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

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part One

In 1929, the French Chamber of Deputies, fresh off their success with the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts of 1925 decided to repeat the fair in a decade. However, by 1936, the world had changed, stalked by a lingering and seemingly surmountable Depression and haunted by Fascism, so that the theme of decorative art seemed inappropriate. After much debate and a year’s delay, the vague theme of “art and technology” was selected. The Bauhaus had been closed in 1933, and, with its demise, the union between the two seemed to end and now art and technology were separated. When the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life opened in May of 1937, it was very close to the end of the world. The year 1937 was studded with portents for the dark future that diplomats were struggling to stave off. When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in January, he acknowledged the death grip of the stubborn Depression by stating that fully one-third of America was “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” A few days later, in a similar vein, Heinrich Himmler reported that 8000 prisoners were in camps for political dissidents all over Germany. And at the end of January, Hitler announced that Germany was withdrawing from the Treaty of Versailles and all of its demands, and in April he said that if a nation was of one mind then all it needed was one political party.

Fascism was on the march. In Spain, the forces of General Francisco Franco were inflated by the air forces of Germany and Italy, which, as a practice run for engagements to come, put Operation Rügen in motion and bombed Guernica on April 26. They would be joined the next month by German Condor Legion Fighter Group, arriving for the coup de gras to the Republic. The day before on the 6th of May, the airship, the Hindenburg, blew up at Lakehurst, New Jersey. In the summer, Japan invaded China and in Germany, the Nazis put on one of the last large art exhibitions, one for “German art” and one for “Degenerate Art.” The rest of the year was dominated by the long and brutal war between the Japanese and the Chinese, culminating in the Rape of Nanking on December 13. By the time the fair closed, its purpose rang hollow and ironic: “The objective is to be a meeting place for harmony and peace by not only striving to promote economic exchange between peoples but also the exchange of ideas and friendship.”

Phare du Monde (1937) unbuilt

Meanwhile, in Paris, the city had to pretend that Spain was joined the pantheon of Fascism, uniting with Germany and Italy, Nazis and Blackshirts, and had to turn away from China being beaten to its knees by the ascendant Japanese Empire. The year 1937 was supposed to be a celebration of technological advances since the famously modern Exposition Universelle in 1889. Gustave Eiffel had explained that his famous tower, built for the occasion, symbolizednot only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.” The long title that was given in 1937, “The Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne,” did not mean to be ironic, but everywhere new battleships were being commissioned and modern bi-planes were practicing bombing runs, suggesting the victory of technology given over to war. The French authorities put forward a serious plan to erect a new tower, called the Phare du Monde or, the optimistically titled, Lighthouse of the World, which was to be twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Despite its name, this lighthouse was dedicated to the automotive industry in France and apparently one could drive up a spiral road winding around this concrete structure to the restaurant on top. Not surprisingly, the building was not completed. However, other national pavilions were finished on schedule and bristled with political messages.

Pablo Picasso. Guernica (1937)

The Spanish Pavilion, one of the last acts of the Republican government and the first and only pavilion the Spanish Republic would have in a world’s fair, was designed by Josep Lluís Sert who asked his friends, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder to decorate the interior. The pavilion opened seven weeks late and was not on the official map and few paid any attention to the important work of art inside. Picasso’s response to the bombing of Guernica is the best-remembered work of art for the entire world’s fair that year. But at the time, few understood the significance of the mural, Guernica, and the government was disappointed at the offering. The Reaper, a mural executed in situ by Miró, is forgotten perhaps because it disappeared on the way home to Valencia. Along with his red mobile, symbolizing the Republic, Calder’s Mercury Fountain, which pumped mercury survived and can be seen–behind protective glass–in Barcelona. Writing in Cahiers d’Art, defended Picasso’s painting: “These visionary forms have an evocative power greater than shapes drawn with every realistic detail. They challenge people to truly comprehend the effects of their actions.”

