Art of the Weimar Republic: The German People as Subjects, Part Two


George Grosz as “Hanswurst”

Even thought Dada dissolved in Berlin and the Dada perpetrators went their separate ways, one of the former members, George Grosz (1893-1959) never lost his disgust for Germany and for the German people. His art and his autobiography indicate little joy or satisfaction in his post-war life. Grosz did not celebrate his good fortune at surviving the Great War intact and unharmed, instead, he railed against those who profited from going to war–the industrialists–and those who supported the drive to conflict–the clergy and the press–without considering the ramifications. Grosz turned his baleful eye towards to German people who had blindly stumbled into a disaster that destroyed their honor. A left-wing artists, he considered Germans ugly, fat and stupid, turning away from the very real social issues confronting the Weimar Republic and giving in to the decadent pleasures made possible by a relaxing of Wilhemine restrictions. The targets of George Grosz are the “ordinary Germans,” the average bourgeois man, who is more likely than not to be involved in some kind of nefarious business deal, and his female companions, usually the lowest of prostitutes. Both are carriers of corruption and are metaphors for the internal rot within the German heart.

Nowhere does his horror for the sights and scenes he witnessed on the streets of Berlin rise to the fore than in George Grosz’s masterwork, Ecce Homo. This scathing series of eighty-four prints in color and in black and white was published by Malik-Verlag in 1923. The press founded by Grosz and John Heartfield became the target for more than one lawsuit over the merciless art of Grosz, who, along with Heartfield were the two most single-minded and remorseless critics of the pretensions of the Weimar Republic. Ecce Homo left no pillar of German society untouched; in the eyes of Grosz all were guilty and all were implicated in the ugly war and its aftermath. From its earliest days, the Weimar Republic had grappled with revolutions, a political coup, economic upheaval, dissident complaints on the left and right, and was, therefore, short tempered when it came to disturbing the peace. And George Grosz was a deliberate disturber and a serial disturber. The prints had short descriptions–two or three words–indicating that Grosz was speaking to an audience of fellow Germans, probably Berliners, who would recognize his “types” of immoral humanity, as the people they passed on the streets. The title, Ecce Homo, suggested a Biblical seriousness to the collection of prints, with a reference to the Suffering Christ, dragged before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, beaten and whipped and publically humiliated, crowned with a circle of mocking thorns. Thus, the question is raised–who is the Christ that is referred to? It is known that the phrase “ecce homo” means “Behold, the man!” both words and a gesture from Pilate, who appealed to the mob baying for a death. It is unclear, however, what Pilate meant. Was he mocking the would-be god who suffered like a mortal human or was he pleading with the crowd to show some pity and some mercy towards a harmless misguided country boy who had come to the big city with outsized ideas? Historically speaking, it is unlikely such a drama took place, for the Roman Empire routinely crucified any subject who, in any way, threatened its power. The Empire ruled through terror and terror is not effective unless it is complete and sweeps up all in its path, from major political opposition to minor Jewish men claiming to be a “son of God.”

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo: The Presentation of Christ (1498)

The meaning of Ecce Homo in the work of George Grosz was more than likely related, not to the Bible, but to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose autobiography was titled Ecce Homo. Neither Nietzsche nor Grosz takes the role of Pilate, and, under Nietzsche, for whom God is dead, the idea of “behold, the man” shifted from a man who is suffering to a man who disrupted the status quo. In section 25 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche wrote with his characteristic exaggerations and flourishes,

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God!”… “Whither is God?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.”.. “ God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

Nietzsche and his nihilism inspired the Dada artists in Zurich and in Berlin to accept a wartime loss of faith and hope. But Nietzsche himself regarded the realization that God was dead, except in the minds of traditionalists, could be liberating. The individual had no purpose, no reason for being: he or she simply exists without teleology or direction. No longer living for a “greater good,” the person is both innocent and liberated, beholding to no values and owning no morals, except those that one chooses to accept or to create. In other words, the philosopher embraced life, a life freed from belief systems that had once constructed and constrained it. Nietzsche rejected all that was morbid or obsessed with death and suffering and embraced the spirit of joy or Dionysus, the emotional and the alternative to reason. According to Ray Furness in his introduction to Nietzsche’s three works, Twilight of the Idols with the Antichrist and Ecce Homo, Ecce Homo was written in three weeks in 1888. In effect, the philosopher is saying “look at me” “behold” and claims to be the fool whose carnivalesque literary antics disrupt the foundations of German culture and philosophical reason. Nietzsche is some kind of holy fool, who refuses to be a saint or someone who thoughtless goes along with the received wisdom and adds to the blinding of society to its true nature. He is an outsider, a jester, and the fool, suggesting that these performers and certain child-like figures are the truth tellers of society. There is an inversion in Nietzsche that harkens back to Ecce Homo, suggesting that the powerless have the power of revelation and that the powerful can never reveal and are, therefore, powerless.

When George Grosz decided to do a series of prints, he was not only taking advantage of modern mass media and the possibilities of wide distribution he was also following the tradition of printmaking that was quintessentially German. Borrowing from Durer and Schongauer and even from his immediate predecessors, the Expressionists from Dresden, Grosz found the medium of printmaking to be an answer to the religious images of the Renaissance artists and the hopeful hedonism of the young Die Brücke artists. In an interesting presentation for the Tate Museum in 2010, Christine Battersby wrote “The Sublime Object ‘Behold the Buffon:’ Dada, Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo and the Sublime.” The “buffoon” she referred to is a character from German theater, not the high or artistic theater but the Teutonic equivalent of vaudeville. This character was named “Hanswurst,” a low peasant character, a Medieval buffoon, named after a sausage. In her article, “Fools Festooned with Foods,” Henriette Kassay-Schuster wrote that Hanswurst was the counterpart to Pickelhering come from the carnival culture. The Sausage, freely eaten before Lent must give way to the Herring during the season of waiting and fasting. Thus sausage and herring were “typical carnival foods” and were on the “side of excess and pleasure.” Hanswurst possessed a “Bakhtinian grotesque body” and embodiment of the “temptations of the flesh.” “Hanswurst manifests in the emergent seventeenth-century professional German theater as a specific German adaptation of Italian performance traditions, channeled through the theater style of the professional commedia dell’arte ensembles.” As Kassay-Schuster pointed out in the 2016 book, Food and Theatre on the World Stage, “Hanswurst” is a combination of a first name and a cheap and common food, and that “obscenities (both verbal and physical), acrobatics, physical comedy, and musical interludes” were the key ingredients that made improvisational comedy of this character so popular in presenting “man as animal.”

By the eighteenth century, “Hanswurst” “gained a very specific profile..As he is largely known today, in his brightly colored peasant clothing consisting of the trademark baggy yellow trousers, red suspenders, red jacket, and pointy green hat, offset by a white ruff, a broad leather belt, and the signature wooden sword.” It was the Austrian performers who pioneered the character and passed the buffoon on to the German culture, which also had a fifteenth-century folk tradition of the “Hanswurst” caricature that made the Austrian theatrical creation familiar and easy to assimilate. One hundred years later, Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo: “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy. I do not want to be a holy man; sooner even a buffoon (Hanswurst).–Perhaps I am a buffoon.” In his book, No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt, Andreas Höfele suggested that the buffoon is a role, played by both Hamlet and Nietzsche as a sort of disguise, concealing their ultimate goals. Hanswurst and suffering are combined with cynicism. Höfele noted that Nietzsche wrote that Ecce Homo was a kind of “cynicism that will make history.”

George Grosz. “In Memory of Richard Wagner.” Ecce Homo (1923)

As Battersby noted, “Hanswurst was a licensed fool who spoke ironically and openly about contemporary affairs.” George Grosz, she stated, “positions himself as a Hanswurst and a counter to the wounded Christ.” In the series of prints, Grosz referred directly to Nietzsche twice, in the Plate “Dämmerung” (Twilight) and to their shared hatred of Wagnerian nationalism and German militarism in the Plate “In Memory of Richard Wagner.” Battersby called “Grosz’s portfolio” “a vicious satire on Germany society, German militarism, and the hypocrisy (especially the sexually driven duplicity) that was acted out on the city streets of Berlin during these years.” She quoted Grosz himself as saying, “All moral codes were abandoned.” Towards the end of her article, which is reprinted as a condensation on the website of the Tate Museum, Battersby remarked that Grosz did not share the affirmation of life that enlivened Nietzsche and his exuberant prose. Instead when he viewed the people of the streets and their public lives, Grosz asked, “What do I see?…only unkempt, fat, deformed, incredibly ugly men and (above all) women, degenerate creatures (although a fat, red, plump, lazy man is here considered to be a ‘stately gentleman’), with bad juices (from beer) and hips that are too fat and short…”

George Grosz. “Dämmerung” (Twilight) Ecce Homo (1923)

Grosz was making art at a very different time in German life–after a humiliating defeat. But the state of German society was far worse than a mere military defeat. Also defeated, as I pointed out in earlier posts, was German Kultur, their sense of identity, of being special, of having a mission born of ethnic superiority. Kultur was discredited and lay in ruins and ashes, like the battlefields where it died. Left without moral and ethnic guides, the Germans acted out, abandoning, as Grosz observed, their Kultur. The 1972 film, Cabaret, based upon Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains) (1945), the main character, Sally Bowles, an American expatriate adrift in Berlin, sang, “Life is a cabaret, my friend, life is a cabaret.” The director and choreographer, Bob Fosse, studied George Grosz and Otto Dix for their iconic images, raided their art and inserted their portraits and their colors into the scenes in the “Kit Kat Klub,” surely a play on KKK. The cabaret is the theatrical version of the carnival, a season in the year when society is given permission to relax and give free rein to their deviant impulses. Those days are a period of inversion: the high are brought low through satire and the low are elevated as the fools and the jesters who are given official and customary permission to speak out about the injustices in society and to point out the faults of the rulers. One of the great scenes in Cabaret is a spontaneous gesture from Joel Gray, the Oscar-winning “Master of Ceremonies,” who was referring a female mud-wrestling contest at the cabaret. The actor dipped into the mud and fittingly swiped his upper lip with mud, mocking Hitler’s mustache, a gesture allowed, briefly, at the lawless domain of the cabaret, the carnival. It is no accident that Adolf Hitler swept through Berlin with a fascistic and authoritarian broom, wiping away all of the establishments where the carnival was in full swing.

But in 1923, Ecce Homo is an illustrated guide to what was an inverted social system, where the war profiteer and the prostitute, the immoral survivors climbed triumphantly from the wreckage. Grosz depicted himself on the cover, suggestively turning his fedora into the hat of the holy fool or the buffoon “Hanswurst’s “pointy green hat.” In a color print featuring Grosz as the disgusted observer, the green is made clear. From his vantage point as the Dada artist who recoiled from his fellow Germans, George Grosz paradoxically produced the definitive group portrait of the Weimar Republic. As he himself wrote of the Republic, “All this had to end with an awful crash. It was a completely negative world, with gaily colored froth on top that many people mistook for the true, the happy Germany before the eruption of the new barbarism. Foreigners who visited us at that time were easily fooled by the apparent light-hearted, whirring fun on the surface, by the nightlife and the so-called freedom and flowering of the arts. But that was really nothing more than froth. Right under that short-lived, lively surface of the shimmering swamp were fratricide and general discord, and regiments were being formed for the final reckoning. Germany seemed to be splitting into two parts that hated each other, as in the saga of the Nibelungs. And we knew all that; or at least we had forebodings.”

The Weimar Republic dragged Grosz into court, accusing him of defaming the German military and of distributing pornography. Although certain plates were destroyed, Grosz and Malik Verlag were eventually acquitted. By 1932, an ascendant Hitler and the Nazis had already taken notice of the acerbic qualities of the artist and, being an excellent observer of his fellow human beings, George Grosz took his family and they all left for America, where he would be teaching at the Art Students’ League in New York City. Grosz would not return to his native Germany until 1959, where he died five weeks later.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]

British Propaganda Posters of the Great War, Part Two

British Propaganda and Women

The Psychology of Posters

Warfare, especially modern war, has had a strange impact upon men. It is assumed that war and combat is the ultimate event of masculinization, completing the identity of the male. Traditionally, the equation of hyper masculinity and the military had been fairly reliable in the nineteenth century. Wars were fought elsewhere, out of the public eye, with the early war correspondents willing to find heroes who were “mentioned in the dispatches,” even in unpopular wars like that in Crimea. Normally this war is thought of as one that limped to an end, while the British government colluded to conceal the military blunders and mismanagement, but, in an interesting article in The Guardian, Orlando Figes, author of The Crimean War: A History, made a case for the Crimean War as a conflict that created new heroes. While Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mourned and celebrated the anachronistic folly of the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the British press was pointing angrily to the result of the class system. The rigid class system that ruled civilian society also formed the military hierarchies and would continue to do so through the Great War. The privileged ruling class ruled with the second sons of titled nobility crowding the ranks of those in charge whether or not they merited or deserved their elevation to power and responsibility. The men of the growing middle class became more prominent during this war, if only in contrast to the incompetence of the exalted officer corps.

