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

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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.

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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Imagining The Great War, Part Two

The Coming Apocalypse: Ludwig Meidner and the Poets

In the winter of 1912, the German poet Georg Heym fell through a hole in the ice and drowned. The strange death of the twenty-four year of poet was surrounded by an odd mixture of conjecture and fact. It was thought that on January 16th, he was attempting to rescue his friend, Ernst Balcke, also a poet, who had plunged into the icy waters of the river. This assumption was based upon the apparent fact that Heym was able to hang on to the edge of the ice and shout for help, his cries reaching foresters working at the banks of the Havel. For some reason, the woodsmen were unwilling to lend their ropes or ladders to help one of the poetic geniuses of twentieth century poetry. Eventually Heym’s fingers slipped off the ice and he sank to his death. When the two bodies were recovered two days later, it was unclear whether Blaeke and Heym, two poets on a skating trip, died from drowning or hypothermia. In his 1971 article,”Ogling through Ice: The Sullen Lyricism of Georg Heym,” one of Heym’s English translators, Peter Viereck reported that when his friends saw Heym in his coffin, he was still frozen enough for his features to have retained “The bitter expression of his lips, twisted by the horror of fifteen minutes of continuous screaming for help to onlookers.” What makes the death of Heym even more eerie is that he dreamed that he would die by falling through the ice and in 1910 wrote down his dream, a dream that horribly came true, but without the happy ending:

I found myself standing on the banks of a great lake which seemed to be covered with a type of stone coating. It struck me as a sort of frozen water. On occasion it seemed to be like the sort of skin that forms on top of milk. Some people were moving on the lake, people with bags or baskets, perhaps they were going to market. I ventured a couple of steps, and the plates held. I felt that they were very thin, since as I stepped upon them they swayed back and forth. I had gone for some time and then a woman encountered me, who cautioned me to turn back, the plates would soon break. But I persisted. And suddenly I felt that the plates were dissolving beneath me, but I did not fall. I proceeded further, walking upon the water. Then the thought occurred to me that I might fall. In that moment, I sank into green, slimy, kelp-infested waters. Still, I did not feel lost, I began to swim. As though by a miracle, the shore, though first distant, drew closer and closer, and with a few strokes I landed in a sandy, sunny harbor.

Georg Heym (1887-1912) wasn’t the only prophet who was having dreams. A year later, Carl Jung (1875-1961) also had a prophetic dream, one he dreamed three times. In October 1913, a year after the death of Heym, Jung reported in his book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections,

..while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.

Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.” That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood.

I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.

Soon afterward, in the spring and early summer of 1914, I had a thrice-repeated dream that in the middle of summer an Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice. I saw, for example, the whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings. All living green things were killed by frost. This dream came in April and May, and for the last time in June, 1914.

In the third dream frightful cold had again descended from out of the cosmos. This dream, however, had an unexpected end. There stood a leaf-bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices. I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd…

On August 1 the world war broke out.


Ludwig Meidner. Apocalyptic Landscape (1913)