And then there were the Soviet and German pavilions, staring at each other across the Jardins du Trocadéro: two truly horrible erections of totalitarian architectural madness, predicting horrors to come. The architect, Albert Speer predicted, Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now.” Somehow Speer had come across the secret plans of the Soviet architect, Boris Iofan, and, when he realized the possible impact of Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, he countered with an eagle surmounting a swastika topping his edifice. In an article on these dueling buildings, Paul Garson remarked that the German intelligence service had interpreted the Soviet sculptures as “symbolizing a Soviet invasion of Germany.” In his March 2017 article.”Clash of Ideology at the Paris Expo,” Garson continued, “Both building designs were also windowless, with no light either entering or escaping, the visitors sealed within and subject to whatever sounds and sights awaited them. Both pavilions appeared sepulchral in form and atmosphere, although not so intended by their designers, at least consciously.” Today, it seems impossible that such blatantly officious buildings were ever imagined, much less built, but ample film footage of the event, including shots of these architectural monstrosities, exists today. I stress the aggression of the twin totalitarian towers for two reasons: first, it would be Mukhina’s ordinary men and women who would eventually defeat an empty ideology, symbolized by Speer. And the second reason for emphasis would be the work of French artists in the French pavilions, all of which speak in a different voice, one of hope and optimism, bright colors and jaunty designs. And these works of art can be seen, with hindsight, as a picture of a nation that has its head in the sand–of a nation that will be no match for the relentless ambitions of the Nazis, who, in three years time, would march down the Avenue des ChampsÉlysées. In 1937, the two buildings functioned as giant advertising billboards, selling two extremes of totalitarian solutions to the world’s problems—military might or a workers’ paradise. France, mired in anti-Semitism and class warfare combined with ideological rifts, was, like the Eiffel Tower, standing helplessly in the middle.

Post Card showing the German Pavilion on the left facing the Soviet Pavilion on the right, with the Eiffel Tower in between (1937)

The French government was far less efficient in building its own structures, mainly because French workers did what French workers always do when faced with the opportunity to embarrass the ruling class–they went on strike. After years of class warfare–between 1934 and 1936 there were over one thousand demonstrations of some kind–the children and grandchildren of the Communards were slow to complete the commissioned structures. France had been torn between fascism and communism and the Third Republic attempted to find a middle path but the exposition as a whole became a site of nationalistic propaganda. Faced with the sophisticated forces of Germany and the Soviet Union, the host nation felt compelled to present “la Firme France.” The French contributions to their own exposition seem, in hindsight, naïve and doomed in their determined optimism.

Raoul Dufy. La Fée Electricité or the Electricity Fairy at the Palace of Discovery (1937)

When electricity was introduced to the streets of Paris in those last delirious years before the Great War, the people were delighted and enchanted. Some twenty years, electricity was commonplace, lighting streets and powering vacuum cleaners. Raoul Dufy was given a formidable challenge when his sponsor, the Compagnie parisienne de Distribution d’Electricité, the company that organized all the electricity for the city, presented him with the concave back wall of the Palais de la Lumière et de l’Electricité, another building by the formidable architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens. A former Fauve artist whose specialty was charm, Dufy was the last artist to execute anything scientific and he retreated to the realms of enchantment and turned electricity into a delightful fairy tale. According to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris,

“..the story of The Electricity Fairy was based on De Rerum natura by Lucretius. In this composition measuring 10m x 60m, he works from right to left on two main themes, the history and applications of electricity, from the earliest observations right up to the most modern technical achievements. The upper part shows a changing landscape across which are dotted some of the painter’s favourite themes: yachts, flocks of birds, a threshing machine and a Bastille Day ball. Portraits of 110 great scientists and inventors who have contributed to the development of electricity are arranged across the lower half. Blending mythology and allegory with historical fact and technological description, Dufy plays on the contrast between opposites – the gods of Olympus in the centre of the work and the power plant generators linked by Zeus’s thunderbolts; primordial nature and architecture; works, days and modern machines. In formal terms also, hot colours contrast with cold, with the dominant colours being clearly differentiated by zone. This dual narrative thread is resolved in an apotheosis as Iris, the messenger of the gods and daughter of Electra flies through the light above an orchestra and the capital cities of the world disseminating all the colours of the spectrum.

Raoul Dufy. The Electricity Fairy in the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, the East Wing of the Palais de Tokyo

And for those unfamiliar with the poem by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, it begins:

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!

In his book, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century, Jay Winter wrote that

This work of art may be the largest painting in history, measuring in total over 200 feet long and 32 feet high..Dufy accepted the challenge of producing it within a year. And this is precisely what he did, with the assistance of his brother Jean Dufy and André Robert. Dufy listened to scientists; visited workshops, generators, and factories; and then proceeded to paint 250 panels on the subject of electricity. These panels were assembled in a hanger in the Paris suburb of Saint Ouen and were produced with such efficiency that–unlike many other elements of the world’s fair—the ensemble actually was ready for the opening exhibition..Entering the pavilion, the visitors came upon a 20 foot long electrical sparking current, joining two copper spirals; here was the longest continuous electrical current of its kind in the world. This gigantic display was only a prelude to what visitors saw at the heart of the building. Entering a huge hall painted black, they confronted Dufy’s mural on the “spirit of electricity,” a spectacularly colorful and illuminated mural. The majesty of science was there in all its splendor.

