The Art of Carnage

Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Dianne Feeley

Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged
Artists in World War I
Edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom
Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Research Institute, 2014, Illustrated,
198 pages, $40 hardback.

FOR THE WORLD War I centenary, The Getty Research Institute organized an exhibit — “World War I: War of Images, Images of War.” It comprised propaganda posters and magazine covers as well as works that recorded the horror of a war that claimed 20 million military and civilian deaths.

While 27 plates from the exhibit are reproduced in Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged, the book’s focus is actually on artists who fought in the war — and survived. Most of the plates — cartoons, woodcuts, etchings, magazine covers, lithographs, pen and ink drawings, photographs and medallions — reveal the various sides of the war, but only one — Fernand Léger’s Cover of Blaise Cendrars, J’ai tué (1918) — is the work of a featured artist.

Because the volume is focused on examining how the war subsequently affected the lives and art of artists who were soldiers, it does not feature those who died, including important artists such as Franz Marc and Umberto Boccioni. It does include Käthe Kollwitz, who encouraged her younger son Peter to enlist in the German army, only to be haunted by his death a few weeks later.

The collection also features artists who fought on the side of the Central Powers as well as those who fought for the Allies. The book’s title is taken from a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin about the war:

“A generation that still drove in horse-drawn carriages suddenly stood under the open sky in a landscape with nothing but the clouds unchanged, and in the center, in a force field of destructive currents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” (4)

As Institute director Thomas W. Gaehtgens points out in the introduction, the war “started with armies on horseback and became an apocalypse in the trenches.” Soldiers, including these artist-soldiers, went into battle prepared to take on the enemy in a “manly” way. Their initial enthusiasm for a quick victory turned to disillusion as they suffered the ordeal of trench warfare.

Yet they also experienced a community of men on whom they depended. As Fernand Léger recounted in a 1949 interview:

“The roughness, the variety, the humor, the perfection of certain types of men around me, their exact sense of useful reality and its right application in the midst of this drama — life and death — in which we were mixed up; more than that, [they were] poets, inventors of everyday poetic images; I have in mind their slang, so fast-paced; so colorful.” (55)

Following a brief introduction that orients the reader, the editors in two essays outline how, the war unleashed an “apocalyptic scale” of devastation. While there is little reference to the changed borders and revolutions that came out of the war, the editors do mark some of the “seismic shifts” that the war accelerated.

Co-editor Phillipp Blom illustrates the horror of war by recounting a story behind British sculptor Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913). Embracing an urban pace and growing mechanization, Epstein built a part man, part beast, and all machine above a drill he had purchased. As the war continued he was so overcome by the deaths of friends that he memorialized them by removing the drill and legs, severing an arm and recasting the mutilated figure in bronze. (11)

The Artists

Artists discussed include Otto Dix, a machine gunner; George Grosz, who spent much of the war in military hospitals; Wyndham Lewis, a gunner; and Andre Masson, an infantryman who saw some of the war’s most ferocious battles. In one form or another, all later reproduced the devastation they witnessed. Whether they had volunteered for the military out of patriotism or because they wanted greater control over where they would be sent, most became antiwar as a result of their experiences.

Although he joined the German army as a patriot, Otto Dix created a devastating critique of war and its consequences. For example, The War Cripples (1920) has four grotesque ex-soldiers parading down the street in various prosthetics. At a time in which there were frequent parades of ex-soldiers, Dix’s canvas reveals sacrifice without redemption.

Most of the baker’s dozen who fought in the war were engaged artists before 1914. The older ones — like Fernand Léger, Max Ernst, Wyndham Lewis, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner and Georges Braque — already had successful careers. Even Oskar Kokoschka, 28 at the beginning of the war, had exhibited in the Kunstschau, a show of contemporary art organized by Gustav Klimt, six years earlier. But for the youngest, André Masso at 18 and László Moholy-Nagy, just a year older, the war interrupted their schooling.

Kollwitz is the oldest artist by far. Essayist Joan Weinstein traces how the war challenged her perspectives as a loyal member of the German social democracy, which supported the war.

Kollwitz did not break with the party along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. But as she worked through her son’s death and the trauma of war, Kollwitz moved from the sophisticated and powerful etchings of her Weaver’s Revolt and Peasants Revolt series to stark woodcuts. Her hero was no longer the defiant peasant woman but the dead revolutionary, murdered by his former comrades, in Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht (1920).

