What started fine arts

The avant-garde and the war
Fine arts 1914-1918

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) | Photo: © Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio

The First World War was a turning point and engine of change in the visual arts as well. Seldom have so many new artistic concepts emerged in so few years. The artists had an ambivalent relationship to the war. Many greeted him at first, others later changed their minds and loathed him. All of them, however, were directly affected

Immediately before the First World War, the European artistic avant-garde were in full bloom. Today we call this phase of masterpieces 'Classical Modernism'. In Germany, the artists of the Brücke and the Blue Rider stood out, in Italy the Futurists and in England the Vortizists, in France the Cubists, and in Russia the avant-gardists around Kasimir Malewitsch and Natalja Goncharova appeared under changing names. Although young art was constantly hostile to when it came to the public, the artists succeeded in asserting themselves with jointly organized exhibitions and with the help of committed collectors and determined art dealers.


Everywhere one broke new artistic territory, especially when it came to the use of artistic means. Their stubbornness was harnessed wherever abstraction was sought, and experimental exploration was carried out to find out where the reproduction of figure and object was concerned. What was created in the studio was polyphonic between realism and abstraction like never before. Wassily Kandinsky, who lives in Munich, noted: “It is so happy that there are now so different sounds. And together it is the symphony of the XX century [sic]. "

While the Brücke artists' community was still nationally established, the Blue Rider was international from the outset, with Russian members as well as French, Italian and Austrian guests from Wassily Kandinsky and Alexej von Jawlensky to Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay to Erma Bossi and Arnold Schönberg who appeared there as a painter. In Moscow in 1912 the boys' association of diamonds also showed works by the Brücke and Blaue Reiter artists as well as the French Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse. The Paris Salon des Indépendants, which had become more international since the beginning of the decade, was celebrated by Fernand Léger in 1914 as the “most important manifestation of contemporary world art”. While the states armed militarily and morally and propagated the enemy images, the artists acted on friendly international terms.

The break of 1914

When the First World War began in August 1914, everything collapsed. The artists had to or wanted to go to the front; their international relations were cut off. The fate of the leading group of artists around the Almanac Der Blaue Reiter just before 1914 alone speaks volumes: The different attitudes towards war divided Franz Marc and Kandinsky as well as Marc and Paul Klee. The Russians Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin had to leave Germany as 'enemy foreigners' at the beginning of the war, which effectively dissolved the group. The many traveling exhibitions ended. The poet Hugo Ball had given Kandinsky the prospect of realizing his dream of a total work of art on the stage in Munich; there could be no question of that now. The close French friend of the Munich, Robert Delaunay, was now considered an official enemy. August Macke fell in September 1914 and Franz Marc in March 1916.

Not only were the artists who fought in the war isolated from friends, the art world, and the public, but also those who stayed behind. Juan Gris reported to the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had to flee France as a German, on October 30, 1914: “Matisse writes from Paris ... that Derain is in the battle zone ... Vlaminck is a military painter in Le Havre ... Gleizes is wounded, Segonzac also. De La Fresnaye, who entered voluntarily, is sick in the reserve hospital. I have no news from Braque, whom I am most interested in. ”Duchamp looked back from New York in 1915:“ Paris is like an abandoned house. The lights are out. The friends are gone - at the front. Or they have already been killed. ”The avant-gardes were at an end.

Between enthusiasm for war and skepticism

After two great, world-shaking and revolutionary wars, the enthusiasm for war of August 1914, the hostility and the mutual hatred, especially between the Germans and the French, the Germans and the English, have become incomprehensible to us. As far as the artists and intellectuals are concerned, after reading their letters and diaries from that period, one has the impression that they had little idea of ​​the actual war, let alone the modern industrialized war. The last war before the First World War was a long time ago. In many cases, one wished for a profound change - away from what was called 'materialism' at the time, towards the 'spiritual', that is, the cultural, which was usually just as unspecified. The war was seen as a metaphorical, natural process of renewal, "as the liberation of thinking people from the miasm of a partly dull, partly depraved society", as the art historian Peter Paret put it.

