First World War
How did WWI change arts ?
How World War I Changed Literature
World War I altered the world for decades, and writers and poets reflected that shift in literature, novels and poetry.
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Trench Art WWI | All You Need To Know
WWI Trench Art. Trench art objects are holders of soldiers' memories and reminders of the conflict they faced. Made out of recycled war refuse such as shell casings, spent bullets or whatever came to hand, they open a window to the past.
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Letter from the trenches

“It was life rather than death that faded into the distance, as I grew into a state of not-thinking, not-feeling, not-seeing… Men passed me by, carrying other men, some crying, some cursing, some silent. They were all shadows and I was not greater than they. Living or dead, all were unreal… Past and future were equidistant and unattainable, throwing no bridge of desire across the gap that separated me from my remembered self and from all that I hoped to grasp.”

Captain Wyn Griffith (1916), with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, at Mametz Wood, Somme.

The war experience, human extreme suffering

The First World War stands out as a landmark in the intensity of violence in the 20th century. It epitomizes the advent of total war, particularly by its impact on all of the societies involved in the conflict

German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt defined total war as “the engagement of all the physical and moral resources of a nation (...) to bring about the complete extermination of the enemy, resorting without scruples to all the existing instruments of annihilation.”Historian David Bell insists on the “dynamic of radicalization,”differentiating total war from previous conflicts by its mobilization of “increasingly massive resources in the effort to destroy the enemy regime, in a progressive escalation that can only end in the collapse and defeat of one of the parties in conflict. The “total” character of the First World War lies in the banalization of mass destruction and the generalized habituation to it in the belligerent societies.

Mass destruction is partly linked to the development of combat techniques and weaponry during the First World War, a war that fell squarely within the industrial era. The war arsenal was upgraded by artillery shells and new weapons such as repeating rifles that could fire cone-shaped, fast-travelling, pivoting bullets at a rate of 10 per minute, and by the generalized use of machine guns—the symbol of industrialized war—which fired 400-600 bullets per minute.
Australian infantrymen equipped with gas masks at Ypres, 1916.

In the accounts of combatants, the front and its battlefields are often described as a veritable “slaughterhouse” that dehumanized the combatants. Besides the violence of the fighting and the banalization of the experience of mass killing, the long duration of the offensives (Verdun, the Somme, and others) and the terrible living conditions in the trenches were also the cause of long-term psychological disturbances among the combatants, referred to today as post-traumatic stress effects.

(British) troops of the Border Regiment resting in a front line trench in Thiepval wood during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916.<br />Imperial War Museums, Ministry of Information, First War Official Collection.

Death was omnipresent in the denuded battle zones, lunar landscapes with thousands of shell-blasted craters, the territories of each camp bordered by barbed wire and separated by an arbitrary no man’s land. In the face of the deaths of their comrades, the combatants formed one of the “communities in mourning” that existed during and after the war, to use Jay Winter’s expression.

Trench warfare was an obligatory passage of the combat experience of the Great War. The front line, facing the enemy lines, was the most dangerous zone. Having to endure atrocious conditions in the trenches during lengthy periods in the war of position (with the cold, the mud, the vermin, basic shortages, ceaseless shelling, and death everywhere) caused physical distress but also severe psychological trauma. Generally speaking, the soldiers suffered from psychological damage: depression, anxiety and the fear of death, the repercussions of which would last long after their return home.

In Flanders Fields

In 1915, Canadian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, upon seeing how red poppies grew in the fields that had been ravaged by bombs and littered with bodies, wrote “In Flanders Fields.” The poem, memorializing the death of his friend and fellow soldier, would later be used by Allied militaries to recruit soldiers and raise money in selling war bonds:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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).
Art forever changed by World War I

From the fiction of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and John Dos Passos to the savagely critical paintings and etchings of George Grosz and Otto Dix, World War I reshaped the notion of what art is, just as it forever altered the perception of what war is.

Kathe Kollwitz The Parents (War portfolio, plate 3) 1921-22 Private Collection

. In visual art, Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos.
Max Ernst Celebes (1921) Tate
“The whole landscape of the Western Front became surrealistic before the term surrealism was invented by the soldier-poet Guillaume Apollinaire,” Modris Eksteins wrote in “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.” Throughout Western art, the grim realities of industrial warfare led to a backlash against the propaganda and grandiose nationalism that had sparked the conflagration. Cynicism toward the ruling classes and disgust with war planners and profiteers led to demands for art forms that were honest and direct, less embroidered with rhetoric and euphemism.

“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene besides the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell to Arms,” his 1929 novel based on his experiences in the Italian campaign.