A sense of the vast scale of the mural can be seen in contemporary videos of the work, which is one of fantasy and escapism. Somehow, Dufy magically waved a wand and wished away the lurking militarism and the confrontational ideologies poised against each other elsewhere on the fair grounds. Naïve or willfully ignorant and disengaged or comforting in its evocations of fairies, the mural summed up the contradictions of Paris in the 1930s–looking backwards without looking inwards.

The discussion of the artists at the 1937 Fair continues in the next post.

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

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Henry Tonks: Torn Portraits: The Art of Facial Reconstruction

Henry Tonks (1862-1937)

Surgery as Art

An examination of the oeuvre of the feared and respected teacher, who dominated the lives of fledgling students at the famed Slade School of Art, reveals that Henry Tonks was not a great artist himself. Unlike Walter Sickert, he was not even particularly interesting in either his content or painting style. His early twentieth century work was a conservative dark toned version of post-Impressionsm, bland and rather boring. Many of his paintings were informed by Edgar Degas, but Tonks discarded the unique compositional effects of the Impressionist predecessor. As a teacher he was most famous for his illustrious students, the gifted generation that went to the Great War, hated it, and painted its horrors. Trapped in his own artistic time, Tonks disapproved of them all, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Spencer, Nash, none of whom could measure up to Degas. But the drawing taskmaster had trained them well. And Tonks left one other unexpected legacy, a technique called “tonking,” in which excess oil can be removed from a canvas with an absorbent piece of paper. The useful technique was widely used in art schools until the late 1950s when acrylics began to replace traditional painting media.


Henry Tonks. The Hat Shop (1892)

Oddly enough, despite the awe and terror he inspired as a teacher, as an artist, Tonks did not come into his own until he confronted one of the most painful tragedies of the young century: men without faces. Working hand in hand with a pioneer plastic surgeon, painting the stricken men with compassion and tact, Henry Tonks produced a private and, for the most part, secret record of the most feared disfigurement of the Great War: defacement, loss of face, loss of identity, loss of individuality. In his series of studies, done in the granular medium of pastel, Tonks paused his career at Slade and painting an unexpected portrait of war, the men who wore its toll on their faces. It is here, in these disembodied faces, that Tonks finally arrived at an original style–original not in execution–but in the fearless confrontation with faceless men, whose wounds were so hideous that they were not to be viewed until they were healed.

War is notorious for bringing about advances in technology, most of which involves improvements in killing machines; but every now and then, something positive emerges from military necessities, and, often, strides are made in medicine. The four years of the Great War produced a very specific set of medical challenges, notably, treating the effects of gas attacks, that were unique to that particular war. But less well known was the impact of the machine gun, which destroyed lower limbs as the soldiers who were advancing towards the enemy trench were literally mowed down by the scything actions of the merciless machine gun. There were 41,000 British soldiers who survived amputations and more than 50,000 French soldier who often experienced amputation done by guillotine in France had to live the rest of their lives with the chronic and the then incurable pain of the “phantom limb” which had to be replaced by a prosthetic limb. Wiring for CNN in 2014, Thomas Schlich stated, “Virtually every device produced today to replace lost body function of soldiers returning from our modern wars — as well as accident victims, or victims of criminal acts, such as the Boston Marathon bombings — has its roots in the technological advances that emerged from World War I.” But there was another medical advance that has long been kept confidential for reasons of the soldiers’ privacy, the extraordinary advances in plastic surgery or reconstructing a destroyed face.

Trench warfare produced a new crop of terrible injuries–when a soldier popped his head up above the trench line, a sniper could easily pick him off. But a bullet wound was relatively straightforward compared to the other major danger to faces, shrapnel, which exploded into tearing shards, decimating the face. Medical technology had advanced to the point that these men were able to survive these terrible wounds, leaving the medical profession with the task of caring for and repairing these victims. Plastic surgery itself was nothing new and can be dated back to 800, according to an account of the practice in India, but the first book, passing on knowledge to further generations was written by Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599), who dealt with facial wounds from dueling during the Renaissance. In his book, De Curtorum Chirurgia per insitionem (1597), Tagliacozzi explained how he used the “arm flap” as material to reconstruct the nose. The modern “father of plastic surgery” was Harold Delf Gillies (1882-1960), a New Zealander, who published Plastic Surgery of the Face in 1920, which revealed groundbreaking new techniques in reconstruction. Gilles considered restoring the face to be an art form and referred to his work as a surgeon as “aesthetics,” indicating a philosophical position for a medical practice–the reason for surgery was to reclaim the original “beauty” of the human face as far as possible.

