Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany British Museum

Flag of the German Confederation, 1850

After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential.  But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version?  Yes, absolutely.  In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website.  The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.

Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history.  For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.  Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ –  ‘we are one people’.

The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries  of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic  in 1990.

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry.  In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history.  The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city.  Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904.  Kollwitz was  born in Konigsberg  when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)

In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united  within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.

Franz Kafka by Hans Fronius. 1937 Woodcut

Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937 

A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry.  Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526

Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526.  His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time.  The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.

Pen and ink drawing of the rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements.  The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works.  Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.

These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition.  Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.

Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain

Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general.  The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle.  Kristallnacht followed one year later.

poster for 'The Eternal Jew' exhibition, Dresden 1937

Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937

sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers 1939

Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939

A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track.  By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.

refugee cart 1945

A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945

Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart.  The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe.  Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.

Stage Set model for “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht

Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949

Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.

The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:

The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.  After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.

Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years.  In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980 watercolour

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981

His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’.  In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn.  Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.

model of Jewish synagogue Offenbach

Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946

But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.

After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust.  Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.

By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built.  In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue.  On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz).  The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One

Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral

The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.

Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.

Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:

In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of.  The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country.  They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)

The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter.  It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.

The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else.  Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.

Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR.  He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.

See also

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

While I was in Manchester today for a book-signing at Waterstones I made some time to visit The Sensory War 1914-2014, a major exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery marking the centenary of the First World War. Taking as its starting point the gallery’s nationally important collection of art of the First World War, the exhibition explores how artists have portrayed the impact of war on the body, mind, environment and human senses during the century that has elapsed since 1914.

At the beginning of the show are two stark paintings by CRW Nevinson. A Howitzer Gun in Elevation (1917) shows a dull-grey artillery barrel thrusting high into an empty sky, while in Explosion (1916) a fountain of earth is blasted skywards on a distant, muddy ridge. Neither painting features human beings: instead Nevinson focusses on the new technology and its capacity for mass destruction.

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

4 T

CRW Nevinson ‘Explosion’ 1916

But war is a human activity and the exhibition’s aim is to show how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies on human flesh and minds. It brings together work from a dazzling array of leading artists including, alongside several more paintings by the excellent Nevinson, others by Henry Lamb,Paul Nash, Otto Dix,David Bomberg, and Laura Knight, plus more recent paintings and photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Sophie Ristelhueber, and Nina Berman.  A gruelling experience in parts, I was interested to discover artists whose work had been unknown to me beforehand.

The argument of the curators is that the invention of devastating military technologies that were deployed during the First World War involved a profound re-configuration of sensory experience and perception. Human lives were destroyed and the environment altered beyond recognition. The war’s legacy has continued and evolved through even more radical forms of destruction over the last hundred years. Throughout the century, artists have struggled to understand the effects of modern technological warfare. Military and press photography have brought a new capacity to coldly document the deadliness of modern warfare, while artists found a different way of seeing.

The exhibition is arranged by theme through several rooms. Here is a selection of works that particularly made an impression on me, with additional information drawn from the exhibition’s explanatory panels.

Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War

The First World War saw an unprecedented mobilisation of combatants around the world. Some 65 million volunteers and conscripts went from all walks of civilian life to become soldiers. The war was truly global and four million colonial troops and military labourers were drafted into the European and American armed forces. It was fought not only in Europe but in the Middle East and in Africa: wherever there were European colonies.

To turn a factory worker, a farm labourer, a clerk or a student into a fighting machine meant militarising them through training. As the title of Eric Kennington’s series of prints puts it, ‘Making Soldiers’.

Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners circa 1917 by Eric Kennington

Eric Kennington, Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners c 1917 

Eric Kennington was born in Liverpool.  His biographer, Julian Freeman, writes:

A vital, independent talent in early and mid-twentieth-century British art, Kennington became a formidable draughtsman-painter, printmaker, and sculptor (his working practice evolved roughly in that order), and a great portraitist: his figures were often somewhat idealized, but always boldly executed, and frequently in pastel crayon, a self-taught medium in which he came to excel.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Kennington enlisted with the 13th London Regiment. He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation. Campbell Dodgson wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’.

The series of lithographs, ‘Making Soldiers’ was commissioned by Charles Masterman who was in charge of visual art commissions at the Department of Information. ‘Making Soldiers’ was part of a morale-boosting propaganda project called ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’. The series was exhibited in London in July 1917.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

CRW Nevinson, Motor Lorries 1916

The full inventive and productive power of the modern industrialised world was turned to the war effort. New weapons could create mass casualties in a way not seen before. Flame throwers, grenades, barbed wire, mobile machine guns, tanks, Zeppelins, aeroplanes and large-scale artillery, such as the Howitzer, could annihilate the environment and pulverise bodies. The development of this military technology and the mass production of shells and bombs ushered in a new era of modern war, which was an assault on bodies, minds, and landscapes, filtered through the human sensory realm. The noise of war began on the home front, in the deafening and dangerous armaments factories. Significantly, it was artists who communicated the din of the factories, the sonic pounding of high-powered artillery, the storm of marching ground-troops, and the clashing of bayonets and boots. Artists visually linked the ferocious technology of the war to the process of militarisation.

