Art and the Great War
World War I, or the Great War, as it was know at the time was a war unlike any other in world history to up to that time. Nearly every country in mainland Europe became a battleground. 60 million Europeans served in the military. 8.5 to 10.5 million soldiers and more than 2 million civilians died from military action and genocidal war crimes. Another 5-6 million civilians died as a result of malnutrition and disease directly caused by the war. 22 to 23 million soldiers were wounded.
16 to 27% of the entire Serbian population died, 13 to 15% of the Ottoman Empire’s and more than 4% of both Germany and France. In France another 10% of the population was wounded. If you compared France’s total deaths and wounded to today’s United States population it would be like having 13 million Americans killed and 34 million wounded as a result of the war.
A conflict this large and involving the cultural and economic heart of the western civilization had to have had a profound effect on how artists understood the world and what they chose to think about as artists.
The Dying Soldier – Etching; 1924; Berlin; 18 9/16 in. x 13 9/16 in.
Otto Dix was a German painter and print maker. Early in his career his paintings could be considered expressionistic, and he was influenced by Dada movement. He was especially known as a member of the New Objectivity movement in Germany following World War One. He served as a machine gunner in German army for four years and was seriously wounded more than once. He suffered for at least ten years from what we would now consider post-traumatic stress disorder, at the time called shell shock.
Between 1923 and 1924 he completed a collection 50 prints called The War. The portfolio of etchings is gruesome and honest but not photo realistic. They don’t glorify or make heroic what happened, they focus on its horrors. One of the etchings is A Dying Soldier. I first noticed how the lighting in the etch is on the areas of the soldier’s terrible wounds: an eye and portion of cheek bone missing; entry and exit wounds through the soldier’s chin and jaw; injuries to his upper chest, forearm and wrist; and what may be a flap of scalp and/or leaking brain from his skull. To add to the ugliness I remember the title is A Dying Soldier. He’s not dead yet, and he’s suffering until he does.
We are Making a New World – oil; 1918; England; 28 x 36 in.
Another painter who experienced the war was the British Paul Nash. His We are Making a New World also shows the horrors of the war, but in this case in a landscape. The oil painting is 28” by 30” and shows a morning sun rising over a treeless hills in background. The sun lights a devastated landscape in the foreground. There is no life visible, only a pus green shelled land, stagnant water and black, limbless remains of shelled trees.
I also notice the straight lines Nash shows the suns rays creating. They’re the only ones in the painting. It highlights the difference between the light and what the light is exposing – a dead landscape. The painting’s title is a response to a the pro-war believe that something new and better would result from it.
Gassed – oil; March 1919; England; 7 ft 6.9 in × 20 ft 0.6 in
American John Singer Sargent’s Gassed is a huge seven and half by twenty foot oil painting completed in England just following the war. It shows nine blinded men being led to an off scene medical tent by two orderlies. The guy lines from this tent are the only strait lines in the painting. In the distance another group of blind men in coming in too and the foreground is littered with wounded and either sleeping or dead men.
The entire painting is shown in a ghastly yellow light. I think it would of brought mustard gas to mind in the viewers. The nine blinded men tromp through the mud holding on to the man in front. It reminds me of Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind, a painting I enjoyed in an earlier blog post. There is a realism in both that is similar too and unlike what we saw in the previous paintings. However Sargent’s painting is not photo realistic.
All three of these paintings express truths about the war experienced by the painters themselves. All three are representational art, and are not abstract. However, they are not photographically precise and are still able to evoke emotion in the viewer. I’m sure emotions were evoked in the painters as well as they found inspiration for the paintings in terrible memories.
Cordon, Gerry. “Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth.” That’s How the Light Gets in. 18 Aug. 2014, https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/otto-dixs-war-unflinching-and-disturbing-but-dedicated-to-truth/ Accessed 29 Oct. 2016
Cordon, Gerry. “Paul Nash and World War One: ‘I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on forever…and may it burn their lousy souls’” That’s How the Light Gets In. 18 Feb. 2014, https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/paul-nash-and-world-war-one-i-am-no-longer-an-artist-i-am-a-messenger-to-those-who-want-the-war-to-go-on-for-ever-and-may-it-burn-their-lousy-souls/ Accessed 30 Oct. 2016
“Expressionist Depictions of War.” MoMA Learning, https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada Accessed 30 Oct. 2016
Glover, Michael. “Great Works: Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent.” The Independent, 31 May, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/great-works-gassed-1919-by-john-singer-sargent-8637923.html Accessed 30, Oct. 2016
“Otto Dix: German Painter and Printmaker.” The Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-dix-otto.htm Accessed 31 Oct. 2016
“Paul Nash: Modern artist, ancient landscape: Room Guide: World War I.” TATE, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/paul-nash/paul-nash-modern-artist-ancient-landscape-room-guide-0 Accessed 30 Oct. 2016
“World War I.” Wikipedia, 28 Oct. 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I#Rape_of_Belgium Accessed 29 Oct. 2016
“World War I casualties.” Wikipedia, 26 Oct. 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties Accessed 30 Oct. 2016