Revolution and war

Modernism and warfare

In the twentieth century, the human costs of the First World War were powerfully portrayed by Latvian artist Jēkabs Kazaks and his contemporaries. Kazaks studied at the Riga Art School and in Penza, before making two formative visits to Moscow where he discovered French modernism, particularly the work of André Derain, in the homes of Russian collectors Morozov and Shchukin.

The sheer simplicity of these Frenchmen frightens me. I do not consider it to be reality; it seems to me the first time I have seen bodies that may only be referred to as painting.

Jēkabs Kazaks

In his monumental modernist work Refugees, 1917, Kazaks depicts the plight of a family of refugees who have been driven from their home. The two-metre high painting is notable for its striking composition, with the destitute figures of the exiles set against a stormy sky. At the time he created Refugees, Kazaks was supervising the office of the Refugee Supply Committee in Penza. He also wrote poems and diary entries on the plight of refugees.

Lithuanian expressionist Pranas Domšaitis, whilst living in Germany, was included in the infamous 1937 exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) of work that had been seized because it did not align with Nazi values. As with the Kazaks picture described above, the dramatic mood of Scenery of Lithuanian Village, 1918, is suggestive of war and the fate of homeless refugees.

Cold moonlight highlights ominous clouds, as female figures freeze in uncertainty. Rich colours and generalised shapes complete a scene of mysterious night.

Lithuanian Art Museum

Domšaitis later emigrated to South Africa, and exhibited internationally, but noted in his letters: “Lithuanian blood does not deceive, just as my paintings are truly Lithuanian.”

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (GAN) was a pioneer of modernism in Sweden. The Horse Breaker, 1916, synthesises the pictorial styles of Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism with a traditional subject. Created during the First World War, The Horse Breaker reflects the turmoil in Europe in a non-literal, metaphorical way.