CWR Nevinson employed his Futurist depiction of the human body to great effect to show how the soldier was turned into a cog in the machine of war. He paints the soldiers in Motor Lorries with the same harsh geometry as the cold hard girders they are carrying in. In all Nevinson’s paintings of this period he used a palette of mud browns and the blues of leaden-skies and cold steel to create a harsh and inhuman world.

CWR Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War, 1915)

CRW Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War), 1915

The French soldiers in this giant fortified trench wait for the call to go over the top (possibly in Woesten, near Ypres, where Nevinson was stationed). The barbed wire – a major new technology used extensively in the First World War – forms a twisted, menacing skyline. The famed writer, Guillaume Apollinaire recognised that Nevinson had outgrown the bravado of Futurism’s machismo, and was instead ‘making palpable the soldiers’ suffering and communicating to others the feelings of pity and horror’

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

David Bomberg, Study for 'Sappers at Work A Canadian Tunnelling

David Bomberg, Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company’, 1918

David Bomberg was a pioneer of the English movement Vorticism, founded by Wyndham Lewis, which attempted to create a local version of Futurism. Bomberg served with the Royal Engineers and the 18th King’s Royal Rifles before being asked to commemorate the service of Canadian soldiers. This work, done in black and red chalk on paper, is an abstracted study for a more figurative official commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, now in the National Gallery of Canada.

Amongst the new sensory experiences created by the First World War was the experience of waging war by working underground. Canadian and Yorkshire miners (sappers) excavated a tunnel at St Eloi to plant a huge mine under Hill 60 at Messines Ridge, near Ypres. The tunnel took eight months to complete. It was detonated in March 1916 obliterating the landscape and leading to devastating loss of life on the German front line – two whole companies of men were killed. The event was portrayed in the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong.

CWR Nevinson, Making Aircraft Making the Engine 1917

CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Making the Engine 1917

In Nevinson’s Making the Engine, the machines and men have merged in a picture resonating with the hammering din of the wartime factory. The image seems to vibrate simulating the whirring, deafening noise of industrial spaces reverberating with the production of war machines.

George Clausen, Making Guns The Furnace 1917

 George Clausen, Making Guns: The Furnace, 1917

Several works in the exhibition derive from projects to document the wartime effort of workers in the armaments industries, including two by George Clausen. The lithograph Making Guns: The Furnace implies the future violence of a large gun forged in a blaze of fire and molten steel.

Clausen, Study for 'The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal'
George Clausen, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’, c.1919

Clausen’s, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’ in pencil, watercolour and pen and brown ink was made in preparation for a large painting commission to document 74,000 munitions workers occupied at this vast factory site. Shades of light permeate the study streaming in and around the centrepiece of the colossal machinery used to mould gun-barrels. The press resembles a gigantic beast against the barely visible workers below.

Female Factories

The mass mobilisation of society meant that women’s bodies were just as critical as men’s in the conduct of Total War. In Britain alone, over seven million women were mobilised into wartime industries and public services, with over one million working in the munitions industry. Around 60,000 served in the armed services, and thousands volunteered for the medical corps. Though munitions work was dangerous and exhausting, and resisted by Trade Unions as ‘only for the duration’, it offered women paid employment, a degree of independence and a feeling of direct involvement in the war effort. The Society for Women Welders, for instance, was formed in 1915 and by 1918 had 630 members.

Laura knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942

Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942

In the Second World war, female munitions workers became symbols of modernity by challenging perceptions of women’s capabilities. Wearing men’s dungarees, engaged in both skilled and physical labour, they adapted their bodies and minds to the taxing work of heavy engineering or the risk of making explosives. Artists reflected this temporary change in women’s roles depicting the militarisation and modernity of the female body.

Laura Knight’s heroic depiction of a woman factory worker in the Second World War has become an iconic image. The eponymous Ruby was a skilled machinist in the Royal Ordinance Factory in Newport, Monmouthshire. The breech ring she is lathing was for a Bofors breech gun; a notoriously difficult engineering task to complete to the required precision without making the gun a suicidal hazard to use. The painting was widely discussed on the radio and produced in poster form as a propaganda tool for distribution to other factories. In America the more fictional Rosie the Riveter became equally famous through the distribution of posters.

Nevinson, Making Aircraft Acetylene Welding 1917
CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Acetylene Welding, 1917

The two women featured in this lithograph wear protective eye-goggles, aprons and scarves. Nevinson’s skilled use of the graphic technique conveys the sensory elements of flying sparks that almost singe the exposed arms, hands and clothes of the women, and draw in the viewer. Absorbed in their skilled task, the women become anonymous bodies in the war machine, a familiar device in art of the period only usually applied to soldiers’ bodies.

Women's Work: On Munitions - Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick, Women’s Work: On Munitions, Dangerous Work (Packing TNT), 1917

Hartick completed lithographs for the series, ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ on the theme of women on the Home Front. For the first time women were recruited to the war effort, working in the munitions factories making the very instruments of death which wrought terror in the trenches. The work of the munitionettes or Canary Girls as they were called due to the yellow discolouration of their skin from TNT, was indeed highly dangerous. Many were killed in munitions factory explosions such as the one at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottingham in 1918 which killed 137.

