Artists of the First World War – The Triumph of the Avant Garde

Wednesday 10th June 2015 by Martin Heard

Martin Heard is an independent art historian who for the past ten years has devoted his time to researching Art historical periods and subjects that have garnered his Martin Heardinterest over the years.   Avant Garde artists produced a number of rather challenging works which require interpretation.   Pictures of warfare are nothing new: even in Egyptian times the famous depiction of Trajan’s Column celebrated the victory of the Roman army in AD113.   A painting featuring The Battle of San Romano c.1450 by Paolo Uccello shows the leader of Florentine troops amid blood and gore on the battlefield, lances and armour in perspective, a profusion of detail celebrating victory.   The Battle of Eylan by Antoin-Jean Gros (1807) is a significant depiction of Napoleon giving attention to the vanquished Russians in winter.   A doctor is being sent to help an injured Russian grenadier.   Its narrative is clear; it celebrates victory, nationalism and elevates Napoleon’s stature.

The First World War and its aftermath was a watershed in the history of 20th Century arts.   War poems written by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Own and Siegfried Sassoon looked at the literary view, but ignored art, photography and cinema.   There were some chilling images: men were gassed, horses and their riders stuck in trenches.   It was the first industrial war.   The French were enthusiastic for war to begin and had become great patriots, keen to get their own back for the loss of Alsace in the Franco/Prussian campaign.   It was the time of ‘isms’ in Modern Art, Abstraction, Cubism and Poster Art: Kitchener’s poster in red and yellow is an emotive and enduring image, and highly effective in driving recruitment at the time, influencing and encouraging young men to join up.

The term Expressionism developed a distinctly German character in Die Brücke (The Bridge), and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), expressionist groups from Dresden and Munich who were joined by Wassily Kandinsky, all working in differing modes including woodcuts.   Otto Dix was another artist whose works were often a form of protest, penetrating social criticism.   He suffered badly from shell-shock and it would become his obsession: he created a painting called The Trench where soldiers looked like moles covered in slime which created a scandal.   Another member of Die Brücke, Ernst Kirchner’s 1915 painting Artillery Men in the Shower depicted very thin, raw recruits – a very unpleasant image of serving soldiers.

Italy did not join the Great War until 1915.   The country was still at this time backward in industrial development and social infrastructure.   Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a poet, journalist and car enthusiast, formed a like-minded band of people calling themselves The Futurists.   Gino Severini was a follower and thought it would be good for Italy to be industrialised and mechanised – offering the opportunity to destroy everything that had gone before: everything should be new!   The railway movement, aircraft development and the mechanics of war fascinated the Futurist movement.   Several of Severini’s works featured weapons of war, aircraft, ships, guns accompanied by words – or headlines – often making no logic, announcements extracted from posters or newspapers.   H is Armoured Train depicts a fast-moving train with soldiers shooting long, powerful guns.   It is the style of Futurism, the glorification of war technology, dynamism of new objects and materials, combined with trains, epitomised the fast pace of urban life which so appealed to Italian Society of the time. In contrast, The Charge of the Lancers (1915) by Umberto Boccioni is a repetition of shape in a muted grey and lemon work which highlights the sequential movements of horse and rider; clearly influenced by Marcel Duchamp it created a sculptural effect.

The French Avant Garde were a most important group of artists working in Paris.   The Cubist movement was led by Picasso, Braque and Matisse.   It was problematic as it contained ‘foreign’ artists: Spanish, South American and Russians, all trapped in France and who could not be called up to fight.   They often worked together producing similar paintings.   George Braque’s 1914 Fruit Dish and Glass is a good example of static layering, the compositional elements are flattened and distorted.   He and Picasso influenced each other.   He was keen to join the army but was very badly injured in 1915.   Marcel was a French naturalised American who dismissed earlier artistic styles.   He wanted to put art back into the service of the mind and provoke thought.   His Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) certainly created controversy; its depiction of motion shows the influence of flickering cinema screens, a lady captured by film.   Artists such as Jacques Villon and Roger de La Fresnaye produced works featuring military parades.   There was little requirement for art and many of the Avant Garde were engaged in poster design, publications and pamphlet illustration.

French and German governments formed conservative views of what art was acceptable and Picasso changed his style from Cubism whilst others such as Fernand Léger, originally an engineer, drew inspiration from their former career.   In 1917 during convalescence from a mustard gas attack, Léger painted The Card Players.   The robot-like monstrous figures dominated the canvas, reflecting his experience as an engineer whose expertise had contributed to design the horrors of war.   It was a very effective and chilling composition.

