Dada in Zurich: At War in a Neutral Nation, Part Two

Dada Émigrés in Exile

The Disintegration of Kultur, Part Two

Today the city is called Leuven but one hundred years ago, the university town was called “Louvain,” and it was the site of an atrocity, a war crime against property, against culture, against human beings that attracted international attention. On August 25, on its way to France, the German army angered and delayed by the defiant troops of Belgium, took out its rising wrath on an innocent civilian population, composed of professors and towns people standing between Liege and Brussels, in the way of the imperial progression to victory. In Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, Alan Kramer described the march of Germany through a neutral nation:

The German troops arrived in the town in the morning of Wednesday, 19 August, to find a peaceful population frightened by the news of German cruelties perpetrated along their invasion route since 4 August. In the area around Liège, closest to the German border, some 640 civilians had been killed by 12 August, but no precise numbers were known at the time. The town of Aarschot, only some ten miles north-east of Louvain, was the scene of mass killings on 19 August, with 156 dead; in Ardenne, further south, 262 were killed the next day. The Louvain civic authorities had confiscated all weapons in private hands in early August, to prevent any spontaneous individual acts of resistance the might provoke reprisal, and published warnings that only one regular army was entitled to take military action.


Propaganda Poster

Louvain had heard of how Germans had treated other cities and had subdued themselves accordingly while the army marched in and the German military itself considered the town sufficiently secure to make it the headquarters of the 1st Army. But something spooked the occupying army on the evening of the 25th sending the German soldiers into a frenzy of of wrath and retribution, seeking mythical French “franc-tireurs” of free shooters, civilian snipers encountered during the Franco-Prussian War, resurrected in Belgium. While assaulting the civilian population, executing and torturing townspeople, setting their houses on fire, damaging a fifteenth century Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in the process. The famed University Library was singled out for special treatment. As Kramer wrote,

Using petrol and inflammable pastilles, they set it on fire. The library burned for several days, but within ten hours, little remained of the building and its collections apart from blackened walls, stone columns, and the glowing embers of books..the killings continued the next day and night, Wednesday 26 August..In all, 248 citizens of Loubain were killed. Some 1,500 inhabitants were deported to Germany on a long journey in railway cattle-wagons, including 100 women and children and were forced to endure the harsh conditions in Munster came until January 1915.. Still the misery was not over. On Thursday, 27 August the German army announced that the town was to be bombarded, because its citizens were allegedly firing at the troops..Most of the destruction had been caused by arson.In a town of 8,928 houses, 1,120 were destroyed, including some of the wealthiest properties, in addition many public buildings and commercial premises. Not only university library and archive also the personal libraries, research papers and professional documents of five notaries, 14 solicitors, 5 judges, 15 medical doctors, and 19 professors were lost..witnesses testified to pillage on a large scale.


The University Library, Louvain

The town of Louvain was thoroughly sacked. The British press sprang into action. As Troy R. E. Paddock explained in his book A Call to Arms: Propaganda, Public Opinion, and Newspapers in the Great War, what we would consider war crimes today were so novel a hundred years ago that they were hard for the public to believe. Reporters were caution in their account, apparently concerned they would not be believed. Nevertheless from the early weeks of the war, a steady flow of accounts of German “misbehavior” appeared in English and French newspapers. And each atrocity report was countered by the Germans with charges of lies by the enemy and by counter narratives that were falsehoods aimed at neutral nations and at the German public. In the Daily Mail, a journalist Hamilton Fyfe used the terms “Barbarity” and “Sins Against Civilization” and “savage” and “uncivilized” and “barbarous,” terms that had a tendency to sensationalize accounts that were utterly truthful. In the growing accounts of “atrocity propaganda,” Louvain, as the author reported

