On view: “World War I: War of Images, Images of War”
In her book, Cassandra: A Novel and Four Stories, German author Christa Wolf poses a question: “You can tell when a war starts, but when does the pre-war start?” And a response: “If there are rules about that, we should pass them on… Among other things they would say: Do not let your own people deceive you.”
One hundred years ago, the world was at war, and the intensity of it, if not so apparent at first, would catch many people by surprise.
The outbreak of war may or may not be spontaneous, but it needs to be fueled by more than just hardware, and that’s where the propaganda machine comes in. “World War I: War of Images, Images of War,” on view at the Getty Research Institute, features some 150 objects that range from lithographs and postcards to the covers of journals (plus helmets, medallions, film clips and audio recordings), used in large part to rally public support and morale against the real or perceived enemy.
The material on display doesn’t just come from one or two countries, but from several, mostly Germany, France, England, Russia, Italy and the U.S. Curated by Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Nancy Perloff, Anja Foerschner, Gordon Hughes, and Philipp Blom, this thoughtful presentation looks back with wistful hindsight at the battle for people’s hearts and minds by means that were often devious in themselves.
Artists on the frontline
There is also a book, Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged, published by the Getty and edited by Hughes and Blom, that complements rather than mirrors the exhibition. It looks at how the Great War affected and influenced the art of 14 visual artists, eight of them German. Each is the subject of a brief essay, showing how they weathered the arc of enlistment, combat, and the return to civilian life.
Any notions of warfare as somehow glorious and noble went out the door as the reality of World War I unfolded, sank in, and kept unfolding, despite any boosterism from the homefront.
In his essay, “‘In Dead Men Breath’ – The Afterlife of World War I,” Gordon Hughes gives an account of novelist and poet Robert Graves and his slightly doctored autobiography (Goodbye to All That), and the extensive number of cases of post-war trauma, something given little attention prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Hughes writes, “The first modern war brought about not only an array of modern symptoms but also modern ways of theorizing and combatting those symptoms.”
Men may return home from battle with their bodies intact, but as we’ve seen in countless films, from Coming Home to American Sniper, the horrors of war aren’t easily left behind.
Most of the artists profiled in Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged are well known, but perhaps not in the context of how they were marked by the war. I will only comment on a few, but first will list them all: André Masson, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, and Carlo Carrà, of the Allied powers, and Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Kokoschka, and Oskar Schlemmer, of the Central powers. Art historians presumably group them another way, by styles and influences that don’t always adhere to national boundaries.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but wartime art tends towards the expressionistic rather than the static figurative, and Otto Dix is a very good example of this. His colors are lurid and garish, which often gives a decadent (or carnivalesque) flavor to his work, especially those pictures created during the 1920s and after. I’d be somewhat tempted to interleave them with Goya’s “Disasters of War” series, which calls to mind what Augusto Roa Bastos wrote in I, the Supreme: “The inventions of men are different from century to century. The malice of the militia seems to be forever the same.”
French artist André Masson was wounded during an ill-conceived assault on entrenched German forces, and he spent the entire night in the field, on his back, looking up at the stars.
Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet,” an avant-garde dance piece that had its full premiere in 1922, was dominated “by its sculptural, highly structured costumes,” writes Paul Monty Paret. However, “For all their whimsy, Schlemmer’s figures are also specters of the soldier’s experience, alluding to and echoing the mutilated bodies, artificial limbs, and reduced abilities of the war’s wounded veterans.” In this, it seems reminiscent of “The War Cripples (Forty-Five Percent Fit for Work),” a now-lost painting that Dix created in 1920, and illustrated some pages earlier.
The English painter Paul Nash, who perhaps began as a spiritual ancestor of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, was horrified by the war but at the same time, writes Anja Foerschner, “he was fascinated by the romantic notion of heroism and the morbid stories told by the scarred landscape.” Better known for a later work, “Totes Meer” (1940-41), Nash depicted the war’s toll on the environment and by doing so sought to convey the emotional devastation taking place at the same time. It’s reminiscent of what Anselm Kiefer would later take to an even greater extreme.
One more example. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s case is both interesting and atypical in that he did not indulge in the widespread patriotism of his countrymen. “Instead of engaging the enemy in combat on the battlefield,” writes Thomas Gaehtgens, “he fought a personal struggle over his artistic identity.”
That inner struggle, we’d like to think, engaged each of the artists discussed in Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged, a struggle perhaps complicated by the pre-war propaganda – to allude back to Christa Wolf – that the various nations were employing to inflame the passions of those whom they governed. “Do not let your own people deceive you.” The objects on display at the Getty reveal how this became possible.
World War I: War of Images, Images of War is on view through April 19 at the Getty Research Institute (GRI) at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free; parking $15 per car. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER