First World War Artists - The Art, Paintings and Poetry of the Great War 1914-18
Grenade Attack on Panzer Tanks by Fritz Fuhrken
World War I - the War to End all Wars
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires
What candles may be held to speed them all?
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918)
Much has been written about World War I, the Great War, the war to end all wars. But nothing evokes the horror, the misery, and the needless suffering, quite so well as the poetry and art produced by the men and women who witnessed this carnage at first hand. A few daubs of paint, or a few well-chosen words have the power to instantly conjure up the dreadful, inhuman suffering that men and boys went through in the 1914-1918 trench warfare in Europe.
Both sides of this conflict had their artists and poets, and this first painting (above), by Fritz Fuhrken was painted by a young German soldier who was captured in France towards the end of the war, and subsequently held in a Prisoner of War camp in Yorkshire, England. The painting is very simple, yet it readily conveys the horror of a tank under grenade attack during the Battle of Amiens. Fuhrken has used a wash of red paint as his background, and this helps the painting to convey a sense of danger, destruction and bloodshed.
The Crest of Vimy Ridge by Gyrth Russell (1918)
A Rendezvous with Death
"I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air -
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair"
Between 1914 and 1918 much of the fiercest fighting took place in the fields of France and Belgium. The war ravaged landscape was vividly captured by official war artists who were specially commissioned for the job. This painting of Vimy Ridge by Gyrth Russell evokes a grim, grey, muddy dawn in a countryside devoid of beauty, and made barren by desparate and prolonged conflict.
Gyrth Russell was a Canadian, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1892. He was commissioned in London by Lord Beaverbrook, and spent much of 1918 recording the nightmarish landscape of battlefield France, working alongside artists such as Frank Brangwyn and Augustus John.
House of Ypres
At first glance this painting by Canadian artist Alexander Young Jackson (1882-1974) is reminiscent of the work of Vincent Van Gogh. It is only when we start to look at the subject matter do we realise that this artist, painting in an Impressionistic style, is actually recording the grim reality of war. Houses demolished, homes and lives destroyed. Only the mounted soldiers glimpsed through the ruins, survive in this ugly scene of damage and disaster.
Alexander Jackson first came to Europe to study art in Paris, but when war broke out he soon signed up to fight alongside his fellow Canadians. Ater sustaining an injury at the Battle of Sanctuary Wood in June 1915, he was sent to the UK to recover. It was here that he came to the attention of Lord Beaverbrook, and, in 1917, Jackson returned to France to record the hostilities as an official war artist. He remained in France until 1919, and resumed his career in his native Canada after the war ended.
Gassed by John Singer-Sargent
'Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. all went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.'
John Singer Sargent completed this large oil painting in March 1919. 'Gassed' depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack in heart-rending detail. A line of wounded soldiers trudge wearily towards a dressing station, and just as in Wilfred Owen's haunting poem, 'Dulce et Decorum Est', the men stumble blindly forward, their eyesight stolen by the cruel fumes of the mustard gas. Each man staggers on with his hand upon his comrades shoulder to steady and guide his route, as they pick their way through the bodies of dead and dying servicemen.
Sargent was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee in 1918, to document the war in France and Belgium. Initially he was stationed with the Guards Division near Arras, and subsequently at Ypres with the American Expeditionary Forces.. 'Gassed' was voted picture of the year by the Royal academy of Arts in 1919, and it is now part of the collection at the Imperial War Museum in London, England.
Mud Road to Passchendaele by Douglas W. Culham
Canadian Gunners Struggling Through Mud.
Belgian artist Alfred Bastien (1873-1955) volunteered as a war artist in 1915, working initially with Belgian troops, then, from 1917, with the Canadian troops at Arras and Paschendaele. His painting of Canadian gunners struggling through mud, is now part of the Beaverbrook collection in the Canadian War Museum. Bastien's loose, Impressionistic style of painting powerfullly evokes the hostile environment and the skillful determination of desparate men as they battle nature itself to free their heavy artillery from the mire.
The Road to Passchendaele
'Here on the ridge where the shrill north-easter trails
Low clouds along the snow,
And in a sreaming moonlit vapour veils
The peopled earth below,
Let me, O life, a little while forget
The horror of past years -
Man and his agony and sweat,
The terror and the tears,'
From 'The Ridge: 1919' by Wilfrid Gibson
Douglas Culham was a Canadian serving with the 3rd Canadian Division Ammunition Column at Passchendaele when he painted this eerie night-time picture of the supply line. The nightly ammunition run to the 18-pounder batteries during the Battle of Passchendaele in October and November, 1917, was essential but dangerous work. Culham's painting can today be seen in the Canadian War Museum.
A New Way of Fighting - From the Air
"I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
The First World War was different from all previous wars in very many ways, but one of the biggest differences was in the use of airships and aeroplanes. This painting is by Felix Schwormstadt (born Hamburg 1870, died Locarno 1930) and is of the cabin of a Zeppelin airship.
Aeroplanes and airships were comparatively new inventions in 1914. The Wright Brothers made their first recorded test flights in December 1903, so the idea of aerial assaults was a novel one. Airships and aeroplanes soon proved their worth however, and the innovations and improvements made during World War One served to speed the development and spread of aircraft in general. The exploits of the so-called 'knights of the air' soon passed into legend, and one particularly successful flying ace was a German named 'Manfred von Richthofen', more popularly known as 'The Red Baron.'
