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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Jacob Epstein and The Rock Drill

Jacob Epstein:

Taylorism and Masculinity on the Eve of the Great War

The origins of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913) and its meanings have been historically confused by two historical coincidences: the date of execution is the same as that of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, his first ready made and the year 1913 is the last year before the Great War. Another complicating factor was the shocking Futurist Exhibition of 1912 at the genteel Sackville Gallery. While the presence of Futurism was very impactful for a number of British artists, Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) kept his distance, according to some of the most recent research on the artist by Jonathan Lee Crenshaw, the artist declared that the Futurist manifesto was “silly gospel.” Apparently unimpressed, he elaborated, “..these Italian charlatans were welcomed with open arms..” But a year later, the sculptor produced a visionary cyborg man-machine, an industrialized non-human made of old fashioned plaster. The mechanized male clutches at an actual drill, appropriated by Epstein who undoubtedly built the plaster form to fit the powerful tool. Despite the fact that a sketch of the drill was shown in 1913, the finished sculpture was not exhibited until 1915 at the Goupil Gallery. Apparently the delay in exhibiting the work was Epstein’s desire to make it a kinetic work. He said, “I had thought of attaching pneumatic power to my rock drill, and setting in motion, thus completing every potentiality of form and movement in one work..” but this idea was discarded and the figure was exhibited mute and silent and menacing. The contrast between the white plaster figure, matte in tone and texture, and the shiny black drill emphasized the human-machine contrast, while connecting the incompatibles remorselessly.


In light of his earlier works, the nude males, marching along the Medical Frieze of the British Medical Association Building on the Strand and the censored and mutilated Winged Angel/Sphinx marking the tomb of Oscar Wilde, the Rock Drill is an emphatically phallic and signifies masculine drive towards violence and destruction and perhaps procreation: the need to create and destroy. The literature of the period, perhaps predictive of the coming war, glorified masculinity and heroism. As the work of Epstein exemplified, the ideal male was young and Greco-Roman in his shining moment of beauty. It was this glow of glorious youth as a social trope that made the scything of the bright young men in the War such a poignant tragedy. But the perfected male was classed, an epitome available only for the upper classes who engaged in “sport.” The British experience with the Boer War had highlighted the poor health of lower class males and their unfitness for the rigors of war. Epstein’s figure was not just masculine, it was decidedly working class, large and strong and, as British critics rarely pointed out, American, a point that will be elaborated upon later.


Epstein’s hyper-masculine machine was a bitter answer to the classical male nude–a stunning updating of the Neo-Classical male nude. It was probably an anomaly for its time and, given the fact that Epstein later destroyed the sculpture, out of step for his own inclinations. By time the Rock Drill was made public, the Great War had begun and had shown itself to be a war of the future indeed, a war in which as Siegfried Giedion would later intone, “mechanism takes command.” The standard interpretation of what happened next rests upon the tragic death of the very promising artist, also a sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Breszka (1891-1915), who was killed in 1915. His death was announced in BLAST by Ezra Pound:

Mort Pour la Patrie. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: After months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed at a charge at Neuville St. Vaast, on June 5th, 1915.

In his biography of the young artist in 1916, Pound wrote,

It is part of the war waste. Among many good artists, among other young men of promise there was this one sculptor already great in achievement at the age of twenty three, incalculably great in promise and in the hopes of his friends.

Almost at once after the death of Gaudier-Breszka, Epstein dismantled the horrifying vision of the future of humankind, harassed to machines, amputating its long legs, removing the drill, leaving a stunted trunk and futile bent arms, handless, overseen by a twisted visored head. It is this dismembered helpless 1916 version of Rock Drill that appears in all art history books, often with no indication that it is not really a complete work but a fragment of something that no longer existed. The pathos of the destruction of the plaster figure was disguised somewhat by the bronze casting of the leftover thought. All that was left of a towering and frightening prediction of things to come, was a small and castrated broken machine, no longer a man, no longer a machine, just broken toy.


