In the years before 1914 a wave of avant-garde movements – including Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism and Futurism – convulsed the European art world. A significant number of progressive modern artists enlisted and saw action in the First World War. Their radical ideas and visual styles provided new ways to depict a new kind of war.
Prior to the 20th century, traditional battle painting had portrayed decisive manoeuvres, often from elevated points of view, to illustrate and glorify military actions. In the First World War, however, the industrialised nature of battle – and the absence of such moments – meant that history painting’s heroic narratives and pictorial conventions were no longer relevant. Visual accounts by artist-soldiers at the front – whether officially employed or not – became sought after and this exhibition presents many such examples.
We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers.F.T. Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, 1909
After four decades of peace between the continent’s major powers, many intellectuals and artists believed that war would break over Europe ‘like a brief cooling storm’ of anti-bourgeois social renewal. However, the brutal reality of the war – and its unexpectedly long duration – would bring about a reckoning with this view.