“1914. The Avant-Gardes at War” From the studio to the battlefield

One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, centenary commemorations have now commenced with a wide selection of new books, exhibitions and events. The extent to which the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century also radically influenced art is investigated in a major exhibition held in the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn.

With a presentation of some 300 paintings, sculptures and drawings the curator and former director of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, Uwe M. Schneede, shows us how avant-garde artists anticipated the war, how they yearned for it or feared it. How they went on to experience the war at the front, in exile or in military hospital – and also their artistic response.

War as an avant-garde adventure?

Ludwig Meidner, „Die Abgebrannten (Heimatlose)“, 1912 Ludwig Meidner, „Die Abgebrannten (Heimatlose)“, 1912 | © Museum Folkwang Ludwig Meidner, ”The Burnt Out (Homeless)” 1912 © Museum Folkwang

Long before the first shots were fired in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, the concept of war and the apocalypse was already being visually expressed in art: Alfred Kubin presented his surreal war phantasies at the beginning of the century, in 1910 Ludwig Meidner started to indulge in burning townscapes, and two years later Wassily Kandinsky painted his programme image Deluge I.

George Grosz, „Aufruhr“, 1917/18 George Grosz, „Aufruhr“, 1917/18 | © VG Bild Kunst Bonn 2014, Foto: Berlinische Galerie - Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur George Grosz, “Uproar“, 1917/18 © VG Bild Kunst Bonn 2014, Photo: Berlinische Galerie - Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und ArchitekturIt was this feeling of being on the verge of an epochal change that bonded all artists of the Expressionist period. A longing for an end to “rampant materialism” (Max Liebermann) and for a new “Spiritualism“ (Wassily Kandinsky). And it was on these grounds that Franz Marc identified the outbreak of war as the mark of a “great shockwave“ “that was worth living and dying for”. Even Max Beckmann initially remarked “that it would not be such a bad thing for this relatively demoralised culture of ours, if instincts and drives were all focussed once again on a single goal.” He himself served as a medical volunteer, operating first in East Prussia, then in Flanders where he did drawings depicting the human suffering he witnessed on the battlefield: torn bodies, gas victims gasping for air, bewildered and distraught figures. For Beckmann, shock and inspiration were uncomfortably close together: “My art can gorge itself here”, he wrote to his wife Minna in April 1915.

The international art scene – nationalist fervor and war euphoria

Max Slevogt, „Pegasus im Kriegsdienst“, Lithografie, aus der Mappe „Gesichte“, 1917 Max Slevogt, „Pegasus im Kriegsdienst“, Lithografie, aus der Mappe „Gesichte“, 1917 | © Landesmuseum Mainz, Graphische Sammlung / GDKE Rheinland-Pfalz Max Slevogt, “Pegasus in War Service“, Lithograph, from “Gesichte” (Visions), 1917 © Landesmuseum Mainz, Graphische Sammlung / GDKE Rheinland-Pfalz

Although we know today that not all Germans were keen to go to war, it was in particular the intellectuals and artists who fell for the “spirit of 1914”. Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Franz Marc all volunteered for active duty. Ernst Barlach, Franz von Stuck and Max Liebermann actually produced patriotic propaganda. In Russia and France nationalistic graphic series were prepared by Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Majakowski and Raoul Dufy, and the Italian futurists went as far as to glorify the war as “the world’s only hygiene”. Befriended fellow artists who fostered intense international artistic exchange became enemies overnight. This attitude to war led to friendships collapsing and posed a real test for many artists. What were the thoughts of those like August Macke or Franz Marc when they marched to war against France?

To suffer, fall and die

Albert Weisgerber “David and Goliath“, 1914, Stiftung Saarländischer Kulturbesitz, Saarlandmuseum, Saarbrücken

The war that was so deeply yearned for – at least metaphorically, quickly proved to be a merciless, industrialised killing machine that was to claim the lives of 17 million people, including many young artists: Macke, Marc, Albert Weisgerber, Waldemar Rösler, Hermann Stenner, and many others, were never to return.
Those who survived captured devastation, injuries and death in their stirring drawings that expressed the agonies of war. Erich Heckel, Max Slevogt, Hans Richter and Otto Dix documented the scenes they had to witness. But is it really possible to depict the true horror of the battlefield in pictures? Felix Vallotton painted landscapes where there is not a soul to be seen. George Grosz drew graffiti-like grotesque images. Wilhelm Lehmbruck expressed the sensation of collapse and hopelessness in the anatomy of his poignant work The Fallen. And Ernst Ludwig Kirchner portrayed himself in uniform, with a mask-like, vacant look and a bloody arm stump: an artist who can no longer hold a paintbrush due to all the unleashed barbarism. Had the war brought art to an end?

Back in the studio

Max Beckmann, „Selbstbildnis als Krankenpfleger“, 1915 Max Beckmann, „Selbstbildnis als Krankenpfleger“, 1915 | © VG Bild Kunst Bonn 2014, Foto: © Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal Max Beckmann, “Self-Portrait as a Nurse“, 1915 © VG Bild Kunst. Bonn 2014, Photo: © Von der Heydt Museum WuppertalTraumatised by the war, or having fled into exile, the artists made an attempt to start again. Max Beckmann is back at his easel in 1915, still in his military nurse uniform. Mentally scarred by the war, he looks out of the picture space: Nothing is as it was before. Dadaism – an anti-art avant-garde movement emerged in Zurich, deconstructing everything with satire and irony. Art is knocked off its pedestal: Marcel Duchamp puts items of everyday use on display in a museum and declares them as art, Malevich paints his Black Square and defines the zero point of painting.

So did the Great War really act as a catalyser for art? Did its annihilative potential inspire creative drive? These are not really the right questions because the Avant-Gardes already fought their “battles in colour and stone” (Max Pechstein) well before the war broke out.

The exhibition “1914. Die Avant-Gardes at War “ is on show at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn until 23 February 2014.