The Great War – Research Notes (16) The Art Of War

When war broke out in August 1914, no one on either side of the conflict believed that it would rage on for over four bloody, devastating years. Many in fact, welcomed the war, believing it to be an opportunity for adventure —glorious and brief. The famous declaration that the whole thing would be finished ‘before the leaves fell from the trees’ or at the latest ‘by Christmas’ contributed to the romantic notion of going off to war. These fantasies were soon shattered by the gruesome reality of modern warfare.

The responses to the war evolved as time passed; from initial enthusiasm, nationalistic fervor and patriotism to shock, horror, anguish and remorse. These various and sometimes contradictory emotions are reflected in the art of the time. Photography and film news reels brought the carnage to life, so that even those at home got a taste of the true nature of war. Many artists and writers saw the war from the front lines and composed poetry, authored literature and created works of visual art reflective of those dreadful experiences. The following are samples of some of the works of art produced during and following The Great War:

I.  At the outset, many believed that the war would bring an end to the old social and political systems and usher in a new order of equality and progress. This optimism can be seen in the following lithograph from a collection called, Mystical Images of War. The artist, Natalia Goncharova, a Russian living in Paris at the outbreak of war, depicts the angelic host watching over the soldiers as they march away.

The Christian Host ~ Natalia Goncharova, 1914

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II.  Paul Nash is one of my favorite artists and he’s been featured here previously. The painting Ypres Salient At Night heads my poem: Tales Of War. Despite the optimistic title, Paul Nash’s painting depicts a scarred landscape with shell-holes, mounds of earth, and leafless trees –the resulting devastation of World War One.

We Are Making a New World ~ Paul Nash; 1918

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III.  Kathe Kollwitz used her art to portray the grief of loss from war. The following two pieces show the heartbreaking agony and hardship experienced by those left behind.

Killed In Action (Gefallen) ~ Kathe Kollwitz, 1920

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Mothers in different stages of life, held together by one common bond: the need to protect their children.

Mothers (Mütter) ~ Kathe Kollwitz, 1919

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IV.  Christopher Richard Wynn Nevinson revisits the desolation of No Man’s Land with insect-like planes buzzing overhead in That Cursed Wood, a title taken from a line in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, At Carnoy: “Tomorrow we must go / To take some cursed wood… Oh world God made!”

That Cursed Wood ~ Christopher Richard Wynn Nevinson, 1917

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V.  I’ve featured Otto Dix twice before in my Great War posts. Shock Troops Advance Under Gas was the image for a post on chemical weapons and I used The Wounded Man to head my post about the disfiguring injuries to soldiers. You can click on the links to view those pieces. Otto Dix served for four years as a machine gun operator in the German army on the front lines in Belgium and France. He was grievously injured and suffered terrible nightmares about his experience. After the Armistice, during the height of these nightmares, he produced a series of drawings and etchings called The War (Der Krieg). Here is one more from that collection. In sharp contrast to the nationalist propaganda featuring war heroes like Baron Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), Lens Being Bombed shows the terror and desperation of the citizens of the town in Northern France as they run for their lives.

Lens Being Bombed (Lens wird mit Bomben Belegt) ~Otto Dix, 1923-1924

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There are many, many more significant artists and artwork to consider, so this will be one of several posts on the subject.

Paul Nash: War Artist, Seaside Surrealist

Header Image: After the Battle, 1918 – Paul Nash

With another connection to World War One, I’ve asked Mr. Cake (and he kindly agreed) to share a piece on the wonderful artist Paul Nash.

Paul Nash is one of the foremost of British artists of the 20th Century as well as a major landscape painter. He was an official war artist in both World Wars, a leading exponent of Modernism in England , a founding member of the avant-garde group Unit One, whose members included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the art critic, poet and writer Herbert Read, with whom he organised the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London in 1936.

Nash’s paintings and lithographs that he produced as official war artist during WWI are some of the most potent and visceral images of the devastated landscapes wrought by the infernal mechanised weapons of war. Justly famous are The Ypres Salient At Night and We Are Making A New World both of which are part of the Imperial War Museums permanent collection.

The war had left Paul Nash emotionally and artistically drained. In 1933 he formed the short-lived but important avant-garde group Unit One. He formed links across the Channel with the Surrealists, later commenting that he hadn’t found Surrealism, Surrealism had found him. Around this time he was based in the seaside town of Swanage on the Dorset coast, which led him to formulate his theory of ‘Seaside Surrealism’. He also began an affair with another exceptional Surrealist, Eileen Agar ( see Surrealist Women: Eileen Agar). Notable works of this period as the found objects collage Swanage and the painting Landscape In A Dream from 1936-1938.

Swanage circa, 1936 – Paul Nash 

At the start of WWII, Nash was again commissioned as a official war artist, this time with the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry, which led to one of his most haunting paintings, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), (see below) based on Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, which was inspired by a field of crashed German aircraft in Cowley, Oxfordshire.

Paul Nash died in 1946 from heart failure resulting from his long term asthma. He is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate until March 2017. Recently there has been a critical re-evaluation of his work, especially the important paintings from WWI and WWII, and he is generally considered the most important British painter between J.M.W Turner and Francis Bacon.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 Paul Nash 1889-1946 Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946