As Figes pointed out, “..the public meaning of the war” was fixed by middle class “journalists and pamphleteers, poets, artists and photographers, orators and priests. This was the first “modern” war in the age of mass communications – the first to be photographed, the first to use the telegraph, the first “newspaper war” – and it shaped our national consciousness.” These observers in the newly emerging mass media took an objective perspective on a war that was being fought for no discernible reason, revealing folly and heroism. Figes continued, “The mismanagement triggered a new assertiveness in the middle classes, which rallied round the principles of professional competence, industry, meritocracy and self-reliance in opposition to the privilege of birth. It was a sign of their triumph that in the decades afterwards, Conservative and Liberal governments alike introduced reforms promoting these ideals (the extension of public schooling, opening of the Civil Service, a new system of merit-based promotion in the armed services, etc). The political scramble for Middle England had begun.” The middle class soldiers shone in comparison to their aristocratic superiors: “..the heroes who returned from Crimea were the common troops. Their deeds were recognised for the first time in 1857, when Queen Victoria instituted the Victoria Cross, awarded to gallant servicemen regardless of class or rank. Among the first recipients of Britain’s highest military honour were 16 privates from the army, five gunners, two seamen and three boatswains.”

The Great War was the first war that impacted upon the consciousness of the British public since the Crimean War and war, over five decades had changed enormously. And so too had the role of women in British society. During the 1850s, it was Florence Nightingale and Mary Jane Seacole, who defined convention and became the women who established military nursing–the care and healing of the wounded soldier. Even in the hands of a woman, the wounded British male retained his masculinity and it was important for the nation to celebrate his heroism, especially in light of the War’s failures reported in excruciating detail by William Howard Russell. The women who nursed the men also became heroes, apparently without threatening the manliness of the men. Writing in 1878, in Heroes of Britain in Peace and War, Edwin Hodder explained, “ our hospitals there is a noble army of brave women who are devoting themselves the to care of he sick; women, who not finding a sphere for labour in their home circles, and feeling the burden of humanity claiming their sympathy, have gone as heroically and in some instances more so, to labour among the sick in the hospitals of crowded cities as others have gone to tend the wounded and dying on the battlefield..” It can be assumed that nursing as a form of nurturing fell into the bounds of expected and accepted behavior for women, and it is clear that two decades later, the shock of women invading the precincts of medicine had worn off.

But the woman of 1914 was a different social person, living in a British society in which the middle classes were educated and ambitious. As Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) attests, nineteenth century attitudes still prevailed in an increasingly modern world, with the ruling class of males deliberately holding aspiring women back. For decades, after the Crimean War, women had been campaigning for the right to vote. As in America, at the same time, the movement broke into two separate sectors, one conservative and willing to wait patiently, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and one more militant and more impatient, Women’s Social and Political Union. As in America, the WSPU under the leadership of the Pankhurst women, mother and daughters, women were put in jail and stubbornly refused to eat. As with Alice Paul in America, the British women were force fed, a form of torture in those days. When the Great War began, the suffrage movement redirected its efforts towards working to win the war and thus prove women worthy of being given the right to vote.

It is against this political background that one understands the propagandistic efforts to encourage male enlistment in a deadly war. While at first, outraged by the invasion and “rape” of Belgium, men eagerly signed up, recruitment efforts flagged and atrocity propaganda could not inspire sufficient enlistment. The government embarked on another other approach, which was a play or a variation on the demanding Lord Kirchner poster–public shame. In what might be called the descendant of the “white feather” campaigns, men were shamed into playing a part in the war of attrition. The idea of the white feather can be dated back to the days of cock fighting in the eighteenth century. When a defeated cock “turned tail,” revealing the white feathers beneath his plumage, he was signaling refusal to fight, advertising defeat. The transference of the the meaning of a white feather to the practice of handing out white feathers to men considered cowards was popularized by the English writer A. E. W. Mason in his famous 1902 book, The Four Feathers. Written during the Boer War, this novel was a shameless advertisement for imperialism in which a young military officer who preferred not to serve the Empire was presented by four white feathers from his fiancée and his close friends. The entire novel is an adventure story in which the shamed young man, Harry Faversham, has to redeem himself, save his friends and win back the woman he loves, all while in the service of the Empire. The popular story (which has been made into at least six films) laid the groundwork for the White Feather Campaign during the Great War.

This campaign of public shaming men out of uniform was begun at the end of August 1914 by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald who advocated compulsory military service. He organized the White Feather Campaign in Folkstone and recruited young women to hand out white feathers, also a sign of an inbred cockerel unfit to fight, to young men out of uniform. The timing was fortuitous: the suffrage movement was on hold and young women had high expectations of being of service. At the early stages of the War, women were given nothing of use to do and many, particularly the young ones who had not raised a child, leaped at the chance to participate as patriots. But, in the process, many young men were shamed and suffered for decades over the public humiliation. As Peter J. Hart wrote in “The White Feather Campaign: A Struggle with Masculinity During World War I,”

The Campaign worked fairly well and by shaming Home front men, these women drove many into the army out of dread of receiving a white feather themselves. But an unexpected consequence arose from this attack upon Englishmen’s masculinity, one that these “patriotic” women didn’t foresee. As this campaign became more public and recognized, the community backlash against women who engaged in this practice became increasingly harsh. Englishwomen had been molded into a weapon against the masculine identity through propaganda and promises of patriotism.

There were compelling reasons why women echoed the shaming campaign of the propaganda posters. Given that the War had began during the long and violent Suffragette Campaign during which the British government stalwartly resisted the demand that women be given the right to vote, women would react with alarm to the horrors inflicted on the women of Belgium. The attack of the Germans upon helpless Belgium was the main reason the British entered the War and the women of Belgium had suffered terribly from the German army. The stories that swirled around the atrocities were so graphic and, at times, so exaggerated, that for decades it was thought that the tales could not be true. But revisionist history, searching though German Belgium archives has established that the atrocities committed in Belgium were very real indeed, even accounting for the inevitable tall tales circulated during wartime. For British women, the stories of how the Germans treated the women of Belgium were terrifying and they felt justified in urging men to avenge these female victims. But, perhaps more importantly, the women could take on the role of responsible citizens, doing their part and fighting the War in their own way. Not unexpectedly, the White Feather Campaign, which activated women, resulted in women being criticized for what they were asked to do. The criticism was based, not in the idea that they might be unjustly shaming an undeserving man, but on the grounds of “immodesty,” meaning that women were aggressively approaching men and imputing their masculinity.

Nevertheless, women were merely echoing a broader campaign of shaming, raised repeatedly by the press and mass media, driven by the desperate need for males to fight the long war. Nicoletta F. Gullace wrote that poet John Oxenham wrote a special poem directed to women, calling them to their duty:

O maids, and mothers of the race,
And of the race that is to be
To you is given in these dark days
A vast responsibility….
Remember!—as you bear you now,
So Britain’s future shall be great
—Or small. To your true hearts is
given a sovereign duty to the state.

In her article “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War,” Gullac quote the approving words of the Mayor of London, directed towards women: “Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki?…If not don’t YOU THINK he should be? If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for—do you think he is worthy of you? Don’t pity the girl who is alone—her young man is probably a soldier—fighting for her and her country—and for You. If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will Neglect You. Think it over—then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO DAY!” The point is that the women who participated in the “Order of the White Feather,” had wide public support and wives and mothers and sweethearts were exhorted by mass media and by propaganda posters to reject men who would not join the military. Men were also directly addressed by the propaganda posters, which also employed a tactic of shame, implying a dereliction of duty and suggesting that their own families would reject them if they did not do their duty.

In his 2012 book Britain and World War One, Alan G. V. Simmonds explained how these shaming tactics were shaped by government propaganda: “..what began as a politicians’ and diplomats’ war declared for reasons of economic security and European hegemony became a struggle for national unity, civilization, liberty and for the protection of Britain’s Empire and her essentially Victorian way of life. The threat of all of this was a powerful reason for men to enlist, but it proved insufficient to satisfy the Army’s ever-growing need for recruits.” One of the earlier attempts at blackmailing men into joining the military was the innocent sounding Pals Battalions, which, as Simmonds expressed it, “successfully embodied powerful forces of peer pressure and civic pride. Groups of men, linked by a common bond of professional, recreational or emotional ties, were encouraged to join up together in units that combined a strong sense of local identity with group solidarity, along with an opportunity to exploit alternative loyalties for which to fight other than ‘King and Country.'” Another way of explaining the Pals’ Battalions was a way to encourage young men who were not necessarily invested in the British Empire to join up. These recruits would more likely be middle class but without the public school privileges enjoyed by the upper ranks and the working classes who owed little to what was a campaign to preserve the power of the upper classes.

Involving women was an ideal way of activating women of all classes who would be encouraged to hand out white feathers to the men they encountered. Lower class men could be directly confronted; middle class men shamed at home. Every woman had a network of male relatives who could not ignore the devices of the White Feather brigades. The result of the campaign in which women were asked to participate directly or indirectly was nothing short of emotional blackmail. The government recruited women, as much as it recruited men, as participants in the War, asking them to send away their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to a war from which many would not return or would return wounded in body or mind or both. The constant drumbeat of these early posters, issued before the Military Service Act in 1916 started forced conscription, emphasizes the inherent unnaturalness of war. Men and women had to be forcibly manipulated by a constant drumbeat of obligation with an underlying threat of being de-masculinized. This threat manifested itself in reality as conscription resulted in more and more men disappearing from the Home Front and into the military. Women began to take their place everywhere, in the factories, in the offices, in the hospitals, even wearing uniforms as police officers. The wartime posters began to address women, urging them to join the war effort and to take the places of men, whether driving buses or playing football.

The Great War utterly changed women, propelling them headlong into the twentieth century, proving that they could succeed at the very jobs men had insisted they could not do. Of course, when the War was over, the women were sent home to make room for the returning males. But, as with the Second World War, women would not forget their wartime experiences Unlike World War II, an entire generation of men never returned. After the Great War, women were widowed or were nursing men with permanent wounds, and there were those women who would never marry. This new independence was played out by their younger sisters who became “flappers,” who refused to live the lives of their mothers. For men, the Great War had begun as a noble cause, a fight for King and Country of for one’s closest friends; for women the Great War had begun with handing out white feathers and shaming men into enlisting. After the War, many of these men would not come home; others would never recover; others struggled with their traumatic experiences. The aggression and the enthusiasm “immodestly” displayed by women during the war when handing out white feathers was channeled into factory jobs and into college classrooms. One could argue that the generation of men who fought the war lost their place and women suddenly managed to find a purpose for their new lives.

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 Russian Avant-Garde at War, Part One

The Avant-Garde Artists and The Great War

Popular Culture

While it is undoubtedly true that the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 was somewhat responsible for the next war, the Second World War, it is also true that the First World War put an end not just to some empires but, most importantly, to the idea of “empire” itself as being legitimate. The German Empire ended on the battlefields of Flanders, the Ottoman Empire was systematically carved up by the Allies, happy to share the spoils of victory with each other, and the Russian Empire, undermined by incompetent leaders and unstable monarchs, fell like a precarious soufflé. Before the Great War, artists in Russia had been political in the sense of being part of the avant-garde, biased towards modernism and against the old order of things. The Russian Empire, abetted by the Russian Orthodox Church, was notoriously opposed to change and to all things modern. But, given that Russia was a police state, seething with plots and counter-plots, it would have behooved the intelligentsia to make revolutionary art and to not make political revolutions. However, these avant-garde artists lived in a time of political revolutions and were witnesses to the collapse of an empire. As they came of age, Kasimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharov would have learned of–through the veil of censors–the Russian defeat by the Japanese in 1903, the first time a European power had lost to an Asian power. Vladimir Tatlin and Varvana Stepanova would have lived through the Revolution of 1905, which was brutally put down by the Empire in what would be its last gasp or grasp on power. The social and political forces gathering against the Romanov Dynasty were merely interrupted by the Great War, for, with hindsight, it appears that revolution was inevitable, war or no war.

The Russian participation in the Great War started with patriotism and ended in the collapse of the Dynasty and the fall of the Empire as the Communist forces, attacking internally, spread discontent within the fighting forces. Unlike the other nations, Russia was not industrialized and was not prepared to fight a modern war. Despite the fact that Russia had a larger and better equipped army than the Germans, it was not as well led and, over time, it became unclear to the Russian soldiers what they were fighting for–a Czar who was content to sacrifice their lives on the Eastern Front? In fact by 1917, mutinies among the British and French militaries were not uncommon, and the Italian commanders would routinely execute soldiers who did obey orders; but patriotism depends upon a basic faith in the leaders and in the government. There was enough faith in the English and French authorities and their governments to convince the bulk of their armies to fight to the end. This loyalty or trust was absent among the Russian troops, especially after the terrible and humiliating loss at the Battle of Tannenberg. As early as August 30, less that a month into the war, 92,000 men were lost. Then a week later, another 100,000 casualties occurred at the Battle of Masurian Lakes. The “winter war” of 1914-1915 cost yet another 190,000 soldiers. All these losses in a few months. By the end of the year, two million Russian men were lost to the War. Once the Czar personally took command of the army, the end was not far away.

When the Czar abdicated, a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky was formed and kept fighting a War that no one wanted to continue to fight, fueling the victory of the Communist revolution. Once in power the Communists negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, giving away large chunks of the former Empire in order to get out of the War and carry on with the Revolution. For the next four years, civil war ripped the new nation apart as the “Reds” and “Whites” fought for control over what would become the Soviet Union. The fact that the Communists ended a War began by the Romanov Dynasty meant that when the history was written by the Communists, the Great War was an “imperial” war of “empire” and not an event to be proud of. After the War, the other nations, even the defeated Germans, marked the sacrifices with memorials, but in her interesting book, The Great War in Russian Memory, Karen Petrone noted that “As the successor state to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union was unique among the combatants in the virtual absence of public commemoration of World War I at the level of the state, community, and civic organizations, or even individual mourning. Scholars generally agree about this erase of memory..The Soviet government generally ignored the war and instead poured its energies into creating a myth of the revolution, construction Sovietness through a conscious process of forgetting imperial Russia’s last war.”

