The Avant-Garde and the War
The Visual Arts Between 1914 and 1918

The First World War was a turning point and a catalyst for change in the visual arts. Seldom have so many new artistic concepts come into being over such a short space of time. Visual artists had an ambivalent relationship to the war: at first, many welcomed it; others later had a change of heart and grew to loathe it. But the war had a direct effect on them all.

Just before the First World War, the artistic avant-garde in Europe was in full bloom. It was a period now known as ‘Classic Modernism’, which produced a host of masterpieces. The German scene was dominated by the artists of the Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter; Italy had the Futurists, England the Vorticists, France had the Cubists, and in Russia, Kazimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova were at the centre of a changing avant-garde group that went by various names. This new art met with hostility from the public, but with the help of group exhibitions, dedicated collectors and determined art dealers, the artists prevailed.

The great age before 1914

Everywhere, artists were entering uncharted territory, especially in the use of visual media. They used the natural resistance of materials to create abstract images, and experimented with it in the representation of figures and objects. What came out of the studios was an unprecedented polyphony of styles ranging from realism to abstraction. Wassily Kandinsky, who lived in Munich, noted: ‘It is so blessedly beautiful, that there are now so many different sounds. And together they make the symphony of the XX century [sic].’

The Brücke group of artists may have been drawn from within Germany, but Brücke was international from the outset. It had Russian members, and French, Italian and Austrian guests, from Wassily Kandinsky and Alexej von Jawlensky to Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay. Erma Bossi and Arnold Schönberg also produced artworks under Der Blaue Reiter’s banner. In 1912, the Jack of Diamonds artists’ collective in Moscow also showed works by artists from Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, as well as the French artists Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse. In 1914, Fernand Léger sang the praises of the Paris Salon des Indépendants, which had become more international since the start of the century, calling it the ‘most important manifestation of contemporary world art’. While their countries were making military and moral preparations for war, and creating propaganda images of the enemy, artists were cultivating international friendships.

The rift of 1914

In August 1914, the First World War began, and everything fell apart. The artists wanted, or were compelled, to go to the front; their international relationships were outlawed. The fate of Der Blaue Reiter, a leading light of the art world up to 1914, speaks volumes. Their differing attitudes to the war caused a split between Franz Marc and Kandinsky, as it did between Marc and Paul Klee. At the start of the war, the Russians Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin were classed as ‘enemy aliens’ and made to leave Germany, and the group was effectively disbanded. The numerous travelling exhibitions petered out. The poet Hugo Ball had offered Kandinsky the prospect of realising his dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art – on the stage in Munich. There could be no more talk of that now. Robert Delaunay, a close friend of the Munich artists, was now officially the enemy. August Macke was killed in September 1914, and Franz Marc in March 1916.

The artists fighting in the trenches were not the only ones isolated from their friends, their art and the public: the same went for those who remained behind. On 30th October 1914, Juan Gris told the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (who, as a German, had been forced to flee France): ‘Matisse writes from Paris… that Derain has gone to the war… Vlaminck is a military painter in Le Havre… Gleizes is wounded, so is Segonzac. De La Fresnaye, who volunteered for service, is lying ill in the reserves’ military hospital. I have no news of Braque, in whom I have the greatest interest.’ Duchamp looked back at Europe from New York in 1915: ‘Paris is like an abandoned tenement. The lights have been turned out. My friends are away – at the front. Or they have already been killed.’ The avant-garde was at an end.

Enthusiasm and scepticism

After two earth-shattering, cataclysmic wars, it has become impossible for us to understand the enthusiasm people felt for war in August 1914, or the enmity and mutual hatred that existed in particular between the Germans and the French, and between the Germans and the English. From letters and diaries written by artists and intellectuals of the time, it seems they had hardly any idea of the realities of a modern industrialised war. The last conflict before the First World War was a distant memory. Many people were longing for radical change – a move away from what at the time was known as ‘materialism’, and towards an equally vague ‘spiritual’ realm, meaning culture. They viewed the war as a metaphorical process of natural renewal, ‘as the thinking person’s release from the miasma of a society partly dulled, partly spoiled’, as the art historian Peter Paret puts it.

