Remembrance Day, and the Art that was Influenced by WWI and WWII - PART 1

Remembrance Day, and the Art that was Influenced by WWI and WWII - PART 1

Remembrance Sunday is being held this week on 12th November to commemorate the contribution in WWI, WWII and later conflicts made by military and civilian men and women of Britain and the Commonwealth.

Historically, the focus of remembrance began in 1919 and fell on Armistice Day, which marked the signing of the treaty declaring the end of the First World War. However, during the Second World War, the commemorations were moved to avoid disrupting the production of essential war materials. Following the end of WWII, The Archbishop of Westminster suggested that the commemoration be moved to the second Sunday of each November and be named Remembrance Sunday in order to observe both conflicts. This proposal was approved by the Home Office in 1946 and has remained in place ever since.

Each year the national ceremony takes place at the Cenotaph on Whitehall, London - a Portland stone war monument, originally designed in 1919 by architect Edwin Lutyens to commemorate “The Glorious Dead”. Here, the ceremony observes a two minutes’ silence at 11am, followed by the laying of wreaths by members of the royal family, then a service of remembrance, and concludes with the Nation’s Thank You procession at 1.30pm. Thousands of ex-service personnel march past and salute the Cenotaph before handing over wreaths to be laid around it in honour of those who have fallen.

Needless to say, civil and global conflicts are traumatic and tumultuous experiences for all those involved and have a profound effect on every part of political, economic and social climates. It stands to reason, then, that such destructive and transformative events would also influence the arts. 

Many of you may be familiar with the war poems of World War One, and in particular In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. The poignant prose was written by the Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel during the first 12 months of the conflict after he had to endure watching his friend die during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915:

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.  

The poem is, in part, responsible for the subsequent common use of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, the author himself having been inspired by the sight of poppies which would flourish in the battle-scarred fields, a sight now synonymous with the landscapes of the First World War.

Like their fellow citizens, artists and writers had contrary feelings towards the conflict in their respective countries: some welcomed it out of a sense of patriotic duty, or in hope of an end to oppressive political systems; whilst others rejected militarism, nationalist sentiment, or opposed the turmoil, trauma and violence of combat, and the unfairness of enforced national service.

Naturally, a wave of impactful and evocative works of art were created during this time. Some created art in order to commemorate the war (as with enduring memorials like the Cenotaph), some to document, some to propagandise, and some created work as a direct emotional response to the events that were unfolding. Whatever their motivation, the images which were produced continue to shape our interpretations of the conflict to this day. 

During WWI, a select group of artists were commissioned by governments to produce works recording events on the battlefield for information and propaganda purposes. In Britain, art was considered an instrument with which the ‘righteousness of Britain’s cause’ could be conveyed, to attest the experience of war, remember the fallen, and to provide effective propaganda. 

Muirhead Bone was appointed the first British war artist in May 1916. This move spared him from certain enlistment, so instead he arrived in France in August during the Battle of the Somme to produce 150 drawings of the war, which include the piece A View in Flanders behind the Lines, Showing Locre and the Tops of Dug-Outs on the Scherpenber, before returning to England later that year. In December 1917 Welsh portrait artist Augustus John was appointed as a war artist attached to the Canadian forces and made a number of memorable portraits of Canadian infantrymen.

Interestingly, Augustus John later came to live in our very own Fordingbridge in 1927. He built a studio in the grounds of Fryern Court on the outskirts of the town, which is now a Grade II-listed building. He continued to work and paint here up until his death in 1961, and a bronze statue celebrating his life can be seen in the town on the banks of the river Avon near the Great Bridge.

British surgeon, draughtsman and painter Henry Tonks became an official war artist in 1918 after working for Harold Gillies at the Cambridge Military Hospital producing pastel drawings recording injury cases. He accompanied leading portrait painter John Singer Sargent on tours of the Western Front and, in August 1918, witnessed a field of wounded men near Le Bac du Sud. 

In contrast to creating art for documentation or honouring the fallen, many artists looked for suitable ways in which to express the turmoil and bloodshed that modern warfare brought with it, and they began to look at different ways of creating in order to symbolise the changing times, and to communicate events justly. 

