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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Dynamic Qualities of First World War Avant-garde Art

I make no claims to being an art critic, and I generally loathe modern art, but to my eye, it is clear that the avant-garde artists of the First World War captured some of its essence. Most clear is the dynamism of many of their paintings. Here's a selection pieces from the pre- to postwar years.

Ludwig Meidner,
"Apocalyptic Landscape," 1913

Man Ray,
"A.D. 1914," 1914

Marsden Hartley
"Painting Nr. 5," 1914–1915

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
"Self-Portrait as a Soldier," 1915

Gino Severini
"Cannon in Action," 1915

Pierre Albert-Birot
"The War,"1916

Gert Heinrich Wollheim
"The Wounded Person," 1919

The Curator at Madrid's Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza 2008 show "The Avant-Garde and the Great War" made these comments for the catalog:

The period inmediately prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 coincided with a highpoint of activity among the avant-garde movements. In addition, the experience of World War I exercised a powerful influence on the work of numerous artist during this period from the main artistic movements of the day — Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Abstraction, etc. Often the works are prophetic or apocalyptic.


  1. The thing about art produced during the Great War, is that the overwhelming majority of pieces were not modernist in any way all. Most was still in the traditional style.

    We have simply been trained or forced by museum curators, art dealers and other people who make their living from selling or exhibiting or writing about art, to think that modernist art was the only acceptable form of art to appreciate.

    As the decades pass and after that centuries, modernist 20th century art will come to be seen as a temporary aberration in the history of art, a sideshow, a side-track and dead-end, a temporary amusement or catharsis, brought on by the collective social insanity of the war itself.

    The above examples of paintings are not at all what the great masses of people would have seen during or after the war years. Realistic, representational art would still have been the predominant art style in all the media ...

  2. I concur, citing John Singer Sargent's "Gassed" presently housed in the Imperial Art Museum in London.