The Art of Camouflage
"Good-morning, good morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on the way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack
But he did for them both with his plan of attack
From 'The General' by Siegfried Sassoon
Australian artist,Captain William Frederick Longstaff (1879- 1953) enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of the First World War. He was already an experienced soldier, having previously served in the Boer War, and he was soon on his way to Gallipolli. Later in the war he served in both France and Egypt before being commissioned as an official War Artist on the Western Front in 1918. After the war ended, Longstaff settled in Sussex, England where he continued to paint, specialising in portraits and military subjects.
Longstaff was a pioneer in the use of camouflage, and his work, whilst in active service, is credited with having helped to save many lives.
Respecting the Dead
'Near Martinpuich that night of Hell
Two men were struck by the same shell,
Together tumbling in one heap
Senseless and limp like slaughtered sheep.'
William Orpen's shocking and confrontational painting, 'Dead Germans in a Trench' is typical of Orpen's emotional response to the sickening and ugly realities of war. Perhaps more than any other war artist, Orpen sought to render truthful images of his dreadful experiences. This painting of two dead Germans could just as well represent men of any nationality. Orpen was profoundly affected by the war, and it bred in him a strong distain towards politicians and war-mongers.
Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen was born in Stillorgan, co. Dublin (Southern Ireland) in 1878 and worked as a draughtsman and painter in the early 1900s. After war broke out, Orpen was drafted as an official War Artist alongside many other well-known painters of the day, including Augustus John and Sir John Lavery. His time on the Western Front in France was spent painting and drawing dead soldiers, prisoners of war and official portraits. The horrors of war had a strong impact on his work, and art critics noted a much more detached essence to his post-war output. He died in London, in 1931, aged 53.
"Shining pins that dart and click
In the fireside's sheltered peace
Check the thoughts that cluster thick -
20 plain and then decrease.
He was brave - well, so was I -
Keen and merry, but his lip
Quivered when he said good-bye -
Purl the seam-stitch, purl and slip,
Never used to living rough,
Lots of things he'd got to learn
Wonder if he's warm enough -
Knit 2, catch 2, knit 1, turn."
From 'Socks' by Jessie Pope
I've included the above painting even though it was not actually by an official war artist. George Luks was an American artist, a member of the Ashcan school of art, and this painting represents the women and families at home waiting for news of their men-folk who are away at war. In those days it was common to knit socks by hand, and here we see the wives, mothers and sisters of the soldiers, busily producing warm socks for their loved ones, many miles away. The snowy scene reminds us of the tough conditions the men-folk are likely to be enduring, and this is echoed in the next painting, shown below.
'Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all who met his glare:
horses, men, and lice
Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot'
Artist Frank Rossiter Crozier enlisted as a soldier with the Australian Imperial Force in March 1915. He served in the 22nd Battalion in Egypt and later at Gallipoli, where he was approached by journalist C.E.W. Bean to help illustrate the 'Anzac Book', a collection of short stories and illustrations for the troops. Bean, who had been given the role of official military historian, was impressed with Crozier's artistic abilities, and when official war artists were being commissioned by the Australian Government, Bean happily put Crozier's name forward.
Crozier served in France from 1917, but he was not made an official war artist until 1918. Whilst many of his fellow war artists were actually civilians who had been attached to the army and given honorary rank, Frank Crozier was already a serving soldier, and so his contributions were considered to be part of his military duties.
The painting above of soldiers in the snow shows vividly yet more of the adverse conditions these men fought under.
'There was no sound at all, no crying in the village,
Nothing you would count as sound, that is, after the shells;
Only behind a wall the slow sobbing of women,
The creaking of a door, a lost dog - nothing else.
Silence which might be felt, no pity in the silence,
Horrible, soft like blood, down all the blood-stained ways;
In the middle of a street two corpses lie unburied,
And a bayoneted woman stares in the market-place.
From 'A Memory' by Margaret Sackville
Mametz, Western Front by Frank Crozier (1919)
The art of war-time landscape painting
Georges Emile Lebacq (1875-1950) was a Belgian painter who painted in an Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic style. After hostilities commenced, he joined the general staff at La Panne as an official War Artist alongside fellow Belgian, Alfred Mostien.Lebacq produced many paintings during this period, two of which can be seen above. He also completed large numbers of very gloomy charcoals, showing the ruins and damaged landscape at the front of Yser.
'Bringing up the guns' by Harold Septimus Power, 1917
War Horses in Action
This vivid depiction of the 101st Australian Battery moving up the guns at the Battle of Passchendaele shows a team of six horses, a rider on one of each pair, struggling through heavy mud as they attempt to pull the gun carriage laden with an 18 pounder gun. The ground is so soft, and the burden so heavy, that two foot soldiers are also hauling on ropes. The 1st Australian Imperial Force took part in the third Battle of Ypres, in Passchendaele, Belgium, and this painting illustrates some of the difficulties the Australian and British artillerymen faced on the battlefield.
Harold Septimus Power (1877 -1951) was a New Zealand born, Australian artist who studied art in Paris between 1905 and 1907. He was appointed as an official War Artist, attached to the Australian Imperial Force in 1917, and this excellent oil painting is one of a number of works he produced during this commission. Power is particularly noted for his skills in in depicting horses and other animals.