In 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, the historian Sir Max Hastings stated for The Moscow Times, “World War I was very nearly written out of Russian history during the early years of the Soviet Union because of the Bolshevik view that it was a capitalist war in which the Russian people had been the victim rather than the protagonist.” But in August of that year, Vladimir Putin spoke in a rare commemoration ceremony memorializing The Brusilov Offensive in the Spring and Summer of 1916, when the Russians successfully attacked from the Eastern Front in an attempt to draw the Germans away from Verdun and the Somme. Although Putin was probably exaggerating when he spoke of the fame of this battle, he was literally the first Russian official to mark an event in the Great War. As he said, “Today, we are restoring the links in time, making our history a single flow once more, in which World War I and its generals and soldiers have the place they deserve, and our hearts hold the sacred memory that they rightfully earned in those war years. As the saying goes, ‘better late than never.’ Justice is finally triumphing in the books and textbooks, in the media and on cinema screens, and of course, in this monument that we are unveiling here today.”

The deliberate erasure of the memory of the Great War in Russia means that it has been in just the past few years that serious study of the War began among Russian scholars. But there is an existing and compelling narrative of the War, left behind by the artists who reacted to the War for the three years Russia was fighting. It is through their work that it is possible to view the patriotism felt by Russians when their country went to War. In the fall of 2014, the Grad Gallery for Russian Art and Design in London showed a collection of rare prints, popular art and outright propaganda pieces, many being displayed for the first time in a century. Some of these prints by Russian artists, both unknown and famous, are rather amusing and delightfully folksy, such as Aristech Lentulov’s The Austrians Surrendered Lvov to the Russians like Rabbits Defeated by Lions, 1914 (left) and others are outright fantasy propaganda, such as The Russian War Against the Germans (right), while others were visionary, such as The Great European War, A Battle in the Air, 1914 (below).
mainUnknown artist_4

Unknown artist_6

Emerging unexpectedly in the midst of his Suprematist period, the series of prints executed by Kasimir Malevich supporting the War were totally uncharacteristic of the artist’s avant-garde oeuvre. The lithographs seem to be made for children for they are comic and not serious considerations of war and its consequences. But there are reasons for this unusual collection of prints from an artist who was working abstractly by 1914. In writing of the impact of the War upon Russia and its artists, Aaron J. Cohen noted that the Russian Empire did not have a tradition of heroic military painting and that Russian audiences for academic art seem to have preferred genre scenes to visions of martial glory. In addition, he noted that the defeat of Russia by Japan, which to us now seems to be a portent of things to come, went almost unnoticed or at least unreported in the Empire. The conclusion one can reach is that Russian artists rarely dealt with the topic of war and had not considered a modern war at all. Art was not necessarily supposed to react to war or to military affairs and, in contrast to England and France, the two spheres were kept apart. This history of detachment from war might explain the divided response of Malevich, who, on one hand, did a series of lithographs, which functioned within popular culture with simple slogans or descriptions aimed at a public with limited literacy, while on the other hand, participating in avant-garde exhibitions.

Kazimir Malevich, Our French Allies

Kasimir Malevich. Our French Allies Have Filled a Cart with Captured Germans, And our British Brothers have a Barrel full (1914)

In his book, Imagining the Unimaginable. World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917, Cohen wrote, “The main forum for Russia’s visual culture of war was not the art world but the mass media,especially the popular prints (lubki), posters, pamphlets, and illustrated journals that flooded the book market with wartime images during each conflict. War and art are seen to be mutually exclusive activities..War art did not exist within the official sphere.” It seems clear that Malevich was active in the area which had been traditionally available for artists and altered his art to fit the audience’s expectations, producing a group of semi-amusing lubki.

Kazimir Malevich, Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up, 1914, lithograph. Courtesy of GRAD

Kasimir Malevich. Look Look, Near the Vistula, The German Bellies are Swelling Up (1914)

The work Natalia Goncharov (1881–1962) executed for the War followed the same pattern of doing prints in a folk style for a general non-art audience. Her series of lithographs, issued in the Fall of 1914, presented a powerful narrative of Good, as led by mystical and spiritual forces, against Evil, no doubt the Germans. This message that God was on the side of the Russian Empire was not merely a patriotic reassurance. By the fall, two major battles had been lost and the armies had been soundly defeated and decimated, so the news that heavenly help might be on the way, would have been welcomed. The saints and angels descend to earth and mix in with the humans, blessing them, protecting them, comforting them. Shortly before the War started Goncharova had produced a series of Neo-Primitivist paintings, based on Russian folk icons and was criticized by conservatives for a sacrilegious appropriation. But the reception for these prints, with her “style” being removed from the precincts of the avant-garde, was more positive.

MSE-REE 0004 Ginzberg

Natalia Goncharova. The Christian Host, no. 9 from the series Mystical Images of War [Voina: misticheskie obrazy voiny] (1914)

The war series is a follow up, if you will, of the exhibition that had in fact established her reputation in Moscow, a huge showing of nearly eight hundred works. This event, Vystavka kartin Natalii Sergeevni Goncharovoi, 1900-1913, took place at the Khudozhest vennii Salon in the fall of 1913. This Moscow show was followed by a highly successful joint exhibition, organized by her artistic partner and lover, Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) for the Galerie Paul Guillaume. In 1914, therefore, Goncharova was the most famous Russian avant-garde artist, a leader in the international art world, with a major German exhibition to be mounted by Herwarth Walden at Der Sturm in the offing. However the War intervened. According to Natalia Budanova’s article, “Russian Avant-Garde Women, Futurism and the First World War,” Walden protected the large body of work, already in Berlin, for the artist and returned it to her at the war’s end. Larinov and Goncharova were forced to return to Russia, taking circuitous route. Larionov, an excellent promoter for Goncharov’s career, was drafted and badly wounded during the first year of the War. The round faced narrow eyed artist, who had invented “Rayonism,” could never as active as he had been before the War, and the couple returned to Paris. Intending to capitalize on her 1914 success with the Coq D’Or ballet, Goncharova continued her work with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When the couple left Russia in 1915, their exit was a rare exception, granted perhaps due to the prestige of the artist or the military service of her badly wounded companion, or the importance of the Ballet Russe. The couple was to never return to Russia. Budanova put their departure from Russia into perspective:

Larionov and Goncharova left the country at the very moment when the Russian avant-garde was gathering momentum. The mass repatriation of many Russian artists triggered by the war, however traumatic and disadvantageous on a personal level, produced a positive side-effect on the evolution of Russian modern art. In fact, it ‘marked the heyday for the Russian avant-garde,’ because such a high concentration of vigorous, creative and ambitious personalities, counting practically as many women as men, was destined to invigorate artistic life in Russian capital cities and reinforce the avant-garde Russian cultures.

One could ask “what if?” the famous art couple had remained in Moscow and mingled with Malevich and the returning expatriates, such as Luibov Popova, had been present at the creation of a revolutionary art, and had taken advantage of their fame. Although the pair lived the last thirty years of their lives in Paris in obscurity and poverty, the fate of those who stayed in Russia was equally tragic, for this was a starred and cursed generation of artists. Those who remained in Russia were impacted by the War and it can be argued that the jolt of being part of a “great,” as in expansive war, woke up that particular generation to wider social responsibilities. In Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe Before World War II, Tibor Iván Berend quoted László Moholy-Nagy of Hungary,At the time of the War, I developed a feeling of social responsibility, and today I feel it to an even greater extent. My conscience spoke to me: is it fitting to be a painter in an era of social change? In the past century, art and reality were a painter I can serve the meaning of life..”

Moholy-Nagy’s awakening to social responsibility would direct the rest of his life, and this artist would immigrate to Germany to work at the Bauhaus. But what of the Russian artists during the Great War? Certainly they must have reacted to the War as Moholy-Nagy did and were poised to enter into an art of the social if not immediately an art of the political. The artists made a distinction between supporting the Russia people and the Russian Czar, whom they viewed as an anachronism. The War, then, could be viewed as a prelude to readiness for the Revolution and the art they would gladly make on its behalf. The majority of histories of the Russian Avant-Garde divide the production of these artists in half, splitting their work between Pre-War and Post-War work, eliding the narrow slice that directly addressed the Great War. As was pointed out, there was almost no history of Russian artists gesturing towards any war and the normal behavior on the part of the art world was to simply carry on and make art as though nothing else was happening. For the purpose of this series, a distinction will be made, however, separating the avant-garde from the art made in Russia that directly addressed the War. This narrow task is difficult because the Russian government has suppressed this slice of time and then, in turn, hid the labors of the avant-garde artists from the 1930s on. That said, the next post will continue to discuss art in Russia during the Great War, between 1914 and 1917.

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 Futurists Go To War, Part Three

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

The Great War did not go well for the Italians. Aside from the enthusiastic Futurists and their nationalist sympathizers, such as Benito Mussolini, most Italians regarded the war with wary eyes. The nation had to be bribed into the war by the Allies who promised Italy not just territories that were “lost” to the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also were given “permission” to add to their African territories and could help carve up the Ottoman Empire. One could say that Italy had driven hard bargain if the promises were possible to fulfill–but that outcome was in the future. The two solid years of causalities and deaths on the Alpine Front cost the nation over a million lives and that figure referred only to the slaughter on the Isonzo River plain, the Carso plateau. There was another site of death for the Italian army and that was the nearly forgotten “White War.”

The Alpine Front amounted to a third front which wended its torturous path from the Julian Alps to the Ortler massif to the Adriatic Sea, a line of over 250 miles. When the collective memory considers the Great War, it is the muddied fields of Flanders that come to mind, but the Italians and the Austrians were fighting in the mountains over disputed territories that lay between the two powers. These age old enemies, which once had the relation of occupier and occupied, faced off against each other in what was a war of mutual mass destruction. In his eloquent book of 2008, The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, Mark Thompson recounted remarkable instances when the Austrians, sickened by slaughter warned their Italian counterparts to not advance, to not run towards the very mechanisms of death so admired by the Futurists:

On one occasion, the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian captain shouted to his gunners, ‘What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be.’ The Austrians stopped firing and called out: ‘Stop, go back! We won’t shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?’ The author continued making the point that no where on the other Fronts did such events take place. “To take their measure, bear in mind that there was no shortage of hatred on this front, that soldiers could relish the killing here as much as elsewhere, the Austrians were outnumbered and fighting for their lives, and any officer or soldier caught assisting the enemy in this way would face court martial. These deterrents could be overcome only by the spectacle of a massacre so futile that pity and revulsion forced a recognition of oneself in the enemy, thwarting the habit of discipline and the reflex of self-interest.

Much of the Italian experience in this war was not just on the relatively flat plain but within the Alps themselves, or that stretch of the Alpine range called the Dolomites in the northeast of Italy. Once can attempt to envision a vertical war, some 6500 feet above sea level, a never-ending struggle encased in many, many feet of snow, carved out the ice and blasted out of rock faces. The weapons were then same as used on the plateau but they had to be hauled up slopes so angled that they defined mules or horses. Only humans, not well versed in the now familiar sport of mountain climbing, would traverse these mountain faces and they could not carry a cannon. Heavy equipment was hoisted upward by ropes and when fired, the cannon, would cause a shattering sound as the explosions, contained in the encircling peaks, would reverberate and echo. The cannon fire was often not directed against the other side but was used as noise, a noise so loud that it caused avalanches, burying troops by the “White Death,” so deeply that they were unrecoverable. This ninety degree war in the mountains would have an unexpected outcome. When the war finally ended in 1918, the Austrians and the Italians simply abandoned their aeries and went home, leaving the war and its detritus behind, including bodies of the dead, submerged in the snow.

Writing for The Telegraph a hundred years later, in an age of Global Warming, Laura Spinney explained, “As much of the front was at altitudes of over 6,500ft, a new kind of war had to be developed. The Italians already had specialist mountain troops – the Alpini with their famous feathered caps – but the Austrians had to create the equivalent: the Kaiserschützen. They were supported by artillery and engineers who constructed an entire infrastructure of war at altitude, including trenches carved out of the ice and rudimentary cableways for transporting men and munitions to the peaks.” Then in the early 2000s, the ice began to melt. Michele Gravino, for National Geographic wrote,

Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater. Never before had battles been waged on such towering peaks or in such frigid conditions..Entire villages of shacks were built, though officers generally lived in old mountain refuges, some outfitted with grand pianos and gramophones. On Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites, the Austrian Corps of Engineers built an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms dug out of the bowels of the glacier..Now, a century later, the warming world is revealing the buried past, as relics and corpses are melting free of their icy tombs.

Most of the 150,000 dead in the Dolomites were from avalanches, frostbite and causes other than traditional battle wounds. Now one hundred years later, with the dead returning, demanding to be named, and needing to be returned to surprised families to be buried. For the Italians, the First World War, even with its catastrophic defeats, was a better war compared with the Second World War, which is tainted with the history of Fascism and Mussolini. In the book Italy’s Divided Memory, J(own) Foot noted that archaeological reclamations on the Carso plateau, revealing trenches cut from “hard stone.” He wrote, “In the areas of the ‘white war,’ the rapid melting of glaciers revealed a series of structures that had been built in tunnels within the ice..Global warming threw up some surprises. In the mountains above Val Rendena in Trentino, excavations began in 2007 into a frozen cave known as the caverna di caveat. This cave had been occupied by both the Austrian and Italian armies during the war.”