Epstein’s interpretations of his own work emerged later, decades after the war, distilled and assembled into discernible meaning, often reading backwards and spoken through the War. Richard Cork, the authority on Vorticism, stated that by 1918, Epstein had a complete breakdown, a situation that undoubtedly conditioned his explanations of his pre-war work. In discussing the Rock Drill in his autobiography, Epstein said,

It was in the experimental pre-war days of 1913 that I was fired to do the rock drill and my ardour for machinery (short-lived) expended itself upon the purchase of an actual drill, second-hand, and upon this I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity,only the terrible Frankenstein’ s monster we have made ourselves into.”

Indeed in an interview given in 1931, Epstein stated,

The Rock Drill is not entirely abstract. It is a conception of a thing I knew well in New York and in my feeling of that thing as a living entity, translated in terms of sculpture. It is a thing prophetic of much in the great war and as such within the experience of nearly all, and it has therefore very definite human associations.

The reference to New York probably refers to his time in the city, drilling foundations for the buildings to come. Although his time working with a drill, 1900-1901, was brief, Epstein certainly had experience with the machine and understood how the laborer had to struggle to first learn how to use the drill, then to control it and finally to master it. The Drill is such a powerful being with a strident life of its own that it must be constantly cajoled into partnership. But on whose terms? Andrew Causey in his 2010 article,

Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill: Man and Machine,” wrote that “The Rock Drill..reflected increasing anxiety at the role of machines in everyday life and the demotion of industrial workers to the level of mechanicals. As craft worker and tool were replace by men who no longer enjoyed independence of action but became instead mere minders of machines, and were machines on the way to becoming independent agents?

Causey, like Crenshaw, situated Rock Drill in procreation, as if the nine foot high statue was claiming the artist-creator role, with the artist, man, machine playing multiple roles of father-mother. However, by far the most poetic and powerful analysis of this work comes from Antony Gormley, who described “the man-made-man, riding technology, that is intent on splitting the earth.” The great British sculptor, who uses his own body as the template for all of his figures, noted that the power of the Academy, even well into the twentieth century was still very impactful and perhaps it was this lingering and moribund tradition of “simpering,” as Gormley put it, male nudes that Epstein finally tore himself away form with Rock Drill. Due to his interaction with Brancusi in Paris when he was completing the commission on Oscar Wilde’s tomb and his experience of the non-Western sculptures at the Trocadero, Epstein was able to re-conceive the male body in a more fundamental or “potent” fashion, honed down to one powerful need, procreation as symbolized by the drill-penis, with a “strong sexual charge.” Gormley, a defender of this now obscure artist, stressed his technique of direct carving and this “radical” move into modernism that far exceeded anything that was being done with sculpture at this time. At the same time, Epstein explored the basic poles of life: sexuality and death, found perhaps in African works, moving beyond Picasso’s formal reading of the same tribal art.


However, as much Epstein changed as the result to his Parisian education at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts and as much as his experience in London turned him into an English citizen, he was an American by origin and there are definite links between his country of origin and Rock Drill. In the year 1948, Siegfried Giedion published Mechanization Take Command in which he examined the history of how labor became wedded to the machine, particularly through the assembly line process. As early as the eighteenth century, workers had to conform to the rhythms and speeds of the operations of moving parts, whether of a particular machine or the organization of the factory itself. The question of how to unite humans and machines so that the disparate entities could operate with maximum efficiency was solved in the late nineteenth century by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), who founded the field of scientific management. Taylor, an engineer for Bethlehem Steel Works in Pittsburgh, where he began what Giedion called

a through analysis of a work process. Everything superfluous must go, for the sake efficiency and, as Taylor is ever stressing, for the easing of labor, its functional performance. Work should be done easily ands far as possible without fatigue. But always behind this lies the constant goal to which the period was magically drawn production, greater production at any price. The human body is studied how far it can be transformed into a machine.