In this sense, Franz Marc threw himself into the war like no other artist. His watchword was ‘purification’: ‘The war is fought for purification, and the sick blood is spilled.’ The old world was mendacious, vain, pedantic, frivolous: the war was therefore a self-willed sacrifice. Marc wrote to Kandinsky in October 1914 from somewhere near Metz, saying that in the war he had now entered, he saw ‘the path to our goals: healing, but also cruel’. The war would ‘purify Europe, make it “ready”’. Kandinsky responded with incomprehension, from exile in Switzerland: ‘I thought the place where the future is to be built would be cleansed in some other way. The price of this kind of cleansing is horrific.’ Two years previously, when there had been talk of a possible war, Kandinsky had written to Marc: ‘…these terrible eventualities may continue to develop forever, and for a long time to come the dirty results will drag their stinking train across the entire globe. And … the mountains of corpses.’ These two close friends had completely different attitudes towards the war. Their friend Paul Klee also regarded Marc with a degree of scepticism. He even started ‘to really hate’ the physical symbol of Marc’s military position, his uniform – ‘the damned habit’.

The glorification of war by artists was often less an expression of patriotism than of the basic anti-bourgeois attitude among the avant-garde, whether in Russia, German, Italy or Austria. People expected war to bring with it the destruction of the old system and the overthrow of the bourgeois world with its stale culture. However, there were no clear common aims, models or utopias – just the desire, according to Max Beckmann, to pin ‘all the instincts and drives to an interest once again’ in light of ‘today’s culture, which is quite demoralised’. It was an attempt to bundle together various vague aspirations for a better world, and direct them towards reason and morality.

People had very different expectations of the war. To cite just three totally opposing attitudes: the German Lovis Corinth believed that the declaration of war had had a ‘stirring’ effect, in relation to ‘Cubist painting and Hottentot naïveté in art’ (meaning the primitivism that had originated in France). Now the world would see that ‘today German art marches at the head of the world’. ‘Away with the Gallic-Slavic aping that has characterised recent periods in German art.’ However, this kind of nationalistic tone was rare among artists – with the exception of the Italians. Meanwhile, Ernst Barlach, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Oskar Schlemmer noted their fear of being seen as shirkers, all using almost the same trite words: they wanted to join up voluntarily, ‘because it will be an eternal shame to have sat at home’ (Oskar Kokoschka). Finally, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix had very different reasons for enlisting: they looked to war to provide an extreme life experience, for the sake of an art saturated with reality.

An irresolvable conflict

Much more common than deep-seated nationalism or patriotism in the writings of artists of the age was an irresolvable inner conflict. Max Beckmann enlisted voluntarily, though he wanted to shoot neither the Russians (as Dostoyevsky was a kindred spirit) nor the French, because he had learned so much from them. Marc, on the other hand, fought with passion against the French soldiers, but wanted on no account to ‘sulphur gas’ the French culture he valued so highly. Again and again, people propounded an artistic position that was fundamentally at odds with humanity: while people could be killed, art, culture, ‘the spiritual and intellectual’, stood untouchable above it all.

The inner conflict involved in fighting a nation with a respected culture, which was home to close artist friends, put Klee and Marc in a paradoxical position after their friend August Macke was killed in battle. Klee wrote: ‘From here, August Macke, the friend of the French, has already fallen,’ and Marc spoke of Macke’s sudden death ‘by an enemy bullet – one might almost say, a friendly bullet, since it was a French one’.

Among the European avant-garde, the Italian Futurists, led by F.T. Marinetti, were most receptive to thoughts of war. The Futurist Manifesto of 1909 praised danger, daring, dynamism, attack, and all forms of aggression in the highest terms. ‘The only beauty is in war’. There was a lot of rhetorical exaggeration in this aimed at provoking the bourgeoisie, but the statements about war had a lasting, political effect. ‘We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.’