For Italy, it was a long strange war. But that was the war the Futurists demanded. In the strange year of 1915, while the nationalists and interventionists were marching for war, Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) painted a series of semi-abstract works, depicting crowds acting en masse. For Mussolini and Marinetti, the “crowd” was a mystical and mythical being, feminine, in its penchant for being malleable, moulded for any cause. Balla’s depictions of crowds reflected the events in Italy when the demonstrators would wave the flag of the House of Savoy–“Savoy” would become the battle cry that would lead the soldiers into battle. In 1911, Gustave le Bon wrote Psychology of the Masses, a book that would become something of a Bible for the Fascists, because the crowd, under the correct circumstances and with the right leader, could dominate. Le Bon described the “crowd” as “under these circumstances, the gathering of people possesses new, completely different qualities form the qualities of single people who form this gathering. The conscious personality fades, the feelings and thoughts of all the individuals are oriented towards the same direction.”


Giacomo Balla. Patriotic Demonstration (1915)

Meanwhile Gino Severini (1883-1956) was in Paris, watching an actual war unfold. Because he could view the Denfert-Rochereau station from his apartment in Paris, Severini was apprised of the comings and goings of troops and the constant arrival of the wounded from the Front. The Hospital Train of 1915 would have been a common sight. As the corner of the newspaper Le Figaro would indicate, the press would report on the long journey the trains would take from the aid stations at the Front to the hospitals in Paris. When the trains arrived in the various stations, the wounded would be unloaded and volunteer nurses, pictured by Severini, would offer water and care to the wounded. We discern this process through the red cross, the train smoke, and other details which from a composite collage like “idea-image.”

4 T

Gino Severini. Hospital Train (1915)


Gino Severini. Hospital Train Passing a Village (1915)

In light of the seriousness of the sight of the hospital train and its passengers, a similar topic, Hospital Train Passing a Village, is a reminder that Severini was always a painter of pleasant things and that he was probably ill-suited to the task put to him by Marinetti. The painting is simply silly, better suited for a child’s book on the war than for the adult audience which would be jarred by the jolly colors. In comparison to this rather illustrative and imaginary work, Virtual Synthesis of the Idea – War (1914) is darker in tone, combining elements that would appear in another painting of a similar name in 1915. Severini used Marinetti’s “words in freedom” unfailing near the bottom, referring to the “Maximum Effort” that would be needed to repeal the Germans. What is interesting about these two paintings is the extent to which they are not Futurist, not about speed or change or dynamism. Instead the paintings are static and immobile, composed of stacked elements, typical of Cubism.


As a painted collage, Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915) was successful for it at least captures some of the seriousness, from the reference to the mobilization order to the artillery and the airplane and so on, Severini combined, in a coherent fashion, his reaction to war, focusing on its technology and mechanization, eliminating the human factor.

2 T UMAX Mirage II V1.4 [2]

Gino Severini. Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915)

Given the success of Christopher Nevinson in rerouting Futurism towards paintings of the Great War, the awkwardness of the actual works by the founding Futurists is a surprise. Severini’s sketch of Lancers, mirror that of Boccioni in its lack of comprehension of the fact that the calvary charge was a historical memory, unfit for modern war. Equally questionable are the static reactions to a war that was admittedly static by both Severini and Carlo Carrà (1881-1966). The stilled nature of the works, compared to the mobilized imagery by Nevinson, seems to be connected to their use of words and letters which tend to not activate the surface but fix it in place.


Gino Severino. Gun in Action (1915)

Severino’s Gun in Action of 1915 is simply wooded compared to Christopher Nevinson’s powerful and iconic La Mitrailleuse of the same year. It is no accident that Apollinaire praised Nevinson and apparently said nothing of Severini, who was, to be fair, hampered by his illness and could have had no comprehension of what it meant to be on an artillery crew, like Braque. If Severini’s paintings done during the Great War show his individual ambivalence about Futurism and reveal his long time affinity with Cubism, then it can be suggested that it was his distance from Futurism central, Milan, limited his full incorporation of Futurist aesthetics or purpose. But it was not just Severini for whom the War caused an artistic crisis. Carlo Carrà’s Guerrapittura of 1915, a virtual copy of an idea pioneered by Marinetti in his work Zang Tumb Tumb (1912) composed for the Balkens prelude. Combining words and abstract forms, Atmospheric Envelope-Exploding Shell of 1914, Carrà did a number of collages, combining words, drawings and pasted paper, more in the style of Braque, rather than Picasso. As these collages make clear, he was struggling with the language of Futurism. In his article, “Carlo Carrà’s Conscience,” David Mather would describe the emotional and artistic crisis faced by Carrà.


Carlo Carrà. Atmospheric Envelope-Exploding Shell (1914)

Carrà, as was discussed in a previous post, worked closely with Marinetti. Along with Boccioni, these Futurists were enthusiastic supporters not just of entering the War but also of what Intervening meant–nationalism, the kind of nationalism that would become fascism. Indeed on the fifteenth the November of 1914, Carrà wrote about Mussolini, an individual in whom “resides the drama of our whole generation. We admire him if for nothing else, then certainly for the courage that he keeps demonstrating.” While the War and military service was, for Carrà, a theoretical prospect. Mather quoted from a letter the artist wrote to Ardengo Suffici at the end of 1914, in which he longed for “the real war–made of blood and heroism.” The collages he created for his book on war–his response as an artist–were also theoretical, a standpoint taken in his concluding essay, “War and Art,” which, as Mather said, “characterized war as an engine of new sensibilities closely allied with, and even emerging directly from the futurist movement.”


Carlo Carrà. Joffre’s Angle of Penetration Against Two German Cubes on the Marne (1915)

The Great War did not, of course, come from Futurism and Carrà would be confronted with the disconnect between the idea and the reality. This series of collages in Guerrapittura was not only a turn towards Cubism, also evident in the work of Severini, marked the end of Carrà’s time as a Futurist. Drafted in1917, he went to war, proved to be unfit for battle, and found himself in a hospital where he met Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), who was working in the military hospital at Ferrara. As with the other Futurists who served in the War, Carrà found the actuality of fighting in trenches disconcerting. After all, he was a nationalist and a revolutionary, not a soldier.


It is possible, as Mather suggested, that Carrà’s conversion to Metaphysical Painting was the result of the trauma of the War, but he continued to support nationalism, even though he knew the reality of combat, and retained his devotion to Mussolini. As for Sererini, he, too, moved away from Futurism and Cubism, and, like Carrà became part of the post-War “return to order,” which, for these artists, would be a new form of classicism. The arc of the Futurism of the founders was a short one, with the energy and ideals drained away by the Great War. But Futurism was not dead. As was noted in a previous post, during the War years, new members joined Futurism and would carry Futurism on into the rest of the twentieth century. The new phase of Futurism would focus on the new technological hero that emerged during the Great War, the airplane, the machine that could fly and give the women and men who flew it wings.

The Great War ended disastrously for Italy. The military suffered 2,197,000 casualties, of which 650,000 died–or so say the official figures. For a nation that went to war on the promise of booty, the recovery of territories considered “Italian,” these losses had to count for something. Although they had been on the winning side, their War ended in a “mutilated victory.” However, at the Treaty of Versailles in the spring of 1919, the other allied nations made it clear that, in their opinion, Italy had not done its fare share and and not fulfilled its promises as a military partner. The Italian delegation was treated with contempt by the British and the French, while the Americans wanted to give Italy as little as possible. The Italian government was supported by the nationalists only and the nationalists wanted what was promised in the Treat of London plus the Adriatic port city of Fiume. However, a new player was on the field, America, and President Woodrow Wilson represented the new approach to diplomacy, ethnic and self-determination as opposed to the system of spoils. The Italians considered the Treaty of London to be binding, the Allies considered the Treaty an obstacle to be overcome. To the consternation of Italy, a new nation, on its borders, was carved out the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia, including territories claimed by the Italians, especially the city of Fiume. In the end Italy was placated, possibly because British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour said, “The Italians must be mollified, and the only question is how to mollify them at the smallest cost to humanity.” In the end, Italy received a seat on the League of Nations, a share of German reparations and the Tyrol. The nation of Italy was deeply angry at the way it had been slighted and, despite the warnings of the delegation that such disparaging treatment only incited radical political forces, such as the fasci di combattimenti. Their warnings went unheeded and it was at the Treaty in Paris that the seeds for Italian Fascism was planted and the foundation for the rise of Mussolini was laid. For the Fascists, the humiliation in Paris had to be avenged.

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 Futurists Go To War, Part Two

Futurism in Transition

From War to Fascism

Although in the histories of the Great War, Italy is usually written of as a “minor power,” or a minor player in the larger structure of the War. The nation was a latecomer to the conflict and had limited goals. Italy had not been invaded and there were no enemies rampaging through Italian fields and towns. Indeed, there seems to be little reason for Italy to enter into a war that, by 1915, was showing signs of being long and bloody and inconclusive. But, from the Italian point of view, there were against to be made. For decades during the nineteenth century, Italy had struggled to become an independent strong united nation and was thwarted at every point by the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had historically dominated and occupied northern Italy. When Italy finally unified–Italian Risorgimento–Italian unification–in 1861, far too much of ethnically Italian territory remained in the hands of the Austrians. The new nation had pried Lombardy from Austria and, eventually, was awarded Venice for siding with Prussia during the Seven Week’s War in 1866. Longing to retrieve the rest of its “lost” territories, Italy joined with Germany in the Triple Alliance on the hope that Austria would stop its attempt to grab land and that it would be protected from the Empire. In 1915, Italy entered into a secret agreement, the Treaty of London, in which it was agreed that it would enter the War on the side of the Entente Cordiale and receive in return Trento and the South Tyrol as far as the Brenner Pass, along with Trieste and the Austrian Littoral as well as northern Dalmatia, the so-called terre irredente (unredeemed lands), after the War was successfully included. The assignment given to Italy was to open an Eastern Front along the southern border of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The role Italy played in the defeat of Germany (and Austria) is often considered a side bar to the major action of the Western Front, but aside from confronting the enemy directly, one of the most important moves an adversary can make is to attack from the rear and force the enemy to open a new front. This new front, however, was complex. It was necessary for Italy to attack Austria, win quickly, and seize the advantage before Germany could react and come to the aid of its ally. There was another reason to move quickly–Futurists not withstanding most Italians were not entirely enthusiastic about going to war. The government could count on a brief burst or nationalism and patriotism but not on public patience for a long war. But geography in this alpine region was all but impossible. The border, disputed or not, between Italy and Austria, ran through the Dolomites and Carnic Alps, a nearly impassable mountain range unsuitable for modern warfare if one needed to make a quick breakthrough. There was only one place that seemed to be flat enough, the plain around the Isonzo River and it was here that the Italian high command chose to strike. In the early days, the commanders did not believe that their front lines would become stalemated, but they were wrong.

The Italians did not declare war on Germany right away, after all the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the main enemy and the prime goal was territorial. Therefore it was not until 1916 that Germany could intervene when Italy intervened and attacked Austria. From the beginning, Italy was on the offensive and the Austrians on the border were forced on the defensive, waiting for reinforcements. That said, the Austrians were dug in, with fortifications on the high ground, in the mountains above the river plain and the Italians mounted no less that twelve battles, all named the “Battle of Isonzo.” The commander in the region, the Italian Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna, initially made some advances but could not capitalize on any gains and the War on this front soon bogged down–literally for there were record rainfalls during those years–into trench warfare. In his book, The Italian Army of World War I, David Nicolle wrote, “Even though Cadorna soon realized that this was going to be a war of attrition, he continued to have faith in massed artillery and massed infantry attacks.” However it was not until the costly Battle of Caporetto (the Twelfth Battle of Isonzo) in 1917, with the loss of 300,000 casualties, that, as Nicolle continued, “The Italians were aware of the shortcomings which had exposed them to defeat at Caporetto, and the first half of 1918 was dedicated to changing the army’s outmoded tactics.” Although obscure today, the total casualties in relation to the many attacks and counter attacks at Isonzo were once legendary. The Italian high command had the supposed advantage of knowing how quickly the Western Front had stalemated due to the combination of old tactics and the defensive capabilities of new weapons against direct assaults, but they leaders did not learn the lessons and, like their counterparts in northern Europe, clung the Napoleonic strategies. John R. Schindler, author of Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, noted of the river, now in Slovenia,

The Isonzo’s tragic recent past has been all but totally forgotten. Earlier in the twentieth century, the name evoked horror and sorrow. Throughout Europe and North America, the name Isonzo stood alongside Verdun and the Somme in the collective memory of needless sacrifice of the First World War. The terrible bloodletting that scarred France and Flanders and shattered the lives of millions did not spare the Isonzo. From May 1915 to October 1817, the Italian Army attempted to break the Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the Isonzo and to advance deep into the Central European heartland..The cost was unprecedented. Twenty-nine months of fighting on the Isonzo cost Italy 1, 100,000 soldiers dead and wounded. The Austrians, desperately holding on to every inch of ground, lost 650,000. The Italians finally crossed the Isonzo in triumph only in November 1918, at the Great War’s end, following Austria-Hungary’s complete political collapse.

