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With the imminent 103rd anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 on the horizon thoughts turn to war and the devastation it causes. Within art history, artist’s engagement with war and conflict can be traced back as a far as the first humans. Some cave paintings reveal images of combat with weaponry clearly indicated. Throughout history artistic depictions have, understandably, recorded how humans have created conflict and the residual effects of this unfortunate aspect of life.

Not only have artists depicted these events, they have often been participants. During the nineteenth-century the Artist’s Rifles was formed as part of the widespread volunteer movement at the time. The group was organised by an art student named Edward Sterling in 1859 as a response to the possible French invasion after Felice Orsini’s attack on Napoleon III was linked to Britain. The group was made up of painters, musicians, actors, architects and others involved in the arts. Of course, many of these young lives were lost. Artists on both sides were killed in action, During WW1 the poet Wilfred Owen and the Austrian painter Franz Marc did not survive to see the end of the war. Sadly, Owen was killed in action one week before the signing of the Armistice, he was twenty-six years old.  Marc, a key figure in the German Expressionist movement was killed during the Battle of Verdun in March 1916 at the age of thirty-six.

The twentieth-century, when the two major world wars occurred, witnessed the first truly technological warfare when the use of mechanical weaponry became employed. This did not go unnoticed by artists who often abandoned traditional, realist methods in favour of abstracted, geometric forms. Artists such as Percy Wyndham Lewis and Jacob Epstein in Britain and, in Europe, Italian Futurists such as Umberto Boccioni depicted humanoid forms that were reduced to robot-like machines – a reaction to the de-humanisation of such a merciless war. Prior to WW2 Pablo Picasso painted his famous work Guernica as a reaction to the Spanish Civil War. A compelling, yet horrific image, it is yet another example of an individual trying to process the unfathomable nature of war.

Undoubtedly, artists found (and still find) the need to express their emotions about war in visual form. At this point, I want to concentrate on two works of art that were created from this emotive process. The Merry-go-Round by Mark Gertler (above) was painted in 1916, it depicts a fairground ride that the artist saw at a fair in Hampstead Heath while on leave from the army. This, however is no ordinary fun fair ride. The figures sitting astride the wooden horses come across as machines (or perhaps “killing machines”), they are dressed in uniform (both male and female), their faces contorted with mouths wide open as if in mid-scream. The painting exudes a sense of manic movement as if the riders are being swept along against their will. Gertler was a Jewish, Russian emigrant, the sense of foreboding eerily predicts what was to follow two decades later. It is universal in its concept, that is, it is directed towards all humanity, it is a protest against man’s inhumanity to man.

Felt Suit by German artist Joseph Beuys (below) on the other hand is personal, it is specific to the artist himself. The piece consists of a man’s suit of clothing made out of felt material which was modelled on the artist’s own suit. It was made as a multiple of one hundred felt suits and dates from 1970. However, even though it was created a quarter of a century after the end of WW2, it is said to represent a poignant response to his experience as a fighter pilot when he was shot down and nearly died. His life was saved by a tribe of Tartars who wrapped him in fat and felt – an experience that obviously had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life. Beuys used the materials of fat and felt in his artworks repeatedly throughout his career so strong was the association with them and the life-force – the thing that war so often cruelly takes away.

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The Battle Not Over

Darkened clouds form overhead,

the gas, the smoke, the fear the dead.

all around the dirt and mire,

freedoms aim our true desire.

Screaming pain then beat the drum,

life and death become but one.

Will we again be free to roam?

across the land and fields called home.

Trenches deep, soldiers weary

once more over the top, still cheery.

Brave young men with all to lose

who would go, if they could choose.

Three yards  gained, three yards lost

the tiresome  journey at any  cost.

Marching to and marching fro

seems we had nowhere to go.

Those who died, forever young

with no more future, the suffering gone,

for tiresome soldiers still the fight

the morning noon, the day, the night.

The sun rises bright on a morning dew

more friends gone,  comrades few

but then the  bullets still they  come

and still we fight 'til we are none.

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