The Futurists’ actionism and vitalism led them into the war. Marinetti’s 1915 manifesto War, the World’s Only Hygiene, reads: ‘Futurist poets, painters, sculptors and musicians of Italy! As long as the war lasts let us set aside our verse, our brushes, scalpels, and orchestras! The red holidays of genius have begun! There is nothing for us to admire today but the dreadful symphonies of the shrapnel and the mad sculptures that our inspired artillery moulds from the mass of the enemy.’ Now the artillery was the only artist, the complete artist. Mountains of corpses were admirable sculptures.

Criticisms of war

But the artists of 1914 were by no means universally enthusiastic about the prospect of war. On the day Germany declared war, André Breton, the future head of the Surrealists in France, expressed his disdain for this ‘most ridiculous enthusiasm for war’ and ‘infantile chauvinist declarations’. In the Netherlands, Theo van Doesburg wasn’t expecting materialism to be overthrown by the ‘spirit’. He held an opposing – and more realistic – view, fearing that the war would mean victory for the ‘dirty, duplicitous world’ over the ‘noble, spiritual world’.

Artists like Robert Delaunay, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp took themselves out of the war by going abroad. Max Ernst noted: ‘August 1914. And then the great mess. Not one of my friends is hurrying to sacrifice his life for God, King and Fatherland. Arp (who comes from Alsace) has gone off to Paris.’ Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s recollection of the period leaves a particularly deep impression: ‘I was in Cologne for a few weeks at the end of July 1914, when the cathedral’s great Kaiser bells started ringing out the threat of war in a great hurry – the Kaiser bells, mind you! – and then a great many battalions came marching round the corner, their helmets a fresh oak green, women and girls showering them with summer flowers as they sang The Watch on the Rhine or ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles..’. From the balcony of a little guesthouse I stared down at the Kaiserstraße as if paralysed. All at once, I saw a thousand heads filled with enthusiasm for war ... turn into death’s heads. Grinning dead skulls! With open maws and two black holes beside a nose that had been eaten away. – Yes, this is what I saw.’

The shock of reality

By mid-1915, most supporters of the war saw things differently from the year before. Their situation was gravely altered. Many artists had serious injuries; others, like Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, had suffered breakdowns, while the Germans August Macke and Albert Weisgerber, and the Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, were dead. They had all experienced the shock of the war’s far-reaching, enduring destruction, either on the front lines or immediately behind them. Oskar Schlemmer spoke for almost all artists when he said: ‘I am no longer the fellow who volunteered in August. Not physically, and particularly not in how I think.’ Hans Richter later added: ‘During the war, we were against the war.’

As soon as the artists had realised the extent of the war’s destruction and had a chance to return to their studios, unseen by the censors, they started creating pictures. They wanted their anti-war statements to reach a wider public. The Germans Willy Jaeckel and Max Slevogt, the Frenchman Félix Vallotton and the Belgian Frans Masereel all took this approach, and the Russian Natalia Goncharova also created a series of these images. It was not only in retrospect that artists from various nations began to make visual statements expressing a harsh criticism of the war: they started as soon as they had first experienced it.

The artists, now scattered and ‘brushless’, as Paul Klee put it, had to rely on small, mobile formats and simple techniques in order to work on or behind the front lines. In spite of various limitations and their military duties, they made great use of these. ‘My works,’ said Otto Dix, ‘come together almost by themselves; I don’t know where they’re going any more’. To take just a few examples: Fernand Léger’s and Dix’s works were mainly reactions to the monstrous new events and the destruction they wreaked, while Beckmann, Erich Heckel and the Russian Ossip Zadkine devoted themselves to representing the suffering of the victims. Ludwig Meidner and the Austrian Egon Schiele reacted to encounters with strangers, while Félix Vallotton took as his subject the landscapes laid waste by the war. In each case, new experiences caused artists to abandon their usual visual practices and change the way they represented their subjects. This often resulted in a stronger orientation towards realism.

Artists had to become self-reliant, with no more debates about art or exchanges with colleagues. They had their artistic freedom, but as soldiers they were also firmly integrated into a unit. They were no longer hidden away in their studios, but in the constant presence of death. All this made the question of their own identities a central concern. This was particularly true of the German artists, though less so for the Italians or French, who tended to be more secure in their patriotism. Artists seemed to step out of the roles they had previously been playing, frequently representing themselves as confused and disoriented. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (who had not been in the trenches) looks fearful in his 1915 self-portrait, with a stump where his right arm should have been.