Unsurprisingly, the most pro-war artist in the book is the Italian futurist Carlo Carra. For their part,
futurists saw the war as breaking with stale cultural traditions and opening the way for modern creative thought. Social conflict was positive. Looking at Carra’s Funeral of the Anarchist Galii (1910-1911,) one sees a violent confrontation between anarchist mourners and the police, with repetitive lines representing the crowd’s kinetic motion, and with color filling the painting.

But unlike many of his fellow futurists, Carra did not volunteer for the Italian army. Drafted toward the war’s end, he quickly suffered a nervous breakdown. David Mather points out that once he began painting again Carra veered off in a completely different direction. Along with Giorgio de Chirico, he developed artistic principles that came to be associated with metaphysical painting.

Carra’s Mother and Son (1917) shows a surface calm of faceless mannequins and everyday objects with ominous shadows. Although Carra referred to himself as an “independent futurist,” the conflict and rebellion at the heart of futurism is not to be found in his later work.

The Abstract Artists

Some of the essays locate how war affected artists whose works are not representational. For example, Daniel Marcus differentiates Fernand Léger’s cubist work after the war from his earlier abstractions. The combat in the Argonne forest and, later, the ruined city of Verdun taught Léger to see in a new way. As he wrote to a friend in 1916:

“Here at Verdun there are completely unheard of subjects, a delight to my cubist soul. For example, you’ll see a tree with a chair perched on top of it. So-called sensible people will treat you like a madman if you present them with a painting composed that way. Here, however, one has only to copy it. Verdun authorizes every kind of pictorial fantasy.” (58)

The atmosphere of the war’s chaos and fragmentation provided Léger with the authorization he needed to paint objects without regard for any coherent arrangement. Being grounded by the objects of war — whether the 75-millimeter field gun or the valuable bread, socks, wood the soldiers needed to sustain their lives in the trenches — Léger, Marcus remarks, launches “cubism in the direction of abstraction, yet in doing so, paradoxically, by means of objects.” (55)

In 1914 Georges Braque was shot in the head, left for dead on the battlefield, in a coma for 48 hours and, when he came to, temporarily blind. During a long period of convalescence Braque was unable to paint. However, once he took up his brushes again his work seemed similar to his earlier work; several scholars have seen these as “a repression of his war trauma.”

But the essayist Karen K. Butler offers a different interpretation, where she observes subtle differences. She notes that Braque’s goal was to render the space that exists between humans and the objects that make up everyday life. He called this “tactile space” and differentiated it from “visual space.” As he pointed out in an 1947 interview:

“Visual space separates objects from one another. Tactile space separates us from the objects. V.S. the tourist looks at the site. T.S. the artilleryman hits the target. (The trajectory is the prolongation of his arm.)” (65)

Butler then uses this perception as a way of analyzing Braque’s cycle of mantelpiece works. She catalogs the similarities and observes the slightly different vantage point from one to another. In the end, she concludes, Braque “always throws us back against the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. The possibilities of tactile space are precluded in particularly poignant and sometimes even violent ways.”

She then connects this series to the painter’s repression of his encounter with “industrialized mass destruction” of trench warfare and its unconscious reiteration of its tactile space. (68)

“Degenerate” Artists

Of course when the Nazis came to power, Hitler labeled most of the German artists — including Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka, Oskar Schlemmer as well as László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian — as “degenerate” artists.

The Nazis confiscated their work to ridicule by mounting a three-year traveling “Degenerate Art” exhibit. Whether they were cubists, expressionists, surrealists, dadists, or painted rotting corpses and grotesque war scenes, these artists did not meet Hitler’s standards.

Matthew Bird’s essay on Otto Dix discusses his monumental work, The Trench (1920-23). “The impaled soldier, crucified by mechanized warfare, seems Christlike….”

Corpses are “in various states if dismemberment and decomposition.” With mangled bodies and bombed homes filling the large canvas, it seems to be the end of the world.

Bird concludes that Dix’s “vague allegory” predicts that empathy has been “radically diminished by the events of 1914-18.” This work, “the centerpiece of one of the most important obscenity trails of the early years of the Weimar Republic,” was later included in the Nazi exhibit and has never been recovered. (116)

Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged is slim volume that packs a big punch. Its reproductions are excellent, and often in color. In addition to the 27 plates there are four or more graphics to illustrate the work of each artist. Essays present a distinctive point of view rather than a comprehensive biography, and conclude with extensive notes. Together the text and graphics reveal a mosaic of innovative artists whose work was shaped by the catastrophe they survived.

November-December 2015, ATC 179