Women's Work: On the Railway - Engine and Carriage Cleaners circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On the Railways, Engine and Carriage Cleaners, 1917

Women's Work: On Munitions - Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On Munitions – Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting), 1917

Pain and Succour

In the First World War over two million soldiers from Britain and the colonies of its Empire were wounded. The medical corps was charged with evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, treating them in field hospitals and at home, so that they could eventually be returned once again to the front-line: an absurdity not lost on those hoping for a ‘blighty wound’ (a light wound but needing treatment at home).

Artists depicted the chaotic flow of patients in the front-line casualty station, the wounded soldier’s experience of pain and helplessness the moments of tenderness as doctors and nurses attempted to alleviate the agony of their wounds, or the shock of witnessing the death of comrades. Succour was often felt as a temporary bond between patient, stretcher-bearer and nurse. Women’s role in front-line surgery and hospital medical care was both professional, publicly contentious and, at times, also intimate. Doctors also shared the personal cost of the war, with thousands killed and wounded.

Artists understood the inhumanity of modern war as a collective experience of horror and indiscriminate maiming that reached across the classes and genders. They depicted the ashen-faced stretcher-bearers carrying their burden under a gangrenous sky, the lone nurse in the darkened space of the casualty theatre, and the arduous journey of evacuation from the frontline to the hospital back home.

Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France 1918

Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France, 1918

Here, Henry Tonks dramatises his intimate knowledge of shrapnel wounds to the head and body, and the procedures of frontline evacuation medicine under the chaos of military attack. The sensory qualities of this painting are revealed in the lurid glow of burning buildings and the choking haze of smoke-filled air; in patients’ grimaces; in their endurance of gripping pains, and in the relief that a drink of water brought to the desperately wounded.

Like Henry Lamb, Tonks was a doctor-turned artist.  Before the war he was the Director of Drawing at the Slade School of Art where he taught Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and CRW Nevinson, amongst others.  He served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

(c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Henry Lamb, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma in  1916, 1921

This painting is a scene of medical aid being given to the wounded man on a stretcher, but is also symbolic of the pain and succour of the entire war with its almost religious composition. Lamb was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps and sent first to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece with the British Salonika Army in 1916 in late 1917 to Palestine. On his return Lamb, who had won a Military Cross for gallantry, began to turn his experiences into his most important works. A small number of drawings and watercolours were exhibited at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1920. One of these, Succouring the Wounded in a Wood on the Doiran Front prompted the Gallery Director, Lawrence Haward, to commission Lamb to turn it into a major painting as the beginning of a war art collection for Manchester.

The River Struma was the site of a little-known campaign to repulse the Bulgarian invasion of eastern Greece and to achieve the ultimate liberation of Serbia from Bulgaria and the Central Powers.

Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918

Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918

The majority of Nash’s works from the front depict soldiers at a distance engulfed by the blasted landscape. Here Nash’s pathos at the plight of the soldier is more direct as the stretcher-bearers carry the wounded through a poisoned landscape filled with the colours of gangrene and mustard gas.

Harold Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

 Harold Sandys Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

Harold Williamson  joined the King’s Rifles as a rifleman and was promoted to Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion. In this painting the artist depicts his own wounding by a grenade during a battle near Villers-Bretonneaux. He hobbles away from the scene, gripping his bleeding hand. A comrade Iies dead in the foreground while the misty haze over the morning assault captures the confusion of battle. Williamson wrote:

In the gloom and rain the storm troops then came over and smashed through our two first lines…Two men are firing a Lewis gun. The wounded man has a poor chance of getting away; he must cross much open country swept by enemy fire, and go through a heavy barrage.

Williamson’s wound was serious enough for him to be repatriated to England. Experiencing and witnessing the extent of suffering in modern war underpinned the intense sensory feel of the work of war artists like
Williamson.

Advanced Dressing Station in France circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Tending the Wounded: Advanced Dressing station, France, 1917

Detraining in England circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Detraining in England, 1917

Claude Shepperson was an illustrator for various magazines. He created this sensitive series of lithographs depicting the passage of the wounded from the front line to recovery in England as part of the ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ series of propaganda prints.

Embodied Ruins: Natural and Material Environments

The extensive destruction of rural France and Flanders in the First World War was felt as an atrocity, deeply scarring the collective psyche. The ruined Iandscape came to stand for the dead themselves. Artists like Paul Nash and William Orpen expressed their feelings for the loss of men through depicting the aftermath of the battlefields in images of putrid mud, charred and torn trees, and waterlogged shell-holes. The churned earth appeared as gangrenous wounds, ruined buildings like injured faces, and destroyed military hardware as ruptured corpses. At times, these desolate environments have a terrible beauty. Nature was violated but it was also resilient.

In contemporary works this use of landscape as metaphor is seen in Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs of the disfigured territory of the West Bank and in Simon Norfolk’s carcass-like military hardware strewn across the deserts of Afghanistan.

Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele 1917

Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele, 1917

Nash enlisted in 1914, but only arrived at the front in February 1917. In May he fell into a trench and was injured badly enough to be sent home again. When he returned in late October he witnessed the final stages of the battle of Passchendaele, which was fought over the summer months into November. His regiment, the Hampshires, had been almost completely wiped out in the battle for Hill 60 in August.  The drawings he made, such as this one, were all begun on site.  The landscape of battle debris, churned mud and rancid water-filled craters in the undraining Flanders clay after the heavy summer rains touched Nash deeply.  He was able to make these landscapes of the aftermath of war into metaphors for the human body destroyed by conflict.

