Artists during the First World War

In 1914, with the outbreak of war, the art world was in the midst of a significant transformation. Academic painters, who favored realism and trompe l’oeil perspective, faced opposition from a new generation of artists who proposed innovative methods for portraying reality. Impressionists, Nabis, Italian Futurists, and Cubists, under the leadership of Picasso, who had recently completed his famous ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’ represented a stark departure. None of these artists would remain untouched by the war; in fact, many would become directly involved in it.

Painters on a mission.

War and great battles have always been potent sources of inspiration for history painters, whether they draw from biblical or mythological tales, conflicts from Greek and Roman history, or contemporary wartime events. In 1914, as troops departed eagerly for the northern and eastern frontiers, it seemed as if the glorious moments of military triumph depicted by Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s painter, had resurfaced. A thirst for revenge weighed heavily on the collective consciousness, with no one foreseeing that the front would endure for four grueling years of increasingly mechanized, brutal, and rapid warfare, unlike anything seen before.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a notable surge in interest in military art. The desire for retribution following the French defeat in 1870 against Germany, the colonial triumphs of the French army, and the deepening connection between the military and the general populace inspired painters to create a significant body of work centered on war. Some artists even specialized in this genre. Figures like Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Detaille, both of whom had served as soldiers during the 1870 conflict, focused their artistic endeavors on portraying the heroic episodes of that tragic war. Meanwhile, Julien le Blant turned his attention to depicting the wars of the Vendée and the Chouans.

Upon the commencement of general mobilization on August 1, numerous artists sought permission from the Ministry of War to accompany the troops and create artistic representations of the ongoing conflict. Recognizing the significant role that works by esteemed artists, portraying the anticipated victorious battles, could play in bolstering national morale and mobilization efforts, the Minister granted their requests. By December 1914, a select group of accomplished academic painters, considered particularly adept at depicting the realities of war, were officially commissioned for this purpose. They departed for Amiens, and from there, ventured to the front lines.

Not only battle painters, but also a multitude of other artists, including painters, sculptors, and writers, were ignited with enthusiasm at the outbreak of the war. They were swept up by a fervent sense of patriotism and yearned to embark on an adventure that resonated with their romantic and heroic cultural ideals. The painter Maurice Denis aspired to serve as a frontier guard, while the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a Pole and thus a subject of the Russian Empire, ardently pursued naturalization as a French citizen, a prerequisite for joining the ranks at the front. His friend Picasso captured two contrasting depictions of Apollinaire: one portraying his proud departure for war, standing resolutely before an artillery cannon, and the other revealing his return, bearing a head wound. It was in Picardy that Apollinaire was confronted with the stark realities of war, leading him to exclaim in his poem ‘L’adieu du cavalier,’ ‘Ah Dieu! que la guerre est jolie’ (Oh God! How lovely war is).

Joseph-Félix Bouchor stood among the earliest painters to receive a commission from the Ministry of War. An exponent of academic painting, he was tasked by the army museum to capture the essence of soldiers and commemorate their heroic moments. One such instance was the medal ceremony held on the Esplanade des Invalides, captured in the Musée Carnavalet, where the resplendent insignias of high-ranking officers harmonized with the gilded dome of the Invalides, a striking contrast against the backdrop of the sky.

An even more archetypal war painting is Joseph Aubert’s ‘The Protestants,’ housed at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, situated in the Somme region. This allegorical masterpiece conveys the brutality of the annexation of Alsace-Moselle after the 1870 war, which, as per the artist’s perspective, elucidates and vindicates the French army’s commitment against the German Empire. The amalgamation of the army and the nation, symbolized by a parliamentarian, stands in defiance of a helmeted Bismarck, who ill-treats a young Alsatian woman, while the spirit of Joan of Arc kneels in prayer before a Cross of Lorraine.

This allegorical representation, executed in the most traditional style, conveys a lucid message of justification in its endeavor to lend meaning to the war. Yet it struggles to mask the futility artists encountered in their attempts to depict the modern warfare they were confronted with.

An Elusive Warfare

Modern warfare is swift, unrelenting, mechanized, and often eludes the eye’s grasp, defying the comprehensive depictions seen in grand battle scenes from the 19th century. Faced with the daunting challenge of portraying the true nature of war, artists frequently turned their attention to another facet of reality—the everyday lives of soldiers in the trenches.

Many artists, such as Jean Hugo, the great-grandson of Victor Hugo, whose works are preserved at Blérancourt, directed their creative endeavors toward depicting life in the trenches. They captured the essence of soldiers’ daily existence, the interactions between individuals from different backgrounds, and the intermingling of cultures. An excellent example is Hugo’s series of drawings illustrating the encounters between French and American soldiers, as well as the social gatherings they organized before the war’s end.

In these drawings, the soldiers’ rigid postures bear witness to their perpetual state of alertness, ever prepared for sudden action. However, beneath this veneer of readiness lies a fleeting sense of joy that radiates from the scenes. It underscores the significance of these moments of relaxation, humor, and camaraderie, which provided a respite from the horrors of war and offered a means of survival.

As an increasing number of soldiers found their resting place in the trenches, it grew progressively challenging for artists to venture to the frontlines and capture its essence. Even an aged artist like Julien le Blant had to retract his earlier sentiments and limit himself to sketching soldiers on leave at the Gare de l’Est before gaining the opportunity to experience the harsh realities of the front. When he eventually did so, he returned with drawings and watercolors that featured loose, hazy forms, endeavoring to convey the swiftness, clamor, and ferocity of the battlefield.