The coming of the war, known later as the “Great War,” had been foretold by astrology, Biblical prophecies, individual dreams, art and poetry. Georg Heym wrote his best poetry in the year of his death and these poems of a few months reflected the apocalyptic mood that had descended over Germany just before the Great War. He was part of a group of like-minded young poets, seething with rebellion and disgust for the bourgeois life in the “miserable Prussian shitstate.” He longed, as did many of his generation for a war, complaining, “If only someone would start a war, it needn’t even be a just one.” He was part of the loosely organized group of Expressionists who drifted in and out of Berlin, writers, poets and artists, all of whom were questioning the stultifying Wilhemine society in the famous Neue Club, a quarrelsome group of new poets who met at the avant-garde gathering place, Café des Westens. The 2012 article, “Apocalypse Then: Georg Heym & the Art of Cultural Divination,” noted that Heym was one of an even smaller and more radical splinter of the Club that broke and became part of Neopathetische Cabaret, more or less organized by Jakob Van Hoddis (1887-1942). Heym, fascinated with the doomed French Revolutionaries, Robespierre and Danton, was remembered by Dada artist, Emmy Hennings as “half bandit… half angel.” The poet Alfred Lichenstein (1889-1914) was also a member of this loosely composed group of Expressionists, transfixed by a somewhat undigested stew of Nietzsche, Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and even the writings of Sigmund Freud, all overseen by the overarching patronage of Herwarth Walden’s gallery and journal, Der Stürm. Heym, Van Hoddis and Lichtenstein all wrote poems, half-mad with tormented dreams of disaster, and all came to tragic ends. Lichenstein died in the second month of the First World War he had foreseen, Van Hoddis, a friend of the artist, Ludwig Meidner, went mad, was placed in a Jewish care home, from which he and his fellow inmates were taken and put to death by the Nazis at Sobibor in 1942, and Heym was quite forgotten until someone one noticed, after the Second World War, that he may have predicted the carpet bombing of cities.


Ludwig Meidner. Burning City (reverse) (1913)

One of the problems of translation–whether of poems or paintings–is interpretation. Choosing the right words or the precise turn of phrase to create a consistency of meaning between languages is one thing, but understanding the work of art in its own context is yet another necessary element in comprehending its original meaning. The apocalyptic paintings of Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966) imagined the destruction of the city, probably the city of Berlin, where he lived..uneasily. His works precisely parallel the poems of the poets who mingled freely with the artists at Café des Westens. It is no coincidence that he formed the counterpoint of the poets’ Neopathetische Cabaret, Die Pathetiker, for visual artists. What makes these two linked and distinct bodies of art particularly complex is that their meanings were historically divided. Before the war, the paintings of Meidner were commentaries on the rapidly changing city of Berlin, newly modern and oppressively modern. After the “Great War,” such works became retroactively apocalyptic, predictive of things to come, of events that arrived. During the same years as Heym, Van Hoddis and Litchenstein were writing their apocalyptic poems, Meidner was painting his apocalyptic landscapes. Van Hoddis’ poem End of the World (1911) is often credited with setting off a series of powerful and extremely visual poems, but what did they mean? Imagining the destruction of what–the cramped middle class world the poets protested against–the newly crowded and modern Berlin–the aging civilization of the Belle Epoch, the lingering decadence of the nineteenth century? In its eight lines, Weltende called for an end, a deluge, a destruction of anything and everything.

World’s End


Whisked from the Bourgeois’ pointy head hat flies,
Throughout the heavens, reverberating screams,
Down tumble roofers, shattered ‘cross roof beams
And on the coast – one reads – floodwaters rise.
The storm is here, rough seas come merrily skipping
Upon the land, thick dams to rudely crush.
Most people suffer colds, their noses dripping
While railroad trains from bridges headlong rush.

Translated by Richard John Ascárate

Written two years later, Litchenstein’s Prophecy, a bit longer and no less violent, appeared. The young poet would be killed a year later, early in the war, as his poem seems to predict. Ironically he died on a piece of land that would be retaken by British troops, a company which included the poet Wilfred Owen, fighting for the soil where Litchenstein had fallen. What is clear, in reading these foretelling poems, is the difference between Expressionism in Berlin and that of Murnau, where Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Franz Marc (1880-1916) were exploring a very different version of this broad movement. Kandinsky and Marc both painted the end of the world and even wrote poetry about the end of time, but their end is more of a spiritual apocalypse, a collapse of a psychological state of yearning for a better world. Their paintings, rendered on the verge of a conflict, reflected the social uneasiness and cultural impetus towards an event or events that would end the ordered world of international exchange among the artistic fraternity. In Berlin, the dis-ease was more related to the social, cultural and political changes rippling across the capital. The “apocalypse” in all of these poems was material and real, just as Meidner’s landscapes were illustrative and representative of imagined horrors to come–the destruction of cities (Berlin) and perhaps the future to come.