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle 1917

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle, 1917

William Orpen first visited the Somme in April 1917 as an Official War Artist under the auspices of the Department of Information after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. His principal task was to draw and paint the officers but he had time to wander the battlefields. Returning to the Somme again after the summer he was amazed to find, ‘The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles’. La Boiselle is the site of one of the giant craters created by huge mines laid under the German trenches.

William Orpen, Village, Evening 1917

William Orpen, Village: Evening, 1917

Artists were not only struck by these vast wastelands, they also felt the terrifying impact of war on the domestic front. They depicted the ruin of the material and built environment in Flanders – roads, villages and churches where shattered homes and putrefying corpses are equated with ruined bodies.

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8 2005

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8, 2005

The apocalyptic imagination is refracted through Sophie Ristelhueber’s approach to the landscapes of recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank. The WB series depicts roadblocks with deeply ambivalent sensations. In WB #8, the viewer stands before the gritty impasse; slowly the eye travels beyond, only to be confronted with an impenetrable set of barriers, and further still, a settlement on the horizon appears impossibly faraway. The artificial topography of man-made violence in zones of conflict and disputed territory is strangely sensual and fleshy. The barricades appear as brutal, jagged scars on an ancient geological body.

Shocking the Senses

Modern war produced terrifying sights, putrid smells, and nerve-shattering sounds that shocked the human senses. In the confined spaces of tanks trenches and submarines, bodies felt compressed and minds became stressed. ‘Thousand-yard stares’ panicked expressions, nervous ticks, and hysterical gaits were physical responses to emotional and sensory trauma.

In 1915 British neurologist C.S. Myers invented the term ‘shell shock’. The term aptly conveyed the sensory assault of artillery bombardments and the repercussions on the individual of industrialised modern warfare. Military medicine lost control of the term as it entered the public vernacular and its psychological and emotional complexities were distilled into the myth that shellfire was the sole cause of shell shock. Unlike the stigma attached to psychiatric disorder, shell shock enabled families to preserve the dignity and heroic sacrifice of loved ones.

Artists and writers, many of whom were afflicted with shell shock, were crucial figures in translating its symptoms to audiences and rendering visible this disturbing yet invisible wound. Siegfried Sassoon described the unceasing ‘thud’ of bombardments: ‘I want to go out and screech at them to stop…I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.’

Repatriated home, CRW Nevinson recalled his ‘delayed shock’ as ‘uncontrollable tremblings’ and vomiting, a sense of foreboding and rage. Terrified faces and distressed bodies became the subject of artistic empathy during the First World War.

Over the century, artists have been combatants, captive prisoners and anti-war activists, engaging with other people’s suffering and visualising the repetitive nightmare of trauma. Some have confronted torture, executions, and genocide as the abyss reached when human lives are seen as barely human. Artists have also been compelled to show that trauma is not the preserve of soldiers. The shocking sights of agonised women and children, of rape, disease and starvation, and the powerlessness of grief, have entered the darkest artistic imaginings.

Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28, Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme

 Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28: Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme, 1924

The hellish,visceral and hallucinatory quality of Der Krieg is undeniable and the artist created perhaps the most powerful, and sensory, anti-war works of art of the twentieth century. Dix consciously took inspiration from Francesco Goya’s series of prints, The Disasters of War which recorded the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Spanish War of independence from 1808-1814.

Pietro Morando, One of the Brave struck down. San Marco, 1917

Pietro Morando, One of the brave struck down, San Marco, 1917

In Britain, we know little about the Italian Front in the First World War, fought in the mountainous borderlands between Austro-Hungary and Italy. In freezing conditions, this front was soon bogged down in trench stalemate. In 1916-17 Pietro Morando fought as a volunteer in the Arditi (Italian elite troops) on the front-line in the limestone Karst country bordering Italy and Slovenia. He made drawings on any pieces of paper he could find. His works have an immediacy of perception and a sense of the artist’s urgent need to note down the painful and deadly events at the front and in the prison camps of Austro-Hungary.

Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918 Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

Morando was captured during the retreat from the Piave River in 1918. His charcoal sketches (from an album dated 1915-1918) describe the torture, executions, cholera and starvation he witnessed while imprisoned in the Hungarian camp of Nagymegyer and in the city of Komarom. In addition to the privations of military prisoners, during the conflict thousands of Italian civilians were interned and died of malnutrition.

Abu Ghraib by Richard Serra

Richard Serra, Abu Ghraib, 2004 

Serra transformed the horrific, mass-circulated image of torture into a lithograph of the faceless, nameless Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Another, larger, version of this print is more directly a protest work and bears the words ‘Stop Bush’.

Eric Kennington, Bewitched

Eric Kennington, Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered 1917

This depiction of an exhausted, sleep-deprived and disoriented soldier was also titled Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross). The censors tried to prevent it from being exhibited in Kennington’s exhibition of war art at the Leicester Galleries in July 1918. The title Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered comes from lines to a popular song of the day. Kennington wrote: ‘Must the soldiers endure the most hideous agony and the civilian not be permitted to think of it second-hand?’

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Otto Dix, The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py

 Otto Dix, Der Krieg 35: The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py, 1924

The shocking impact of bombardments on civilians is powerfully conveyed in The Mad Woman of St-Marie-a-Py. Her baby lies dead among her ruined home while she beats her bare breast in the agony and powerlessness of grief. This is a rare but stark moment of Dix’s sorrow for the innocent casualties of men’s wars as we are forced to share in her state of absolute distress.