Although the idea of transferring flesh from one part of the body to repair another was well-known, the surgical techniques were crude until the Great War. Gillies had been trained as a surgeon and joined the newly formed Ear, Nose and Throat Department in 1910 at St Bartholomews Hospital in London, but did not become interested in plastic surgery until he served in the Great War. Upon seeing the damage done to human beings by the new modern weapons–“men burned and maimed to the condition of animals”–he became determined to help the soldiers with facial wounds. After watching the French, who were also experimenting with facial reconstruction, Gillies asked for and was granted a request to set up a special British unit for plastic surgery at the Cambridge Military Hospital at Aldershot. Gillies was among the first surgeons to understand the importance of reconstructing the ruined faces of the soldiers not just in terms of functioning–eating and breathing and speaking–but also in terms of appearance. The mutilés who returned home were unrecognizable to their friends and families and to themselves, a traumatic experience, a literal “loss of face,” which psychologically disturbed the victims and their families. For full recovery, it was necessary for the soldier to be able to appear in public without frightening those he encountered, and it was Gillies who recognized that restoring a face–one’s sense of selfhood—was a step towards restoring peace of mind.

Until recently, the work done on the victims of the Great War was a private and almost secret body of knowledge. The facial disfigurements were so grotesque and horrifying, indeed so alien and unprecedented, that the mere existence of the surviving soldiers made the government and the public uneasy. Their faces, the appearance of the mutilated soldier in the streets raised uncomfortable questions about the cost of war and the condition of those who were paying the price. In his 2014 book, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Jay Winter wrote of the significance of the wounded and how those with conventional wounds played a part in the project of memorializing the War: “On 14 July 1919, a victory parade traversed the Champs Elysées in Paris. Foch, Joffre, Pétain, Clemenceau were there. But leading the way, and changing the entire tone of the occasion were the mutilés de guerre. What had started as a victory celebration turned into a sombre moment of mass mourning.” However, as Emily Mayhew pointed out in the beginning of Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I (2013), that “Yet in the historical record of the First World War, the wounded and the men and women who cared for them are an undiscovered, somehow silenced group.”


Henry Tonks. Portrait of a Wounded Soldier before Treatment (1916-17)

One of the most significant articles on facial disfigurements during the Great War was written in 2011 by Suzannah Biernoff for the Social History of Medicine. In “The Rhetoric Disfigurement in First World War Britain,” Biernoff noted that “the loss of one’s perceived as a loss of humanity.” The extent of facial injuries was shocking with some 60,500 soldiers with head and eye injuries that required a joint effort between surgeons and artists. As she reported, “Many soldiers were shot in the face simply because they had no experience of trench warfare.” “They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets,” wrote the American surgeon Fred Albee. Military medical archives contain exhaustive visual evidence of the injuries inflicted by machine guns and modern artillery on the faces of young British men. As Mayhew pointed out, these particularly grievous wounds had a special name: “a ‘Blighty wound’ or ‘Blighty one’ meant that an injury was so severe that the sufferer was certain to be sent home either for treatment or medical discharge. The word is still used in the British Army today.” In France, as Winter reported, there were specific organizations dedicated to the special needs of the gravely wounded.

In 1916 a French association of the disabled started to publish a newspaper with the following title: the Journal des mutilés, réformés et victimes de guerre. It broadcast the existence of a host of local groups, under the sponsorship of mayors or prefects. Out of this activity came a large national organization. The first congress of war wounded met at the Grand Palais in Paris on 11 November 1917. Delegates named by 125 societies representing 125,000 disabled men were there..One of the most poignant of such groups was the association of disfigured men, those with face wounds so terrible that they bought their own property for collective holidays and rest.

Given that there were at least ten million wounded who would permanently bear the scars of the War for the rest of their lives, the subsequent neglect and forgetting of these victims was nothing short of tragic. According to Winter, the numbers of the wounded and their unfamiliar needs and the desperate straits of their families far exceeded the ability of any government to deal with their demands. Most of their final stories are unknown, but the accounts that exist were often punctuated by suicides and loss of will to go on with their lives with no face. Given the collective pain and denial circulating around the facial wounds, it is not surprising that the medical records were suppressed. As Biernoff noted, “The response to facial disfigurement was circumscribed by an anxiety that was specifically visual. Patients refused to see their families and fiancés; children reportedly fled at the sight of their fathers; nurses and orderlies struggled to look their patients in the face.” Until the past few years, however, these X-rays and surgical diagrams, photographs, and stereographs, plaster casts and models were rarely publicly exhibited. It has even been claimed that they amount to a ‘hidden history’ of the First World War.” And yet the long-term project of restoring these men to some semblance of a healthy and useful life was an artistic one. According to Biernoff, this hidden history could be viewed immediately during and after the war through the series of pastels the famous artist Henry Tonks, a famed teacher from the Slade School of Art, who worked with Harold Gilles during 1915 to 1916 at Aldershot. These studies of the ruined faces of young men were the “before” records, made at the beginning of what would be a long process, often lasting for years, were briefly shown at Queen’s Hospital at Sidcup. Immediately after the War, these sketches disappeared, not to re-emerge until 2002, when they were shown, along with the photographic records of the restoration process, in the Strang Print Room at the University College London. Finally in 2007, these pastels joined the records of the work of Gillies in the Gillies Archives.