But what is truly interesting is the next passage written by Giedion: “Taylor once constructed a great steam hammer, whose parts were so finely calculated that the elasticity of its molecular forces served to heighten its efficiency.” But Giedion did not elaborate any further. For an understanding of this “steam hammer” it is necessary to read a contemporary account of this machine. Taylor died in 1915, and, after this death, a series of “addresses” were given in his honor in March and October. These accounts of the life and career of Taylor and his philosophy of the efficiency of labor, called “Taylorism,” were published in 1920. Included in this volume was a “Letter from Wm. A. Fannon,” who discussed Taylor’s redesign of the steam hammer, a huge press that was critical to the forging of steel. The first steam hammer dated back to the 1840s and, from that time forward, the huge multi-storied structure straddled the floor of the mill and pounded steel. As Fannon related,

It was a well known fact up to that time, that the design of all steam hammers had been along certain lines. This design was such that, the hammer being of a rigid frame, it would in time, through the jar of the operation, crack and break up the frame of the hammer itself. There was also the need of a hammer capable of working forgings of a larger size than had hitherto been attempted. So, in order to build a more durable hammer, and one which would overcome this serious defect of the rigid frame, Mr. Taylor designed one which was unique in its plan and flexibility. It was similar to jointed spider legs, and it had a stretch and coil like a spiral spring. With the piston and head, this hammer weighed twenty-five tons, and then the steam was let into the cylinder on top, it struck a blow of seventy-five tons.

The reinvention and redesign of the steel hammer at Nicetown’s Midvale Steel suggested to Taylor that human motions and their sequence could also be reconfigured. Alan Briskin in his 1998 book Stirring of Soul in the Workplace noted that the

..steam hammer not only worked at three times the speed of similar steam hammers but also didn’t wear out as quickly..His most important discovery was that the resiliency of the machine depended on the elasticity of the parts during motion. The hammer was mounted on an apparatus resembling steel spider’s legs that absorbed the power of each blow. In this way, he was able to keep the hammer snapping back into proper alignment The lesson would not be lost when he later devised processes for human labor: the redesign of work processes was also to account for human fatigue..With the utmost conviction, Taylor was discovering the most efficient ways to turn the human body into a mechanism.

Aside from the description of the Taylor’s steel hammer resembling the design of Epstein’s Rock Drill, the sequence from re-designing a machine for more effectiveness and more resilience led to the re-thinking of how the human being physically carried out his or her own job. The worker was timed with a stop watch and reprogramed to work not just better but faster, leading to greater work productivity. According to Daniel Sidorick at Rutgers University,

..he first used a stopwatch to gauge the performance of machine tools, but he soon applied the same techniques to measure the motions of human workers. As Taylor formulated and refined his approach to scientific management at a succession of companies in the Philadelphia region from the late 1870s to the early 1900s, he increasingly regarded workers as elements of the production process. In his view, their actions could be precisely molded, with the right incentive schemes, by a new type of management that left no leeway for personal discretion.

As incentives to cooperate with his theories, Taylor, who moved on to Bethlehem Steel, increased workers’ wages, if they performed as required. The result was an elevation in industrial production and an increased equation between humans and machines. The steam hammer possessed the thin and flexible legs of an organism, a man with legs open and flexed, allowing it to absorb the hammer’s blows.


Epstein’s man was operating another version of the steam hammer, literally becoming the “spider legs” part of the hammer, flexing and absorbing the blows of the drill which hammered into the rock. The principle of the drill was the same as the principle of the hammer. In his book, written in 1913, the same year as Rock Drill was created, Compressed Air Practice, Frank Richards assured the reader that rock drills “are built to be operated some by compressed air and some by steam..The rock drill is only a smaller steam hammer..” This section of the book appeared earlier in a 1907 article Richards published in a trade periodical, published in Pittsburgh, called The Industrial World.


