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Monday, December 3, 2018

1918 Art

1918 Armistice Night, George Luks
During the past year or two I've covered the development of art, painting in particular, one decade at a time. I realize doing so is an artificial, contrived, and somewhat inaccurate framework from which to understand art from the past, but unless someone comes up with something better, most art historians are stuck with it. On the positive side, such a "scaffolding" may not tell us all we'd like about art, but it does serve as a means in coming to grips with many of the social and political developments of our recent past. Like art, some of what we see is not pretty, but art is an important key to how people of a given era saw and contemplated their current existence.

Art here and over there...
One of the problems in covering art decade by decade arises when discussing the first two decades of any century. It's awkward using the words "nineteen teens," but still worse, I'm at a complete loss as to what to call the first decade. To avoid this problem, I've decided to concentrate on a single year from that era and to make things interesting, the art from exactly one-hundred years ago--1918. I was a little surprised to realize how little art had changed since then. Styles and media have changed, to be sure, but at the same time, artists' approach to creating and the freedom they were only then just encountering, has changed little.

Louis Weirter, Battle of Courcelette.
Frank Schoonover, Doughboys Storming German Trench.
George Bellows, The Germans Arrive.
John Singer Sargent, Gas.
The art of 1918 was almost totally dominated by the war--World War I. From the work of Louis Weirter, and his Battle of Courcelette (upper image), to that of the American social realist, George Luks' 1918 Armistice Night (top), quite overwhelming the continued presence of daily life depictions, there seemed to be little else of major importance happening in the art world, and the real world at the time. The advent of the news photo as seen in Evertt's Spanish Flu Epidemic (below) allowed artists who never came within a thousand miles of the fighting to depict with great accuracy and powerful emotion the battles as well as their sad aftermath.

Spanish Flu Epidemic, 1918-19, Everett. Fifty to one-hundred million died, far more casualty than all the wars of the 20th century combined. 
The Germans Arrive (third image above) by the American social realist George Bellows is a prime example of an artist's use of photos from the front. It was also based on an actual account from the Bryce Commission of a German soldier restraining a young Belgian teenager whose hands had just been severed. This and the other paintings of the time suffered much criticism as critics accused Bellows of taking liberties when capturing on canvas, the horrific scenes of war. One notable detractor was the American artist and author, Joseph Pennell, who argued that because Bellows had never been at the battlefront and therefore had not witnessed at first hand the events he painted, he forfeited the right to paint them. Bellows responded sarcastically that he had not been aware that the great Leonardo da Vinci “...had a ticket of admission to the Last Supper”.

American artist: World War I recruiting poster.
French Farmer: Crashed Aeroplane, John Singer Sargent
The British: Munitions Girls, Stanhope Forbes
Meanwhile, on the home front, a civilian "army" was often depicted doing their part to "defeat the Prussian hoard." During the 20th-century, the phrase, "a nation goes to war," came into widespread use with a meaning far beyond simply sending young men off to a foreign land to fight. In Europe, the continued existence of entire nations was often at stake. The war, as in Sargent's Crashed Aeroplane (second image, above), sometimes came plummeting into the back yard. Such art was seen as uniting a nation in the war effort. Sometimes this theme was subtle as in the lower two images above. Sometimes it was not.

The Boat, Salvador Dali.
Ols Maria, Anders Zorn.
Adele Besson, Auguste Renoir.
Baby (Cradle), Gustav Klimt.
Over the Town, Marc Chagall
1918 and the ghastly war came during an epic era when most of the household names from European art history were still alive and producing the art that made them famous. An 18-year-old Salvador Dali was still toying with Pointillism. He'd yet to discover his knack for the surreal. Others were well past their prime. Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt died in 1918. The French painter, Claude Monet was in his declining years while his friend, Auguste Renoir, died in 1919. The Swedish portrait artist, Anders Zorn died a year later. However the Russian Jewish artist, Marc Chagall lived to be ninety-seven.