Henry Tonks. Portrait of a Wounded Soldier after Treatment (1916-17)

This gap of visuality, almost one hundred years, mirrors what Biernoff called a “culture of aversion,” that surrounded the wounded faces. She wrote, “This collective looking-away took multiple forms: the absence of mirrors on facial wards, the physical and psychological isolation of patients with severe facial injuries, the eventual self-censorship made possible by the development of prosthetic ‘masks,’ and an unofficial censorship of facially-disfigured veterans in the British press and propaganda. Unlike amputees, these men were never officially celebrated as wounded heroes.”


J. Hodgson Lobley. The Queen’s Hospital for Facial Injuries, Frognal, Sidcup: The Toy-makers’ Shop (1918)

A painting by J. Hodgson Lobley shows the fate of the soldiers with facial wounds, kept carefully out of public view, perhaps abandoned by friends and family. While waiting to be helped, the wounded men occupied themselves by making toys, as illustrated here, or mended watches and clocks, and they learned a rather odd assortment of trades, such as coach-making and dentistry. The aim of the hospital was to retrain the soldiers, giving them a trade for their civilian lives. Moreover, because these soldiers had lost their ability to be a man, in other words, to appear in public as a fully actualized human being, those with very severe facial disfigurement injuries received lifetime pensions. As American surgeon Fred Albee, a pioneer in bone grafting said, “It must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself.” It was out of severe necessity that Harold Gilles established a specialized unit dedicated to facial reconstruction at the Frognal estate, his own private and secluded country home. Here, the patients, many of whom refused to return home, could stay during what would be years of procedures and remain among doctors, nurses and companions who understood the nature of their disfigurement. At Sidcup and Frognal, the “man” himself could be restored, while at the same time, the science of plastic surgery was being advanced.


Henry Tonks. Portrait of a Wounded Soldier before Treatment (1916-17)

The role of Henry Tonks was a painful one. It was he who somehow convinced these deeply depressed men to face him and allow him to scrutinize what was literally a loss of face. Tonks had not always been an artist but had, in fact, begun his career in medicine, finding his way to Slade as an art teacher at mid life. Working closely with Gillies was, for Tonks, a return to his own beginnings as a medical student who had been lured away by art. The intimacy of the portraits of these wounded men stand in strong contrast to the series of paintings done at Sidcup by Lobley. Although this artist showed the operating theater where the doctors worked on multiple patients at the same time, the views are discrete and distant and reassuring to the audiences. But behind the white gowns and the seeming assembly line like care of the multiple patients, lies a story of uneven knowledge and on going learning on the part of doctors. Ana Carden-Coyne discussed the difficulty of using anesthesia in her 2014 book, The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War: “There were no universal method of anesthesia and the debate continued throughout the war. Surgeons often criticized each other in medical journals for overuse of local anesthetic injections combined with nitrous oxide..or use of rectal anesthesia..Facial reconstruction patients could not use the facecloth method, but had to sit upright to stop blood flowing into the mouth. Ether via the rectum was one alternative, but it cant considerable discomfort.”

Lobley, John Hodgson; The Queen's Hospital for Facial Injuries, Frognal, Sidcup: The Commercial Class; IWM (Imperial War Museums);

John Hodgson Lobley, The Queen’s Hospital for Facial Injuries, Frognal, Sidcup

All of the official artists were part of a larger effort, not to inform, but to memorialize the War, to make a case that the cost of winning was worth the sacrifice and to show military families that the causalities were being well taken care of. As would be expected, Lobley’s work was very careful to disguise the actual agonies endured by soldiers who often endured multiple operations for years. Actual photographs of the soldiers in their pre-operative condition are difficult to view, even today and the softened portraits by Tonks had a gentle haze of compassion which was more sensitive than the merciless glare of the camera.


Australian soldier William Kearsley: In October 1917, shrapnel struck Kearsey in the face, severely gashing his face.

