Visions of War


The work of the French painter Marcel Roux (1878-1922) has been described as ‘diabolique et apocalyptique’ (devilish and apocalyptic). Roux's decadent aesthetic can be associated with fin de siècle figures like Charles Baudelaire, Jan Toorop and Félicien Rops.

Roux channeled his influences to war motifs in works such as Soldat dans la tranchée (seen above) where the figure of a fallen soldier explicitly references the dead Christ. Roux’s health was damaged by his war service as a paramedic and he died at the age of just 44.

The German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919) also worked as a paramedic, at a military hospital in Berlin. His large bronze Der Gestürzte (The Fallen) expresses the trauma and severe depression that the war induced in Lehmbruck.

Its sole naked figure, bent over with a sword hilt in his hand, as if about to die, symbolises the youth of Europe killed in the war. In a 1917 etching, Lehmbruck added wings to the figure, so we can perhaps interpret it as a tragic Icarus or an angel of death.

The expressive and soulful works that Lehmbruck created during the war express his profound humanity. He was disgusted by the war and he fled to Zurich in late 1916. After the war, Lehmbruck returned to Berlin a broken man and he took his life there in March 1919.

The First World War devastated a generation of families but the painting below documents a remarkable exception.

This group portrait of the five McGrath brothers was contributed to Europeana 1914-1918 by Dermot McGrath. His great-grandfather Michael McGrath lived in the Irish countryside with his five brothers William, John, James, Thomas and Patrick, and sister Mary. Every year the brothers and their father William travelled to England for seasonal work on farms and building sites, and in the mines. When war broke out in 1914, the McGrath brothers enlisted in the British army and were all sent to Europe.

The interests of the whole of Ireland are at stake in this war. Irishmen should go wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion.

John Redmond, September 1914

On 3 August 1914 – a day before Britain declared war on Germany – the Irish nationalist politician John Redmond promised in the House of Commons that Ireland would defend its shores so that Britain could release its garrisoned troops for frontline duties. There was initial popular support for the war in Ireland and Redmond calculated that if the British were to keep faith with Irish Home Rule, then Ireland had to keep faith with Britain.

Remarkably, all five McGrath brothers survived the war and returned to live in England, where they commissioned this painting. It is noteworthy that, as well as the national flags of Great Britain, Belgium and France, the painting includes the green ‘Redmond flag’ to indicate the McGraths’ support for Irish Home Rule.