Avant-garde art movement, Dadaism, developed in reaction to the atrocities of WWI, and was a protest against what those involved believed to be the root cause of the conflict - colonialist and bourgeois nationalist interests. Artists of the nihilistic Dada movement actively rejected capitalist society, intellectual conformity, and sought to express ‘nonsense’ and irrationality instead. The movement’s embrace of absurdity and chaos both sought to oppose the ‘logical thinking’ that they felt had led people to war, as well as symbolising what they considered the lunacy of war and ‘sacrificing their youth in the killing fields’. Indeed, art historians have described the movement as a "reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide”.   

The work of German artist George Grosz sought to express his profound rage at those entities whom he viewed as promoting and profiting from war. In a contemporary article, The Guardian viscerally described his piece Down with Liebknecht, 1919 as portraying “wounded veterans, maimed and disfigured…” as they "mingle with prostitutes, fat-cat capitalists, wicked old generals and decadent bohemians” in this radically embittered piece. The artist has said of his own work “my drawings expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment”.

German artist Kurt Schwitters - although not a direct participant in the movement - employed Dadaist ideas in his work, and went on to create a series of collage and assemblage works to which he gave the nonsense title Merz. Of this work, which he created from scavenged waste materials, he said: “In the war, things were in terrible turmoil […] Everything had broken down […] new things had to be made from fragments […] new art forms out of the remains of a former culture. And this is Merz”. The collection was his attempt to interpret the rapidly changing and disjointed post-war environment.

Medical students at a 1917 Paris military hospital, Louis Aragon and André Breton, similarly struggled to assimilate the grim realities of war and had been eyewitnesses to the damaged bodies of its victims. Their experience led them to become - as they are now known - the founders of the Surrealist movement. They felt that the work of artists like Henry Tonks - although accomplished and valuable in terms of documenting the wounds of soldiers - weren’t able to covey fully the horror of the experience. Although Surrealism grew predominantly out of the Dada movement, it differed in that it was a more inward-looking phenomenon as opposed to the anarchic and largely political nature of Dadism. A key Surrealist artist was Max Ernst, who explored the psyche which was bruised and tortured after the events of the war. His piece Celebes from 1921 depicts an angular, fragmented and zoomorphised tank dominating the composition, alongside a dismembered female figure, against a dark and apocalyptic background. It is suggested that the piece symbolises the helplessness of individuals against the mighty war machine.   

In an attempt to create another front in World War I, the Allies (France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and the United States) gave limited support to the left-wing Whites against the Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian civil war. During this multi-party civil war, influential Russian artist El Lissitzky created the Soviet propaganda poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, and is arguably his most iconic work. In it Lissitzky uses bold blocks of colour and simplistic shapes to succinctly and powerfully communicate his message. Sharp and angular red shapes pierce and rupture soft white areas of space, symbolising the artist’s backing of the Bolsheviks and promotion of the ‘strong’ Red Army prevailing over their opposition - the anti-communist Whites. It is said that in 1945 Pablo Picasso affirmed that the "painting was not invented for decorating houses, but as a weapon of attack and defence". The work was hugely influential not only as a piece of political propaganda, but also to the artistic movements of the time, including Futurism, Constructivism, and later Bauhaus and De Stijl. The piece is often referenced in contemporary work to this very day, with its influence seen in album cover design, typography, graphic design, and advertising. 

Other artistic influences of the war were notably less vitriolic in nature, due to the emergence of some resultant positive changes in British society. During the war, the significant suffragette movement largely focused on the war effort, and women volunteered to join the workforce, which lead to a new view and appreciation of what women were capable of. British painter Hilda Carline was drafted to serve in the Women’s Land Army on a Suffolk farm during WWI, which sparked in her a fascination for the countryside, and subsequently led her to train at Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks. Her main artistic focus was on landscapes, but several years after the end of the war she painted Self-portrait (1923) which was her envisioning of the ‘new working woman’. Hilda depicted herself staring firmly and unapologetically at the observer, and sought to embody the progress that had been made in women’s rights after the war, positioning the conflict as one of the catalysts that aided in freeing women from some of their restraints, gaining the vote for some 8 million women, and allowing women to be elected into parliament.  

Be sure to follow us and catch Part 2 of this article next week, when we will be looking at how the Second World War changed the face of the art world. 




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