In writing of the pastels of Tooks, Suzannah Biernoff stated that “in Tonks’ drawings of wounded soldiers, the subject is doubly alienated from himself. In the first place, the institutionalisation of these men (first in the military, then as long-term and usually recurrent residential patients) disconnected them from the social and physical fabric of their ordinary lives, their sense of a past and future meaningfully connected to the present. As well, the privileged signifier of subjectivity, the face, now signifies trauma.” In contrast to conventional paintings of wounded soldiers done by British artists, Tonks was not under any obligation to shield the public or the men themselves from scrutiny. The result was a record, the first of its kind, of defacement, a crisis in military morale and in the medical profession. Biernoff continued, “..the residual fragments of individuality conveyed through posture, gaze, clothing and framing, fragments that only foreground the shocking violence of the injuries. These are anti-portraits, in the sense that they stage the fragility and mutability of subjectivity rather than “consolidating the self portrayed.” The achievements they celebrate are not those of the men we see (though to be alive at all was an achievement of sorts). The personality, the hero, of these untitled portraits is the pioneering surgeon, his inventiveness, skill and dedication told through the simple narrative structure of ‘before’ and ‘after.'”


Tonks, a taciturn man at best, seems to have joined his medical and artistic knowledge of the anatomy of the human face to make studies that would serve as tools for Gillies who was subsequently able to judge his own and the progress of his patients. As the artist of these works, Tonks remained silent and seems to have not discussed or written about his experiences during the war. In passing he mentioned his work with these men as “excellent practice,” an enigmatic phrase. The photographs taken of the mutilated men to record the operations as each procedure slowly restored some semblance of a face when compared to the original pastels are nothing short of astonishing. But, as extraordinary as the accomplishments of the artist and the surgeon in their joint efforts, the images, whether pastel or photographic are mute to the psychological state or to the physical pain and suffering of the men who gave their trust and belief in these two remarkable artists, Harold Gillies and Henry Tonks.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]

Imagining The Great War, Part Three

The End of the World: Ludwig Meidner and the Apocalyptic Paintings

The avant-garde arrived late in Germany. Not only was modern art late, it also landed in the cities of Germany unchronologically, in bits and pieces, entirely lacking sequence, reft of developmental lines. The German artists, confronted with the smorgasbord of French, Dutch, Norwegian, and Italian artists, sampled and selected what they chose, repositioned the works for their own devices and reinterpreted their meaning for their own purposes. The muddled Modernism could not be helped. For all intents and purposes, avant-garde art had begun in Paris and spread east to great effect in Russia and Germany. Neither of the recipients, the artists of Moscow or the artists in Berlin, were disturbed over the disorder, and, it must be said, the French, being French were equally unperturbed. Selling to eastern patrons was a business conducted by their dealers and the French artists were happy with the proceeds. The Italian artists were also belated on the German scene/s. The year 1912 was the debut year of Italian Futurism as a visual art, with shows of Futurist artists traveling from Paris, where they were scorned, London, where they were reviled, and Berlin, where they were badly hung, mixed in with other “modern”artists whose work was totally incompatible with Futurist goals and aims. But the ideas of Futurist art was also uniquely suited to to Berlin.


Ludwig Meidner. Apocalyptic Landscape (1912)

Like Italy, Germany was riven with regionalism, like Italy, Germany became a nation late in the game, and, like Italy, Germany industrialized decades after Great Britain. In The Visual Arts in Germany 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair (1988), Shearer West wrote that “Germany’s industrial revolution came later than that of some other European nations, but it was also quicker and more effective. Unlike Italy and France,where rural peasant traditions lingered long after urban modernization, Germany had become a wholly modern industrial nation by the First World War. Certainly many artists and writers were enthusiastic about the possibilities of a modern Germany, and particularly the growing metropolitan culture which seemed to open up possibilities for new ways of life. But the enthusiasm for the city that colored the rhetoric of such Futurist empathizers as Ludwig Meidner was the exception, rather than the rule.” As shall be seen, the term “enthusiasm” is perhaps not quite on the mark, for the German artists were, as a whole, more interested and concerned and critical of the metropolis, than excited. To mark a middle path, it would be fair to say that both the Germans and the Italians were fixated on the city, albeit for very different reasons.


Umberto Boccioni. The City Rises (1910)

For most of the nineteenth century, the French were behind the English in modernization, but France had, over time, begun to catch up. In contrast, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Futurists were reacting to the sudden onset of modernity, accepting and glorying in all of its promises. The shared “future shock,” or what art writer Robert Hughes famously termed, “the shock of the new,” made Berlin a very compatible place for Futurist artists to exhibit. Futurist painting displayed anarchist themes and called for social uprising, delighting in the pace and speed of all things that mechanization had put in motion. The German artists, both visual and literary, responded to the underlying theme of Futurists, the sudden appearance of a new way of life. They shared, with the Futurists, a contempt for the bourgeois way of life and Bürger conventions and middle class conventions. Regardless of how well or badly Futurist art was displayed in its Berlin debut, the German artists of 1912 were prepared to be intrigued.

