The military law: how artists became enemies, fought, died and survived during the First World War.
1914August 3rd: "Buses stopped running in the capital overnight, and taxis disappeared from streets suddenly full of men heading for the stations. Gun batteries assembled in the Tuileries Gardens, and soldiers with fixed bayonets guarded bridges across the Seine. Theatres closed, food prices rose and huge queues formed outside the banks. (…) Foreigners disappeared almost overnight from Paris. Newspapers were so heavily censored that it was impossible to be sure what was happening. There were wild rumours of German armies speeding through Belgium, but no real doubt at this stage about France’s ability to send them packing in a month or two at most" (Hilary Spurling, "Matisse the Master")
"War is the nameless sorrow. You are gone before you know it. (…) The people in Germany, drunk with ideas of victory, don’t suspect how terrible war is. I’m fine as far as my health goes; I know that I won’t die in vain if we can win and rid our country of the devastation that France had to experience," August Macke wrote to his wife.
Claude Monet was left without gardeners — all of them went to war. Several decades ago, in Giverny there was formed a whole colony of American artists, who came there to learn from Monet and were inspired by the beauty of the French province. With the onset of the war, they all quickly returned to America. There remained only one of them — the sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies. A kilometre from Monet’s house, the American set up a hospital for wounded French soldiers. Having taken courses in nursing, the famous singer Eugénie Buffet, performing in the fashionable cafés-concerts, bandaged the soldiers' wounds in that hospital and reassured their incessant pains as best she could — with quiet night songs. Claude Monet supplied vegetables from his garden for the wounded.
In his letters, Monet told his friends that under no circumstances he would leave Giverny, his house or paintings to the enemy. Moreover, after the death of the artist’s wife and son and a three-year break in his work, at last, Monet got a grandiose plan.
André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque — a young generation of French avant-garde artists found themselves at the front.
Oskar Kokoschka, having a hard time after breaking up with his beloved one, perceived war as a medicine. He left for the front in a grand manner: sold a huge painting, created for Alma Mahler, spent money made from it on military uniform and negotiated his enrolment to an elite subunit, where the aristocracy mainly served. Finally, he went to the photographer, so that he captured a brilliant dragoon, ready to prove love and suppress despair at the cost of his life.
1915The artist, and now the artilleryman, Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, came under heavy fire. Giving a closer look at his elegant military uniform, Scévola understood that it turned French soldiers into living targets. And then he decided to create a special pattern that would mask people and weapon. Scévola created camouflage! "In order to deform an object totally, I used the same methods that Cubists employ to represent objects. I was thus able to hire a number of talented painters, who, because of their very special vision, could disguise any object whatsoever," he said. During the First World War, 3 thousand artists served as camoufleurs in the French army. Including Georges Braque.
Braque was seriously wounded in the head, lost sight, fell into a coma and underwent a trepanation. In time, his eyesight recovered, but the artist took up his painting again only in two years. His closest friend Pablo Picasso wasn’t called up to fight in the war because of his Spanish citizenship. Their emotional connection, creative and personal tandem seemed inviolable. Before the war. Yet, when Braque recovered from his injury, could see again and returned to work, Picasso was nowhere near him. Before the end of the war, the Spaniard managed to participate in the most scandalous ballet of "Les Ballets Russes" - "Parade". He also managed to become famous, get married and return to the realistic style of painting. The relationship between Braque and Picasso would never be the way it used to be, since 4 war years drastically changed everything.
- Georges Braque in the trenches, December 17, 1914. Photo: georgesbraque.fr
- Franz Marc in the dugout, 1915. Photo: www.altertuemliches.at
Henri Matisse sent parcels of food to his friends at the front, and his wife knit socks and gloves for soldiers. Matisse gave his etchings to the Prisoners of war society, helped to compile lists of prisoners and negotiated with donators in France and America. And he was constantly trying to make some money: the Paris galleries weren’t ready for purchases, let alone advances; banking operations with Russia were disrupted, and one of Matisse’s main customers, Sergei Shchukin, lived there.
