When war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, four years of battle and years more of devastating crises lay ahead. One of Marc’s paintings that articulates a grim anticipation of war and foresees its origins in South-Eastern Europe was Das arme Land Tirol (The Unfortunate Land of Tirol) of 1913. In the same year he painted a pack of wolves and subtitled the work Balkankrieg (Balkan War). Ernst Barlach sculpted a furious, hurtling avenging angel just as the hostilities commenced. Yet in spite of a tide of apocalyptic prophecies, few could imagine the cold reality of modern, technological warfare, in “this endless, loveless war” as Marc was calling it by 1915 in a letter from the Front.
Dix was one of the most prolific artists of war. He was also a prodigious soldier. He served on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, throughout wartime, and was awarded the Iron Cross. In the latter months of the war he trained as a pilot. Dix took two books with him into battle: the Bible and a volume of Nietzsche.
When the fighting had been over for some years, he returned to the subject and his memories of it. He produced a masterly graphic cycle, Der Krieg (The War), in 1924 in the tradition of Goya’s Disasters of War. He painted monumental panels in the 1920s and early 1930s in the manner of medieval altarpieces. Taken together, this wide range of works encompasses a richness and diversity of war experience from the horrific to the banal, the tragic to the absurd.
Dix painted himself as a soldier several times. In his 1914 self-portrait (on the reverse of which is another self-portrait, in a spiked artillery helmet), he appears as a pugnacious, thuggish figure, painted in the reds of the planet Mars – planet of war. His shaven head, thrusting forwards, is all male strength and carnal brutality. “14 DIX” marks the date and subject like a tattoo, piece of graffiti or a serial number. The effect of powerful physicality is doubly dramatized in the thick, gestural marks of the brush and smeared paint on paper.
An image of undifferentiated and undecorated masculinity in war came from Kirchner in 1915. In his Artillerymen, a crowd of naked soldiers, thin, sallow and strangely vulnerable are bombarded by steely jets of water from the communal shower. The officer to the right in uniform and jackboots creates a presence that both emphasizes the men’s’ nakedness, stripped of military regalia, and underlines these soldiers’ complete subjugation to authority.
Beckmann volunteered for service as a medical orderly in order to avoid going into armed combat. He too was fascinated by war at the outset, but according to a friend, he said: “I’m not going to shoot at the French, I have learnt so much from them. Nor at the Russians, Dostoyevski is my friend”.
Kollwitz was a committed pacifist. She dreamt of Socialism as the answer to Europe’s suffering. Her son Peter was killed in the fighting. Mourning his death and the loss of millions of others, Kollwitz came to see the war years not only as “unspeakably hard” but also as a “terrible deception”.
After the war, inspired by the example of her friend and colleague Barlach, she created a moving cycle of seven woodcuts, titled Der Krieg (The War). They focus on the bereavement and suffering inflicted on ordinary people in war. In the second of them, Die Freiwilligen (The Volunteers), she envisages a surging crowd of young volunteers and the suffering, howling women from whom they are being pulled, inexorably towards destruction, by death as a drummer.
Grosz despised the war. Refusing to blame it only on the ruling classes, he reviled too, the mass hysteria that had fuelled it. He suffered a mental breakdown as a result of the horrors he witnessed and lived in terror of re-conscription. His bitterly ironic drawing, KV: The Faith Healers is a damning indictment of the insanity of war, the inhumanity of the bureaucratic war machine, and the absurdity of its processes. A jovial military doctor examines a bespectacled corpse, already in a state of advanced decay. His pronouncement is “KV”, “kriegsverwendungsfähig”, or “fit for active service”. With his characteristic economy of line and sharpness of wit, Grosz lines up for ridicule all the figures that embody the worst of military culture. Flat-headed generals enjoy a joke and a cigar in the foreground, ignoring the examination. Meek desk-bound pen-pushers record and officiate the process.
After the war was over, Dix depicted the officer ranks of the German army as degenerate and animalistic. In Memories of the Mirrored Halls in Brussels, a flushed, decorated soldier gropes a fleshy, falsely smiling prostitute.
Dix exploits the disorientating, kaleidoscopic effects of a chamber that is mirrored on all sides – including floor and ceiling – for several purposes. The mirror facets reflect from multiple angles the different stages and positions of their erotic wrestling. The general appears to be drinking a toast, in selfcongratulation, to his own reflection…
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