Conrad Felixmoller , Soldier in the Madhouse 1918

Conrad Felixmoller, Soldier in the Madhouse, 1918

Gripping the asylum cell window, and perhaps even chained to the bed, Conrad Felixmoller’s Soldier in the Madhouse has jagged furrows in his forehead; the work portrays the desperate isolation of the shell-shocked patient.

Rupture and Rehabilitation: Disability and the Wounds of War

Away from the battlefield artists depicted the impact of wounding on the body. Modern medicine saved soldiers lives, though they often survived with terrible, disfiguring wounds. The artists who served as medical illustrators in the First World War were closely involved with the new field of plastic surgery as it attempted facial and bodily reconstructions. In delicate pastels and watercolours intended as medical studies they also saw the fragile humanity of those with such horrific wounds. They found amputees and blinded men recovering in hospital, undergoing physical and vocational rehabilitation. In many of these works we see a compassionate rapport between the wounded sitter and the artist, sensitive to the intimate depths of suffering as pained eyes meet our gaze. The courage, pride and silent dignity of the wounded are deeply moving.

In the 1920s wounded soldiers were fitted with artificial prosthetic limbs. Artists were sceptical of this revolution in prosthetics which held out a fantasy of the cyborg – half man and half machine. It promised that the body destroyed by modern technology could be reconstructed into a hyper-masculine, superhuman being. However artists like the German Heinrich Hoerle saw the reality of living with disability and approached the notion of the superhuman man-machine with bitter irony. More recently, as women have entered the war zone as combatants, artists have highlighted both the frailty and resilience of disabled veterans of both genders.

Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion An incident in the British Red Cross

Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915

Tonks’ medical training, his understanding of wounds and their treatment and his sensitive use of pastel come together ‘in this study made in northern France. Tonks turns the secular scene into a work with religious overtones, arranging the composition as a Descent from the Cross. Tonks is most well known for his medical studies of facial wounds in pastel – a subject which has featured in the novels of Pat Barker such as Toby’s Room.

Kruppel 1920 Heinrich HoerleKruppel 1920 Heinrich Hoerle, The Married Couple

Heinrich Hoerle, Help the Cripple, 1920 

The Cripple Portfolio was published in 1920 by Cologne Dada artist, Heinrich Hoerle, in the context of the 2.7 million disabled German veterans who had returned home from the Front. 67,000 of these veterans were also amputees. The Weimar Republic instituted a system of rehabilitation and employment, which caused resentment amongst the able-bodied as the Great Depression of the 1930s took hold. Some 90 per cent of disabled soldiers were employed. The subject of Hoerle’s portfolio of prints is the intimate suffering of the lives of the disabled in the aftermath of war. It is divided into six scenes of the everyday life of the wounded veteran and six of his dreams and nightmares.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006

Michael Jernigan lost his sight in an attack with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) while serving in Iraq. Like so many marriages, Jernigan’s failed when he returned home so badly injured. In Greenfield-Sanders’ photograph, attention is drawn directly to the  diamonds from his wife’s wedding ring which Jernigan had set into one of his eight prosthetic eyes.

Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006

Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author and educator. Much of her photographic work focuses upon the American political and social landscape, including the militarization of American life and the dialogue around war, patriotism and sacrifice.

Her 2006 photo Marine Wedding, probably one of her most recognizable works, is a haunting picture. The bride, in a red-trimmed wedding gown with beading on the bodice and skirt, holds a crimson bouquet, and the groom wears his navy-colored military dress uniform. But neither smiles – they look past the camera in opposite directions. And the groom, an Iraq War veteran, has no ears, nose, or chin. His face looks like it is covered with a plastic mask. Severely burned in 2004 after a suicide bomber attacked his truck, his skin melted when he was trapped inside. Marine Wedding won a 2006 World Press Award.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (2 January 1918), 1918

I had never encountered the work of Rosine Cahen before, but I found her delicate portrayals, in charcoal, pastel and white chalk, of wounded and disabled soldiers among the most memorable of the exhibition.

Born in Alsace and trained at the Academy Julian in Paris, Rosine Cahen (who was mostly known as a print-maker) turned to delicate pastel, chalk and charcoal to draw the wounded and disabled soldiers she visited in French hospitals during the war. In her sketches, the observer is so discrete we are never allowed to gawk at the men’s wounds, but rather it is their faces in a state of almost serene despair that she portrays. These works exude great calmness both in the men’s expression and in the way the artist alludes to the intimate relationship of these captured moments.

Cahen gives these wounded men their dignity – they are never just medical objects. She was 59 years old in 191 6 when she began visiting the war hospitals of Paris and Monte Carlo. She continued her visits on numerous occasions over the following three years. The age difference enabled her to build a personal rapport with the soldiers while they ‘sat’ for her, quietly recovering.

In Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918, the facially wounded patient is disguised under bandages, contrasting with his luminous purple shirt. A solitary eye peers out, as he tries to eat some thing from his tray.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918)

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918), 1918

This is a portrait of an amputee from the 17th InfantryRegiment, wounded on 21 August 1918, near Soissons in Picardy. Preoccupied with reading his gazette, a little blue slipper juts out of his trouser leg. The space next to it is empty and crutches reveal his early stage of recovery.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919)

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919), 1919

A blind soldier practices Braille while sitting in bed recovering from his injuries. Wounded soldiers were
expected to begin the rehabilitation before they were fully recovered. In the background are little sketches of the same patient, perhaps completed on other occasions.