In April, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's son, Jean, was wounded in the thigh. The artist’s wife, Aline, was 56 years old, had diabetes, struggled to move, and yet decided by all means to visit her son at the hospital. She travelled 800 kilometres through the country engulfed by war — and managed to get to the wounded in time. Jean had gangrene and the surgeon was going to amputate his leg. Aline was against it — her son was only 20 years old! That trip laid Aline Renoir low, she returned home to the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, and two months later died.
The future great film director Jean Renoir, using crutches, but still standing on both feet, moved to a hospital in Paris — and the widowed Renoir went in his empty Paris apartment to be closer to his son. The wheelchair-bound father and his son, hobbling on crutches, spent in that apartment the most priceless days of their lives. For the first time they would hold day-long conversations which many years later would allow Jean to write a book of memories of his father.
In Vienna, an unexpected message came like a thunderbolt: the artist Oskar Kokoschka died. Obituaries, tears, regrets. All but the artist’s former beloved Alma were upset. That year she was going to marry Walter Gropius and didn’t really expect any brave feats from her ex-lover. But Kokoschka did not die — he was wounded in the head, left on the battlefield, and some French soldier even tried to finish him off with a bayonet, piercing his lung. Oskar survived even after that, temporarily lost his memory, stayed in hospitals as the unnamed wounded and, a few months after his "death", came to see his mother who’d already turned grey with sorrow.
1916The German government issued a decree and attached a list of famous artists who had to be demobilized in order to ensure their safety. Franz Marc's name was also on that list. But he never knew about it. He was killed by a shell splinter on March 6 during one of the longest and cruellest battles of the First World War — the Battle of Verdun. Two days before his death, Franz Marc wrote to his wife:
"For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine… Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you — the war will end this year. I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do."
At first, Egon Schiele guarded and escorted the captured Russian officers, and later was made a clerk in a prisoner of war camp (due to his beautiful handwriting) and even given a room in which the artist set up his workshop. He painted there portraits of his colleagues, Russian officers and desert landscapes without people.
- Egon Schiele. One-Year Volunteer Lance-Corporal. 1916
- Egon Schiele. Russian Prisoner of War (Grigori Kladjishuli).1916
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
1917On September 27, Edgar Degas died — and in Paris there were auctions where the artist’s works and the paintings from his private collection were sold. The impoverished French collectors and museums could not afford such purchases — prices of his paintings reached unprecedented levels. Most of the paintings were taken to America.
The Music Lesson was created on the eve of farewell. Matisse's oldest son turned 18 and was drafted into the army. It’s him, Jean, who’s smoking in the foreground before leaving for the training camp. In a few months Matisse managed to visit his son: hungry, frightened and frozen soldiers washed once a week in a stream and lived in a camp without toilets. Matisse gave Jean his shirt and managed to buy him an overcoat.
1918Otto Dix, Max Ernst and Fernand Leger went through the whole war, from its first to last days.
11 days before the end of the war and the signing of the peace treaty, the 28-year-old Egon Schiele, who was expected to become the main Viennese painter, died from a terrible epidemic of Spanish Flu. The spread of the epidemic was facilitated by the filth and hunger of war and the massive movement of military and refugees. The disease claimed at least 50 million lives around the world, including that of Egon Schiele’s pregnant wife.
In July, John Singer Sargent witnessed a terrible scene on the Arras-Doullens Road. Blinded French soldiers, injured during the attack by mustard gas, waited for help and slowly, by touch moved towards the hospital.
On 12 November 1918, a day after the armistice, Claude Monet wrote to his friend Georges Clemenceau: "Dear and great friend, I am about to finish two decorative panels that I wish to sign on the day of Victory, and I approach you with the request to offer them to the State through your mediation… It’s not much, but it is the only manner that I can take part in the Victory. I wish these two panels to be placed in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and would be happy if they are chosen by you. I admire you and embrace you with all my heart." In celebration of victory in the Great War, Claude Monet presented the country with 8 huge panels with water lilies, chosen by the hero, the "Father of Victory" Clemenceau and which are now located in the oval halls of Le Musée de l’Orangerie.
Author: Anna Sidelnikova