was significant for two reasons. The first was its particular cultural resonances..Louvain was an undoubted cultural jewel, a perfect site for proposing a powerful thesis that the German army was a real enemy of civilization. The second was that after the German army committed its crime, the town was briefly recaptured, giving a rare opportunity to verify what had occurred..The relative caution of earlier editorializing is being replaced by a certainty of German bestiality. Louvain seems to be a turning point..It seems likely that it was the combination of verifiability and visual impact that made this particular town so important. The physical destruction visited on Louvain was massively emphasized during the final week of September with photographs at the back of the newspaper..It is in this context that the initial use of the word Hun in the Daily Mail needs to be understood. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “For All We Have and Are”had used the line “The Hun is at the gate,” and its first use in the Daily Mail is a direct echo of this, immediately after the news of Louvain..The use of Hun began to emerge in this very specific context, that of an assault on the physical manifestations of civilization..this was the worst act of cultural destruction in more than a century, involving a university town the equal of Oxford or Heidelburg. For this reason Louvain has been described as the Sarajevo of the European intelligentsia, leading to a widely reprinted exchange between British and German academics.

The first salvo was delivered by the artists mobilized by the well-organized arm of British propaganda, Wellington House, in the form of an “Authors’ Declaration” in September 1914. The fifty-three signatories noted that

We observe that various German apologists, official and semi-official, admit that their country had been false to its pledged word, and dwell almost with pride on the ‘frightfulness’ of the examples by which it has sought to spread terror in Belgium, but they excuse all these proceedings by a strange and novel plea. German culture and civilization are so superior to those of other nations that all steps taken to assert them are more than justified, and the destiny of Germany to be the dominating force in Europe and the world is so manifest that ordinary rules of morality do not hold in her case, but actions are good or bad simply as they help or hinder the accomplishment of that destiny.


Signatures of British Authors

In response to the denunciation of German “barbarism” in the name of Kultur, ninety-three German intellectuals and artists published the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” but first appeared as “Aufruf die Kulturwelt!” a deliberate word choice, no doubt, in all German newspapers. Written in probable good faith, patriotism and complete ignorance of the actual events, the document declared,

It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town as a punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved. The famous Town Hall stands quite intact; for at great self-sacrifice our soldiers saved it from destruction by the flames. Every German would of course greatly regret if in the course of this terrible war any works of art should already have been destroyed or be destroyed at some future time, but inasmuch as in our great love for art we cannot be surpassed by any other nation, in the same degree we must decidedly refuse to buy a German defeat at the cost of saving a work of art.”

Historian Stefan Wolff pointed out that the manifesto, translated into ten languages and distributed to neutral nations, was a complete failure and that physicist Wilhelm Wien attempted to provide “the facts in the way he believed to know them” and, disbelieving all accusations against the German military,” writing “None of the accusations our enemies are spreading against us are true.” A month later in November 1914, Thomas Mann, author of Buddenbrooks, published “Gedankem im Kriege” in Neue Rundschau. As Mann pointed out in a letter to Richard Dehmel in December 14, 1914, many manifestos had appeared in Germany defending Kulutr and denying the reports of destruction of cultural monuments and property, and he wrote, “Not that I deluded myself that writing it was any special achievement. I am not one of those who think that the German intelligentsia “failed” in the face of events. On the contrary, it seems to me that some extremely important work is being done in spelling out, ennobling, and giving meaning to events, and I feared that my little piece of journalism would make a miserable showing alongside these other things..” Several important points need to be made: first the German scientists and artists and intellectuals were, with few exceptions, united in their support of Kultur and therefore were defending their nation’s innocence and, sadly, bound together in their completely unquestioned belief in the deliberate lies of their own government, distributed through mass media. Mann, himself, renounced his early naïve patriotism, but not until 1918. The blindness to German behavior during the first months of the War was not universal and surely led to the recoil felt on the part of thoughtful people, from Albert Einstein to the artists who withdrew from the conflict.