Rosine Cahen, The Amputees' Workshop 1918

Rosine Cahen, The Amputees’ Workshop, 1918

This study reveals the temporary wooden leg of an amputee which juts out awkwardly, uncomfortably, under the table. His left hand is also amputated. Cahen captures him absorbed in his writing task.

See also

Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Peronne Historial 1

L’Historial beside the lake of the Somme at Peronne

The Historial de la Grande Guerre is an excellent museum of the First World War in Peronne, the small town straddling the upper reaches of the Somme which was my base during the time I spent exploring the memorials and cemeteries there. The museum was opened in 1992 and houses presentations in three languages – French, English and German – to show how each nation experienced the war in this sector. It is not a military but a cultural museum which seeks to show how the lives of combatants and civilians were affected by the war. For me, the main attraction was a display of a complete set of Otto Dix’s series of etchings, Der Krieg (The War), his harrowing cycle of prints in which he documented the horrors of his own wartime experience.

Peronne Historial 2

The entrance to the Historial, through the gateway of the Chateau

The Historial is housed in the partly-ruined medieval Château de Péronne, in a modernist building of white concrete  on the banks of one of the placid lakes (etangs) of the Somme which make a stroll around Peronne such a pleasant experience.

Peronne Somme 2 Peronne Somme 3 Peronne Somme

Peaceful scenes on the Somme and the etangs around Peronne

Inside the museum there are displays of posters, lithographs, press clippings, objects, uniforms, postcards, photographs, and many other documents which provide an international panorama of the conflict. Among the most interesting of the exhibits are the tables on which is displayed the detritus of war – coils of barbed wire, helmets, some pierced by bullets, lead shot, water bottles, trenching tools, and so on – still being found in the fields of the region, as today’s farmers dig and work their fields with tractors.

Historial display 2 Historial display 3 Historial display

Displays at the Historial, Peronne

For almost the whole of the war, Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2 September 1918 by Australian troops.  Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war.

Ruins in Peronne, Hôtel de Ville, Arthur Streeton watercolour with pencil

Arthur Streeton, ‘Ruins in Peronne: Hôtel de Ville’, watercolour with pencil

The ruined church, Péronne, France, 5 September 1918

The ruined church in Péronne, 5 September 1918

Within days of Peronne being captured, the Australian troops had made their mark on the streets with signs painted on bits of old timber that reflected the Australian sense of humour:  Wallaby Lane, Ding Bat Alley, Digger Road, Dinkum Alley – but best of all, Roo De Kanga. The sign was photographed on  3 October 1918 and collected for Australian War Records shortly after.

‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne 2 ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

Rue de Kanga, Peronne, in 1918

Few towns in France have retained the street names given to them by the Australian forces.  However, in 1997 the commune of Peronne restored the name Roo De Kanga to a stretch of the rue de St Savour, by the Hotel de Ville, where the sign had hung briefly some seventy nine years before.

Street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

The street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’ in Péronne today

In the Historial, I was keen to see the complete set of Otto Dix’s etchings, Der Krieg.  Displayed in a dedicated gallery, this disturbing 20th century equivalent of Goya’s Disasters of War makes troubling viewing.

In 1914 Otto Dix, a 24 year-old student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts, enlisted in the German army and was sent in 1915 to serve on the Western Front. It was not until after the war, from 1920 onwards, that his work became overtly anti-militarist under the influence of Grosz, portraying his hatred for war in a style close to expressionism, full of pathos and violence.

The series of fifty etchings entitled Der Krieg, completed in 1924, sprang from the artist’s need to confront the horrors of his wartime experiences:

The fact is, being young at the time, you just don’t realize how profoundly scarred you are. For at least ten years after the war I kept getting dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through. The ruins were always there in my dreams. . .

In these etchings, destruction, deformation and appalling human mutilation emerge from encircling gloom to form a vision that is apocalyptic. Most of the scenes depicted recall memories of things seen by Dix in Somme or in Picardy, where he fought (he was at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916).

In Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940, GH Hamilton describes Dix’s series as:

Perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist, not even by [George] Grosz  …

Like the equally devastating Disasters of  War, Goya’s account of the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching methods and exploits the potential of a long sequence of images. Der Krieg mirrors Goya’s unflinching, stark realism and, like Goya’s cycle, reveals the artist both horrified and fascinated by the experience of war. For Dix, these prints were like an exorcism. The portfolio was circulated throughout Germany with a pacifist organization, Never Again War (for which Kathe Kollwitz created her memorable image of the same name). Dix, however, doubted that his prints would have any bearing on future wars.

Before I left for France I heard cartoonist Martin Rowson, whose own work is similarly direct and uncompromising to that of Dix, give a talk on Dix and Der Krieg on Radio 3’s The Essay, in a week of excellent talks entitled ‘Minds at War’ that also included Ruth Padel talking about Kathe Kollwitz’s Grieving Parents sculpture, and Heather Jones on Henri Barbusse’s novel Le Feu.