It is against this background of “bloodletting” that the paintings of hospital trains by Gino Severini (1883-1966) need to be understood. Unlike the other Futurist artists, Severini was not healthy–he had tuberculosis–enough to serve in the military and spent the War in Paris. While he was watching the unfolding of a disaster, the Futurists in Milan were demonstrating in public, demanding “intervention.” After a particularly spectacular event at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, during which they shouted “Viva la Francia”and “Viva la Guerra” and were subsequently arrested and sent to the San Vittore prison for a few days to cool off. In writing of this period in Marinetti’s life, Ernest Ialongo, stated that the poet and Futurist leader published “In This Futurist Year” “to court Italy’s university students, who had shown themselves receptive to Futurism and its nationalist message. He wrote that ‘our nationalism, which is ultra-violent, anticlerical, antisocialist and anti-traditionalist, is rooted in the inexhaustible vigor of Italian bold and is at war with the cult of ancestors which, far from welding the race together makes it anemic and causes it to rot away.'” Acting as the leader of the Futurist movement, Marinetti wrote to Severini in Paris on November 20th. By this time, late fall, the Western Front had already stalled and there had already been historic and devastating losses on the French side, and Marinetti was urging Severini, a witness to the actual costs of war, to, as Ialongo put it, “..even if it shaded into propaganda.” In his book, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Artist and His Politics, the author also quoted a passage from this letter:

This war will eventually take in the entire world..the world will be at war (even if there are breaks, armistice, treaties, diplomatic congress) that is, in an aggressive dynamic Futurist state for at least 10 years. Thus is imperative that Futurism no only collaborate directly in the splendor of this conflagration (and many of us have decided to commit our bodies energetically to it) but also become the plastic expression of this Futurist hour. I’m talking about a vast expression, not limited to a small circle of experts, but a truly strong and synthetic expression that affects the imagination and eyes of all or nearly all intelligent people.” Marinetti hoped Ialongo noted, “..we will have a new, bellicose, plastic dynamism..” and predicted that in the time of war, “significant artistic originality is possible.” The letter continued, with him suggesting that the painter should be interested “in the war and its repercussions in Paris pictorially. Try to live the war pictorially, studying it in all its marvelous mechanical forms (military trans, fortifications, the wounded, ambulances, hospitals, funeral processions). You have the fortune of being in Paris right now. Take absolute advantage, abandon yourself to the enormous military, anti-teutonic emotions that agitate France.”

In defense of this sheer cluelessness of this passage, it is unclear the extent to which Marinetti, the Futurists, even Severini could truly understand the actual destructive nature of this very modern war. That Marinetti would include funeral processions in his list of “mechanical forms” is so cold that one can only imagine that, at this point in time, he was uttering meaningless slogans unmoored from actual experience. While it would be anachronistic to call out the Futurist leader for not understanding the nature of the War at hand, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that Severini addressed the La grande guerra from a sanitized distance. In addition the artist was also attentive to his own career during the War. According to the Stieglitz and His Artists. Matisse to O’Keeffe, in 1915 he sent fourteen works to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where, along with the other Futurist artists, they were shown in a separate gallery and ignored by most critics. In the summer of 1916, Severini negotiated with Walter Pach and Marius de Zayas to arrange an exhibition at the New York gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, 291, an art dealer who disliked Futurism. The exhibition, which would be the last Stieglitz offered to a European artist, opened in March 1917, during which Stieglitz became somewhat mollified towards the style. Due to the War, Severini had to leave the art in New York and did not inquire about his paintings until 1921. It is not clear if they were ever returned and it is possible that they eventually were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a bequest from Stieglitz and the artist, who was still alive, was delighted to be included in the Museum’s collection. Among the donations were a rare diamond shaped work, entitled Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915) that is a combination of a spinning dancer, a swirling sea and a rotating propellor.


Gino Severini. Dancer=Propellor=Sea (1915)

The more interesting work is a charcoal drawing, Flying over Reims (1915), probably a response to the German bombing of the Medieval cathedral in an action that would be termed a war crime today. The artist himself mentioned his limitations in saying, “I could not express my ideas of ‘war’ by painting battlefields littered with slaughtered bodies, streams of blood, and other such atrocities. My modern idea-image of war came from the concentration of a few objects or forms taken from reality and compressed into ‘essences’ into ‘pure notion.'” As shall be discussed presently, in order to create the idea-image, or a composite, Severini would have to move away from Futurism and move towards a Salon Cubism. The Reims drawing was a rare Futurist work during the War, showing movement and dramatic lines of force, foreshadowing the post-war Futurist fascination for all things aviation.


Gino Severini. Flying over Reims (1915)

Severini’s references to “slaughtered bodies” and “streams of blood” suggest that he did understand what the actual fighting was like, and it is known that he read the Parisian newspapers and used their imagery for his paintings. For example, the painting, Armored Train in Action (1915), was from an aerial photograph that appeared in a newspaper. In Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism, Christine Poggi explained that the image was

..a Belgium armored train, published in the bimonthly Album de la Guerre on 1 October 1915. In transforming the photographic source, Severini centered and righted the overhead view of the train, giving it a distinctly phallic shape. He also eliminated two soldiers observing the action, so that in the painting all five depicted men point rifles toward an unseen enemy at the left..If in the photograph the varied posters and individual features of the soldiers were visible, in the painting the logic of standardization takes over..the glowing red forms of the entire car at the top of the canvas intensify the erotic charge of the armored train, investing this instrument of death with simulacra life.


Gino Severini. Armored Train in Action (1915)

The next post on Futurism during the War will further examine the Futurists reaction to an actual War.

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 Great War and Traditional Painting

French Visual Culture and The Great War

Painting War

One of the oddities of the French response of the French to the Great War was that the visual reaction was in large part one of a barrage of popular culture. While the British, English, Irish, Scottish, produced a host of remarkable works of art, both modern and traditional, paintings and photographs and movies, the French disseminated posters and cards and prints to the public. Many of the prominent artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and Georges Braque referred to the conflict elliptically, often by turning away and seeking refuge in retreat. Others, such as Marcel Duchamp and Albert Gleizes, went into exile to America and withdrew completely, rarely recognizing the War. In his book, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War 1914-1925, Kenneth Silver wrote of Cubism that, because of its “visually explosive style,” it was especially appropriate language in which to describe the destructive powers of modern warfare. Cubism offered both a system for the breaking down of forms and a method of organizing pictorial decomposition. For a war that–with its trench fighting, new incendiary devices, modern artillery, and poison gas–was unprecedented in almost every way. Cubism’s lack of association with the past was the analogue of the poilu’s general sense of dissociation. As a new visual language with a radically altered perspective, Cubism was an excellent means for portraying a war that broke all the rules of traditional combat. For those who had been in the trenches, the image of a wounded cuirassier could not possibly translate or epitomize lived experience: Cubism, on the other hand, for rendering one’s comrade whether at leisure or in the midst of battle, seemed to have a ring of truth.

English artists, such as William Roberts, the Vorticist, certainly seized upon a Cubist-Futurist vocabulary to show the insanity of the war, while Fernand Léger deployed his own idiosyncratic version of Cubism to show the war. But most of Léger’s most expressive homages to the War happened during the twenties with his series on machines. At any rate, Cubism or “Kubism” was considered “German” and, in France, was controversial in France. The vast majority of art, traditional and popular, was either not based in the avant-garde or was a very tame response to modern art. In England it was the English Vorticists and the English Futurists who convinced the British public that their native adaptation of Cubism and Futurism was the modern language necessary to explain this strangely modern war. For the French, the topic of the War had to be undertaken in a language that was “French” and recognized as “French,” not Italian and not German.


William Roberts. Gunners pulling cannons at Ypres (1918)


Fernand Léger. Soldiers Playing Cards (1917)

In difficult and uncertain times, there could also be something quite comforting and suitable in an account of the Great War in a tractional language that could be “read” by all viewers. For the public the international language, the lingua franca was Post-Impressionism. When the Germans bombed the great cathedral at Reims in mid September 1914, Belgium artist, Gustave Fraipont (1849-1923), used nineteenth century, almost Impressionistic, images to express the French shock at the supposed “barbarism” of the Germans. To bomb Reims was to bomb French history itself–this was the site where the kings of France since the eleventh century. But politics aside the cathedral was a magnificent work of art, and, if war were a civilized affair, Reims would have been spared and even cherished. But the Great War was a modern war and a modern war, as fought by the Germans began to rewrite the code by which armies clashed.

image Cathedral_of_Reims_Burning

According to Thomas W. Gaehtgens, the Germans were stunned and aggrieved at being accused and fired back at public opinion by accusing the French of having “a base of operations” in the towers. The French countered that a Red Cross flag had been hanging off the cathedral, signifying that German troops were being cared for inside in a makeshift hospital. The exact truth may exist somewhere in the fog of war, but the paintings and prints by Fraipont fit the French mood completely. Like the Cathedral, France was attacked without cause by savages who had no regard for history or culture or even religion itself. For the Germans, nothing was sacred. The Cathedral is depicted in the balefully glowing painting (on the left) as being engulfed in shards of red as fire chews through the wooden timbers. The print (on the right) shows the building swathed in a cloud of dark smoke. Who else but beasts would attempt to destroy an ancient and beautiful Medieval monument to God? As R. Steenhard wrote,

On 20 September 1914, German shellfire burned, damaged and destroyed important parts of the magnificent Cathedral of Reims, seat of the Archdiocese of Reims, where once the Kings of France were anointed and crowned. Scaffolding around the north tower caught fire, spreading the blaze to all parts of the carpentry superstructure. The lead of the roofs melted and poured through the stone gargoyles, destroying in turn the Bishop’s Palace. The Cathedral was falling stone by stone and there was little left except the west front and the pillars. Images of the Cathedral in ruins were used during the war as propaganda images by the French against the Germans and their deliberate destruction of buildings rich in national and cultural heritage. Restoration work began in 1919, under the direction of Henri Deneux, a native of Reims and chief architect of the Monuments Historiques; the Cathedral was fully reopened in 1938, thanks in part to financial support from the Rockefellers, but work has been steadily going on since.


A comparison of Fraipont’s prints and painting with the photographs of the same event show not prosaic explosions in black and white but artistic expressions of national shock and outrage, conveyed to a French public. Indeed, with Fraipont, it was but one step away from propaganda as his later print of the “martyrdom” of Reims suggests.


A special issue of L’Art et les Artistes, which focused upon the outrage at Reims, contained accounts from America and England, all statements of shock at the crime. This international condemnation of Germany, in the second month of the War, revealed that Germany had already lost the propaganda battle with neutral nations. First, the burning of the university and library at Louvain and then the shelling of thirteenth century cathedral barely a month later. Even Italy, still hovering in a neutral position, demonstrated a public anger with the U Giornale d’ Italia commenting, Germany is entitled to the gratitude of the civilised world for many reasons, but when the excitement of war induces her children to mistake brutality for force, one recalls the infa- mous deeds of the Germans under Frundsberg at the sack of Rome, or the deeds of the bands of Wallenstein in the cruel Thirty-years war. The burning of the Cathedral is a useless act of barbarism, a lunatic outburst of wounded vanity and curbed pride. Fraipont made a print that buttressed the French case for innocence, showing the near-tragic fate of German wounded which had been rescued by the compassionate French. Images such as these played a prideful part in the propaganda war for winning the minds and hearts of the public of neutral nations, especially America, and uniting the French and the British against the Germans.


In fact the September assault was but the first that the Germans would launch: Erik Sass noted that by the end of the War the Cathedral would be hit by an estimated over 200 shells and when the Armistice was signed, only the walls were left standing. Apparently the Germans recovered from their protestations of innocence and it would be up to the American Rockefeller family to donate the money for its restoration, completed at the end of the 1930s.

In contrast to the eventual choice on the part of the English public to accept avant-garde in paintings of the War, the French based artists who were conservative preserved the historical visual vocabulary of the nineteenth century. The way in which Fraipont depicted the blazing destruction of Reims recalls both Turner and Monet, indicating that he was formed by the Post-Impressionist generation, as was his counterpart was Alfred Theodore Joseph Bastien (1873–1955). His famous painting of a Canadian artillery unit showed the actual colors of a bombardment, with the horizon on fire. What is interesting about these Belgium artists is the extreme color, which contrasts with the dark tones favored by Matisse and the grays one often sees in English paintings. The setting of the painting, Passchendaele, which is remembered as brown mud, gray skies and black smoke from the constant bombardments, becomes a glowing scene from Hades. The intense glow is surprising to those used to black and white photography and it is important to note that these paintings would have been seen in a context of mass media news in tones of grays and blacks.


Alfred Bastien. Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele (1917)

The forty five year old academic artist had served in Belgium’s Garde Civique until he began working as a war artist the Belgium army. William Maxwell “Max” Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express and early developer of mass media, collected the paintings of Bastien. A powerful man, he requested that Bastien produce works of art about the Canadian contribution to the War and apparently arranged for him to be embedded with the 22nd battalion. The British were quite familiar with his work which was often published in two page spreads in the Illustrated War News. But it was Belgium’s Prince Albert who suggested to him the work that would be his masterpiece, planned from 1914, the Panorama de l’user (1926). Completed in the mid twenties, this long extended horizontal stretch of an endless battlefield, composed of interlocking scenes.


Panorama de l’user (1926)

Measuring 115 meters in length and 14 meters in height, the massive work was eventually installed at Ostend to be of service of British pilgrims coming to Belgium to seek the final resting places of loved ones. In its final place by 1926, the panorama was arranged in the round, augmented by lighting effects, a combination of nineteenth century dioramas of old and images of modern carnage done in a Post-Impressionist style. But the Battle of Yser was among the first of what would prove to be a war that was as long as it was surreal. The Belgium defense of its sovereignty defied the German expectations of immediate capitulation and the Army fought the invaders ferociously in the beginning of the War, giving the French time to move forward to join in, the British enough days to arrive on the continent and back up the French, while the Russians mobilized in order to attack the Germans from the East. But the Belgium army continued to resist the Germans and in the flooding of the Yser by opening the canal locks at Nieuwpoort, bogged down their guns and infantry in a growing sea of expanding and deepening mud.


