Great Artists in the Great War

The Great War, which began 100 years ago today, launched the tank, the sub, the plane, and mustard gas, and toppled the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman Empires.

All the Great Artists were affected by this war:

The French
When 1914 rolled around, Bonnard was too old to be taken. (He had already served in 1890; his father had been Head Clerk in the War Ministry.)
Vuillard was also too old; so was Rouault.
Vlaminck was drafted, but his brother-in-law got him released for work in factories near Paris.
Picabia was drafted, but his father-in-law got him assigned as a chauffeur to a general. Later, assigned to a supply mission in the Caribbean, Picabia jumped ship in New York, where he had been a hit at the Armory Show. In 1917, he had a fling with Isadora Duncan…and then found refuge in Barcelona.
Duchamp was 4-F.
The Delaunays happened to be in Spain in 1914, nursing their son, so they stayed…and met Diaghilev.
Léger, a stretcher bearer, thought the “atmosphere” at the Front was “hyper-poetic.” He was gassed at Verdun, but felt the whole experience was salutary, because “I left Paris when I was painting entirely abstract work…suddenly I was at the level of the whole French people.”
Picasso saw Braque off at the train station. Twice decorated for bravery, Braque eventually got his head split open by shrapnel and had to endure trepanation. Their friendship never resumed. (During the Nazi Occupation, both lived quietly in Paris.)
Paris was too cold in the winter of 1916 for Matisse, so he moved to Nice.

The Germans
In August 1914, Münter immediately fled to Switzerland with her Russian boyfriend, Kandinsky, but he did not invite her to continue on with him to Russia.
Nolde was on a world cruise; he had to get a Danish passport to get back home.
Schwitters claimed he “fought valiantly on all fronts of the Waterloo Square,” meaning, he pulled desk jobs in Hanover.
Ernst, in the artillery, was twice wounded, once by getting kicked by a mule in the head, hence his nickname, Ironhead.
Kirchner, drafted as a driver in the artillery, had a mental breakdown in 1915. Two years later, in Berlin, he was run down by a car.
The younger son of Kollwitz was killed in Flanders in 1915.
Beckmann served as a medic until 1915, when he suffered shell shock.
In 1915, Arp was forced by penury to flee to Zurich, where the German consulate wanted to draft him, but was readily persuaded he was insane.
Herzfeld, drafted, kept deserting. To protest against anti-English propaganda, he changed his name to Heartfield.
Albers taught art in elementary school and was a student himself at Essen Arts and Crafts.
Dix started out in artillery, where he did portraits of his barracks mates, but then volunteered for a machine-gun unit.
Grosz volunteered and got sick with “brain fever and dysentery.” When he recovered, he got called up again. When he was found “semi-conscious, partially buried in a dung-pit,” he was discharged as unfit.
Marc took a fatal shell splinter in the head in 1916.

The English
Epstein, as Edward Lucie-Smith writes in Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists (Thames and Hudson, 1999), “lived quietly in the country. He received some prestigious portrait commissions, but he found it difficult to keep in touch with what was going on, and his neighbours were suspicious of his foreign name…. He joined the Artists’ Rifles and…fell ill.”
Nicholson was 4-F.
Spencer served in Macedonia, first as a medic, then as a private soldier.
Moore was the youngest in his regiment, the Civil Service Rifles. He was gassed at Cambrai and ended up as a fitness instructor.
Hepworth was an art student.

The Austro-Hungarians
Moholy-Nagy enlisted as an artillery officer and was wounded on the Italian front.
Kokoschka was bayonetted in the lung, then taken prisoner in Galicia. He suffered a breakdown and commissioned a life-sized doll that looked like his lost love, Alma Mahler; he took it with him everywhere.
Schiele transported Russian POWs and then, in Vienna, worked in the central commissary.
Klimt, too old to serve, died of a stroke in 1917.

The Italians
In 1914, Modigliani began an affair with a South African writer, a woman who had had a fling with Katherine Mansfield. In 1918, his dealer, Guillaume Chéron, moved his entire stable, including Soutine, to Nice.
Balla, Marinetti, Boccioni, inter alia, were arrested in February 1915, for demonstrating in favor of Italy entering the war, since war is “the only cure for the world.” Boccioni did get to fight, but the actuality of warfare bored and annoyed him—he died not from bullets or bombs, but from being trampled by his horse.
De Chirico enlisted, along with his brother, with whom he was conceptualizing “metaphysical painting.” Stationed in Ferrara, he had an intestinal—and nervous—breakdown.
Morandi got sick after serving only six weeks; upon recovery, he destroyed much of his early work.

The Spanish
Gris’s dealer, D.H. Kahnweiler, an enemy alien, had to leave town, so Gris hooked up with Léonce Rosenberg until Kahnweiler came back.
Miró read French avant-garde poetry in Barcelona and was stunned by a show of Cézanne, Monet, and Matisse, sent down by Vollard.
Dalí was in art school. (During WWII, he worked at Disney.)

The Swiss, Romanian, Belgian, and Armenian
Klee was drafted in 1915 and ended up as a clerk at a Bavarian flying school.
Brancusi worked peacefully in Paris.
Magritte was in art school in Brussels.
Vostanik Manoog Adoyan, aged ten, escaped the Genocide in 1915, fleeing with his mother.

The Russians
Malevich returned to Moscow, where he proclaimed Suprematism.
Gabo (and his older brothers) moved to Copenhagen, and then to Oslo, where he decided to become a sculptor.
Larionov and Goncharova had to leave Paris and go back to Russia; Larionov, drafted, was wounded in battle, so they rejoined Diaghilev in Lausanne.
Tatlin also had to forsake Paris for Russia, where, in 1916, he did his Corner Counter-Reliefs, in keeping with his dictum “Real material in real space.” The Reliefs later inspired the form of the AK-47.
Chagall was trapped on a visit to Russia, but managed to get married to Bella. He was drafted, but Bella’s brother became Director of War Economy in St. Petersburg and got him a job in his office.
Popova had to leave Italy and go to Russia, where she worked in Tatlin’s studio.
Lissitzky had to leave Darmstadt. At the Polytechnic Institute of Riga, which had been evacuated to Moscow, he got his diploma in engineering and architecture. Then he worked for a Moscow architect and as a book illustrator. He designed the first flag for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Rodchenko and Stepanova left Kazan for Moscow, where they hung out with Tatlin, and also threw in with the Bolsheviks.

The Americans
Hopper moved to the Village, took up etching, and did some posters for the war effort.
O’Keefe taught in South Carolina. A disobedient friend showed her drawings to Stieglitz, who gave her a solo show in 1917.
Benton enlisted in the Navy and served as an architectural draftsman in Norfolk.
Davis worked on The Masses and Harper’s Weekly. In 1918, he made maps for Army Intelligence.
Rothkovich was a teenager in Portland, OR, delivering newspapers, perpetually hungry.
Still was a schoolboy in Spokane.
Feininger, born in New York, but living in Berlin since the late eighties, became, technically, an enemy alien once America declared war in April 1917. That fall, at the Sturm Gallery, he had his first solo show.

Comments are closed.