Rowson began his talk by placing Dix in the context of the New Objectivity artistic movement that flourished in Germany in the 1920s – challenging Expressionism by its unsentimental focus on reality and the objective world, as opposed to the more abstract, romantic, or idealistic tendencies of Expressionism. Otto Dix was one of its main practitioners, along with Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Their mercilessly naturalistic depictions portrayed Weimar society in a caustically satirical manner.

Otto Dix, 'Mealtime in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’

Speaking specifically of the engravings that form the sequence Der Krieg, Rowson described the effect of viewing them as claustrophobic, ‘just like being stuck in a trench eating lunch among your comrades’ rotting corpses’ (here referring to ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’, the thirteenth print in the series).

These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
And we,
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
– ‘Grotesque’ by Frederic Manning

Rowson explained the elements of the engravings which define them as modernist – in particular, Dix’s use of over-drawing, ‘one of the defining tricks of modernism: that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across all other lines’. For Rowson, ‘breaking the rules of realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth’.

In a key passage of his talk, Rowson compared John Singer Sargent’s Gassed with the third plate from Dix’s Der Krieg, ‘Gas Victims’, in which, ‘faces blackened by lack of oxygen and unrecognisable as being even human’, the victims of a gas attack lie apparently unnoticed while two medical orderlies stand nonchalantly by them. Sargent’s painting, Rowson argued, could only have emerged from the victorious nation –  exhibited in the new Imperial War Museum, whose name would have provoked a gunfight between armed militias in Germany, the nation defeated and therefore deeply divided about the meaning of the war. Even the act of remembering – as Otto Dix did in his etchings and paintings  – could be conceived as being in the worst possible taste.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Gas victims – Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916

Otto Dix, ‘Gas victims  (Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916)’

Rowson concluded by asserting that Der Kreig is ‘less about the Great War than its aftermath: while Dix claimed to be remembering the war and its horrors, the Nazi’s whole point was to re-enact them’.  In 1933 Dix was dismissed from his post as an art tutor at the Dresden Academy by the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards his work appeared in the Nazi government’s exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ (to be burned afterwards).  In 1935 Otto Dix left Germany for exile in Switzerland.

In 1963, explaining why he had volunteered in 1914, Dix had this to say:

I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Soldier's grave between the lines

 Otto Dix, ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’

The first plate from Der Krieg is ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’, a chaotic image of a churned up battlefield which is also a cemetery, constantly ploughed by continued shelling.

Next to the black, waxen heads like Egyptian mummies, lumpy with insect larvae and debris, where white teeth appeared the hollows; next to poor darkened stumps which were numerous here, like a field of bare roots, we discovered yellow skulls, stripped clean, still wearing a red fez with a grey cover as brittle as papyrus. There were thigh-bones protruding from mounds of rags stuck together in the red mud, or a fragment of spine emerged from a hole filled with frayed material coated with a kind of tar. There were ribs scattered all over the ground like broken old cages, and nearby blackened pieces of leather, pierced and flattened beakers and mess tins had risen to the surface. Here and there, a longish bulge – for all these unburied dead finish up going into the ground – only a scrap of material sticks out, indicating that a human being was annihilated on this particular point of the globe.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

While the series began with a soldier’s grave between the lines, the second plate provides a graphic depiction of how such graves are produced. Soldiers react in horror as the earth collapse around them. In the instant before they are swallowed, Dix depicts them not as they are but as they will become, their faces reduced to depictions of skulls.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Corpse of a horse

Otto Dix, ‘Carcass of a horse’

The First World War produced many artistic renderings of dead horses – a reflection of the fact that there was nearly one for every man, and that the connection between horse and man was very close. This three-legged corpse, with its side ripped wide open is terribly realistic.

Otto Dix, Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares

 Otto Dix, ‘Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares’

Already by plate number four you sense that this is no ordinary series of etchings. Here, a night time flare illuminates a lunar landscape, illustrating the command of various print techniques which Dix demonstrates throughout the series.

A constellation like day; the horizon behind it by lights
and flares fingered and shrouded,

That went and came, fell or stood, restless, phantom-
like; and if it went, deep night fell,
And if it came, then somewhere a town lay, white,
shifting furtive a forest was made and a vale
Full of sleep, with torrents and indeterminate things,
with graves and churchtowers, smashed, with
climbing mists, moist, big-clouded,
With huts, where sleepers lay, where a dream walked,
full of fever, full of strangeness, full of animal
splendour,where abruptly a screen
Of cloud split open; and behind it swelled and ocean of
stars. a dominion of rockets, a light sprang from the
ravine,
Terrible, roaring, rumble of wheels on roads, and a
man stepped darkly into the dark,by a dreadful
nightmare amazed,
Saw the flight of fires migrating, heard butchery below,
saw behind the darkness the city that ceaselessly
blazed,
Heard in earth’s belly a rolling,ponderous, gigantic,
primeval, heard traffic travelling the roads, into the
void, into the widening night, into a storm, grim in
the west. Frantic, the ear
With the front’s countless hammers, with the riders
who came, stamping, hurrying, with the riders who
rode away, to turn into shadows, melt into the night,
there to rot,
Death slaughters them, and they lie under weeds,
heavy, fossil, with hands full of spiders, mouths
scabbed red and brown,
Eyes full of uttermost sleep, the circlet of shadow
around their brows, blue, waxen,decaying in the
smoke of the night
Which sank down, threw shadows far which spread its
vault from hill to hill, over forest and rottenness,
over brains full of dreams, over the hundred
none carried away,
Over the mass of fire, over laughter and madness, over
crosses in fields, over pain and despair, over rublle
and ash, over the river and the ruined town…