Speaking in London, in June 1915, the Belgium Minister, Justice Caton de Wiat, recalled how the land had once been, “Less than a year ago the region of the Yser was assuredly one of the most peaceful and one of the happiest countries under God’s sun. A country of rich pastures, intersected by ditches and canals, sown with towns and villages. Here and there, hidden in the verdure, were low, white farmhouses capped by red tiles.” He continued, “Today you must picture to yourself a bare, sinister plain, on which falls a rain of bombs and shells and shrapnel. The soil is broken by heavy traffic, plowed up by projectiles, watered with blood. Here and there the inundations have produced great sheets of water, whence emerge the ruins of farmhouses, and on which all sorts of rubbish is floating, and often corpses. And on this soil, from October 16, 1914, without respite, without interruption, men have been fighting and destroying and slaughtering one another.” It is this last stand by the Belgium people, willing to sacrifice their own land in order to fight back and make an honorable stand. The event was of special importance to the Belgium people who flooded their homeland and fought for two and a half months before they finally had to give in. The Battle of Yser was a prelude of things to come, a prediction of landscapes destroyed in the name of War.

Yser was where the Germans were stopped and for four years, the Belgians drew a line, making a front where they would continue to fight their adversaries for the next four years. The cost of the ten day battle was 76,000 Germans and 20,000 Belgians, some of whom had died of starvation. The flat plain of Yser was flooded until 1918, when the citizens of Nieuwpoort reclaimed their city in November of 1918. The large paintings, depicting a battle that changed the course of the Great War, made Bastien comfortable for life and he was able to sell volumes of infolding prints replicating the panorama for those who could not visit Ostend. The separate paintings, which were rendered in a very large scale and could be, therefore, full of details that would absorb the viewers who would scrutinize the segments of the panorama for information.

junifrangment 5-6


Perhaps the most famous of these artists was Georges Paul Leroux (1877-1957), who, like his Belgian counterparts was born in the nineteenth century and grew up with Impressionism and inherited Post-Impressionism and simply stopped there. This was the style, Post-Impressionism in that it was so belated, that was the leading style of the day. For most of the public, including those interested in art, it was artists like Leroux who exhibited in the Salon des Artistes Français, that were considered the prominent and famous. Leroux could not have been more acclaimed, winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1906 and spent the vaunted year painting at the Villa Medici. For the general public, avant-garde was a fringe phenomenon of little import and therefore it was these academic artists who were entitled to speak and speak frankly to the French public.

At the advanced age of thirty-seven, Leroux signed up to serve his country and was awarded two citations and the Croix de guerre. Calling up his classical learning and calling forth his academic training, Leroux produced an elegy of mourning in the pièta, Soldiers Burying Their Comrades in the Moonlight, April 1915 (1915). The painting is both real–the tragic job undertaken during rare moments of truce–burying the dead and mystical–the shining white face and shirt, dappled with bloodstains–the pale glow of the “beautiful death.” There is much in this painting that recalls Giotto, especially in the way in which the solider cradles the Christ-like soldier gently by his shoulders and the curved back of the soldier attempting to discern the identity of the dead. In the background silhouetted against the pale blue dawn sky, the crouching gravediggers, bow to the earth, like the Gleaners, and an air of sanctity blesses the sad passage out of pain and fear.


The most impactful work by Leroux is probably L’enfer (Hell) (1921), a simple title that sums up existence on the Western Front as witnessed and remembered. L’ender is not blue but red; the scene is not stilled but churned. As he recounted later, “I saw a group of French soldiers seeking refuge in one of the thousands of craters filled with water, mud and corpses.” Leroux, who was determined to represent the War in all of its horror, inscribed the scene upon his brain so that he could paint it later. At first glance the painting is hard to read, for it does not seem real at all but something out of a nightmare. The nightmare is depicted by a soldier, Leroux, who served in Verdun, and painted by a painter for soldiers in their memory and in their honor. The artist called forth the experiences that woke him up at night. At the heart of the frightening coil of brown smoke is a deep shell hole full of water. It is here where soldiers fight for their lives, struggling against mud and panic in the midst of shellfire.


Georges Paul Leroux. L’enfer (1921) The painting is also dated 1917 to 1918, but the Museum which owns it sets the “production date” as 1921.

This painting is in the Imperial War Museum which concludes its description of the painting by stating, “The artist reminds us that the earth, which in peacetime sustains health and life, has been transformed in time of war into an uninhabitable ‘Hell’ and as such L’Enfer may be construed as a most powerful anti- war image.” After the War, Leroux returned to his successful career as an academic artist and received the honors that would come to an artist of his statue. He became a member of the jury of the Society of French Artists in 1924, a great compliment to his work. In 1926, he was promoted to Knight of the Legion of Honor and photographs of the artist show him proudly wearing the medals bestowed by his nation. Another high honor was his appointment as a member of the Institut de France in 1932 and in 1945, after he lived through yet another war, he was elected its president. When he died in 1957, the art world had long since passed him by, forgetting academic and artists of the early twentieth century, but Georges Leroux left behind a horrific image of war that became the most famous of his entire career.

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 Great War: French Military Painting, Part One

French Artists at War

Fernand Léger: A Case Study

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


Poilus en permission, Paris 1916

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

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

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

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

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


Fernand Léger at the Front, Verdun

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Fernand Léger. Solider with a Pipe (1916)

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


Fernand Léger. Verdun. The Trench Diggers (1916)

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

2 T UMAX Mirage II V1.4 [2]

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


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

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


Fernand Léger. Study for Mechanical Elements (1918)

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


Fernand Léger. In the Factory (1918)

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


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

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

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]

Sir Muirhead Bone: Official War Artist, Part One

Sir David Muirhead Bone (1876-1953)

The First Official War Artist

The Great War posed unique challenges to artists, especially those born deep in the nineteenth century and trained in its artistic techniques and standards. Mature and distinguished by the time the War began, these artists were, a as a group, constitutionally unable to grasp the meaning of the terminal conflict that was ending the way of life they had known. A younger artist, a man such as Christopher Nevinson or David Bomberg, would have instinctively grasped the import of the War through their personal experiences as soldiers. Their paintings of war, whether Paul Nash’s accounts of the destruction of innocence through nature, were embedded with their personal pain. Older artists, such as John Singer Sargent and his colleague Henry Tonks, were sanguine enough and old enough to look War in its face and not flinch, but they could not react its horrors with the old tools and the old methods. Strikingly, the matured artists did not develop new languages or new methods of expression to the wholly new experiences. And yet these artists, in their familiar styles and their uncritical straightforwardness that masked deeper truths, were public favorites. It was they who educated the British people on the facts of the War, while their younger counterparts revealed the pain of the War. There is a strong visual difference among these “Official Artists,” working for the government. The older artists not only spoke in languages that were now dead but they also were contented with visiting battlefields under safe conditions. The younger men, however, had lived and fought on the trenches, and had tended to wounded and dying soldiers, experiencing war close up and in a very intimate way. Because many, such as Nevinson and Bomberg, were well versed in modern art languages, they were able to deploy these dialects to visually convey the war and its bleak and terrifying costs. It is interesting to note that, in the case of Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, censorship from the very government that had hired him struck when the artist shifted into realism.

Conflicting and conflicted generations, these artists worked in tandem with the famous Wellington House, the propaganda arm of the government. The goal of Wellington House, an early form of an intelligence unit, was not to inform as much as to educate and convince neutral nations, such as America, of the importance of joining Great Britain and its allies in the Great War. Given that the goal was to make clear the necessity of American participation, Wellington House and its distinguished roster of writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, the discussion of the War was focused upon the vileness of the Germans and the urgency of defeating the aggressive and ruthless foe. Naturally, given the immediate evidence of how horrible this War was, Wellington House was somewhat hesitant to include visual artists in this enterprise but the government agency, under the leadership of Charles Masterman, began to hire photographers and then a well known printmaker, Muirhead Bone to convey the official British position on the war. As M. L. Sanders explained in the article “Wellington House and British Propaganda During the First World War,”

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Germans poured out propaganda in the form of posters, leaflets and pamphlets, in an attempt to explain Germany’s entry into the war and discredit the motives of the allies. The British government was greatly disturbed by the virulence of he German campaign, which was specifically directed towards influencing then United States of America..On 5 September the cabinet decided hat steps were to be taken without delay to counteract the dissemination by Germany of false news abroad. Though there had been no peace-time precedent, the cabinet accepted the need for an organization to co-ordiante propaganda directed at foreign opinion for the duration of the war.

Visual artists, however, were invited into the “official” propaganda ranks once the government realized that photography might not be the best tool for reaching the public. In what is surely, if not the first, one of the first books on the artists during the Great War, Albert Eugene Gallatin in his 1919 book, Art and the Great War, wrote, “ far as its known, the Great War was the first to be officially recorded by artists. This innovation is one that the historian and posterity will certainly welcome, for pictures, far more adequately than the written word, were capable of recording the great conflict.” Gallatin noted “The hideousness and horror of modern trench warfare is also far removed from the pageantry and splendor of warfare in the Middle ages–it is vastly different from the comparatively picturesque and open warfare of the Napoleonic epoch. War pictures of today have almost no roots in the past; the pictorial recorder of modern warfare has had lost no sign posts to guide him. For one thing for the first time landscape formed an important feature of the war picture.”

What Gallatin stressed, early in his book, was the way in which landscape became, in effect, the image of the war. Paul Nash agonized over the destruction of the countryside of northern France and southern Belgium. Trenches had to be lined with duckboard walkways and the walls had to be shored up with timbers, and, as in the days of the cathedrals, the forests were denuded to “build” the endless zig-zag ditches. What deforestation began, shelling finished and one of the key features of the paintings of the war, one of the salient symbols for death, was the tree, shorn of branches and leaves, cut down, left as a splintered spike, a ghost stalking the ruined land. Traditional military painting had used landscape as a backdrop to a theatrical presentation of dashing action scenes, but this new war presented no such opportunities. A calvary charge was an invitation to instant death and became extinct; a neat march towards to enemy ranks was a recipe for mass murder. The soldiers stayed below ground, like moles, unless they were ordered to climb the ladder and go “over the top.”

In 1908, Muirhead Bone was famous enough to warrant what amounted to a catalogue raisonné of his prints, authored by Campbell Dodgson. Bone, a Scottish artist, was trained as an architectural artist and specialized in views, sometimes landscapes but for the most part of architectural sites. In many ways his etchings and drawings were reminiscent of the photographs of Charles Melville in Paris in which the photographer recorded the demolition and rebuilding of Paris. In making this comparison, one also notes the nineteenth century aspect of his art. He was skilled and talented and an excellent observer of views, and one can follow the thinking of Wellington House in the selection of such an uncontroversial artist who would was qualified and who could be counted on to follow the instructions of the propaganda office.

Ballantrae School House circa 1905-7 Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953 Bequeathed by Hans Velten 1931

Sir Muirhead Bone. Ballentrae School House (1905-07)

Snowy Morning, Queen Margaret's College, Glasgow 1900-1 Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917

Sir Muirhead Bone. Snowy Morning, Queen Margaret’s College, Glasgow (1901)

In the Spring of 1916 at age thirty-eight the printmaker was faced with being called up for active service, a sign that England was reaching deep into its male population after the huge losses of 1914 and 1915. The year of 1916 was the year of the Battle of the Somme, folded simultaneously. into the Battle of Verdun, a continuous engagement. Fought from February 21st to the 18th of December, Verdun was the longest battle of the War, lasting almost a year. The Battle of the Somme itself, began on July 1st and continued until November of that year. Faced with the prospect of active duty on the Western Front, Bone was luck enough to have a literary agent, A. P. Watt, suggested to the director of Wellington House, Masterman, that it would be wise to utilize the artist, not as a soldier, but as an illustrator of the war. According to Lucy Harris in her article, “Sir Muirhead Bone: A Great Recorder of War,” and Lucy Stamp suggested that another artist, William Rothenstein, also recommended Bone. It was at that point that the government decided to create “official” artists to record the war. And so in May of 1916, Bone became the first official British artist, just in time to record the worst battles of the war, giving the conflict, according to the demands of propaganda, some “realism.” The artist who had never been out of England went to the Western Front, or what the Germans called die Westfront” and the French called “Le Front Occidental,” arriving in August at the peak of the fighting season on the Somme. At first glance, his architectural training would make Bone an ideal artist for explaining, through his prints, the structures of this modern war, but when his body of work done at the Somme was officially presented to the public in 1917, the response was mixed at best.

Somerset House 1905 Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953 Presented by the Ministry of Information 1918

Sir Muirhead Bone. Somerset House (1905)

Study for 'The Great Gantry, Charing Cross Station' 1906 Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953 Presented by Miss Evelyn de Ponsonby McGhee 1908

Sir Muirhead Bone. Study for the Great Gantry at Charing Cross Station (1906)

In order to understand the somewhat muted reception of the drawings Sir Muirhead Bone produced during his visit to the Front, it is necessary to briefly outline the conditions of the Somme during the prolonged battle, named after a river the name of which means “tranquil.” In writing of this battle Joshua Levine in Forgotten Voices of the Somme: The Most Devastating Battle of the Great War in the Words of Those Who Survived reminded the reader that “Its first day was the army’s bloodiest, and the total of 415,000 British causalities–to which must be added the 200,000 French and upward of 600,000 German–make it one of the deadliest battles in world history.” The death toll, for the British, was particularly painful. Unlike France, England did not have the “draft,” and its Army, small and professional, had been designed to defend the Empire. The United Kingdom, an island kingdom, relied upon the superiority of its Navy to defend it, and when the War proved to be mainly a conflict over a line that that the Germans had pushed into French territory, it was necessary to raise a volunteer army. Through a campaign of posters which will be discussed in other posts, the government raised an army composed of friends and family, inhabitants of towns and villages, school friends and cousins. These “Territorials” or part time soldiers, men of the Empire would be composed of units who knew each other. The result of the idea of having people who were either socially or biologically related would be neighborhoods left without males and mothers, sisters, and wives left without their loved ones. Levine quoted from a letter by Private Donald Cameron from Sheffield discussing the make up of one of these local battalions:

Our Pals battalion was formed as the result of an appeal from the Mayor or Sheffield, Lieutenant Colonel Branson..University students, doctors, dentists, opticians, solicitors, accountants, bank officials, works directors, shop owners, town hall staff, post office staff, you name it. Professional men, not professional soldiers, but when they got in the trenches, they behaved like professional soldiers.

