Woodrow Wilson once said that World War I was the “war to end all wars”. And yet, it did no such thing. However, it was one of the first conflicts to truly change the public’s opinion on the value of warfare and its destructive nature. Perhaps because of the more censored opinions of war, art up this point in history hardly reflected an opinion of disgust or offense against the idea of war. Instead, battles and the prowess of men waging these battles were many times glorified and often treated as something to aspire to. The ideas of patriotism, duty, honor, and courage were tied into the artwork of war; real men were expected to want to be part of this idealized concept of war and glory. While the politics from the late 19th and early 20th century saw the beginning of a movement where the artist detached himself from old world ideas and concepts, it was the First World War changed this really impacted the evaluation of the perspective on war. The change in the public opinion on warfare found its self embedded in the artwork of the early modern era. Many artists, disgusted with the atrocities of war now reflected the ideas of what art should be. The disconnect between the ideas glorifying war set side by side with the realities of war created a cynical view to war.
An example of this cynicalism is “Artillerymen” (Das Soldatenbad, 1915) by Fritz Bleyl. The soldiers in the painting are depicted in such a way that they seem weak and seem more like prisoners rather than powerful warriors. The structure of the soldier’s bodies give way to strokes of the brush that provides them with an anemic look and the colors seems to give the entire scene a grime and dirty look. The room itself looks too small for the crowd of soldiers showering while the soldier in charge seems to be the only one with a commanding presence or authority.
Most artwork however, did not rebel directly against the military war complex or the perceived social inflexibility of the times. Removing structure and turning their backs on realism in exchange for more expressionistic forms of art, artist like Henri Matisse created an art form that conveyed more visceral emotion. His work “Luxury, Calm and Pleasure” (Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904) leaves behind the conventional methods are the time and creates a more colorful and fluid piece of artwork. The colors gives it painting a balmy and warm afternoon feel to a day on the while the almost liquid properties of the shapes make the say seem relaxing and enjoyable. The painting trades off shape and form of scenery for emotion and intensity, creating something new and unique at the same time in the Fauvism style.
The diversity of the artists the era led to some who did not always agree with their counterparts of the era with the ideas against the more conventional the political ideology of the day. Some, like Erich Heckel, served during World War I out of a sense of duty and nationalism. However, impressions of the war did inform his style and his subject matter. His woodcut “Wounded Sailor” (Verwundeter Matrose, 1915) depicts a sailor wounded during World War I and in contrast with the heroic posters and images of the day. Created from some of his experiences from his time as a medic, here the sailor looks down trotted and defeated. The sharp angular method of the woodcut gives the sailor very focused appearance while his eyes seem defeated and almost hopeless.
The artwork of the era before and surrounding World War I, at times seems less about rebellion or disregarding the past and more about a view that the world seems to be broken or fractured. These pieces of art speak of a time where society is coming to the realization that the world is evolving into something beyond their conventional understanding. Between happiness and emotion, that defies structure and order to works so vividly harsh and violent that reality seems to fracture, the artwork of this era almost seems in painful from the intensity of it. While World War I might not have been “the war to end all wars”, it seems to have been the birth of the modern era, full with the happiness, intensity, and pain that accompanies any childbirth.
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