In this sense, Franz Marc threw himself emphatically like no other artist into the stuff. His catchphrase was 'cleansing': "The war is waged for cleansing and the sick blood is shed." The old world is mendacious, vain, pedantic, frivolous, and the war is therefore a "self-willed sacrifice". When Marc wrote to Kandinsky in October 1914 from near Metz that he saw the war in which he was now involved "the salutary, albeit cruel, passage to our goals", that he would "cleanse Europe, 'make it' ready '", Kandinsky, who had been expelled to Switzerland, replied tersely, full of incomprehension: "" I thought that the space would be cleaned in a different way for the construction of the future. The price of this kind of cleaning is appalling. "Two years earlier than one A possible war was talked about, Kandinsky had made quite realistic ideas in a letter to Marc: "The terrible possibilities can develop into infinity and the dirty consequences will long drag their stinking wagons across the globe. And ... the mountains of corpses. "So two close friends had two completely opposite attitudes towards the war. The friend Paul Klee now viewed Marc with some skepticism, yes, the outward expression of the military attitude, the uniform m Marcs, "the damned habit", he began to "really hate".

Artists' glorification of war was often less a patriotic avowal than an expression of the fundamental anti-bourgeois attitude in the avant-garde, in Russia as in Germany, in Italy as in Austria. It was hoped that a war would destroy the old systems and overcome the bourgeois world with its aging culture. However, there were no clear common goals, models or utopias, at most the wish, according to Max Beckmann, in view of the "" today's rather demoralized culture, to tie the instincts and urges all to one interest again to bundle the different and vague aspirations for the sake of a better world and in the sense of reason and morality.

The expectations of the war were very different. To quote just three completely opposing attitudes: The German Lovis Corinth found the declaration of war “sparking” in view of the “cubist painting and the Hottentottish naivety in art” (that is, the primitivism of French provenance), Now the world is being shown “that today German art marches at the top of the world.” “Away with the Gallic-Slavic mimicking of our last painting period.” Such nationalistic tones were rather rare among artists - with the exception of the Italians. On the other hand, Ernst Barlach, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lehmbruck or Oskar Schlemmer noted their fear of being viewed as a slacker with almost the same trivial words that one wanted to volunteer “because it will be an eternal shame to sit at home have ”(Oskar Kokoschka). Ultimately, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix had completely different reasons: They were looking for the experience of war as an experience of extreme life for the sake of an art saturated with reality.

Inextricable conflict

Much more often than a general nationalism or patriotism, there is an indissoluble dichotomy in the artists ’statements from the period. Max Beckmann volunteered, but he did not want to shoot the Russians because Dostoyevsky was a spiritual friend to him, nor the French because he had learned so much from them. Marc, on the other hand, fought with passion against the French soldiers, but under no circumstances did he want to “sulphate” the “French culture” he valued. This artist's attitude, which can hardly be reconciled with humanity, occurs again and again, according to which people can be killed, but art, culture, "the spiritual" are inviolable above everything.

After the war death of their friend August Macke, Klee and Marc brought the conflict in the fight against a nation in which one had close artist friends and whose culture was valued to a paradoxical concept. Klee wrote: “August Macke has already fallen from here, the French friend”, and Marc spoke of Macke's sudden departure “through a hostile, one might almost say: friendly ball - because it was a French one”.

Among the European avant-gardes, the Italian futurists, led by F. T. Marinetti, were closest to the idea of ​​war. The 1909 futuristic manifesto extolled danger, audacity, dynamism, attack, and any kind of aggression. “There is only beauty in combat.” There was a lot of rhetorical exuberance for the purpose of provoking the bourgeoisie, but the sentences on war had a lasting and political effect: “We want to glorify war - this only hygiene in the world - that Militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies, and the contempt for women. "

Futuristic actionism and vitalism ended in war. Marinetti's 1915 Manifesto War, Only Hygiene in the World reads: “Futuristic poets, painters, sculptors and musicians in Italy! As long as the war continues, put aside the verses, brushes, chisels, and orchestra! The genius' red vacation has begun! We have nothing to admire today like the terrible symphonies of shrapnel and the insane sculptures that our inspired artillery forms out of the bulk of the enemy. ”Now the artillery was the real, the perfect artist; Mountains of the dead were considered admirable sculptures.