A few years later in 1910 Eustace M. Weston, wrote in Rock Drills: Design, Construction and Use,

The rock drill with its hundreds of crushing blows per minute, doing the work of ten or twenty men, came to help the minder extract bodies of low-grad ore: to enable the engineer attack problems undreamed of before..Twenty to thirty thousand rock drills are at work in the world today..Cheap roads, paving,and building, cheap rail and transportation and low-priced metals, we owe largely to the rock drills, and even in death the rock drill helps to provide our graves with head stones. This might reminds us that the history of the rock drill has something of tragedy and terror connected with it. In many mining fields the standard percussive rock drill is not operated without the cost of valuable human lives.

In other words, there is another direction for research and scholarship to investigate: the rock drill itself, which, as it turns out, a long and lively history. For example in 1891 in England The Institution of Mechanical Engineers published their proceeding which included reports on the rock drill, noting its close association with the steam hammer, and continuing with an account of a completion of numerous designs of rock drills. The existence of a copious amount of research and surprisingly rich amount of writing on a common industrial tool, the rock drill, does not necessarily suggest that Jacob Epstein or the members of his circle were aware of the history of the rock drill, but the drill was of vital importance in the two most industrialized nations in the world, England and America.


In addition, it was an American engineer, Frederick Taylor, who rethought the worker and saw this worker, not as as human but as a machine. In the end it is not important to what extent Jacob Epstein was conversant with the minutiae of rock drill history, the symbolism of the drill and how the visual and physical joining of the man and the machine signified the loss of humanity for laborers in the twentieth century. Although “Taylorism” would take many decades and two wars to be absorbed into the workplace, both blue and white collar, Epstein was prescient in intuiting the paradoxical redefining of masculinity when a man put his hands on a machine.


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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Forgotten Movement: Vorticism in England

Welcome to the Vortex

One hundred years before Europe began to industrialize and enter into the modern age, England was already totally involved in what would be called the Industrial Revolution. This Revolution, one of those rare historical events that change everything, actually began in Great Britain and visitors from Europe who wanted to see the future had only to walk the streets of London. writing for Georgian Britain Michael White recounted the rapid transformation of a rural society in a mere few decades of the eighteenth century.

Constant power was now available to drive the dazzling array of industrial machinery in textiles and other industries, which were installed up and down the country. New ‘manufactories’ (an early word for ‘factory’) were the result of all these new technologies. Large industrial buildings usually employed one central source of power to drive a whole network of machines. Richard Arkwright’s cotton factories in Nottingham and Cromford, for example, employed nearly 600 people by the 1770s, including many small children, whose nimble hands made light-work of spinning. Other industries flourished under the factory system. In Birmingham, James Watt and Matthew Boulton established their huge foundry and metal works in Soho, where nearly 1,000 people were employed in the 1770s making buckles, boxes and buttons, as well as the parts for new steam engines.

A hundred and fifty years later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Great Britain was at the top of the world, dominating all other European nations and yet, perhaps because of a preoccupation with empire building and industrial might, lagging behind in the arts. The facts and figures tell the tale: by 1900 85% of the population lived in towns, London alone had four and a half million inhabitants, and in 1914, England a tiny island, had amassed a great empire, covering one fifth of the earth. The social and psychological instinct in the face of such rapid metamorphosis was to retreat into the past and the British public, after some initial hesitation, embraced the brilliant narrative paintings of the Pre-Raphaelistes and spent the nineteenth century revisiting long lost times. But by the second decade of the twentieth century, the bill for industrialization and empire had come due–the culture had to reckon with its own modernity. The world, Ezra Pound, asserted had fallen into a vortex and, he wrote in 1914, “The vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.” The best way to explain the vortex that was the past and the future breaking apart was an art that confronted the machine itself–Vorticism.

