Art during the Great War In the words of one historian, “Art and war are old companions.” The United States government proved that nearly a century ago when it commissioned eight artists to go to war.

History

Military leaders felt that art could capture the true essence of war. So men armed with sketchpads, charcoals, pastels, and little to no military training, sketched everything form rolling tanks to portraits of German prisoners.

Throughout 1918, prior to the war's end in November, the artists had produced some 700 works, ranging from charcoal sketches to completed ink or watercolor compositions.

Futurism

Futurism celebrated advanced technology and urban modernity and demonstrate the beauty of modern life - the beauty of the machine, speed, violence and change. The Futurists loved speed, noise, machines, pollution, and cities; they embraced the exciting new world that was then upon them. They explored every medium of art, including painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, music, architecture and even gastronomy.

The movement emphasized the importance of the future, mainly as it relates to the advancement of the machine age and the importance of the urban environment propelling people forward into a progressive state of mind. Futurism also championed speed, technology, science, youth and violence. Its mantra was that the answers to humankind’s problems lay in the future – certainly not the past! Futurism was also a social movement encompassing numerous other disciplines such as theatre, film, fashion, literature, philosophy, architecture and music.

Futurism focuses on the movement of the object within the piece, manipulating and overlaying an image several times to understand the motion and movement it creates. Color, line and shape become very important in Futurist works, for the importance is on how the object moves throughout the canvas. Many futurist works appear abstract.

Umberto Boccioni's The City Rises (1910)

The City Rises is often considered to be the first Futurist painting. Here, Boccioni illustrates the construction of a modern city. The chaos and movement in the piece resemble a war scene as indeed war was presented in the Futurist Manifesto as the only means toward cultural progress. The work shows influences of Cubism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism, revealed in the brushstrokes and fractured representation of space.

Natalia Goncharova's The Cyclist (1913)

Here, the cyclist's legs and feet have been multiplied, indicating the speed of an object in motion. As noted in the Futurist Manifesto, "On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations." The text in the painting points to Goncharova's interest in writing and graphic design.

Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912)

Balla was fascinated by chrono-photography, a vintage technique whereby movement is demonstrated across several frames. This encouraged Balla to find new ways of representing movement in painting, and Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash is perhaps his most famous experiment. The work shows a woman walking a small black dog, the movement collapsed into a single instant. Displaying a close-up of the feet, Balla articulates action in process by combining opaque and semi-transparent shapes.

Dada Art

Dada was an art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich in negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war. The art, poetry and performance produced by dada artists is often satirical and nonsensical in nature. Dada artists felt the war called into question every aspect of a society capable of starting and then prolonging it – including its art. Their aim was to destroy traditional values in art and to create a new art to replace the old.

Raoul Hausmann's The Spirit of Our Time (1920)

‘Spirit of Our Time’ is a sculptural metaphor for the inability of the establishment to inspire the changes necessary to rebuild a better Germany. This blockhead of a hat maker’s dummy can only experience that which can be measured by the range of mechanical equipment attached to the outside of his head. With his eyes deliberately left blank, the ‘Spirit of Our Time’ is a blind automaton whose blinkered attitude excludes any possibility of creative thought.

George Grosz's 'The Pillars of Society (1926)

The work of George Grosz gradually evolved from the nihilistic protest of Dada to a more focused expression of his disgust at the cruelty and decadence of the bourgeoisie. Grosz's vitriolic drawings and paintings exposed the hypocrisy of the politicians, the press, the army, the ruling classes and their corrupt clergy.

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