World War I and art exhibitions

This music video is called Siouxsie & The Banshees ‘Poppy Day’ Live 1979.

The lyrics are the first part of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. Basically, the first part of that poem is anti-war, the last part is war propaganda. Siouxsie & The Banshees leave out that last part.

In Belgium, the Ypres museum In Flanders Fields also is an anti-war museum.

David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister of England, while preaching “austerity” to poor people, wants to spend lots of taxpayers’ money on “celebrating” the start of World War I in 1914.

This here looks like a better idea. From Ernst Voss Dot Com:

The Great War 1914-1918

Contemporary artists interpret The Great War 1914-1918

In 2014 it will be exactly 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, a time of particular upheaval in the history of Europe in more than one sense. It was interesting in terms of its aftermath in the reshaping of not only Europe and its colonial past, but also of the rest of world, in the sense of political, artistic and social change.

At the present time, due to the immense impact of the Second World War much of this history has been forgotten or overlooked.

A few examples

The beginning of woman’s emancipation, the beginning of plastic surgery, the start of striptease and burlesque dancing, the end of only old boys’ networks in politics.

The use of new military technologies like poison gas, aircraft, tanks and machine guns, were never seen before the First World War.

This is incorrect. All this was used much more massively in World War I than before. But machine guns were already used in 19th century British colonial wars in Africa.

See Hilaire Belloc’s sarcastic poetry lines from 1898:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Italy used aircraft, also against civilians, in its colonial war in Libya in 1911-1912. Italian General, later a Mussolini supporter, Douhet developed the concept of “total war” out of that; which later became better known from its use by Hitler’s minister Goebbels.

Ernst Voss Dot Com continues:

In Art massive influence of painters like Grosz, Schlemmer, Dix, Kirchner and Beckmann, some of whom where enlisted as soldiers themselves in the Great War.

1916 Refugee artists from the entire world start the Dada movement in the Cabaret Voltaire Zürich.
1917 Lenin and Trotsky overthrow Tsarist Russia in the Russian Revolution founding the modern Soviet Union.
1918 the Dadaist manifesto was written in Berlin, Germany. Kurt Schwitters starts the very first collages in Hannover, Germany and the Weimar Republic is shaped from the remnants of Kaiserlich Deutschland.

Exhibiting on the battlefields of WW1

We are organizing a series of exhibitions on the actual battlefields of WW1 and are looking for painters, photographers, poets, musicians and theater makers who are interested in participating in this project.

Besides the artworks created in studios beforehand, we would like to invite artists to visit the actual location and make site-specific pieces of art, which will then become part of a travelling exhibition.

We are also looking for any kind of education specialists who would want to participate by giving a lecture or talk at the location where the exhibition is organised.

The Great War started in 1914 and ended roughly in 1918, the duration of which is exactly how long we expect this project to run.

If you or anybody you know is interested in this project, please contact us at:

Our mailing address is:

Ernst Voss Dot Com

Zomerdijkstraat 24-2, 1079XC Amsterdam, The Netherlands

*Detailed prospectus will be available at the beginning of April 2013.

Theo van Doesburg, Nelly van Doesburg, dadaism, De Stijl

This is a video about paintings by Theo van Doesburg.

He was born Christian Emil Marie Küpper, in Utrecht, in 1883. He died in Davos, in 1931.

At the moment, there is a big exhibition, called Van Doesburg and the international avant-garde. Constructing a new world. Next year, the exhibition wil move to Tate Modern in London.

Both Theo van Doesburg, and his third wife Nelly van Moorsel, played major roles in the artistic movements of Dadaism and De Stijl. Both movements arose in 1916-1917, as reactions against World War I.

Both were avant-garde movements with some of the paradoxes which may be involved in this.

Some of the people in De Stijl had fled from the war, from belligerent countries like Hungary, to the neutral Netherlands. De Stijl was internationalist, against the nationalist ideologies which had contributed to the war.

Theo van Doesburg personally had been a soldier in the Dutch army from 1914 to 1916. Though the Dutch army then did not participate in the bloodbath, van Doesburg whose unit guarded the Belgian border, had heard from refugees about the horrors that Belgium was going through.

In Van Doesburg, like in many other people then, this lead to the view that drastic change was needed in a society which had led to this horrible war. Before the war, Van Doesburg’s interest in politics had been limited to membership in the Vrijzinnig-Democratische Bond. That was a moderate liberal party, just slightly left of center (though it was also pacifist; contrary to some people today calling themselves liberal leftists).

Like Van Doesburg was not a life-long political revolutionary, he also was no avant-garde artist from his cradle to his grave, no artistic revolutionary for the sake of it. Before the war, he did, eg, a fairly conventional landscape painting of the dunes of Meijendel near The Hague (included in the exhibition). In 1912, he was critical of the (politically and artistically ambiguous) futurist movement.

