Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The German Expressionists Go to War

The late Robert Hughes once said (I wish I could find the full and accurate quote) something akin to: "The German Expressionists went to war in 1914 and all came home nuts."  These five images from MoMA's collection, presented here with commentary from the museum's website seem to support that.  

When World War I broke out in August 1914 many Expressionists initially believed it could be the apocalyptic event that would at last overthrow the self-satisfied materialism of the nation’s monarchy and bourgeoisie. Many artists enlisted for active duty or were drafted; others avoided the front lines by volunteering for the medical corps. But the misery and destruction went on far longer than most had ever anticipated, destroying millions of lives and shattering the sense of vitality and optimism that originally gave birth to Expressionism.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
"Evening Patrol"
Created shortly after his discharge following a nervous breakdown, "Evening Patrol" refers to the riding instruction Kirchner received in the military. The anxiety of his service is conveyed in the nervous energy of his gestural style. Kirchner suffered from medical and psychological problems for the rest of his life as a result of the war.

Erich Heckel
"Wounded Sailor"
Heckel was stationed in Belgium with the Red Cross medical corps. This woodcut depicts one of the injured sailors in his care. Turning away from us, with eyes lowered in resignation, his head is placed against a white cruciform shape, as if to imply martyrdom.

Max Beckmann
(1922, published 1924)
Beckmann served in the medical corps in Belgium but was discharged following a nervous breakdown in 1915. The memory of corpses laid out anonymously on tables still affected him seven years later, when he made this print.

Otto Dix
"Skin Graft (Transplantation)" from "The War" (Der Krieg)
Appearing ten years after the conflict began, Otto Dix's monumental portfolio Der Krieg ("The War") neither glorifies World War I nor lionizes its soldiers but shows, in 50 unrelentingly graphic images, the horrible realities experienced by someone who was there. 

George Grosz
Grosz's image of a burning, shattered Berlin is an allegory of destruction created shortly after he was discharged from the German Army as "permanently unfit."

Source: MoMA Webpage,


  1. And definitely not to be ignored, & one who should have been included here, and also in the mOMA collection, is Kathe Kollwitz.

  2. Glad to see the shout out for Kathe Kolwitz.

  3. Kathe Köllwitz deserves a major shout-out as a stellar artist who lost her only son in the Kaiser's service and who sculpted a tragically moving memorial to him, but this post is about artists who personally served in the war. Definitely no slight intended to Köllwitz.

  4. Well then perhaps the article should have been a bit broader in its scope.

  5. Was the "Dadaism" school coincident with this wartime movement and did not many of these German artists after the war continue their work in what we call the Dada style?