Louvain in 1915

Before the year 1914 was finished, the German military committee and denied war crimes, and the intellectuals of Germany were misled into defending the destruction of cultural property of the enemy, opening themselves to the charge of religious bigotry–Protestants attacking Catholic heritage and sites of learning. In “Kultur and Zivilization,” on the the best extended discussions of the origin and meaning of German Kultur, Arnold Labrie discussed the origin of the dichotomy between German Kultur and French Zivilization in 1784 with Emmanuel Kant, in which “Kultur results from an inner moral necessity; the truly cultivated person behaves in a civilized way, because he can not do otherwise. As Labrie stated, “This negative association between Zivilization and bourgeois society was to become an important part of German ideology, culminating during the First World War..” In order to understand the impact of the disgrace of Kultur it is important to understand to the extent to which Kultur was the “possession” of the class of people represented by the Dada artists who fled to Zürich. Labrie continued,

To a certain extent, this idealized vision of Kultur reflects the social position of the literary elite, the so-called Bildungsbürgertum, which more or less consists of people working in the liberal professions or other positions requiring higher forms of education (gymnasium and university). The Bildungbürgertum may be considered the social group supporting the German idea of Kultur.” According to the author, this class understood the Franco-Prussian war to be one of Kultur against Zivilization. “The same attitude was to return during the First World War,wen almost every intellectual considered it his patriotic duty to contribute to the ideological battle against Western Civilization by writing pamphlets and articles. In 1915, for instance, the prominent sociologist Werner Sombart published his book Helden und Händler. The heroes of this story are German soldiers, dying for the cause of Kultur, which now has found its political expression in the state. These German idealists are opposed against Western merchants, Händler, who was strictly interested in material profit..To a certain extent, Buildung and Kultur served as a surrogate religion which filled the spiritual void that was left when orthodox christianity gradually lost its hold on the literary elite during the nineteenth century..Kultur..originates in religious cultus and it this way refers to eternal, inner values of the individuals’s faith or Weltanschauung..

By the time the Dada artists and writers had arrived in Zürich and gathered together for comfort in the Cabaret Voltaire, German Kultur was under fire, German soldiers were considered “barbarians” and commonly called “Huns,” and in 1916, Germans were convicted of war crimes in the minds of everyone but the German people themselves. The visual and verbal propaganda from the British and French and Americans were both merciless and exaggerated, playing on fears and arousing hatred against the now “frightful” enemy. For an intelligent outsider, who could see the photographs of the smoldering ruins of the university library of Louvain and the bombarded ramparts of the Cathedral of Rheims, Germany stood tried and convicted of the destruction of cultural property, the desecration of literary documents and a lack of reverence for history itself. In addition, norms of civilized behavior, which were universally recognized, had been smashed and left behind in the dust and hysteria of total modern war. Kultur, an entire way of life which had, for two hundred years, had formed the basis for the inner life and for the intellectual raison d’être for an entire class in Germany, was no longer tenable. For any artist, writer or intellectual, especially those of German heritage, the choices were complex: one could defend the indefensible, as Thomas Mann did, or one could take the more difficult path–find a new way to create a new form of culture without the blinding idealism of the past. The Dada artists were of the class of people charged with creating and contributing to Kultur but they had lost Kultur and needed to make statements about their willingness to destroy Kultur the way that Kultur had destroyed Louvain.

The next posts will discuss the visual propaganda that depicted the German people, establishing an image that would lead to the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The negative representation of the German people and of German Kultur was part of the back story of Dada, an important component of the anger of the artists against the War and its consequences.

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

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

Thank you.

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Sir Muirhead Bone: Official War Artist, Part Two

Sir David Muirhead Bone (1876-1953)

The First Official War Artist

It is one of the ironies of British military history that Wellington House decided to take two steps that would change the way in which the Great War was depicted for the public in the fateful summer of 1916. This is the summer of the Somme, perhaps, for the British, the most famous battle of the war, an engagement which gave rise to the idea that the high command cravenly and ignorantly and stubbornly led hundreds and thousands of young meant to their deaths, deaths for the sake of a few years of blasted soil. Of course Wellington House, in charge of a modern propagandizing of a modern art, had no way of knowing what the summer of 1916 would do the the citizens of the United Kingdom when it appointed Muirhead Bone, an otherwise respectable if undistinguished artist, as its first Official War Artist. Most remarkably, the War Propaganda Bureau also decided to do something remarkable and unprecedented–to make a film of the Battle of the Somme. Once again, the Bureau could have not known that the first day of the Battle, July 1st, would be the bloodiest day of the War, tens of thousands of young men ending by the end of the day.


