Painting, printing, drawing the war
Artists who had been mobilized chose, on the other hand, to express their impressions of the war. How to represent a war that bore no resemblance to previous, more “noble” conflicts? The technological innovations of the first industrial war, but also the effacement of men by machines and the suffering they witnessed, led artists to seek new modes of expression. Artists of the European avant-garde?Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists?broke with the academic tradition of painting battles allegorically or realistically. Their aim was to create a pictorial language that could capture the admittedly modern, but fundamentally monstrous, reality that they faced.
In May 1915, Fernand Léger, who in La Partie de cartes depicted soldiers as dehumanized robots, wrote to a friend: “Still, it’s a very odd war. (…) It’s linear and dry like a geometry problem. A certain number of shells that hit a particular area of ground in a particular lapse of time; a determined number of men per metre, deploying in order at fixed times. All of this is set in motion mechanically. It’s pure abstraction, purer than Cubist painting itself. I won’t hide my sympathy for this way of doing things.” (Fernand Léger, “Une Correspondance de guerre,” Cahiers du musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 1990)
Fernand Léger, La partie de cartes, 1917, oil on canvas, 129 x 193 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (Holland).
British painter C.R.W. Nevinson and Italian futurist painter Gino Severini felt, as did Léger, that it was inappropriate to depict modern warfare in a traditional way. It was impossible to capture the image of shells exploding or guns firing their cannonades realistically: transcribing rather than imitating reality was in order. To express the dehumanizing process rooted in the extreme violence of this war, these painters used broken lines and eschewed detail to exaggerate forms and colours.
Christopher Nevinson, A Bursting Shell, 1915, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, Tate Gallery, London
Gino Severini, Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War, 1915, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Munich
German Expressionist painters sought a style that could convey human anguish. The cry of despair that rings out from their paintings recalls the work of Edvard Munch, a precursor of this movement. Expressionist painting is characterized by nervous brush strokes and deformed shapes that provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer. German painter and printmaker Otto Dix dedicated much of his artistic career to the theme of the Great War and its effects on German society. His works were later categorized as “degenerate art” by the Nazis
Otto Dix, Self-portrait as Soldier, 1914, oil on paper, 68 x 53.5 cm, Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart (Germany).