For a few German artists – more so than their French or Italian colleagues – the tremors of the war penetrated deep into the visual language of their media. Max Beckmann lost his old certainty, and began trying to turn this new reality into pictures with shaky brush strokes. Otto Dix invented a wild visual language, informed by the destruction he had witnessed. Even Paul Klee, whose work still shimmered with coloured leaves from Tunis, also started to produce black and white drawings, hinting at danger. Reality could no longer be captured using familiar media; it demanded something different and experimental. As Ernst Barlach said in spring 1915: ‘Experience does not take place in the eyes, but in the soul.’


Then something surprising and unexpected happened to the art produced during the First World War. It became radicalised, at least in those cases where the artists had withdrawn from service, or had been released on health grounds, and gone back to their studios.

Under the pressure of war, many artists started again from scratch. Without so much as a backward glance, Grosz now demanded ‘brutality! Clarity that hurts!’ – and practised this with a sharpened quill. Klee began to create works that were colourful, poetically laden, partly abstract and thoroughly experimental, while Beckman gave up the historicising aspect of his painting to make a sober new start, using the simplest of visual media.

It is as if the extreme situation they had all suffered, and continued to suffer when they returned to their studios, had made their perception more sensitive, their approach sharper. They were more daring, and more precise in their artistic methods.

Then, unexpectedly, in the middle of the war Dada arrived, with its agenda of artistic revolution. The Zurich-based movement began to attract excited attention from the public in February 1916. Painters and poets had fled to neutral Switzerland from their warring nations. ‘Revolted by the slaughter of the 1914 World War,’ wrote Hans Arp, ‘we devoted ourselves to the arts in Zurich. As the thunder of artillery rolled in the distance, we sang, painted, built and wrote for all we were worth. We were searching for an elemental art, to cure people of the madness of the age, and a new order to restore the balance between heaven and hell.’ These artists were against everything: the war, the bourgeoisie and, not least of all, bourgeois art.

They appeared at the Cabaret Voltaire, in masked dances, verses without words, simultaneous readings and sound concerts. Action and performance was born as a new art form. Dada took off at the same time in Barcelona and New York, and after the war it also spread to Cologne, Berlin and Paris.

Finally, in the midst of the war, individual artists produced entirely original drafts for the great movements of twentieth century art: Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin in Moscow, Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands, Marcel Duchamp in New York, Pablo Picasso in Paris and Giorgio de Chirico in Ferrara.

In 1915, Marcel Duchamp fled from the war to the United States, which was still neutral. In New York, he began the realisation of The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), the founding work of conceptual art.

In Russia, which was now isolated from the Western artistic world, Malevich made a sudden shift to total abstraction in 1915, while Vladimir Tatlin founded the genre of pure material art.

One of the most surprising developments in the history of the artistic avant-garde was Picasso’s abrupt turn away from the Cubism that had made him the epitome of the modern artist. His strikingly naturalistic rendering of Olga in an Armchair in 1917 was an initial high point. This laid a path for the realistic currents of 1920s art in Italy, Germany and France.

At the same time, people were erecting a shattered, magically disconnected pictorial world alongside the renovated, whole one. In April 1917, Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà had themselves committed to a military psychiatric hospital in Ferrara, to avoid being sent to the trenches, and there they had the opportunity to paint. That year in Ferrara, de Chirico produced major works in which heterogeneous elements were mysteriously brought into pictorial unity, paving the way for the Surrealists of the 1920s.

The international avant-garde groups of 1914 had dispersed, but out of their members’ existential convulsions, and the experience of so much suffering, new pictorial worlds arose. They came into being for a wide variety of reasons, with just as wide a variety of artistic aims: art was produced against the war, in spite of the war, because of the war, or simply under the pressure of the war.

Uwe M. Schneede
is an art historian, and from 1991–2006 was director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle. He curated the exhibition “1914: The Avant-Gardes at War” at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn (8th November 2013 – 23rd February 2014).

Translated by Ruth Martin
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
November 2013

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