Criticism of the war

But it is by no means the case that in 1914 the artists reacted enthusiastically to the idea of ​​war. In France, the future head of the surrealists André Breton expressed his contempt for the “most ridiculous enthusiasm for war” and the “infantile chauvinist declarations” on the day Germany declared war. In the Netherlands, Theo van Doesburg did not expect the 'spirit' to overcome materialism like Marc and others, but on the contrary and closer to the truth: he feared that the war would lead to the victory of the “dirty, hypocritical world” over “the spiritual, noble world ”mean.

Artists like Robert Delaunay, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp avoided the war by going abroad. Max Ernst noted: “August 1914. And then the big mess. Nobody from the Circle of Friends is in a hurry to sacrifice their life for God, King and Fatherland. Arp leaves for Paris (as an Alsatian). ”One of Wilhelm Lehmbruck's memories is particularly impressive:“ How I was in Cologne for a few weeks at the end of July 1914 and the great imperial bells from the cathedral, in a hurry, fought out the threat of war - after all, the imperial bells of the Doms! - and then around the corner the many battalions marched through the streets with fresh oak green on their helmets, and they - showered by beautiful women and girls with summer flowers - sang: 'There is a roaring call ...' or 'Germany, Germany over everything!' ... I stared paralyzed from the balcony of a small inn down to Kaiserstrasse. All of a sudden, I see how thousands of war-loving heads ... became skulls. Really grinning skulls! With an open mouth and two black holes next to the eaten nose. - Yes, I saw that. "

The reality shock

In the middle of 1915, most of the war advocates thought differently than a year earlier. Because their situation had changed seriously. Many artists suffered serious injuries, others like Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner suffered breakdowns; August Macke and Albert Weisgerber were on the German side, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska had perished on the French side. At the front or immediately behind it, they had all experienced the shock of the widespread, ongoing war annihilations. What Oskar Schlemmer noted applied to almost all artists: “I'm no longer the guy who volunteered in August. Physically no longer, and especially in attitude ”, and Hans Richter later added:“ During the war we were against the war. ”

Regardless of all censorship measures, artists created graphic consequences after their return to the studio, as soon as they had recognized the war in all its destruction, with the intention of reaching a wider audience with their statements against the war, according to the Germans Willy Jaeckel and Max Slevogt, the Frenchman Félix Vallotton and Belgian Frans Masereel. The Russian Natalja Goncharova also created such an episode. Not only in retrospect, but since the first experiences of the war, artists from different nations expressed their sharp criticism in visual statements.

The scattered, now “brushless painters” (as Paul Klee called them) were dependent on small, mobile formats and simple techniques at the front or behind the front. In spite of all restrictions and military tasks, they made extensive use of this. “My work”, says Otto Dix, “grows almost over my neck, I don't know where to put it”. To name just a few examples: Fernand Leger and Dix mainly reacted to the enormous, new events and the destruction, while Beckmann, Erich Heckel and the Russian Ossip Zadkine devoted themselves to the sufferings of the victims and Ludwig Meidner and the Austrian Egon Schiele intensely reacted the encounters with strangers reacted; Félix Vallotton made the landscapes deserted by the war his subject. Compared to the usual image practices, the modes of representation are individually changed by the new experiences and are often more oriented towards reality.

Where the artists were left to their own devices, isolated, without art debates and exchange between colleagues, free as artists, but firmly integrated as soldiers and no longer safe in the studio, but constantly close to death, the question of one's own identity became a very central one. This was particularly true of German artists, but less so of the Italian or French, presumably patriotically more stable. It is as if you have fallen out of your previous role. In many cases, the artists portrayed themselves as confused and disoriented. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who was not at the front, appears in panic in a self-portrait from 1915 with a stump on his right arm.

