“Here I stand, heart pounding, at the very start of things.” (Franz Marc)

One hundred years have passed since the world stood before an abyss. After the assassination at Sarajevo, after the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, the First World War began in August 1914. Seventy million soldiers fought on battlefields in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia, as well as on the world’s oceans. Seventeen million people lost their lives. World War I, according to the American historian George F. Kennan, was the “original catastrophe of the twentieth century.” It was an event that cast a long shadow: the October Revolution, Stalinism, Fascism, National Socialism, and World War II can all be explained by the convulsions of World War I.

 “In order to make way for the future, I thought the place would be purged in a different way. The price of this purge is appalling.” (Wassily Kandinsky)

This unparalleled mass carnage and its consequences, however, were preceded by enthusiasm and readiness for war on the part of a majority of the population. There was even a broad consensus among artists and intellectuals. Fed up with bourgeois affluence, bored by intellectual and spiritual stagnation, they hungered for a “great event,” as Georg Heym called it. “March, march, hurrah!” was the subtitle for a picture of troops on the cover of the magazine Kriegszeit (Wartime), designed by Max Liebermann. Otto Dix, who went to war fired by zeal, was looking for “fodder” for his art: “I’m such a realist that I want to see everything with my own eyes.” “This here is feeding my art,” wrote Max Beckmann, who volunteered for the ambulance service and viewed the slaughter as a source of inspiration for his paintings.

For Franz Marc, an ardent supporter of the war, the inhuman events bordered on historic salvation: “The war is conducted for the sake of purging, and the unhealthy blood is shed.” The circle of Italian Futurists around Filippo Tommaso Marinetti also praised war as the “world’s only hygiene.” Strong nationalist tones reverberated in Lovis Corinth’s statements; he saw the war as an opportunity “for German art to march to the pinnacle of the world.” Oskar Kokoschka and Wilhelm Lehmbruck volunteered for military service, albeit because each was worried that “it would be an eternal shame to have sat at home,” as Oskar Kokoschka put it.

Still, there were other artists, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Theo van Doesburg, who reacted to the coming war with strong skepticism and apprehension. For example, André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, condemned “this most ridiculous eagerness for war,” and the “infantile, chauvinistic declarations.” Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Hans Arp escaped abroad to avoid the German mobilization.

Ultimately, the violent experiences at the front and behind the lines, the gruesome realities of war, destroyed the naïve hopes for progress even in those who had been very much attached to the idea of war at the outset. Quite a number of artists were wounded at the front, while others broke down under the terrible impressions and experiences, the constant fear of death. “I am no longer the fellow who volunteered in August,” said Oskar Schlemmer, representing many of his colleagues in a way, “no longer physically the same, and most especially, I no longer have the same cast of mind.” From then on, the brutalities they experienced determined the work of many artists—the unimaginable magnitude of the mass destruction, the victims’ sufferings, the decimated landscapes became themes of their art. For instance, almost no one portrayed the atrocities of the First World War as bluntly and as somberly and in such terrible clarity as Otto Dix did in his cycle of etchings, Der Krieg (The war), or in his famous triptych of the same name. Max Beckmann also took his personal shock from his experiences as an ambulance driver on the Western Front and poured it into memorable paintings executed in jittery brushstrokes; terror and fear had even altered his painting style, as was the case with many other artists of the time. Outside of actual experience, George Grosz—who had been classified as “permanently unfit for duty” after suffering a nervous breakdown—sharply criticized those who caused the war and supported it, and thus pointed the way toward the socially critical art of the 1920s.

Although in the years before the war European avant-garde artists had formed a tight network that went beyond national and ideological borders, this dramatic event put an abrupt end to their fruitful, often friendly collaborations. The years between 1914 and 1918 were a cultural interruption, both an ending and a new beginning at the same time. The international artists’ group Blauer Reiter, for example, was dissolved, but new movements and tendencies developed in the hotbed of political circumstances. “[N]auseated by the butchery of the world war,” as Hans Arp put it, Dada sprang up in Zurich, New York, and Barcelona; Pablo Picasso turned away from Cubism toward classicism; in Russia, Kasimir Malevich began working on total abstraction; Marcel Duchamp came up with the ready-made in New York. So could one refer to this as an “acceleration of artistic development due to the war,” as Uwe M. Schneede writes? Or chalk it up to the “destructive and perversely productive power of the war,” as DIE ZEIT put it? “Even though the international avant-garde movements of 1914 had been dispersed, individuals took the existential shocks and the multiple experiences of suffering and turned them into new visual spheres,” Schneede argues; the artists discovered “radical new approaches, whether it was because they were under pressure from the war, against the war, or despite the war.”

In 1908 the wealthy banker Albert Kahn began using his fortune to create the Archives de la planète, assembling more than 72,000 color photographs from all around the world; the project also supported the process of color photography invented by the Lumière brothers. He did this in the belief that knowledge of one another would further understanding of the different cultures in the world, and thus promote the cause of peace.
Considering the growing doubts about Europe, this fundamental conviction is more relevant than ever: in 2008 the then-President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker answered skeptics in his speech at the German Parliament commemorating the national day of mourning: “Anyone who has doubts about Europe, who is distraught over Europe, should visit the military cemeteries! In no other place can one feel more urgently, more movingly, the worst of what Europeans can do when they work against each other.”

25.3.2014 Stefanie Gommel

Veröffentlicht am: 25.03.2014