After a century of decorous exchanges with the Royal Academy, the British art scene could look back to the rebellions of James Whistler (1834-1903), an American expatriate artist, who went his own way as an avatar of the fin-de-siècle avant-garde. However, ten years after Whistler’s death, for London, Post Impressionism was considered the avant-garde. These daring artists, led by Walter Sickert (1860-1944), congregated decorously in “groups,”the Camden Town Group and the London Group. These British Post-Impressionists stopped short of the shores of Cubism but dappled with a careful cross-breeding of English artists and continental artists of the same era. For example, Sickert combined Whistler and Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who were friends in real life, and sprinkled in some early twentieth century touches from Paris with his psychologically penetrating portraits of Edwardian life. Sickert had lived in Dieppe until 1906 and surely knew of current Parisian movement, yet when he returned to London to preside over a small group of progressive artists, such as young Spencer Gore (1878-1914) in his studio on Fitzroy Street, he remained affiliated with a Whistlerian version of Post-Impressionism. The “Fitzroy Street Group” evolved into an independent exhibiting society which evolved into the “Camden Town Group” which became the “London Group.” It was just this sort of belated and backward response to modernity that infuriated yet another element of London’s small avant-garde world, a handful of young men and women who would decisively break away from the languor of Edwardian England–the Vorticists.

In the summer of 2011, the Tate Museum acknowledged the only British avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century in the exhibition, The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World. Earlier that year, the Guggenheim Venice presented the first show on Vorticism in Italy, The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-1918, its title underscoring the fact that many of the prominent figures in the movement were of English-American-Canadian origin. The exhibition traveled to the Tate Britain, completing its odyssey through time, returning home. This comeback, after a century of being ignored, underscores the fact that “Vorticism,” as a movement, scarcely figures in the annals of modern art. For nearly a century this strange and seminal movement, so indicative of its own time, was overlooked by art history. The swan song of Vorticism happened in New York at the Penguin Club where the art was exhibited in the winter of 1917, just as America was busy entering the Great War–not the best time for an art show. Then in 1956 the Tate attempted to set the record straight by presenting Wyndam Lewis and Vorticism, but the public was uninterested. Perhaps the bombastic attitude of Lewis who said, “Vorticism was what I personally said or did at a certain period,” dampened enthusiasm, especially since the movement’s founder, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) had been associated with proto-Fascism. During the fifties, the art critics were hostile to Lewis and artists were looking towards the continent, particularly to Paris for guidance. Vorticism languished in the shadows.

Not until 1976 did the great British historian, Richard Cork, did a substantive account of the ill-fated avant-garde movement emerge. Today, Cork’s Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age: Origins and Development, Volume I and Volume II can be purchased for hundreds of dollars. This large project was preceded by the author’s 1974 book, Vorticism and its Allies, the catalogue of an exhibition of an exhibition at the Hayward. The fact that there have been exhibitions is significant because, according to Cork, much of the art made during those few years is missing. Reprising his role as the chief chronicler of this obscure moment in art, Richard Cork appeared at the Venice Guggenheim in January of 2011 speaking on The Scandalous Epstein, a discussion of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. According to Cork in 1976, Vorticism was “an indigenous form of English abstraction,” which reacted to the age of machines, now dominating the world. But unlike the Futurists who were the midwives, so to speak, of Vorticism, the British artists did not worship the machine: they knew and feared it.


William Roberts. The Vorticists at the Restaurant Tour de la Eiffel, Paris: Spring, 1915

Before the arrival of the Futurists at the Sackville Gallery in the spring of 1912, the English art world enjoyed a comfortable art world, divided between the academic world of the tried and true old masters and the Pre-Raphaelites and the local proponents of Post-Impressionism, the Bloomsbury Group and the Camden Town artists. In terms of art, nothing of note was happening; in terms of literature, everything was pending with Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) three years away from publishing her first novel. But she was alert to the significance of the work of her colleague Roger Fry (1866-1934). In 1910 Fry mounted Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries and, in her essay, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf famously remarked ”On or about December 1910 human character changed.” She was comparing the pervasive mode for Victorian writing with the coming of a modern form of writing: ”Able by nature to spin sentence after sentence melodiously,” she wrote, ”they seem to have left out nothing that they knew how to say. Our ambition, on the other hand, is to put in nothing that need not be there. What we want to be there is the brain and the view of life; the autumnal woods, the history of the whale fishery and the decline of stage coaching we omit entirely.” Woolf’s comparison could be made not just between an old and new approach to writing fiction but also to the modern determination to sweep away the realist details of the visual arts to uncover something more essential and expressive.