Muirhead Bone at the Somme

The Somme was the site of the “Great Offensive,” long planned by the French, but interrupted by the unexpected German attack on Verdun. Georges Braque was on this part of the Front, Matisse’s mother was caught in a German-occupied town in Picardie, and the battle of the Somme, like that of Verdun, lasted long enough to allow many war artist, most of whom were “official,” to survey what rapidly became a ruined bombed out landscape. For a traditional artist, such as Muirhead Bone, the lack of “scenery” was disconcerting. In this flat terrain, relieved here and there by a slight hill, human habitation would be shelled from miles away by huge guns–French and German–artillery heard but not seen. The procedure, repeated over and over despite repeated failures, was to bomb the trenches of the enemy for, not hours but days, in the belief that the inhabitants of the trenches would be killed.


Muirhead Bone. Battle of the Somme (1916)

However, although they might be deafened and stunned, even driven mad, the soldiers usually survived the bombardment. They could rise up, drag out the machine guns and destroy the advancing troops. For the artist, the sight before him resembled the dark side of the moon, pocked with craters, filled with water, glinting in the summer sun, the earth itself, made of sticky clay, heaved with dead bodies, some buried, sone not. In such a landscape, the people, who usually were placed in a landscape, were hiding below ground, and the artist looked out over a blank field of destruction. In his article, “Why Paint War? British and Belgium Artists in World War One,” Paul Gough wrote,

A distinguished Scottish etcher more used to drawing industrial and architectural scenes than distant battlefields, Bone was nicknamed the ‘London Piranesi’ for his ability to depict vast and complex construction sites, shipyards, cathedrals and docksides.[1] Nothing daunted him. But on the static battlefields of the Western Front he struggled to locate the face of modern war; it was elusive, distant and nocturnal. By daylight, the battlefield, or what he could safely see of it, was empty and deserted, with tens of thousands of combatants secreted in the trenches or hidden far behind the lines. At night it was crowded with activity but too dark to draw. Like the few official photographers who had been sent before him, he became frustrated at the huge scale of the war on the Western Front..

The official photographer of the Australian imperial Forces during the Great War, Frank Hurley (1885-1962), “the mad photographer,” found the bleakness of the battlefields of Flanders to be extremely difficult to photograph. He described “Figures scattered, atmosphere dense with haze and smoke – shells that would simply not burst when required. All the elements of a picture were there, could they but be brought together and condensed”. Hurley who had accompanied Shackleton to the Antarctica turned to composite photography to inject some conventional composition into what would otherwise be an image with few features other than dead bodies. The artist and the photographer alike were defeated by the reality of modern war. Keeping in mind that the worst battle of the War was going on while he was sketching, Bone, a true professional, worked quickly in pencil, pen, charcoal and soft chalk, and he functioned efficiently on the ground and in a period of a mere six weeks produced one hundred fifty drawings. It took a fair amount of courage to keep one’s cool and to keep drawing while the British troops were under attack.


Muirhead Bone. Battlefield at the Somme

As one of the soldiers who witnessed Bone working recalled, “It was heroic of him to bring out his sketch book and make rapid notes of the scene around him. Once when a shell burst near him his pencil went clean through his paper, but he carried on while our men were taking cover under bits of wall, and wounded were being carried off.” When his work appeared courtesy of a somewhat unlikely sponsor, Country Life, acing for the Authority of the War Office, published catalogues of The Western Front. Drawings by Muirhead Bone, available for the interested public. Published in a ten part series, each section selling for two shillings, the segments sold some 30,000 copies. In writing the article, “A century of war art that began with Muirhead Bone,” BBC quoted the author of the 2014 book, A Chasm in Time, Patricia Andrew, who said of the artist, explaining his struggles, “It was always a sea of mud, shattered trees, shattered buildings, and it all looked rather the same..If you look at his pictures of the Western Front, they’re not the best examples of his work..He’s struggling to make some sort of individuality in pictures that are just mud, trees that are shattered, houses that are shattered, the odd chateau that is shattered. It’s a bit samey.”