Alfred Litchtenstein

Some day – I have signs – a mortal storm
Is coming from the far north.
Everywhere is the smell of corpses.
The great killing begins.
The lump of sky grows dark,
Storm-death lifts its clawed paws;
All the lumps fall down,
Mimes burst. Girls explode.
Horses’ stables crash to the ground.
Not a fly can ecape.
Handsome homosexuals roll
Out of their beds.
The walls of houses develop fissures.
Fish rot in the stream.
Everything meets its own disgusting end.
Groaning buses tip over.

Of course, whether referring to poetry or painting, the term “Expressionism” is a highly problematic one and is especially confusing when it is recalled that manifestations of the movement in Germany differed from city to city, from region to region, and from artist to artist. It is safe to say that in Berlin, the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) were appropriated by the artists and poets for their own purposes, while in Dresden his ideas were seized upon for very different reasons. And as has been seen, the situation among artists in Munich was unique to southern Germany. The contrasts were one of political revolution where the Übermensch would overthrow tradition and the elevation of Dionysus, where the irrational and the emotional would overthrow the reasonable and logical, existing among the many interpretations of the writer in a relatively new nation, composed of many principalities. The philosopher was, for the artists in general, a renegade voice, one of the many critical tools that they could pick up in their generational war with the conventional. In its own way, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901) was as powerful an indictment of German society–not to mention a more recent and pertinent critique–as the clarion calls of Nietzsche for an overthrow of the old order. But, according to Neil H. Donahue in his 2005 book A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism, Mann disapproved of Expressionism: “We should recognize however that inherent to the Expressionist tendency in the arts there is an intellectual impetus to do violence to life.”


Ludwig Meidner. Apocalyptic Landscape (1913)

Given the fragmentation of “expressionism” in Germany, the term has limited use. Expressionism, essentially an art dealer designation, today refers to the pre-war period in art and literature. Expressionism in Berlin was more linked to “modernism” than the version of Expressionism in either Dresden or Munich. Modernism, in Berlin, was Janus-faced, both utopian and destructive, laden with the fin-de-siècle pessimism and despair that was an international response to industrialization and the new technology that was both the beginning and end of a new era, the shape of which could not be foreseen–except as struggle and dark madness. Poetry and the paintings of slice of time before the world tilted into the abyss were full of violent forebodings. The posthumously famous poem, War, by Georg Heym became the hallmark of these years of nervousness.



Georg Heym

He is risen now that was so long asleep

Risen out of vaulted places dark and deep.

In the growing dusk the faceless demon stands,

And the moon he crushes in his strong black hands.

In the nightfall noises of great cities fall

Frost and shadow of unfamiliar pall.

And the maelstrom of the markets turns to ice.

Silence grows. They look around. And no one knows.

Something touching them in side-streets makes them quail

Questions. There’s on answer. Someone’s face turns pale.

Far away a peal of church-bells trembles, thin,

Causes beards to tremble around their pointed chins.

On the mountains he’s begun his battle-dance,

Calling: Warriors, up and at them, now’s your chance!

There’s a rattling when he shakes his brute black head

Round which crudely hang the skulls of countless dead.

Like a tower he tramples out the dying light.

Rivers are brim-full of blood by fall of night.

Legion are the bodies laid out in the reeds,

Covered white with the strong birds of death.

Ever on he drives the fire and nightward-bound,

To the screams that come from wild mouths, a red hound.

Out of darkness springs the black domain of Nights,

Edges weirdly lit up by volcanic lights.

Pointed caps unnumbered, flickering, extend

Over the satanic plains from end to end.

And he casts allfleeing things down on the roads

Into fiery forests where the swift flame roars.

Forests fall to the consuming flames in sheaves,

Yellow bats whose jagged fangs claw at the leaves.