Wherever there was an exhibition of Futurist art, there would be a performance from the leader of the pack, Fillippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876–1944), the high energy impresario of renegade poetry and words running about in freedom. Unlike their receptions in Paris and London, the Futurists had a champion and support in Berlin: Herwarth Walden (1878– 1941), easily a match for Marinetti in energy. From the standpoint of artists and poets, Walden was in (1910-32) charge of the most visible game in town, the journal Der Stürm for the poets and the Galerie Der Stürm (1912-32) for the artists. Founded in 1910, the German literary journal was perhaps the successor to Marinetti’s magazine for medical poets, Poesia, founded in 1905 and, having become obsolete and old fashioned, folding in 1909. The journal, which published cutting edge “expressionist” poetry, also printed reproductions of avant-garde art, including international as well as German works. Walden supported the powerful critiques of the city of Berlin and Wilhelmine life from the poets of the Neue Club, again perhaps entering into the political phase of activist art, urged by Poesia, which published the Manifesto politico futurista (Futurist Political Manifesto) in the last issue. However close the intellectual concerns of the Futurist artists and writers were to their counterparts in Berlin, as can be seen, German Expressionist poetry preferred the old fashioned stanza approach, compared to Marinetti’s “words in freedom.”

God of the City (Der Gott der Stadt)


Georg Heym

Upon a block of houses he sits wide.

The wind encamps all black around his brow.

Irate he stares, where in far solitude

Stray beyond the fields some last few houses.

At evening glows the ruddy gut of Baal,

The greatest cities kneel to him like choirs.

A monstrous heap of church bell after church bell

Up to him swells from dark a sea of spires.

The music drones a Corybante dance

Of millions ambling loudly through the streets.

The chimney smoke, the clouds of manufacture

Unto him cling, blue scent of incense sweet.

The weather smolders in his eyebrows twain.

The dark of evening unto night is dulled.

The storm winds flutter, like great vultures gazing

From out his great locks, in his wrath all horrid.

His butcher fist into the dark he soars.

He shakes it so. A sea of fire hunts

The length of one street. And the hot smoke roars

Consuming it, until the morning comes.

Heym’s poem coincides with the paintings of Ludwig Meidner (184-1966) and with the rising social and political discontent in the city of Berlin. As early as 1909 Hans Kampffmeyer wrote “The Garden City and its Cultural and Economic Significance,” warning about the sudden growth of the city: “There then emerged the vast range of problems that we summarize under the single heading of “The Social Problem”–none of which can be understood without its wider context..One of the greatest dangers of the modern city is the increasing alienation of its inhabitants from nature. Elevating its occupants four and more stories above the surface of Mother Earth, the tenement house takes them farther an farther away form the open countryside end sets up more and more rampart of masonry between them..Only an arduous railroad journey can take us into the open air..” Kampffmeyer’s concerns, not uncommon for that time, went unheeded. If the German state was inclined to put money anywhere in the years before the War, it would be towards the military not towards the poor. This is the context of the Futurist Exhibition in Berlin, where cross currents of nationalist preoccupations with violence, war, political uprisings and unrest coincided and collided.


Ludwig Meidner. Apocalyptic Landscape (1913)

In conjunction with the 1912 Futurist exhibition at his Galerie at Tiergartenstrasse 34 a, Walden published Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto in Der Stürm. The poetic manifesto, written with typical Marinetti excess, was psychologically in tune with the German mindset, with phrases like, “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman,” echoing the extreme poetry of a Georg Heym. Marinetti’s writing, like that of the German Expressionist poets, echoed the rhythms of the nineteenth century American poet, the influential Walt Whitman: “We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.”

More than any other artists in Berlin, Ludwig Meidner, was the visual counterpart of Futurism, both paintings and poetry, and German Expressionist poetry, acting out the prevailing mood of anxiety that was characteristic of the atmosphere of Berlin. In 1912, Meidner frequently contributed to the other outspoken journal of political critique, Die Aktion, founded in 1911 by Franz Pfemfert (1879-1954), who intensely disliked the machinations of unfettered capitalism. After the War, Pfemfert evolved into from a promoter of literary expressionism, abandoning aesthetics in order to become a supporter of radical democratic socialism, preferably by revolution. In the pre-war years, the journals, Die Aktion and Der Stürm, and the artists and poets featured in their pages, shared similar concerns. The rural themes of back to nature so relevant in the early Dresden years of Die Brücke disappeared when the artists moved to Berlin in 1911. Immediately the style radically metamorphomized–and this change can be best viewed in the paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), who abruptly abandoned his Gauguin-esque landscape works and appropriated the jagged shards of Cubism to respond to the shape of life in the city. For the Berlin artists and poets, the city itself was the all-absorbing theme, leading to a new genre of art, Großstadtlyrik (big city poetry). According to the article “Provocation and Parataxis” by Mark W. Roche in A New History of German Literature (2004),