In comparison to his rather dull drawings of day to day life on the front, Bone’s writing could be more vivid. In The Western Front, he described the Somme in these words:

Many skilled writers have tried to describe the aghast look of these fields where the battle had passed over them. But every new visitor says the same thing—that they had not succeeded; no eloquence has yet conveyed the disquieting strangeness of the portent. You can enumerate many ugly and queer freaks of the destroying powers—the villages not only planed off the face of the earth but rooted out of it, house by house, like bits of old teeth; the thin brakes of black stumps that used to be woods, the old graveyards wrecked like kicked ant-heaps, the tilth so disembowelled by shells that most of the good upper mould created by centuries of the work of worms and men is buried out of sight and the unwrought primeval subsoil lies on the top; the sowing of the whole ground with a new kind of dragon’s teeth—unexploded shells that the plough may yet detonate, and bombs that may let themselves off if their safety pins rust away sooner than the springs within. But no piling up of sinister detail can express the sombre and malign quality of the battlefield landscape as a whole. “It makes a goblin of the sun”—or it might if it were not peopled in every part with beings so reassuringly and engagingly human, sane and reconstructive as British soldiers.

The introduction to the Drawings was written by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, an extremely controversial general, who was in charge of the offensive at the Somme, and less controversially, a fellow Scotsman. But the controversy over Haig’s role in the slaughter emerged after 1917 and was based upon a few lines from the memories of his counterpart at the Somme, Erich Georg Anton Sebastian von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) who wrote this bit of remembered dialogue between German commanders: Ludendorff: “The English soldiers fight like lions.” Hoffman: “True But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys.” This phrase, “Lions led by donkeys,” became applied to Haig, the leading “donkey.” The reputation of Haig has been batted around like a shuttlecock by historians for the past one hundred years, but at the time he wrote the introduction for Bone, the War was still dragging on and his eventual fate was still unknown. Was he “The Butcher of the Somme” or “The Man who Won the War?” In his own time, he was criticized by Winston Churchill for the loss of life on the Somme, where there was “a welter of slaughter.” Churchill also wrote that the general “had sent the flower of British youth to death or muti­lation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors in the slough of despond.” Haig, who spend much of the Battle of the Somme convinced that the future of the military was the calvary, went on in 1917 to command at another costly battle at Passchendaele, where there were so many shell holes filled with water that soldiers drowned. But he persisted in his tactics of hurling human beings at machine guns, even though as Churchill said, “Lads of 18 and 19, elderly men up to 45, the last surviving brother, the only son of his mother (and she a widow), the father, the sole support of the family, the weak, the consumptive, the thrice wounded—all must now prepare themselves for the scythe.”

The unbelievable losses at the Somme and Verdun and subsequent battles were the result of a tragic lack of military imagination and unwillingness to come to grips with modernity. As late as 1926, Haig wrote, “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.” And yet he seems to have understood the battlefield and the problem that Bone, the first official war artist, faced in trying to explain this new kind of war:

The conditions under which we live in France are so different from those to which people at home are accustomed, that no pen, however skillful, can explain them without the aid of the pencil. The destruction caused by war, the wide areas of devastation, the vast mechanical agencies essential in war, both for transport and the offensive, the masses of supplies required, and the wonderful cheerfulness and indomitable courage of the soldier under varying climatic conditions are worthy subjects for the artist who aims at recording for all time the spirit of the age in which he has lived.