The British Avant Gard were a smaller, close-knit group.   Their art of wartime would result in public art commissions in the ‘20s and ‘30s such as the flowering of Underground posters.   Many British artists studied together under the tutelage of Henry Tonks at The Slade, among them Nevinson, Gertler and Dora Carrington.   Jacob Epstein, the sculptor, was among their number and his creation The Rock Drill c 1913-15 was not actually referenced to war but symbolized the triumph and power of mechanised man.   The 1914-18 war did enable artists to produce some of the most striking works, among them Eric Kennington (1889-1960), a sculptor rather than a painter, but his 1915 work The Kensingtons at Laventie painted on glass was a masterpiece.   It caught the weariness of the troops, recently emerged from the trenches exhausted yet waiting to form up for a five mile route march back to their billets, a depleted unit.   The military authorities were very unhappy about the public seeing such a depiction; they had banned cameras and journalists from the front, and casualty lists were not published.   Visitors who saw the work were shocked.   People who would normally have visited a gallery went to see the exhausted, tired soldiers: the public had generally been kept in the dark regarding the plight of soldiers.

At the outbreak of war C.R.W. Nevinson, as a Quaker, joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, and was deeply disturbed by his work tending wounded French soldiers.   His subsequent produced three paintings: The Doctor 1918 showed wounded soldiers receiving medical aid which shocked the public.   A patient in the background was shown with a wound to his backside, while an equally disturbing figure in the foreground showed a doctor attending to a nasty head injury.   His Paths of Glory 1917 was a more conventional composition but shows bodies lying unattended in the trenches. Deemed not suitable to view it had pieces of paper stuck over the dead bodies, which of course, everyone wanted to see: what were they hiding?   In The Bursting Shell 1915 the use of strong lines and swirling movement, indicating the influence of Futurist compositions, created the effect of an explosion juxtaposed with the view of a cobbled street.

Percy Windham Lewis was a fascinating character: writer, novelist and broadcaster considered to be a great womaniser, scrounger and unreliable!   He often accepted money for portrait commissions he never completed.   He was the founder of the Vorticist movement which was based on the Italian Futurists manifesto.   He constantly fell out with other artists, among them Roger Fry.   He was actually very brave, though, as during his war service in his role as an artillery spotter, German troops could see the spotters clearly and many were killed.   “Blast” was a publication founded by Lewis, which united a variety of rebel artists, conveying their message for change.   “England as one of the first countries to be industrialised should encourage and face up to the modern mechanised world in its reflection of art”.   The magazine only lasted for two issues but certainly made for comment; many in the arts community were devastated by the loss of Gaudier-Brzeska, a young sculptor who was responsible for much of the design element in “Blast”.

Muirhead-Bone was a Scottish middle-aged graphic designer commissioned as an honorary second lieutenant and engaged as an official war artist.   His brief was to produce drawings of “appropriate war scenes” for propaganda purposes and historical records.   The drawings were reproduced in a collection called “The Western Front” including some of the Somme Offensive.   The army hierarchy were however, furious with him for including drawings of tanks, military equipment not known to the British public.   He was in his way subversive; he felt the country should be made aware of developments.   The tank drawing became an iconic image of WW1.

Paul Nash was a British surrealist painter and war artist and among the most important landscape artists of the first half of the C20.   The slaughter caused by war created horrifying statistics and, in the case of Nash, the destruction wrought upon the countryside.   His 1918 We are Making the New World clearly depicts landscape as the victim of war.   The countryside was being constantly reshaped by bombardment and attacks.   People are excluded: the land is dead and polluted.   This is a new world, yet one that is unwanted, unlovable yet inescapable; forests are destroyed by the modern developments.   The 1917 Salient at Night (Ypres) shows a night scene in the trenches with three soldiers on the fire-step, their vulnerability to enemy fire on three sides.   Nash has created a vision of biblical comparison – as if three men are called to the Star of Bethlehem instead of the sky being lit up by a German mortar shell.   A similar depiction by Otto Dix, The Flare (1917), shows his star-shell highlighting an isolated area with men caught on barbed wire, dead before being fired on, representing all the death caused by war.

The Canadian forces were at Ypres and a monumental canvas The Second Battle of Ypres May 1915 by Richard Jack was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund, an organisation established by Lord Beaverbrook.   David Bomberg, although British, was also commissioned to produce a battlefield scene for Canada: Sappers at Work – A Tunnelling Company Hill 60, St. Eloi had two versions.   The first was dismissed as “Futurist Rubbish” and he was commanded to produce a second, more representative version.   Bomberg was a major figure in the London avant-garde and his work often reduced many of his subjects to geometric forms. The Canadians requested the second version to avoid abstraction and it became a monochrome image of men digging, moving earth and erecting timber supports in a trench.   Bomberg was not comfortable with the request but produced an ‘acceptable’ version.   In fact he was so upset with rejection that he had a breakdown and never recovered his early promise.   Canadian Artillery (1916) by Percy Wyndham-Lewis was a differing style, more narrative and traditional.   Lewis was in an artillery battery so it is an accurate depiction.   His soldiers are seen running away from German gas clouds: thick masses of yellow-green chlorine vapour drifted over the trenches and engulfed the soldiers.   He also included a black soldier who was serving in the Canadian unit.   Wyndham-Lewis had been appointed as an official war artist for both the Canadian and British Governments beginning in 1917.   His A Battery Shelled of 1917 is a mysterious construction featuring a group of soldiers, many dead and the trenches are lined with robotic stick men.   It is thought Lewis had been out ‘spotting’ and came back to find most of his men had been killed.