In 1910, the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries work up the dormant art world. The horrified reaction of the Londoners over and exhibition of long dead artists well-known in France is both amusing and a measurement of how far out of step the art world in England had become. The London News was typical of the strong array of responses: “some who point the finger of scorn, some who are in blank amazement or stifle the loud guffaw; some who are angry; some who sleep.” The year 1912 must have been an even greater shock, given that the Futurists, famously provocative and confrontational, appeared in March and the year closed with Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist exhibition. Virginia Woolf, who stood strongly by Fry who faced scorn and ridicule recalled that “every now and then some red-faced gentleman, oozing the undercut of the best beef and the most succulent of chops, carrying his top hat and grey suede gloves, would come up to my table and abuse the pictures and me with the greatest rudeness.”

For the next two years, Futurism and Post-Impressionism, English style, co-existed in London, and while it was true that both movements were multimedia, involved with experimental literature, art and décor and fashion, they were poles apart, representing different centuries. Nevertheless the future Vorticist artists were nurtured in the Omega Workshops of Roger Fry, who worked with the London elite, redecorating their once-stuffy Victorian parlors with brightly colored fabrics and hand-painted furniture and light colors inspired by Post-Impressionist art. It is hard to imagine the strong minded Wyndham Lewis and the creative Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) working in harmony with Fry, who was the undisputed boss; and, indeed, these artists were dismayed to find themselves in a collective where their work was not properly credited. It was an argument over credit for the work done for the “Post-Impressionist Room,” staged for the Daily Mail’s “Ideal Home Exhibition” in 1913 that caused the generational break.

Led by Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), the disgruntled artists seceded from Omega and set up their own organization, the Rebel Art Centre, headquartered at a house on Great Ormond Street. Here gatherings were held, lectures were given, harangues were delivered, and, incidentally, some art was made by the breakaway artists, Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Edward Wadsworth, Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), and Kate Lechmere. Inspired by the Futurists, the Vorticists recognized the need to be of one’s own time but were uninterested in the Italians’ obsession with movement. The Futurists understood modernism through its manifestations, its toys, its objects, all the things that went boom and swoosh. The Vorticist artists understood the links between technology and the machine and mechanics and dynamism and knew that the force behind runaway unstoppable industrialization was energy. This energy, symbolized by the vortex, was caught in the dialectic between the lingering Victorianism that clung to England and the omnipresent force driving technological progress.


But the most remarkable artifact that emerged from the house on Ormond Street were the two issues of the publication, BLAST, in capital letters, like everything the Vorticists did. The magazine was published only twice, the first issue appeared on the eve of the War in July of 1914 and the second publication, the “War Number” came out a year later, announcing the death of the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1881-1915), one of the original Vorticists. Gaudier-Brzeska, like so many of the young men who went off to this War was killed at war in the trenches, dying of senselessness. The dual issues of BLAST railed against polite English society at a time when its traditions were dying in fields in Belgium and France and after 1915, the publication quietly closed and the artists, now scattered by the war, translated the vocabulary of Cubism and the lines of force borrowed from Cubism into the Vorticist language that could evolve from an edgy abstraction to a compelling picture of the Great War.

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

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Imagining The Great War, Part One

The Coming Apocalypse: Kandinsky and Marc

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

Philip Larkin. MCMXIV (1964)

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

The world of art was ruptured as well.

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

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

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

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

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


Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[email protected]