“Poets drew on smells, sounds, modes of transportation, commerce, technology, and the bustle of city life for poetic themes. The city was portrayed as both daemonic and dynamic. As in painting, so in poetry, the modern metropolis was feared and criticized, but was no less a source of fascination. City life alienates and poisons; it is impersonal and materialistic, yet also vibrant and multifarious..Related to the theme of the metropolis is technology. While technology seems to carry a life of its own, the individual becomes increasingly an object, without life or soul.”

In understanding the social conditions in the city of Berlin and Meidner’s apocalyptic visions of the city, it is important to note that not only did this urban area explode in population but industry was also situated very close to the city’s edges to best capture the thousands of workers drawn to the new environment. Unlike London, where one could take a quick train ride to a bucolic suburb, Berlin was hemmed in. Meidner, who had migrated from Silesia to Berlin, would have watched the factories of Siemans, a firm to become notorious in the Second World War, expand in the Spandau suburb, wiping out the countryside. But more then the abrupt transformation of once quiet landscapes into vistas of chemical factories and mass housing, it was the possibility of an urban uprising, a revolt of the proletariat that aroused the interest of Meidner. Living in poverty and residing mass housing, he was very attuned to the political concerns of the lower classes. While his poet counterparts wrote about violence and rebellion, Meidner, who, unlike them, did not come from a privileged background, was impatient with middle class armchair critiques. He wandered the streets during the sweltering summer of 1912, the hot and heady summer of Futurism, walking among the misery of the poor. According to Jay Winter in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Berliners wondered which could take place first, an international war or a rebellion against the Kaiser, who–incidentally–was perfectly willing to shoot all resisters. Although Winter questioned the extent to which Meidner’s paintings were prophetic of a coming war, he does note that there were several works that predict war and notes that Meidner was impacted by the poetry of Heym.

Like the poems of Heym, the paintings of Meidner were read “backwards” after the War as premonitions or predictions of the Apocalyptic end of the world, but Winter argued that “..the central conflict on the agenda in 1911-14 was the potential for class war, not the gigantic clash of European warriors..Berlin was teeming with tenements, or human barracks-Mietkasernen in German. Mender lived among them, in the belly of the whale..the environment of domestic political conflict, and in particular class conflict, was sufficiently overheated to supply these artists with more than enough ominous material for their eschatological explorations..” Explaining how to paint the modern city in his own words, in 1914, Meidner published “Anleitung zum Malen von Grossstadtbildern” or (“Instructions for Painting the Metropolis”) in Kunst and Künstler, a remarkably dry text that was literally what it said–instructions. There was little of the emotions or the expressions supposedly characteristic of these intense artists. But Meidner does talk about the formal or visual characteristics of the modern city with excitement:

“The angular lines of which we are speaking—principally applied as they arc in graphic art should not be confused with the lines traced upon a building plan with the aid of a mason’s triangle. Never believe that the straight line is something cold and rigid! You must simply draw it with enough excitement and properly observe its flow. It should be now thin, now thick, trembling gently with nervous excitement. When we look upon our cities, what do we see but battles of mathematics? See what triangles and circles and polygons assault us in the street. Rulers are flying off in all directions. We are pierced on every side by angularities. Even the moving people and animals appear like geometrical constructions.” Meidner then both acknowledged and refuted the debt owed to the Futurists by saying, “The manifestos of the Futurists—though not their actual foolish creations —have shown us where the problems are..” meaning that the Futurists celebrated the city and the Berlin artists understood it as a savage entity.


1912 Exhibition Catalogue

Regardless of how Meidner and Heym and other apocalyptic poets and artists are interpreted today–as social critics or as visionaries who foresaw a horrible future–what is clear is that the years just before the Great War in Germany were not as sweet as those of the Belle Epoch experienced by other nations. The nation was on a knife edge, and in perusing the social history and the political unrest present in the large cities, such as Berlin, immediately before the summer of 1914, it seems that Germany was particularly tense and that everyone was waiting to see what would break out first, a political rebellion or a world war. Meidner’s roiling and restless cityscapes, dark and unspeakable in their premonitions the horrors to come, spoke not just to the grim possibilities facing the German people and to the probable outcome–the end of the world.

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

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