In 1919 Paul Nash produced The Menin Road, a huge canvas 60ft square depicting a maze of flooded trenches, shell craters and tree stumps devoid of any foliage pointing to the sky which is full of smoke plumes.   Two soldiers at the centre of the picture try to follow the now unrecognizable road but appear trapped in this terrible new landscape.

Stanley Spencer’s work was always imaginative and lively, sometimes strange and certainly eccentric.   The Dressing Station, Macedonia 1916 (completed in 1919) was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee.   His work often had a biblical reference and here mules delivering wounded soldiers hints at redemption.   Travoys (two long poles slung each side of a mule, linked in tandem with stretchers attached) were used to transport wounded soldiers as wheeled vehicles could not be used on the uneven ground.   John Singer Sargent was commissioned by the British Government to contribute a painting for the WW! Hall of Remembrance: Gassed, completed in 1919 is a very large canvas depicting the aftermath and casualties of a gas attack by the Germans.   The side-on view gives a start depiction of a clearly daily event, of soldiers being guided along a duckboard by a medical orderly.   Their eyes are bandaged; each man relies on the man in front.   It is an illustration of a gas attack from the Western Front in 1918, as witnessed by the artist.   It highlights the lack of protective clothing and eye shields.   A routine operation, an everyday happening to battlefield casualties: an evening football match continues in the background regardless.   The gassed and blinded men being led along in batches of six did nothing to disturb the daily routine.   The painting was originally intended to depict life of the soldiers on a Sunday.

Following the Armistice, peace celebrations and commemorative events were conducted in different ways throughout Europe.   A Victory March in 1919 by very badly injured soldiers was at first discouraged by the authorities.   Eventually the injured soldiers were allowed to participate, but no photographs of the event were allowed so the spectacle was limited.   The Government did not want the public to witness the extent of disfigurement inflicted on the forces.   It was not until 1924 that a painting called The Procession of the Mutilated by Jean Boissière was seen by the public; the French citizens were truly shocked at the number of seriously injured among them men in wheelchairs, blind and on crutches.   The official WW1 Memorial at the Arc de Triomphe was ‘cobbled’ up from plaster and wood.   Another monument was a figurative statue as ‘Victory’ a figure with aeroplane wings.   However, a completely different piece of national art came from Claude Monet.   He had liaised with his friend, the ex-prime minister Georges Clemenceau, that Water Lilies should be displayed on a curved space.   Specially constructed walls were built to mount the decorative panels as a monument to the end of WW1, and they were installed in the Orangerie Museum. The point here was that the general public were not coming to glorify war but to view the tranquillity of Monet’s garden.

The Aftermath left governments unsure quite how to commemorate their fallen: so many elements of society had been destroyed but generally countries were not quite ready for the impact of modernism.   In Germany artists led the way in exposing and highlighting the disastrous consequences of war on their country.   In this newly impoverished and disappointed nation it was left to the artist Otto Dix to provide the much-needed social commentary.   His 1920 The Match Seller is a stark, jarring canvas.   Dix protests against the senseless brutality of war.   Not for him a group of wounded soldiers but a single, blind, limbless man on a street corner.   It is clear Germany is haunted by disabled ex-soldiers, yet when confronted by the reality of the dehumanised figure, wealthy passers-by ignore him.

In England Lloyd George was impressed with the idea of a permanent memorial as he had witnessed soldiers marching past a huge catafalque in Paris.   He instructed Sir Edwin Lutyens to design a similar monument.   Originally constructed in timber, it was later built as a permanent structure in Portland stone.   The Cenotaph has become the National Memorial for remembrance commemoration.   In narrative terms, Stanley Spencer drew on his personal experiences for his commemorative reflections.   This is seen in The Memorial Chapel at Sandham (1926-32).   His originality and inspirations were often drawn from personal experiences.   He was familiar with Bible stories and featured elements in many of his paintings.   As a pacifist Spencer served with the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1916-18 in Macedonia.   The Memorial Chapel mural shows soldiers in Macedonia rising from their graves with crosses: the resurrection was often a feature of his compositions.   Unveiling of Cookham War Memorial 1927 is an intriguingly peaceful painting of a ceremony which held great importance for the Spencer family.   Stanley’s eldest brother Sydney had been killed in the last few months of the war and his name was on the memorial.   Spencer chose to portray the queues of people viewing the memorial in pastel clothing, an almost light-hearted approach to an everyday event of village life.

In conclusion, the post-war experiences of artists produced an extraordinary range of striking concepts that conveyed immediacy and horror of their feeling of the conflict.


Val Tonbridge