With some German artists - rather than with their French or Italian colleagues - the tremors penetrated deeply into the visual language means. Max Beckmann lost the old security and tried with a shaky line to win images from the experienced reality. Otto Dix invented a wild imagery that was shaped by the destruction he had witnessed. Even Paul Klee, who had just been shining with colored leaves from Tunis, turned to black-and-white drawings that heralded dangers. Reality could no longer be grasped with familiar means; it required different, experimental means. Because, according to Ernst Barlach in the spring of 1915, “the experience does not take place in the eyes, but in the soul”.


Then something surprising and unexpected happened in art during the First World War: it became radicalized. At least where the artists had meanwhile been exempted from military service for health reasons or withdrew from it, i.e. where they were resident in the studio again.

Many artists started all over again under the pressure of war.Grosz now relentlessly demanded and practiced “Brutality! Clarity that hurts! "; Klee now worked on colorful, poetically charged, partly abstract, at least thoroughly experimental works; Beckmann gave up his historicizing painting in order to dare a new beginning with the simplest pictorial means in a very sober manner. It is as if the extreme situation from which they all suffered, even when they returned to the studio, sensitized their perception, sharpened their attitudes, increased access, increased risk, and clarified the artistic process.

Furthermore, in the middle of the war, Dada unexpectedly set in with its art revolutionary program. Since February 1916 the public has been aroused from Zurich. Painters and poets had fled their war countries to neutral Switzerland. “Disgusted by the slaughter of World War 1914,” wrote Hans Arp, “we indulged in the fine arts in Zurich. While in the distance the thunder of the guns rumbled, sang, painted, glued, we wrote poetry with all our strengths. We were looking for an elementary art that would heal people from the madness of the times, and a new order that would restore the balance between heaven and hell. ”These artists were against everything, the war, the bourgeoisie, not least against bourgeois art.

They performed in Cabaret Voltaire, with mask dances, verse without words, simultaneous poetry and sound concerts. Action was born as a new art form. Dada flared up in Barcelona and New York at the same time, and after the war also in Cologne, Berlin and Paris.

After all, in the middle of the war, the great perspectives for the art of the 20th century were designed in a completely individual way: by Kasimir Malewitsch and Wladimir Tatlin in Moscow, Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands, Marcel Duchamp in New York, Pablo Picasso in Paris and Giorgio de Chirico in Ferrara.

In 1915, Marcel Duchamp fled the war to the still neutral United States. In New York he began with the realization of the large glass (La Mariée mise à nu par ses Célibataires, même / The bride bared naked by her bachelors, even), the founding work of conceptual art.

In Russia, where one was now isolated from the western art world, Malevich suddenly found complete abstraction in 1915, while Vladimir Tatlin founded the genre of the pure material image.

One of the most surprising twists and turns in avant-garde art history is Picasso's abrupt departure from the cubism with which he had become the epitome of the modern artist. The strikingly naturalistic depiction of Olga in the armchair from 1917 was a first highlight. This paved the way for the realistic trends of the 1920s in Italy, Germany and France.

At the same time, a dismembered, magically enraptured world was contrasted with the renovated, intact image. When Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà were admitted to a military psychiatric hospital in Ferrara in April 1917 to avoid being deployed at the front, they had the opportunity to paint there. In Ferrara, de Chirico created major works that year in which the heterogeneous was mysteriously brought into visual unity, groundbreaking above all for the surrealists of the twenties.

It is true that the international avant-garde groups had broken up in 1914, but the individuals created new visual worlds out of the existential shocks and the experience of multiple suffering. They were created for different reasons with just as different artistic aims: against the war, despite the war, because of the war or even just under the pressure of the war.


Uwe M. Schneede is an art historian and was director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 1991 to 2006. At the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn he curated the exhibition “1914 - Avant-gardes in Combat” (November 8, 2013 - February 23, 2014).

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
November 2013

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