Like a charcoal burner in the trees he turns

His great poker, making them more fiercely burn.

A great city quietly sank in yellow smoke,

Hurled itself down into that abysmal womb.

But gigantic over glowing ruins stands

He who thrice at angry heavens shakes his brand.

Over storm-torn clouds’ reflected livid glow

At cold wastelands of dead darkness down below.

That his hellfire may consumer this night of horror

He pours pitch and brimstone down on their Gomorrha.

Translated by Patrick Bridgwater

It would be Ludwig Meidner who would bring these poetic visions of death and destruction to material life in painting over the few years that were left before an actual war made the violence very real.

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

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

[email protected]

New Objectivity in German Art

New Objectivity

New Theories of Painting in Germany, 1920s

The Great War ended with the notorious Treaty of Versailles, a treaty, which inflicted humiliating reparations upon the German peoples, leaving them with feelings of despair and anger and a stunned disbelief. Germany had not been invaded, Berlin had not fallen, there had been no victory parades by the allies down the wide expanse of the Unter den Linden—so how could the war have been lost? The fact that there were few young and fit men left to fight was not nearly as resonant as the notion that somehow Germany had been sold out. Instead of fighting on, the reasoning went, powerful forces negotiated with the allies and made a peace that the German people would never have wanted. Just who was responsible for this horrifying turn of events was unclear but the favorite theory was that the Jews were responsible for the defeat.

Regardless of why Germany lost the war, the Kaiser went into exile and a new Republic, based in the university city of Weimer, was formed. The Weimer Republic emerged after the November Revolution of 1918 and presided over one of the most brilliant creative periods of artistic activity of the century. A weak and divided government, riven with clashing factions, uprisings, assassinations and economic chaos, nevertheless held the country together until the final victory of Nazi rule in 1933. Had Charles Dickens been writing of this tumultuous period he surely would have repeated, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, the streets of major German cities were marked by the presence of disabled and maimed veterans, desperate women, prostituting themselves in order to earn a living, businessmen grown fat with profiteering, and disaffected malcontents of all kinds. But, on the other hand, in the face of the adversity and the corruption and downright decadence, especially in Berlin, this city became the mecca for what was left of the avant-garde as a provocative protest movement.

It was noted in an earlier posts that first, the avant-garde impetus had been quelled in Paris by the sentiments of Recall to Order and second, that Surrealism was a conservative movement that went inward into the subconscious. The innovative impulse shifted to literature and jazz. Because the history of art in the twentieth century has been largely a formalist one, the avant-garde in Berlin was often neglected due to its insistence on representation. But it was here in Berlin that painting became confrontational to the point of artists being censored and put on trial by the government. It was here in Berlin that a tired and discredited Expressionism migrated into a thriving and exciting film industry nurturing the talents of Fritz Lang. It was here in Berlin that the concept of “theater” was severed from its connection to illusionism through the work of Bertold Brecht. It was here that German philosophy reinvented itself for a modern era based upon mass communication in the writings of Walter Benjamin. And it was here that the visual arts had an unexpected and unprecedented flowering as a “New Objectivity.”

As a counterweight to the Expressionist romanticism and internalized and dramatized subjectivity, German artists, disillusioned and sickened by the carnage of the Great War, turned towards an art that was clear and clean, objective and cool, utilitarian and functional—a “New Objectivity.” As painter Ludwig Meidner said in 1919, “What will matter tomorrow, what I and all the others need, is a fanatical, fervent naturalism.” “Naturalism,” “realism,” and the increasingly heard phrase, “rappel à l’ordre,” were the key words of the era. The new path towards representation, or to be accurate, the use of representation to recreate an imagine “reality” had already been evident with the Italian movement, Pitture Metafisica and the works of Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà as early as 1917, and by the artists of the Novecento group (Achille Funi, Mario Sironi, Udaldo Oppi, Felice Castoraati), founded in Milan in 1922. The Italian magazine, Valori Plastici supported the return of neoclassicism, combined with traditional realism and mixed together to provide a taste of dreams. But in Germany, this new objective approach to art had a particular urgency. The representation of reality had to take a different path. The truth had to be told. If artists simply reveled the true state and conditions of everyday life, then the nation would never again be misled into another futile, life-wasting war.