Van Doesburg during the war and later wanted to do more to change society.

In this, he claimed a central role for art, more precisely, his new tendency in art moving towards abstraction. Didn’t he over-estimate the role of art in social change, as other artists (and people in other professions) may over-estimate the influence of their own roles?

It may not all be artistic self-overestimation, if we look at the views on this issue of Trotsky and Stalin: both politicians, not artists. Different from each other. But both saw the role of the arts as important. Trotsky wrote much about art, including a joint manifesto with French surrealist artist André Breton. Stalin said that the work of writers was more important than producing tanks.

Theo van Doesburg had links to Russian avant-garde artists, like the constructivists.

This is a video from the USA about De Stijl.

Piet Mondriaan originally was a De Stijl colleague of Van Doesburg. Eventually, both had a conflict, however. In Mondriaan’s theory, there should just be horizontal and vertical lines in paintings etc., no diagonal lines. While Van Doesburg eventually brought back diagonal lines in his work. Mondriaan’s views on horizontal and vertical lines were influenced by Theosophy, and ideas there about “active” males vs. “passive” females. Ideas that were problematic for the active role of Nelly van Doesburg and other women in De Stijl and dadaism.

This video says about itself:

The Dada movement was a protest against the barbarism of World War I, the bourgeois interests that Dada adherents believed inspired the war, and what they believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society. Dada was an international movement, and it is difficult to classify artists as being from any one particular country, as they were constantly moving from one place to another.

On 15 November 2009, there was an interview with art historian, and niece and biographer of Nelly van Doesburg, Ms Wies van Moorsel.

Nelly van Moorsel came from a rather conventional Roman Catholic shopowner’s family. Unusually for such a background, she went to music school to learn to play the piano, on the advice of the architect Berlage, their next door neighbour. However, the music school was conventional in its own way. Nelly did not learn anything there about music written after the nineteenth century Romantic composers. In 1920, she first met Theo van Doesburg in The Hague. He asked her about modern composers like Erik Satie. In her reply she managed to avoid to show that her education had taught her nothing about modern composers. Soon, they fell in love; which lead to a break with her family.

When Wies van Moorsel in the 1960s had the first long meeting with her aunt, Nelly van Doesburg asked her about the latest trends in visual arts. Like in her aunt’s 1910s music school, Ms van Moorsel’s art history education excluded new avant-garde tendencies, and she was unable to reply seriously.

Nelly van Doesburg soon learnt about 1920s avant-garde music. In 1923, during a series of dadaist performances in the Netherlands, she started playing Chopin on the piano; what conventional audiences expected from music. Then, suddenly, she disoriented the audience by changing to very recent piano compositions.

After Theo van Doesburg’s death, Nelly organized many exhibitions of the works of her late husband and other artists. Late in her life, she was still very interested in social and political issues, like opposition to the war in Algeria. Like the students’ and workers’ movement in 1968 in Paris where she lived. Like anti pollution movements. She told Wies van Moorsel that Theo, if he would have been still alive, would have been an activist rather than an artist. A view, different from the central role for art which Theo himself had claimed decades earlier.

Barney Bubbles who designed many punk and New Wave record sleeves in the 1970s-1980s, was much influenced by Theo van Doesburg.

About the Van Doesburg exhibition in London:

The visitor’s guide does not explain the socio-historical context of war and revolutions which gave artists such utopian desire to create a better world. This is a serious omission which will particularly affect younger viewers, since history is now taught so cursorily in schools.

A new book on the history of anti-war movements in Britain illuminates the stories of those who refused to fight in the First World War. Chris Bambery looks at their struggle: here.

Arts and society: here.

The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960: The Varley Art Gallery, Unionville, Ontario, until Feb. 28, 2010; The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, March 19 to May 30, 2010; review here.

Jan van der Marck, former chief curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, dies. On his views about art and society, see here.

Modernism in the arts and Peter Gay

This video is called Dada – Homage to Hannah Höch – Music: Erik Satie.

By Andras Gyorgy:

A scholar’s upside down pyramid scheme: Peter Gay’s Modernism

Throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the bourgeoisie had few friends among the artists. In fact, the estrangement of writers, poets and playwrights from the moneyed class is a unique and defining feature of the period of startling artistic innovation to which “Modernism” has come to be attached as a period term.

A court poet of the seventeenth century like Andrew Marvell would speak well of court life and of the hosts who put him up for extended stays, while the Homer type would surely praise heroic warriors to an audience of heroic warriors and “would be” heroic warriors. By the late 1880s, the plutocrat who added to his store of wealth and reputation for supporting the arts did not expect a heroic depiction of his person, mansion or his garden, a specialty of seventeenth-century art.