Muirhead Bone. Shells in Munitions Factory (1917)

Despite Haig’s glowing introduction, Bone’s efforts were meet with scorn by art critics and civilians alike. His renditions of the War were simply too realistic and too truthful to be interesting. The public was hungry for images and eagerly attended the exhibition at Sheffield’s Mappin Gallery in 1917 of one hundred of his war prints. However, as Gough recounted, his work was so well-regarded by the Propaganda Bureau that the officials hired more official artists, and thousands of people in Great Britain and America became familiar with the War though his work. In his article, “A War of Imagination?: The Experience of British Artists in Two World Wars,” Paul Gough, wrote,

By his own admission he recognised that modern war was an elusive and remote activity: “I’m afraid that I have not done many ruins … But you must remember that on the Somme nothing is left after such fighting as we have had here – in many cases not a vestige of the village remains, let alone impressive ruins !” Bone drew the aftermath of the fighting, he was rarely allowed near the front-line. As a result his panoramic sketches of the battles of Mametz Wood or the bombardment of Longueval show little more than hazy smoke on a distant horizon. As one critic noted it was “like a peep at the war through the wrong end of the telescope.”

In reviewing The Western Front in 1917, “C. L.” in Volume 31 of The Burlington Magazine, wrote,

Mr. Muirhead Bone has clearly justified the action of H. M. Government is employing him as an official artistic chronicler of the greatest of all wars..Huge as the scale of warfare has been, it has all the same been somewhat featureless, and certainly lacking in picturesque interest. It has therefore been difficult for Mr. Bone to discover and select subjects, which stimulate the creative fancy and produce a picture, which is something more than mere illustrated journalism. The danger of this kind of work lies in the artist being merged in the mere journalist..Huge guns pervade his later work, and much as one may admire Mr. Bone’s technical skill in dealing with such monstrous objects, one may doubt if he has really been able to infuse any artistic interest in them. Guns are inhuman and immobile, devoid of plastic sensibility.

But despite the rather boring accounts put forward by by an artist baffled by his task, his drawings could often be informative and his work with the new weapon, the tank, produced truly iconic images.


Muirhead Bone. Tank (1917)

It was here, with the machines, that Bone found his footing. The aesthetic and artistic different between the anemic sketches of the battlefield and the dramatic and strongly felt depictions of the machines that were making a new world is stunning.


From The Western Front: The doors of the furnace have just been thrown back and the heated gun tube is about to be lifted by the giant pincers of the crane.

Suddenly a rather boring and prosaic artist, uninspired by being a witness to the greatest carnage of the twentieth century, closed his eyes and turned away, muted by the slaughter and the suffering. The machines of war were another matter. More than any other artist of the Great War, Bone captured the menace of the guns, the destructive capabilities of modern weapons, the size of these objects of destruction.


Muirhead Bone. Giant Slotters (1917)

He drew the nearly unrecognizable weapons–they were so new–as things of darkness, inventions rising up from hell. Going through The Western Front, is like taking a journey into the heart of the pit of the War and into its pity and pathos as well. Bone never allowed his viewer to see the other side of the guns, the men targeted, the men destroyed, the men who became “the missing” of the Somme.


Muirhead Bone, Mounting a Great Gun (1918)

It was those weapons of mass destruction, depicted by Muirhead Bone, that were utterly fascinating. Perhaps the most vivid image was the lurching and looming tank, thrusting itself into the pitted landscape, nosing its way towards the enemy, symbolizing the new modern war.


Muirhead Bone. A Dead Tank (1918)


Muirhead Bone. A Line of Tanks (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]

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.

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

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The Official Artists of the Great War, John Singer Sargent: Part One

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

The Unlikely War Artist, Part One

John Singer Sargent had the singular honor of being the official portraitist for the Gilded Age in America Europe, painting the last decades of a slightly decadent and negligent peace before the fabric of alliances, both family and political, unraveled. Perhaps it was only right and proper that the dashing artist should be among those who were asked to paint its tragic end. If his first great paintings had included an exquisite woman in a svelte black dress, then his last notable works would show the ruin and destruction of the young men, who were supposed to carry on that traditional way of life.

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent in his Studio with the Portrait of Madame X (1884)

Ironically it was also the task of this artist to depict the men who ordered them to die. The Great War was an unexpected climax to a glittering career unmarked by tragedy, but the life of Sargent, like that of everyone who lived through the War, could not go unmarked. It was the society painter, renowned for flash and dash, who would paint one of the great and moving images of what would be the First World War, and, in the process, would render one of the last history paintings of the nineteenth century. But over time, we have lost its original meaning.