The letter reminds American readers of the army the United States sent to Europe during the first and second World War–a citizen army. In explaining the significance of such a military, in his book, The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916, Martin Middlebrook explained that the first army the British sent over, the BEF, British Expeditionary Force or the Regular Army had been all but wiped out by the end of 1914. The war continued on the Front, with the French in the lead and the British as support in Europe. But in 1915, the Empire attempted a flanking movement against Germany and its allies via Gallipoli, at attempt which wiped out a large ANZAC invasion force. The situation on the Front only became more desperate and the need to end a war of attrition was acute on both sides. It should be noted that the Germans dug into French territory and had no intention of being pushed back. Their trenches were far superior to those of the French or the British, which were assumed–optimistically–to be temporary. The French, whose losses had exceeded the British, could not give up their country and surrender. In the summer of 1916, aided by the fact that the French ignored warnings about enemy movements, the Germans attacked at a weak spot on the French lines, Verdun. Attacks along this part of the Front, assaults and counter assaults repeatedly continued for almost a year in what was a deliberate attempt to “bleed” France to death. In fact the subsequent Allied offensive along the Somme was an attempt to relieve the pressure at Verdun. The lack of progress in battle after battle, the lack of decisive victory against the Germans made the feeling of irreparable loss all the more acute in Great Britain. One can imagine the impact of Sheffield’s loss of so much of its middle class upon the city itself, so great were the causalities on the Somme.

As Middlebrook expressed it, “Each fresh effort was more demanding than the last, the scale of troop involvement, artillery preparation and eventual failure, went remorselessly up. The more ambitious an attack, the heavier the cost. 1915 was a year of complete victory for defense; a combination of machine-guns, barbed wire, and artillery defied all offensive moves.” The British forces were replacements, barely trained–a condition that would surely add to the losses–but they now had to assume the burden of drawing the Germans away from their relentless pounding of Verdun and make them turn to the Somme. Led by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig had been order by Lord Kirchner to organize the BEF to carry its own weight and to become an equal partner in the fight. In their book on The Somme, Peter Hart and Nigel Steel explained the situation: “The Battle of Verdun was an extreme trial for the French Army forcing them to commit most of their available reserves to the battle. It became apparent that it would be grossly unrealistic for the French to play their originally intended lead role in the joint offensive on the Somme. Indeed the stain was such that Joffre came to see the Somme offensive less as a part of the main Allied assault on Germany and more of a way of relieving pressure piling up at Verdun. The French could still make a contribution to the offensive but it was inevitably scaled down to leave the British Army bearing the brunt of the battle.” When the attack was launched, as the authors put it, “The British were about to fight their first real Continental battle in modern war against the main enemy on the decisive front.”

It is amazing that that War had gone on for two years mainly on the backs of the French, but when the British rode to the rescue, so to speak, the results of the first day, July 1, of the Battle of the Somme were historically disastrous. As the authors wrote, “The cost had been horrendous. In one short day the British Army suffered a massive 57,470 causalities of which a staggering 19,240 were dead. This was the worst disaster ever to have fallen the British Army in its entire history. The county regimental system the British further exaggerated the impact of the casualties. Battalions drawn from a single city area, or a provincial town were alighted and whole communities were thrown into mourning.” The authors then quoted from an account of a woman who had been a child in wartime Sheffield, “The city was really shrouded in gloom. They were very, very sad and nothing seemed to matter any more.” To put the casualties in perspective, those numbers almost equal the total death toll of Americans during the years long Viet Nam War. It was into this landscape, during the preparations for the Somme that Muirhead Bone arrived in France in August of 1916, a month after that horrible first day. It was his task to put a brave face on the British presence on the Somme.

The next post will discuss the efforts of Sir Muirhead Bone, the first official artist on the Western Front, and how he chose to depict the Great War.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]

French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part One

George Braque at War

Recovering from War

On August 3rd, 1914, Germany declared war on France and, oddly enough, France never declared war on Germany. The last days of July and the first days of August were like tumbling dice, with the Russians starting the roll of Germany through Belgium and into France on July 20 when the Tsar issued orders to mobilize. In so doing, without being aware of the consequences of what seemed to be a prudent move, the Tsar unwittingly activated Germany’s carefully developed Schlieffen Plan. This famous plan called for Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to attack, not Russia, but France. Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised the German strategy for conquering France, basing it on assumptions, all of which proved to be false: Russia would take weeks to mobilize and during those weeks the German army would simply walk through a compliant Belgium and cut through France, driving towards Paris. The Schlieffen Plan was a six week operation in which Britain hung back and allowed the Germans to take over two entire nations before turning and attack a third, Russia. As is well know today, this fantasy based battle plan went awry immediately, the Belgians fought back and held the Germans at bay, Russia mobilized and very quickly turned the new war into a two front conflict, and France swiftly called out its troops on August 1st, On the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The next day, Great Britain declared war on Germany. And so the dominos fell, one by one.

The young men of France, carrying the collective memory of the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the scar of Germans occupying their native country, responded to the imminent threat from Germany with alacrity. Occupations were put aside, as were political differences, as men of all walks of life marched off to a War that would change them forever–if they came home, if they returned. The radical avant-garde artists of France immediately sprang into action, placing their carefully honed careers on the shelf, and signing up. Georges Braque (1882-1963) joined the French army on August 2nd, a day after general mobilization was declared. His artistic partner and his aesthetic collaborator, Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard from a neutral country, famously said, “On 2 August 1914, I took Braque and Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again.” Picasso’s statement was not literal, of course, both Braque and André Derain (1880-1954) survived the Great War, but both men would be profoundly altered as human beings and as artists. The cost to the French artists in terms of the growth and development of their art can be seen in their post-war work, which would be conservative and safe and familiar. Once suspended, their forward mobility was never to be resumed as a new generation took the place of the “Cubist heroes,” such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and became the School of Paris. The artists who stayed behind, Picasso and Henri Matisse, were able to continue to evolve their art, taking it into new directions. For Georges Braque, Picasso’s new direction away from Cubism and his military experiences in the trenches, culminating in a life-threatening wound, meant that their work together and their personal connection could never be resumed.

As has been pointed out in previous posts, the Great War was a mobile one for only a month. By the end of September, both sides were paralyzed into lines that would quickly become trenches, stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland. The credit for slowing the German invasion belonged to the heroic Belgium army which held off the Germans, slowing down its advance through the neutral country for almost a month. The French army moved quickly towards–not Belgium–but towards their long lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, attacking on August 7, only to be repulsed and driven out by the Germans. The French determination to take back these border lands was the basis for their answer to the Schlieffen Plan, Plan XVII, and the quest quickly devolved into two major battles, the Battle of Mulhouse, Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Frontiers. Although the British joined the French in these early clashes, it was the French who suffered losses so great that it can be argued that the nation never recovered from the shocking blow. As Brian Best wrote in his book Reporting from the Front: War Reporters During the Great War, The Mons battle, which compared with the subsequent battles was more like a skirmish, was one of what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. It was the French plan to recapture Alsace-Lorrians attack the Germans at the Belgium border. The battles took place at Mulhouse, Colmar, the Ardennes and 13 September, the French suffered about 30o,000 casualties, of which 75,000 were fatal. On 22 August, 27,000 were killed, making it a day to rival the first battle of the Somme for bloodshed. As Romain Leick of Spiegle Online International elaborated,

On Aug. 22, 1914, the French army experienced a disaster of historic proportions. In a series of battles near the town of Rossignol in the Belgian Ardennes Mountains, near the border with France, 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day, four times as many as at the Battle of Waterloo a century earlier. It was a slaughter without compare, in both the past and the future of the country’s long military history.

Like all able-bodied young French men, Georges Braque had been subject to conscription or the draft. According to the 1913 Three Years Law, a man had to be ready to go to war if called. In 1911, Braque was photographed in his uniform at Picasso’s studio at boulevard de Clichy, and the twin photograph showed Picasso trying on Braque’s uniform.


Georges Braque in his uniform

Retroactively, Braque was part of this law or a Troisanniste, being part of a military that was just beginning to recover from the ugly scandal of the Dreyfus Affair. When the War began, the French army was divided, as it were, between competent NCOs who would be swiftly promoted to the officer class and those who were not promoted, the ordinary soldier, considered a form of low life, known individually as Le Poilu, or the “Hairy Beast.” According to Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker in their book, France and the Great War, “Each man had a “class” indicated by the year in which is cohort turned twenty. Elaborate rituals involving parades, bands, costumes, and much else evolved into localities throughout France to celebrate the induction each class to military service. These comprised rites of manhood as much as citizenship.” However, to return to the famous photographs of the artists in uniform, the French military uniform was famous for its dangerous regressiveness. As the authors reported,

Even the French uniforms of August 1914 dark blue jackets and red trousers, dated from the last century. By that time, all of the other Great Powers had abandoned uniforms that presented such obvious targets. Historians have often, but mistakenly, attributed the persistence of the colorful French uniform to stubborn myopia on the part of the French high command. But support for the anachronistic attire really spoke to a more broad-based and ancient notion that soldiers who go off to war should do so as beautifully as appointed as possible. Heroes had to dress the part, most of all in a democracy, in which the army represented the sovereign people at war.


Uniforms designed by Édouard Detaille and Georges Scott, military artists, in 1912. Detaille’s design for the metal helmet was rejected by the infantry but was accepted by the 3rd Battery of the Horse Artillery. After nearly a decade of debate over military uniforms, the infantry below wears the final choice: dark blue jacket with red trousers.


There is a direct connection between the impressive French uniform and the enormous losses suffered by the French on August 22nd, for these early battles showed the complete incomprehension of the consequences of modern warfare in which leaders, using Napoleonic tactics, as old as the uniforms styles, marched soldiers, fueled by élan, towards machine guns and long range artillery guns. Being held back at his home base, Le Havre, for training on the machine gun, or the “coffee mill,” Braque was lucky that he missed the first slaughter. As was customary for intelligent enlisted men, he was promoted and became a sub-lieutenant, moving to the front lines on the Somme by mid-November.


According to Braque’s biographer Alex Danchev,

“I’m now in the firing line,” he wrote to Picasso on 29 November. “I had my baptism about a week ago…There’s a lot of fighting here and we’ve taken up guard among dead Boches and unfortunately some (French) marines. Now the area is fairly calm. You can’t imagine a battlefield is like with the uprooted trees and the earth dug up by the shells.” Danchev continued quoting Braque when he also wrote to Apollinaire, “I’ve been at the front two months,” he informed Apollinaire, with a touch of pride. “We’ve had some pretty serious engagements with the Germans.” According to Danchev, “The order to attack came on 17 December. Braque led his platoon over the top. In the teeth of the guns he gave a good account of himself, but the attack, like so many attacks, failed. The regiment history speaks of heavy loses. A vigorous officer, commanding hs platoon well, dedicated. Shows wiling. His military dossier is a pean of praise to his drive and his fortitude. Braque had the right temperament for trench warfare..”


Braque as Soldier in the trenches

However, Braque would not last a year in this war. After his regiment was transferred to the area around Vimy Ridge, and on May 11, 1915 Braque was caught up in an explosion of a shell and went down in no man’s land, where he lay unconscious until stretcher bearers found him. In the interval, he had been “left for dead,” and his family was informed of his death. His lover, Marcelle Lapré refused to accept what turned out to be a false report. Braque survived but was temporarily blind, a terrifying fate for a painter, and his skull had to be trepanned to relieve the pressure on his brain. According to Danchev, “Braque, wounded in the head was awarded the Croix de Guerre, first with bronze star, then with palm, and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.” The a ward noted that Braque was“An officer full of drive, seriously wounded, leading his platoon with the greatest bravery in the assault n the German trenches.”


Braque recovering from his wound

Over a two year period, Georges Braque had undergone a sea change. No one could serve in such a war, deep in the front lines, with responsibility for the lives of other human beings, sustain a wound that was almost a dead wound and emerge untouched. It was’t just that he could not paint while he was on active duty, it was a question of what to paint during and after the transition back to civilian life, back to normal. Perhaps because although the friendship with Picasso continued their partnership had broken off, Braque returned to painting, abandoning papier collé. Along with the other Cubist artists, especially the Salon artists, Braque created a recognizable signature Cubist “look.” With Kahnweiler marooned in Switzerland, Braque signed up with the dealer who had stepped forward to rescue the avant-garde artists, who were now marketable in the post-war era, Léonce Rosenberg. By selecting this dealer in 1916, the summer of his demobilization, he gave himself a cushion during his period of reconstruction. Later Braque would join Picasso in the stable of Paul Rosenberg in a more permeant situation, but he began to make tentative steps towards recovering himself as an artist.