– ‘Nocturnal Landscape’ byAnton Schnack, 1920, translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Wounded soldier – Autumn 1916, Bapaume

Otto Dix, ‘A Wounded Soldier (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)’

Dix was a machine gunner during the battle of the Somme, an experience that left him with obsessive memories of death. Here he depicts unblinkingly the agony of a comrade wounded in the abdomen, expressed in his bulging eyes, clenched right hand and twisted left arm. This image is an unmitigated symbol of human suffering.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

Dix fought in Champagne, on the Somme, near Verdun, in Russia, and in Flanders – the latter experience leading him to paint Flanders in  1924: with its echoes of Breugel’s apocalyptic visions, it was subtitled ‘Adapted from Barbusse’s Under Fire‘.

Now, in the sinister light of the storm beneath black dishevelled clouds, dragged and spread across the earth like wicked angels, they seem to see a great livid white plain extend before them. In their   vision, figures rise up out of the plain, which is composed of mud and water, and clutch at the surface of the ground, blinded and crushed with mire, like survivors from some monstrous shipwreck. These men seem to them to be soldiers. The plain is vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes, and the shipwrecked men trying to extract themselves from it are a great multitude . . . But the thirty million slaves who have been thrown on top of one another by crime   and error into this war of mud raise human faces in which the glimmer of an idea is forming. The future is in the hands of these slaves and  one can see that the old world will be changed by the alliance that will   one day be formed between those whose number and whose suffering  is without end.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu, chapter 1

Otto Dix, Flanders, 1924

Otto Dix, ‘Flanders’, 1934

When Dix began painting Flanders, he had already been dismissed from his post as art tutor at the Dresden Academy. Dix’s dismissal letter said that his work ‘threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves’. In addition, two of Dix’s paintings, The Trench and War Cripples, had appeared in the exhibition in Dresden Town Hall of ‘degenerate art’  intended by the Nazis to discredit modern art. Dix’s response was to begin painting Flanders – another powerful anti-war painting.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Stormtroops advancing under a gas attack

Otto Dix, ‘Stormtroopers advancing under a gas attack’

‘Storm-troopers advancing under a gas attack’ is probably the print from the series that is most often reproduced. Dix portrays five soldiers in close-up, as seen through the eyes of French defenders, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land during a gas attack. When soldiers wore their gas masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix presents them as symbols of terror.

Otto Dix, 'Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

Otto Dix, ‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

What is this war? It is mud, trenches, blood, rats, lice, bombs, pain, barbed wire, decaying flesh, gas, death, rain, tears, bullets, fear and a loss of faith in all that we once believed in.

– Otto Dix

Otto Dix, 'The Ruins of Langemark

Otto Dix, ‘The Ruins of Langemark’

Langemark was where gas used by the Germans for the first time in April 1915.  During the Third Battle of Ypres, British troops captured Langemarck (which is close to Passchendaele). A German counter-offensive then re-captured most of the ground around Langemarck. This print probably depicts Dix’s memory of what was left of the town after he and the Germans returned.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, A Dying soldier

Otto Dix, ‘A Dying Soldier’

The Historial’s caption to this print gets it exactly, terrifyingly right, pointing out that the title is ‘dying’, not ‘dead’ despite the unprecedented wounds inflicted by artillery and gunfire.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Lens bombarded

Otto Dix, ‘Lens is bombarded’

Lens was located in German occupied territory, still inhabited by elderly French civilians, women and children.  Dix focusses on one street.  A British or French plane flies low over homes in order to bomb enemy targets, but killing civilians in the process. Dix portrays the terror of women in the foreground, while bodies lie strewn across the street behind them.  Here is where it all started – the concept of ‘total war’ in which civilians are deliberate targets (in order to demoralize) or are simply ‘collateral damage’.  Think Gaza, Syria, Ukraine right now.

Otto Dix, 'Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches’

Dix represents what no war photos could show – the act of a German soldier stabbing with force a knife into the heart of his enemy.  The tension of the arm, the direction of the body, the blade piercing the body – force us to look at the killer’s grinning action

We are unfeeling dead who, through some dangerous trick of magic, are still able to run and kill. A young Frenchman falls behind; they catch up with him and he puts his hands up; in one of them he is still holding his revolver; we cannot tell whether he wants to shoot or to surrender. A stroke with a shovel splits his face in two. Another seeing this tries to escape, but a bayonet whistles into his back. He jumps in the air and, arms outstretched, stumbles screaming as the bayonet moves up and down in his spine.

– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Otto Dix, 'Shelter in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Shelter in the Trenches’

By a lamp, German soldiers sleep, play cards, smoke.  On the left, a naked soldier kills fleas on his shirt with his finger nails. Looking at this brought to mind ‘Vigil’, a poem dated 23 December 1915, by the Italian, Giuseppe Ungaretti which I first read in Jon Silkin’s 1979 Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – still, I think, the best collection.

A whole night long
crouched close
to one of our men
butchered
with his clenched
mouth
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
thrust right
into my silence
I’ve written
letters filled with love

I have never held
so hard
to life

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt, 1914

Otto Dix, ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt’, 1914

See also