of the growing group of anarchic artists, including visual artists, Hans (Jean) Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, writers Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Janco, than they were of an exiled Russian rabble-rouser.

In the beginning this group was a literary organization without organization or a leader. Borrowing strategies from the Futurists, the Dadaists provoked and assaulted their bourgeois audience, even copying the idea of Luigi Russolo’s famous noise-organ—make noise, not music. The artists treated their public to a form of bruitism—cow bells, bells, drums, etc. and granted them simultaneous readings of poems “composed” for the noise of multiple voices used as instruments. The writers also borrowed the Futurist concept that language had to be rewritten and literature had to be interrogated to reveal its inherent meaningless. Ball, who had been impacted by the ideas of Kandinsky in Munich, wanted to use his performances to create a total work of art, gesamtkunstwerk, connecting music, literature, and art and, of course, life itself into an overall theatrical experience.

Defining Dada

In its attempt to merge life and art and to dissolve the boundaries that kept art separate, Dada could best be described as a state of mind. The first two years in Zurich were marked by experimentation and play, but the group was altered by the arrival in 1918 of Francis Picabia from New York City. Picabia, who was associated with New York Dada, was far more radical in his complete rejection of the idea of “art” and his dismissal of the Western heritage. Hugo Ball had left Zurich in 1917 and moved on to Bern for a more traditional occupation, editing a newspaper. In response to the absence of the founder and by Picabia’s extreme reductivism, Tristan Tzara (Sami Rosenstock) stepped into the “leadership” position and issued a Manifesto in 1918.

The Dada Manifesto was deliberately nonsensical. Sentences would begin logically enough but would trail off into illogic.

“A work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead; it should be neither gay nor sad, neither light nor dark to rejoice or torture the individual by serving him the cakes of sacred aureoles or the sweets of a vaulted race through the atmospheres,” Tzara wrote.

As well as writing the Manifesto, Tzara also edited the group’s periodical, Dada, but Dada had no specific program, no goals, and no aims. Essentially nihilist in intent, Dada writings always begin with what Dada is not, rejecting all that has gone before it. Nothing could rescue the world from bankrupt ideas and nothing was left except for a celebration of buffoonery, blague, and bleeding verse Tzara commented bitterly.

In an age of no sense, Dada presented nonsense and in doing so challenged and subverted the ways in which art and the artist are defined and the way in which art is made. After the War was over in November 1918, the Dada artists scattered and spread the seed of dissent to Berlin and Paris and Hanover. Tzara remained true to Dada and presented a more complete description or definition of Dada (if such a thing is possible) in 1922:

“I destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization wherever I go and cast my hand from heaven to hell, my eyes from hell to heaven, restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.”

The Manifesto ends with these sentences,

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust…as Dada marches it continuously destroys…Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing…Like everything in life, Dada is useless.”

Dada strategies included mockery and parody and sarcasm. The artists mocked and rejected the naïve ideas of the old men who led the young men off to a certain death. For the Dada artist, “art” is a metaphor for all that Western civilization has built, so proudly. But a civilization that planted Flanders Fields and that ordered Gallipoli must be rejected. “Art” was a part of the natural order that had to be destroyed and replaced with actual nature which acts for itself, is senseless, indifferent to the plans of humans, and is direct and relentless, a genuine force.

In some ways, the performances of Dada, fleeting and ephemeral, presaged the breaking of the Fourth Wall seen in the Epic Theater of Bertold Brecht a decade later. Like the Dadaists, Brecht the dramatist sought to alienate the audience and used techniques, which distanced the viewer from the play in order to prevent the immersion of identification. The goals of both the Dadaists and of Brecht were similar—to wake up the complacent theater-goers who sought entertainment but who found a political message hurled their direction.

Most important to the Dada artists was the need to start over, to get back to a ground zero or a tabular rasa. If they could re-set society, then perhaps the next world would be better. Laced throughout the anger and pain that characterize Dada was a latent idealism that a regression into infantile behavior would lead to a new adulthood. “Dada wished to destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order,” Arp explained.

After the Great War ended in the fall of 1918, the Dada artists scattered and formed Dada colonies at different locations: Hanover, Cologne, New York, Berlin and Paris. Each sub group had its own distinctive group of artists and its own goals and ultimate destiny. Like some of the Dada artists in Paris, Tzara and Arp shifted into Surrealism, which incorporated many Dada principles, particularly chance. Dada was gradually absorbed into New Objectivity in Berlin and was carried on in New York City by the underground artist, Marcel Duchamp. Although the impact upon the visual arts took decades to understand and incorporate, in its refusal to believe that life had a meaning and a purpose, Dada paved the way to Postmodernism in art.

Read more posts on Dada:

“Innovations of Dada: Chance”

“Innovations of Dada: Photomontage.”

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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