John Singer Sargent. Gassed (1919)

In June 28, 1914 an obscure Serbian teenager, Gavrila Princip, assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand. While the killing was the unexpected result of a nationalist plot gone badly wrong, the event proved to be the arbitrary last straw that caused the collapse of an uneasy calm before what would become a great storm. The Great War was the first modern war, but the British government was ready to control the cloud of information that would inevitably gather. Although it had been decades since the Crimean War in the middle of the nineteenth century, the government had learned hard lessons about the modern press and its power. Writing for The Times of London, the first “war correspondent,” William Howard Russell (1820-1907) was unflagging in his determination to report the truth of a war that was going very badly. Russell was a combination of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in an age before governments had come to understand the power of a war correspondent corresponding with the British people. In his dispatches from the Crimean front, Russell explained, in terms both intimate and overblown, a war that husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting. As Martin Bell wrote in 2009, introducing his book, Despatches From The Crimea, “During the Crimean War,it was due to Russell’s dispatches from the scene more than to any other single factor that the British government’s mishandling of affairs, and the gross negligence of the War Office in particular, came to light and that the resignation of Lord Aberdeen’s cabinet was brought about.”

Undoubtedly wary of another out of control Russell embedded with the military, un-beholden to anyone but an independent newspaper, the British government immediately established the frankly named British War Propaganda Bureau, with the sole aim of shaping the information that was to be disseminated not only to the British public but also to the rest of the world. Located at Wellington House, hiding behind a fictitious National Insurance Department, this top secret agency was completely unknown to the public until 1935. The secrecy was extraordinary when one considers that the government corralled prominent English writers and major publishing houses so that the appropriate point of view would be extolled. The list of authors reads like a who’s who of turn of the century literature, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Ford Madox Ford, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. Overseeing all and controlling all was Charles Masterman. Masterman, perhaps remembering the telling images made by Matthew Brady and his photographers during the American Civil War, made sure that only two war official photographers were allowed to go to the front. Most of the photographs of this war were taken by the soldiers themselves.

The organization seemed to grow as the War continued and generated further operations. In 1916, the Propaganda Bureau became the Department of Information, with Masterman, as Director of Publications, being in charge of war paintings. Under Lord Beaverbrook, a British War Memorial Committee, which sent a group of prominent English artists to France, was established in 1918. The Committee gathered together mirrored the roster of authors supporting the official government perspective on the War: Augustus John, John Nash, Henry Tonks, Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson, William Roberts, WyndhamLewis, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg and other lesser known names. To be an “official” British war artist, during the Great War, meant to be under government control. The very nature of the job, which was to depict the war, carried within it a contradiction in terms, for communication and censorship do not rest easily with one another. More than a few of these artists had served on the Front themselves and returned as observers who could, like Paul Nash, measure the continuing damage of a long war on the land and upon human beings. Like Christopher Nevinson, many were censored and came under fire for their frank depictions of the dead or dying, but becoming “official” afforded an avenue for expression and an outlet for their outrage.

Out of place with this group of largely young men, John Singer Sargent came late to the party. Sent on a mission but the British War Memorials Committeee, he seemed to have had some difficulty deciding what to wear to the Western Front, but, like William Orpen, he was seconded to the headquarters of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Sargent found this modern war unsettlingly unpicturesque. His remarks indicate that he was expecting scenes inspired by Lady Elizabeth Butler. Sargent noted, “The further forward one goes’, he wrote ‘the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes and empty landscape. The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men?” Even more mundane was his brief: as an American expatriate, depict a joint operation of the Americans and the English. In the summer of 1918, the American Expeditionary Force had been in action only since May, fighting the prelude to the Second Battle of the Marne that would begin in July. Having learned of the way in which the British high command expended young lives with careless abandon, the leader of the American forces, General John Pershing refused to put Americans under European command, making Sargent’s commission difficult.