On the contrary, there came between artists and the bourgeois class ugly reports in the arts rising from the Commune of 1871 and the Dreyfus affair, the First and Second World Wars, the Russian Revolution to which its leading avant-garde artists rallied, the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, all producing writing, music, drama, painting and architecture, if only to rebuild wrecked cities.

The list of Modernists who took sides in these world-historic conflicts would include—well, virtually everyone. It was a time when every person with a measure of human feeling, most especially artists, “the antennae of the race,” as Ezra Pound called them, felt revulsion at the ruling cliques and their representatives. “Did you do that?” asked the German officer visiting Picasso’s studio and pointing at “Guernica,” a powerful record of the Nazi atrocity. “No,” said Picasso, “you did.”

The reviewer Andras Gyorgy here does not mention which side Ezra Pound chose: the side of fascism. He does so only much later in the review, in a confused paragraph full of name-dropping which wrongly presumes that all the readers of the review have read at least ten biographies of Ezra Pound. That is a pity, as Gyorgy discusses interesting questions and much of his criticism of Peter Gay‘s book seems to be on target.

Art and money in Britain today: here.

Anti war art from Dadaism to today

This video says about itself:

The story of John Heartfield, the father of photomontage and a key figure in the Dada movement. Using archive material and reconstructions, this program reflects on the significant changes in East Germany from the start of Heartfield’s career in 1916 to the present day.

From British daily The Morning Star:

The heart of the matter

(Monday 25 June 2007)

Leonard Street Gallery, London EC2A

LEGACY: See some brilliant anti-war photomontages at Blairaq.

MICHAL BONCZA uncovers some astounding montages by anti-war artists from the first world war to today.

THE old Dadaist post-first world war rage at the waste of capitalism and its wars rarely had, since the days of the unsurpassed antifascist propagandist John Heartfield and practitioners of his comprehensive political vision, sense of purpose and visual skill.

Communists George Grosz, feminist Hannah Höch [and] Heartfield – who changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld as a deliberate protest when he heard the anti-British German slogan “God punish England” – were inspired by images collaged together in the trenches by soldiers trying to outsmart censorship to denounce the horrors that surrounded them.

With the rise of fascism, political photomontage was elevated to an art form in its own right.

As a medium, it offered limitless possibilities for an instant visual response, which could be both eloquently didactic and aesthetically highly accomplished.

The legendary Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung – Workers Illustrated Newspaper – covers are the best testimony to this as its circulation reached 180,000 by 1924.

A classical image is Heartfield’s powerfully ironic Millions Stand Behind Me (The Real Meaning of Hitler’s Salute), showing the nazi leader as a puppet financed by big capital.

Equally powerful and enduring is The Meaning of Geneva, Where Capital Lives, There Peace Cannot Live! with a listless dove staked on a bayonet.

Produced as a protest against the killing of 15 workers during a demonstration in Geneva, which was the home of that forerunner of the UN, the League of Nations, it features the darkened nazi flag flying with the League of Nations HQ looming sinisterly in the background.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Peter Kennard continued and developed this tradition by creating defining and memorable images for the anti-nuclear protest movement in Britain lead by the CND.

Constable‘s Haywain, converted to carry a battery of cruise missiles, is the most enduring.

His work prompted Ken Livingstone to say: “In hitting at the heart of the matter, Kennard gives us hope.”

The rage of the two million who filled central London in 2003 to protest against the treacherous attack on Iraq is fittingly evoked in Kennard’s contribution to Santa’s Ghetto 2006, the seasonal nonconformist showpiece.

The smug Tony Blair is savaged in a brilliant photomontage as he vaingloriously snaps himself on a mobile phone camera surrounded by the horrific fires of the Iraq war. Not often is an image produced more worthy of the proverbial thousand words.

Although present in a centrally placed assemblage, the most recent work differs significantly from it pictorially and in size.

Made to resemble multilayered billboard displays that have been scraped at, revealing images hidden by the top layers, it requires attentive scanning of detail.

Some are broad canvases, others meticulous montages of pages from British and US newspaper coverage of this newest of imperial adventures.

Cat Picton-Phillips, who collaborated on the project, says: “It may be difficult in 2007 to outrage, but it’s simple to be subversive.”

True. But the broad canvases, by choosing a more complex communication, lose perhaps some of the succinct bite of old.

Not to be regretted though, as the Heartfield, Grosz and Kennard mantle of urgent political subversion could well be still safe inside the spray cans of the Kennard admirer Banksy and his photomontage based “stencilism.”

Shows until July 12 at the Leonard Street Gallery, 73A Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS.

Peter Kennard interview on this exhibition: here.

Hannah Höch: here.

Photomontages by Theodore Harris: here.

Resolution on war and socialist unity at the 1907 Stuttgart conference in Germany: here.

Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927): here.

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