Convalescing in Sourges, in Provence in the villa Bel-Air where he, in the summer of 1912, he and Picasso began experimenting with collage. Most accounts give Braque the credit for pasting papers and for passing along the idea to Picasso. In writing of this summer of experimentation, Jean-Pierre Jouffroy in La révolution de Braque et Picasso durant l’été 1912 à Sorgues stated,

Le papier collé – et surtout le papier peint ou imprimé – nous introduit, de force, dans un monde hétérogène. Avec aussi bien des plaisanteries comme ce bout de journal collé par Picasso dans sa Guitare, partition et verre, de novembre 1912, dans le bas de la composition, qui proclame “La bataille s’est engagée .” Picasso et Braque auraient pu se disputer l’antériorité s’ils avaient eu ce mauvais esprit. La nature morte à la chaise cannée, peinte sur un fac-similé de cannage imprimé, date de mai et de Paris. Les lettres au pochoir et l’usage du papier peint, c’est Braque. Cette préfiguration du cubisme synthétique, c’est œuvre commune.

But when Georges Braque returned to the villa in Sourges, he was alone, lacking his long time partner, and recovering from a war that had nearly ended his life. For months, he had not being able to make art, a lack in his life that was ultimately more terrifying than his temporary blindness. Demobilized and finally freed from military obligations, the question Braque faced was nothing less than the future of Cubism and his own future as a Cubist artist. The next post will discuss his return to painting.

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

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

[email protected]

French Artists During the Great War: Matisse, Part One

Matisse at War

The Dark Period, Part One

In the narrow confines of the world of the Parisian avant-garde, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were well known rivals for the affections of art dealers and art collectors alike. Both were associated with art movements, a phenomenon new for the twentieth century in that these outbursts of assertive styles were small in the number of artists and captured the suddenly short attention spans of the art world only briefly. Matisse, the elder, was called the leader of the Fauves or the “wild beasts,” which had briefly prowled the galleries of the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Picasso was younger and more hungry for fame but had put his faith in an art dealer, rather than seeking notoriety in the Salons. Despite his low profile as an artist, Picasso was considered the leading Cubist, the new movement that had overtaken the Fauve phenomenon. Matisse, whose paintings before the Great War were brightly colored, scored with lyrical choreographic dancing lines, was not attracted to Cubism, which, with Picasso, was monochromatic and sharp edged, giving little pleasure to the viewer while demanding a great deal of tolerance. Matisse’s biographer, Hillary Spurling reported Matisse’s reaction to the work of Picasso: “Of course Cubism interested me, but it did not speak directly to my deeply sensuous nature, to such a great lover as I am of line and of the arabesque, those two life-givers.”

However, as Spurling recounted, the two artists began what would be a long term friendship in the summer of 1913. After nearly a decade of intensely productive work, Matisse laying the groundwork for his Fauve phase and Picasso moving quickly through a series of personal styles before Cubism, the artists were ready to move on and were wondering what their next moves would be. Picasso was on more secure ground that summer, being deep into collage and constructions, experimenting happily with mixed media. Matisse had settled into a comfortable relationship with the Russian art collector he shared with Picasso, Sergei Schuchkin (1854-1936), who was transporting their paintings to his villa (mansion) in Moscow. Both artists, however, wanted to move forward as individuals and detach themselves from their associated movements and the members. Both artists had become internationally well-known, having a strong presence in the increasingly important German (Berlin) art market, where Picasso was the new favorite, and they had been selected to appear in a very advanced exhibition site in a rather provincial setting, Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. The Great War would interrupt the international exchange among artists when Germany went to war against France, Great Britain and Russia, cutting off Matisse and Picasso from their financial life lines and their most appreciative audiences. The unnatural interruption coincided with undercurrents in their work that would assert themselves during the War. Picasso had returned to color with his collages and his work during the War would abandon, once and for all, the old monochromatic pallet and revel in vibrant hues and vivid patterns. In a counter move, Matisse, the master of color, would spend the years of the War exploring dark and muted tones, especially grays and blacks.

The Great War changed the Parisian art scene, scattering many artists who would return four years later to realize that they had fallen behind the two men who did not have to serve in the military–Matisse and Picasso. Before the War, Picasso had been successful, thanks to his dealers, but his friends mostly lived in poverty until the War suddenly made turned the avant-garde into the heroic pre-war period of the avant-garde. A line had been drawn, hard and fast, in the historical sands. As if registering the end of an era, according to Dan Franck in his book, Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art, the avant-garde artists began to leave Montmartre, suddenly a tourist attraction, and moved their headquarters to Montparnasse. As Franck described wartime Paris, the city was a depressing place:

Paris in wartime, Paris in poverty. The city was clothed in the dull colors of deprivation and restriction. The lamp-posts and the headlights of cars were dimmed. Shop windows were fitted out with anti-bomb tape. People had to get used to new rules. Hunger weighed like a leaden sky over the population..The war cut off the revenues of all the foreign artists living in Paris: the art dealers had left the city, the galleries were closed. The money that some of them regularly received no longer crossed the border.

Within a month, the War would become permanently stalemated and trench bound inside the border of northern France. For years, a war of mutual annihilation and attrition would drag on, draining France of its best and brightest, depriving it of an entire generation of young men, with losses to culture that can never be measured. However, Matisse’s venture into the dark paintings presaged the beginning of the Great War with his 1913 Portrait of Madame Matisse who had once dazzled with a green strip down her face, was now a sad hard gray mask and his Morocco series was notable for the unexpectedly astringent and dour colors. Writing for the Tate Museum, historian Juliette Rizzi, pointed out that these paintings were sharp and straight-lined, indebted to Cubism as if Matisse were paying a visit to the other side in order to see what he might harvest. Indeed the years of 1913 to 1917, ushered in an interim period of dark paintings that seem to have been a bridge to the style he would settle upon for the rest of his life, an approach he seemed to have found in the last year of the Great War. For Matisse, the War was a difficult period. As his avant-garde colleagues went off to war, one after the other, Matisse felt left out and patriotically attempted to enlist. At age forty-four, the artist was too old, his heart was bad, and so he missed one of the salient events of his lifetime, spending the War as an anxious spectator.

Although Matisse had left his home town, Bohain-en-Vermandois, a small city in Picardie involved in textile manufacture, and spent his adult life in Paris, his family remained in the border area, just inside the French border with Belgium. For French people, living in these border regions, the shadow of Germany always loomed. During the Franco-Prussian War, the battle of Sedan ended the reign of Napoléon III near the Prussian border and this region of Picardie was directly in the path of the German armies which deliberately invaded through Belgium and pressed into northern France. During the Franco-Prussian War, Bohain-en-Vermandois was captured, as it would be in 1914 and again in 1940. During the Great War, Picardie and the town of Bohain-en-Vermandois was caught up in this pocket of German advance into France, swelling towards Paris. It was here that one of the early battles of the Great War was fought, the Battle of Picardie during the days of September 22 to September 26. This battle was part of a larger maneuver by the French army–the Race to the Sea–and the French Second Army confronted the German First Army and pressed it north of Compiègne, the site where the Germans would eventually sign the surrender four years later. This territory was also the site of the future Battle of the Somme and the huge German guns gave the area tremendous pounding. A reporter for The Saturday Evening Post, of all publications, was on hand at Laon and wrote of the devastation wrought by the howitzer:

Then everything—sky and woods and field and all—fused and ran together in a great spatter of red flame and white smoke, and the earth beneath our feet shivered and shook as the twenty-one-centimeter spat out its twenty-one-centimeter mouthful. A vast obscenity of sound beat upon us, making us reel backward, and for just the one-thousandth part of a second I saw a round white spot, like a new baseball, against a cloud background. The poplars, which had bent forward as if before a quick wind-squall, stood up, trembling in their tops, and we dared to breathe again.

This then was the battleground within which Matisse’s family was trapped and would remain in place for four years. The Matisses could not get out and their famous son could not get in. To his distress, his younger brother was sent to a German prison camp, leaving their widowed mother alone and trapped in the family home. Later, Matisse’s sons, Jean and Pierre, would be drafted, adding to his helpless worry. All the artist could do was to produce a series of some fifty etchings, portraits, which he sold in order to raise funds for French prisoners of War. While pleasant and marketable, this etchings are not particularly significant works, but they are indicative of Matisse’s desire to contribute and participate in a war he could not fight in. One of the seminal works from his wartime period, French Window at Collioure of 1914 is a stunning contrast to his earlier painting of The Open Window a decade before in 1905.

Matisse-Open-Window e778b64adfe75dfc0cff2b184ab5e8e2

One painting is brightly colored, fresh, full of air and sky. The window is open as if in invitation, beckoning the viewer to stand next to the row of potted flowers and gaze out to the vividly painted boats jostling on the pink waves. The second painting is deeply abstract, the French windows barely registering at the edges where muted blue and green rectangles tilt inward toward a total black expanse, which could be night, or it could be darkness incarnate. The same contrast can be seen in two paintings of goldfish, one of Matisse’s favorite subjects. One, Goldfish Bowl, completed in 1910 was a riot of joyous colors with orange goldfish darting about in a contained golden pond surrounded by green leaves. The only darkness is the black table, seen only in a corner, contrasting with a pink background, studded with dancing green activated dots of color, contrasting with the lazy fish. The second version the goldfish, dated six years later, Goldfish and Palette (1915) showed only two deep red goldfish, floating in a bowl of white water. But this painting is Matisse’s post-war flirtation with abstraction and is punctuated with a black band striping down, touching top to bottom, flanked by blue. The arabesques in this painting are wrought iron flourishes, carefully controlled.


A similar journey into more subdued colors also appeared in The Piano Lesson of 1916, showing the artist’s son Pierre working at the piano. Nicholas Fox Weber in his article, “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” young Pierre who was sixteen at the time noted that he was practicing the “sofa,” which was “the music scale and the four syllables of the tetrachord.” The teenager had to learn the piano, doing stultifying and boring lessons, and attempted to learn the violin too late in life to be proficient, attempting to emulate his famous father who had recently returned to the violin to sooth his war jangled nerves. Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones noted that The Piano Lesson was painted the same year that the anti-art movement Dada was founded:

Greyness dominates and oppresses the picture, and it perversely demolishes pictorial logic, as a depressive mood might distort one’s sense of reality. Thus the same grey colours the view outside the window, the walls and floor of the living room, and even the torso of the woman on the stool – to the extent that it takes time to feel your way to seeing the room as a room, the window as a window. Only Pierre himself is a fleshy, human survivor of this miasma, along with tokens of life: the bronze nude in the corner, the candle on the pink piano top and, like a torch beam, the ray of green garden that cuts desperately across the grey world.


In the article “Lessons of War,” Jones continued, “And yet it was Matisse who created the most insidiously pessimistic painting of the 20th century: The Piano Lesson. In this completely unexpected painting, Matisse paints the death of his own art. Soon afterwards he left Paris, settling in the south and not really making a comeback until the end of the 1920s. It’s an elegy for a way of life, one that Matisse felt no longer made sense – even though in The Piano Lesson he offers a last, desperate justification for the French bourgeoisie.” Much has been read into the paintings of Matisse during the first three years of the War, but when discussing Gourds (1916), the artist did not recall despair or elegy. Instead he explained that the use of black was intended “as a color of light and not as a color of darkness.” In its own way, The Piano Lesson, eight feet tall, has its bright moments, the geometric areas of green and red, contrasted by a streak of pale orange. Pierre’s bobble head is pale pink shaded with a shard of the same orange. See in situ, at the Museum of Modern Art, this painting is far more painterly than its graphic qualities would suggest, reminding the viewer that Matisse was a very tactile painter who enjoyed moving paint about.

The deeper toned paintings continue to dominate Matisse’s work, but far and away the best know of the works of this period, were exhibited at the recent exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. Bathers by the River reached its finish in 1916 after years of working and overworking, an series of active intervention on the part of Matisse, who, uncharacteristically, scratched and gouged and punched the surface. He began this painting in 1909, then returned to it in 1913, and finally found the final form between 1916 and 1917. The scrapings revealed the previous and more colorful version of the five bathers in their original brightly colored setting. For some reason, Bathers challenged Matisse, and recent X-ray analysis revealed no less than seventeen transmutations of color. In its final and restrained state, the large painting, dominating in its imposing size, moves from left to right: the bather begins in a forest of green, broken with the now characteristic band of black, leaving the other two bathers stranded on a band of white and a band of blue, signifying the river itself. The bathers are strongly and plainly drawn with great assertion and assurance, as Matisse moved away from curved lines and bright colors and the sheer “bonheur de vivre” so evident in his earlier works.


It can be debated if the dark muted paintings of those four years are related to the Great War, whether sensing its nearness in 1913 or expression the fear and apprehension that descended upon France. When the Bathers was being completed, the Battle of the Somme was underway, putting Matisse’s family in even more danger and continuous danger as the Battle dragged on month after month. Ironically, the safety of his elderly mother depended upon the kindness of the German army which occupied Bohain-en-Vermandois. Art historian John Elderfield explained the these wartime works were done in a period that was “like a black hole in his career.” And the oeuvre created by the artist during the debacle on the Western Front was a substantial one and yet as Elderfield pointed out, it has been overlooked in favor of the received version of Matisse “as an artist of hedonism and luxury, because nobody had seen these pictures.” In fact few of them were exhibited before 1966, suggesting that Matisse might have understood the phase of his career as transitional or experimental. Whatever his state of mind, it is clear that this phase is often neglected, as many historians jump directly to the year 1917, when, as if he can take the darkness no more, Matisse decamped to Nice, where his art changed once again, because, as he explained, “A will to rhythmic abstraction was battling with my natural, innate desire for rich, warm, generous colors and forms,” an apparent to form that will be discussed in the next post on Matisse during the War.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]