An artist transitioning (again).
In August, 1914, when the war in Europe ignited, Pablo Picasso was thirty-three, and by then already famous enough and rich enough to allow him to sit out the war in the relative comfort of his Paris studio, even vacationing periodically in the south of France. 1918 saw him wedded to his first wife, the Russian ballet dancer, Olga Kokhlova, whom he featured in many of his paintings. Her portrait (above) was from 1918. By 1918 Picasso had broken free from his stereotype as a Cubist to return to his more traditional, classical roots as seen in his Harlequins above. The work he did from 1916 to 1924 was among the most baffling in his entire output. The public, his critics, and fellow artists were now familiar with him as the founder of Cubism and indeed of modern art, the painter who was most radical and consistent in casting aside the conventional laws of art and putting new rules in their stead. Mimetic copying of the given world could be seen as superseded. Picasso bewildered the experts and general public alike by returning to a representational art of a monumental, statuesque kind. Picasso's pictures were figural. Wholly in the classical tradition, and in accord with European forms of classicism. 1918 was marked by the coexistence of polar opposites. And yet Picasso's work matched the mood of the age, and pursued his own intentions as an artist.
Matisse and Picasso--two of a kind (almost).
When the First World War began Braque and Derain, Picasso's closest artist friends, were called up. His dealer Kahnweiler, now an abominated German alien who remained in Switzerland for the duration of the war. Braque was wounded at the front. Around April 1906 Picasso met another close friend, Henri Matisse, who was 11 years his senior. The two became lifelong friends as well as rivals and are often compared. One key difference between them is that Matisse drew and painted from nature, while Picasso was more inclined to work from imagination. The subjects painted most frequently by both artists were women and still lifes, with Matisse more likely to place his figures in fully realized interiors. 1918 saw Matisse living the good life on the French Riviera where he painted odalisques, landscapes, and scenes from his second-floor apartment, capturing the iconic essence of Nice.

Bathing Man, 1918, Edvard Munch
The Disquieting Muses,
1916-1918, Giorgio De Chirico
Elsewhere in the art world of 1918, Edvard Munch was paving the way for artists to break with the conventions of realism and experiment with color and brushwork. I'm especially drawn to the playful use of color in Munch’s Bathing Man (above)from 1918. Although his paintings are done in vibrant shades of blue, green, and violet, they maintain Munch’s signature ethos of anxiety and grief. A war often has that effect on people, especially artists and their art. For example, one of the most famous paintings by Georgio De Chirico is his The Disquieting Muses (left), painted in the city of Ferrara, Italy, during World War I. De Chirico considered Ferrara a perfect “metaphysical city,” and used much of the cityscape of Ferrara in the painting. The large castle in the background is the Castello Estense, a medieval fortress in the cen-ter of the city. The three “muses,” in the fore-ground of the painting, are “disquieting” due to the fact that they were the pathway to overcome appearances and allowed the viewer to engage in a discourse with the unknown.

Attempt on Vladimir Lenin's Life, Aug. 30, 1918, M.G. Sokolov. 
Although "all was well" in the United States once the war ended, that was far from the case in Russia where Bolshevism (Communism) was on the rise and the old Romanov aristocracy was in decline. Even before one war ended, another began as the Bolsheviks launched the "October Revolution" (which, ironically, began in November of 1917). It was led by Vladimir Lenin who campaigned for an immediate end to the war, land to the peasants, and bread to the workers. The Russian artist, M.G. Sokolov painted an Attempt on Vladimir Lenin's life, Aug. 30, 1918 (above). Lenin survived the incident. He died in 1924. The painting was done some years later.
Series 1, No. 8, 1918, Georgia O'Keeffe
A new art medium.
America in 1918 was a much happier story. The "roaring twenties" were about to dawn. My dad was about to be born (1919); Georgia O'Keeffe (above) was a rising young star in the blazing New York world of art; and moviegoers were paying their nickels and dimes to see Theda Bara in a relatively new art form--motion pictures (albeit of the silent sort). William Fox's Salome (right) lit the silver screen followed in years to come by 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), City Girl (1930) and other equally forgettable silent "classics." Yes, that's the same Hollywood Fox as with Twentieth Century Fox, the Fox Network and any number of other such enterprises bearing his name. Actually, he had little or nothing to do with any of these companies, having lost control of Fox Films when the stock market plunged in 1929.
The Carriage Business, 1918, Grant Wood
painting a dismal transition

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