Gassed on Display at the Imperial War room at the Crystal Palace (1920)

The solution for the frustrated artist was to produce an enormous painting showing a suffering that was universal, the effects of a gas attack. The painting, Le Bac-du-Sud, Doullens Road, Doullens, Somme, France, would be called, simply, Gassed, and it would be completed in 1919. Being gassed had become by the end of the war a metaphor for all the mechanized savagery of the inhuman and inhumane war. By time Sargent was in France, the original gas, chlorine, which was carried in a terrifying green cloud, had been replaced by phosgene, a much slower killer. In analyzing the various gases used in the Great War, Marek Pruszewicz, writing for the BBC News, explained, “The most widely used, mustard gas, could kill by blistering the lungs and throat if inhaled in large quantities. Its effect on masked soldiers, however, was to produce terrible blisters all over the body as it soaked into their woollen uniforms. Contaminated uniforms had to be stripped off as fast as possible and washed – not exactly easy for men under attack on the front line.” It seems that the aftermath of a gas attack, witnessed and painted by Sargent, was the work of mustard gas (Yperite). The terror of gas was its slow, silent, creeping nature, its all encompassing cloud-like arrival, its all invasive properties made it a weapon more hated and feared than the other technological advances made during the War.


The actual event seen by Sargent was described later by Henry Tonks in a letter to Alfred Yockney on 19 March 1920: “After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint… Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.” It is possible that the aftermath of a gas attack was as orderly as Sargent illustrated it, borrowing the classical frieze composition seen in Greco-Roman art. Disorder is kept to a minimum in the horizontal composition. Sargent undoubtedly knew of Antoine-Jean Gros’s painting of Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau, February 9, 1807 (1808), where the prone bodies at the bottom of the canvas form a foundation for the horizontal layers of the middle ground. As in the large painting by Gros, Sargent shows glimpses of scenes in the distance, spotted between the marching legs of the stricken soldiers. It is possible to glimpse a scene of a carefree football game, suggesting that war is a game, indicating that life will continue, or possibly alluding to the famous soccer matches played during the Christmas truce of 1914.


Modern eyes, accustomed to the absolute ban on chemical weapons see Sargent’a massive painting as horrific and painful, a statement about the barbarity of war, but the contemporary audiences were not supposed to cringe but to respond to the patriotism and classical pathos of the scene. Pruszewicz made the point in his article that, according to Richard Slocombe, Senior Curator of Art at the Imperial War Museum, the meaning was less about suffering and more about the spiritual mission of the War: “The painting was meant to convey a message that the war had been worth it and had led to a better tomorrow, a greater cause, that it had not been a terrible waste of life. It is a painting imbued with symbolism. The temporary blindness was a metaphor, a semi-religious purgatory for British youth on the way to resurrection. You can see the guy-ropes of a field hospital tent depicted, and the men are being led towards it.” Vera Brittain, who had lost her lover, her brother, and her innocence to the War, complained of the government mandated attitudes that this was a “holy war.” Of the victims of a gas attack, she wrote to her mother that she wished the English public could see, “We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago: there were 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case–to say nothing of 10 cases of mustard gas in its early stages–could see the poor things all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently – all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, their voices a whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they are going to choke.”

But, as shall be seen in the subsequent post, John Singer Sargent had no intention of showing the horror of modern war nor was his painting about the actual suffering of the real victims of an attack of mustard gas. It is clear that what he witnessed must have been horrible but that, possibly because he was an “official” war artist, not schooled in this particular war, he had no intention of making an anti-war statement. Sargent was a patriot and a believer in the richness of this war against the barbarism of the Germans and how better to convey the inhumanity of the “brutes” as they were depicted by British propaganda than to contrast the behavior of the Hun with the nobility of the English lads outlined against the blank sky. The reception of this painting, both at the time of its first exhibiting and to this day, was and is complex and controversial. Gassed, while admired by the public, has been examined with jaundiced eyes for the past century, an issue examined in Part Two.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]