While Italian artists were reacting to the chaos of Futurism which evolved into Fascism, the German artists were responding to the end of the War with a mixture of cynicism and hope for a better future and focused their goals on the obtainable ones of the here and now. The result of the new scrutiny of the everyday, whether pleasant or unpleasant, was a movement located and named in 1922 by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunstalle in Mannheim, who sent out a survey inquiring as to whether there is “Ein neuer Naturalismus?” In May, 1923 he began informing his fellow art critics of the new exhibition he was planning to form under the title of Neue Sachlichkeit in Mannheim. Hartlaub arranged the artists of this new movement into bipolar groups: the conservative, classical right wing and the truth-telling Verist group on the left that came to the New Objectivity from Dada and Expressionism. Hartlaub’s exhibition in 1925 was paired by a book on Post-Expressionism and Magic Realism by Franz Roh. Writing in Nach-Expressionismus – magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäisches Malerei, Roh coined the term “magic realism.”

Although “magic realism” was almost immediately adapted by Latin American writers for their own purposes, Roh described the term as being deeply rooted in “objects.” Roh stated,

“We will indicate here, in a cursory way, the point at which the new painting separates itself from Expressionism by means of its objects…it resorts to the everyday and the commonplace for the purpose of distancing it, investing it with a shocking exoticism…if a picture portrayed a city, for example, it represented the destruction produced by volcanic lava and not just a play of forms the booty of an agitated cubism…We recognize this world, although now—not only because we have emerged from a dream—we look on it with new eyes…we are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane…instead of the remote horrors of hell, the inextinguishable horrors of our own time (Grosz and Dix)…”

Roh seems to veer toward some of the ideas offered by Dada when he uses the term “convulsive life,” but he was actually looking back to the long traditions in German art of imbuing ordinary objects with meaning, a kind of symbolic knowledge, and the heritage of extreme expressionism as a mechanism for telling the truth, no matter how terrible. The Isenheim Altarpiece comes to mind, and Roh states,

“…the new art does not belong to the series of initial artistic phases that includes Expressionism. It is a moment of decantation and clarification that was fortunate enough to find right at the start an almost exhausted artistic revolution that had begun to discover new avenues…Post-Expressionism sought to reintegrate reality into the heart of visibility. The elemental happiness of seeing again, or recognizing things, reenters. Painting becomes once again the mirror or palpable exteriority.”

Despite the strength of the new movement, few galleries and art dealers in Berlin, Herwarth Walden’s Sturm Galerie and the galleries of Bruno Cassirer and Alfred Flechtheim were not particularly interested in the emerging art style. Only the gallery Neumann-Nierendorf, run by Karl Nierendorf, favored New Objectivity. As examination of the art by the New Objectivity artists quickly reveals that there would be few buyers for art that brutally depicted the ugliness of the world of prostitutes and their customers, Otto Dix, or the attack on ineffectual bureaucrats, George Grosz, or the decadence of the upper classes in Berlin, Christian Schad and Max Beckman, not to mention the fevered murder scenes of Rudolf Schlichter and the paintings of torture and torment by Max Beckmann. These artists constructed a portrait of an era that blazed up and was quickly doused by the icy waters of the Nazis. And yet, it is these paintings that come to mind when one says the words “Weimer Republic.” The portraits of Otto Dix appear throughout the film, Cabaret, and the metamorphosis of George Grosz to a war dissenter to a Dada agitator to a scathing critic of the inept regime to an exile in New York, waiting for the end of Hitler, tell the story of these “best of times, worst of times.”

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

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

[email protected]