Julien le Blant encountered the front in Picardy during 1917-1918, during which he created a magnificent series of watercolors, including the striking ‘artillery cavalcade.

Félix Vallotton, the Swiss painter affiliated with the Nabis group, had become a naturalized French citizen and eagerly sought to explore the Picardy front to convey his impressions of the war. However, what he ultimately found was the formidable challenge of capturing the sheer horror of the conflict and the profound significance of trench humor, both of which are vividly conveyed in his prints.

In one of his works, amidst the backdrop of burning villages, a soldier within the trench reads a letter, prompting another to inquire, ‘Have you got any news?’ The first soldier responds with a touch of trench humor, saying, ‘Yes, my contribution sheet.’

His painting ‘Soldats sénégalais au camp de Mailly,’ (Senegalese soldiers at the Mailly camp) dated June 1917 and housed at the Musée départemental de l’Oise in Beauvais, portrays a tranquil scene, far removed from the chaos of battle. In stark contrast, his renowned painting ‘Verdun,’ now residing in the Musée de l’Armée, captures a sense of profound turmoil. This dehumanized battle scene is devoid of discernible figures; instead, it features the ominous plume of black smoke and a maze of intersecting colored beams of light. The abstract, nearly cubist forms bear testament to the futility of representing reality through any means other than fleeting touches or impressions.

Faced with the daunting task of capturing the entirety of the war during the actual conflict, many artists endeavored to convey their impressions in the post-war years, particularly during the 1920s. The passage of time served as a filter, allowing emotions and impressions to be recounted with a certain level of detachment and symbolic resonance that resonated with those who had lived through the war.

An example of this approach can be seen in Otto Dix’s triptych ‘La guerre’ (The War). Dix, a German Expressionist painter and a veteran of the battles in the Somme, executed this piece between 1929 and 1932. It sought to encapsulate the war’s essence in a style reminiscent of the religious altarpieces from the late Middle Ages.

These recollections from the front, distorted and steeped in symbolism, were not confined to the realm of painters alone. The haunting depiction of the ‘marshes of the dead’ at the entrance to Mordor in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ crafted by J.R.R. Tolkien, a combatant in the Somme region during World War I, materialized as a testament to the enduring impact of those memories, bearing a striking resemblance to the somber marshes of the River Ancre in the Somme.

New Forms for a New War

The clash of machines, the rapidity and ferocity of bombings and assaults, disrupt and disorient traditional artistic representation. How do you portray a war that defies conventional visibility? This quandary, which troubled traditional painters, was a source of fascination for avant-garde artists who viewed it as an opportunity to assert their modern and iconoclastic perspective on reality.

The journey commences with the fervor of Italian Futurist painters, who vehemently criticized bourgeois complacency and salon art. They proclaimed that only mechanics and the representation of contemporary movement could rescue the art form. Gino Severini’s ‘Cannon in Action,’ painted in 1915, sought to reveal the might of human machinery by intricately weaving lines and colors and by dislocating the cannon. This conveyed the essence of speed and the brutality of an explosion with remarkable perfection. ‘Bboumm. Advance-Advance-Advance. Arithmetic precision. Geometric cadence. Power,’ declared the numerous texts that peppered the artwork, as an expression of the artist’s vehement and emancipating impulse. However, this optimism proved to be short-lived, as new forms swiftly emerged to capture the indescribable horrors of war. The Expressionists, led by Otto Dix, would create some of the most harrowing and brutally honest depictions.

War also represents a significant artistic rupture that solidifies the Cubist artists in their choice to express a novel perspective on reality with multiple vanishing points. Fernand Léger, who served as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines during the war, experimented with the pictorial theory he had formulated just before the conflict. In his artworks, the decomposition of forms and the objects he fractures and reassembles into multiple facets bear a resemblance to the incessant reshaping of the landscape on the frontlines, a consequence of constant bombardments and the dehumanizing influence of military mechanization. As he noted, the battlefield scenery presented ‘[…] wholly unexpected subjects, well-suited to delight [his] Cubist soul.’ For instance, he encountered a tree with a chair perched upon it. Further emphasizing in his wartime correspondence, ‘This war, […] [it] is pure abstraction, even purer than Cubist painting.’

However, the intersection of war and avant-garde art also fostered experiments as unexpected and enduring as the development of camouflage techniques. As early as August 1914, two painters, Lucien Victor Guirand de Scévola and Louis Guingot, conceived the idea of concealing artillery in their batteries by drawing inspiration from the natural surroundings. The trench warfare that ensued during positional warfare convinced General Joffre of the effectiveness of this approach. On August 4, 1915, the Ministry of War formally established a camouflage unit, uniting some of the finest artists and decorators working for the French army. Among them were Landowski, the Fauvist painter Camoin, Dunoyer de Ségonzac, and the Cubist André Mare. The Cubist painters’ experiment in deconstructing volumes quickly influenced the creation of these camouflages, turning them into modern artworks adorned with large colored quadrilaterals. The juxtaposition of these colorful bands rendered the camouflaged objects unrecognizable.

Picasso didn’t mince words when he stood before the first camouflaged cannon, exclaiming, “We did it.” This innovative technique was quickly adopted by all the participating armies, with even Germany enlisting its finest avant-garde painters for the task. Franz Marc, in his correspondence, humorously mentions that he painted nine Kandinskys on tent canvas to render artillery positions invisible to reconnaissance aircraft.

The war diaries of André Mare, the cubist artist-decorator within this domain, serve as invaluable evidence of the inception of camouflage and are preserved at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne.