Now Where?

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 – Munich

I’m less certain of this course’s ending than of its beginning or middle. Where does our journey finish? I could easily be convinced that Vienna or Prague is the ideal spot, at least as a corrective to our emphasis on British, French, and German history. Even if we’re going to play to my strengths and end in Germany, I’ve toyed with spending the extra money and time and going all the way to Berlin. For the moment at least, I’m going with Munich because of that city’s turbulent experience in the first years after the war, its role in the history of Nazism, and its close proximity to a concentration camp.

But the “Now where?” question also has an interpretive dimension. We’re well past the history of World War I itself, and into the more nebulous problem of its legacy. Where do we focus our attention? The choice of Munich reflects my own particular concern with the rise of fascism, but that’s hardly the only (or even most important) consequence of the war, and German fascism is not synonymous with the Italian, Hungarian, or French varieties.

Beckmann, Christ in the Desert
Max Beckmann, Christ in the Desert (1911) - Museum of Modern Art

And for the first day of our stay in Munich, at least, Hitler and friends will play almost no role whatsoever. Instead, we’ll return once more to the theme of modern art as mirror for WWI as crucible of modernity and visit the newest of the three museums in Munich’s art district (Kunstareal): the Pinakothek der Moderne.

As we tour it, the question of “Now Where?” will take on an existential dimension: as in, where does humanity go in the wake of its greatest self-inflicted wound? Where does one find meaning? Or truth? Beauty? Love? Did the war render traditional modes of expression (or even those that seemed radical in the generation before 1914) obsolete?

The collections presented in the Pinakothek der Moderne include works by at least three significant German modernists who served in the First World War: Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Radically unlike the subject of last Friday’s post, Ernst Jünger, none of these artists enjoyed the experience of warfare. Typical was Beckmann’s attitude, expressed in a letter to his first wife:

Kirchner, Self-Portrait as Soldier
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as Soldier (1915) - Oberlin College

Oh I wish that I could paint again. Paint is an instrument without which I cannot survive for any length of time. Whenever I even think of gray, green and white, I am overcome with quivers of lust. Then I wish that this war would end and that I might paint again.

Though Kirchner’s time in the field artillery was brief, even after his discharge he seemed unsure that he would be able to paint again—or, at least, as he had before 1914. In 1915 he painted this self-portrait (not at the Pinakothek), imagining himself an amputee—perhaps symbolizing how the war interrupted and (permanently?) suspended his artistic endeavors.

Beckmann, The Way Home
Beckmann, The Way Home (1919) - Museum of Modern Art

The disfiguring wounds of modern warfare also figured prominently in several prints from Beckmann’s 1919 lithograph series (Hell), including this one, called “The Way Home.”

However, none of the Pinakothek’s pieces will necessarily strike students as being “about the war.” Beckmann, for example, is represented by a painting of a North Sea resort town, his famous “Temptation” triptych from the mid-1930s, and a 1944 self-portrait. Are these works influenced by Beckmann’s experiences as an army medic?

Beckmann, Temptation
Beckmann, Temptation (1936-1937) - Pinakotheke der Moderne

Answer #1 – Yes, of course. How could they not be? Beckmann’s pre-war works (like the “Christ in the Desert” lithograph above) have been described as being similar to the 19th century religious works of Delacroix; during and after the war, he emerged as one of the greatest proponents of Expressionism (earlier in the series I blogged about a poet associated with this movement). While his English contemporary moved away from Cubism and Futurism and revisited French Realism as a result of his war experience, Beckmann seems to exemplify the “modernist” break so many scholars associate with 1914-18. To return to the question above that seemed to preoccupy Kirchner: no, one couldn’t paint as one had before the war.

Beckmann, Young Argentine
Beckmann, "Young Argentine" (1929) - Pinakotheke der Moderne

Answer #2 – I have no idea. I’ve read a critic imply that this portrait of an ashen-faced Argentine reflects the lingering influence of Beckmann’s encounters with disease and suffering in the field hospitals of the Russian and Western fronts. On the other hand, it was painted during the pre-Nazi period that other critics associate with Beckmann’s experience of fame and prosperity; perhaps the artist is depicting the fragility of wealth or privilege…

As you can no doubt tell, I’m completely out of my element here. What I’ll probably do is suggest that students resist the challenge to connect dots (experience x in 1914-18 produced image y in the 1920s), immerse themselves in the entirety of the collection, and then go next door, to the Alte Pinakothek (or, if they’re willing to fork over a few more euros and come back during their Wednesday afternoon off, the Neue Pinakothek, which is closed on Tuesdays) to consider how European art changed in the half-millennium counting back from the Interwar Era.

Beckmann, The Martyrdom
Beckmann, "The Martyrdom" (1919) - Museum of Modern Art

If nothing else, they should note that it is almost as difficult to find Christian themes in the interwar pieces hanging in the Moderne as it is not to find them in the Alte. To be sure, Beckmann painted the triptych shown above, but it would not make anyone think of, say, Rogier van der Weyden’s “St. Columba Altarpiece” (only the central canvas, depicting the Adoration of the Magi, is shown in the linked image). Beckmann included a crucifixion in the Hell series of lithographs previously mentioned, but the person being murdered on the cross is anti-war socialist Rosa Luxemburg, not Jesus of Nazareth.

This does seem to reflect one important legacy of WWI: for many participants in the war, left broken and searching for meaning or at least solace, Christianity seemed no longer capable of supplying what they sought. (Not just belief or practice, but the Christian “religious imagination” seemed inadequate to the aftermath of such a war.) I’ve already noted the lack of Christian imagery in the most famous WWI memorial, the Cenotaph, though the Cross certainly remained a potent symbol in cemeteries and other memorial sites. Some were not content to mourn, commemorate, and trust in the Christian promise of eternal life, and sought peace in Spiritualism, a movement that promised to put the grief-stricken in touch with their dead children, siblings, parents, or friends. Probably its most famous advocate was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who volunteered to serve as an elderly private, enlisted his most famous character into British counter-intelligence in the 1917 story “His Last Bow,” and then spent much of the 1920s trying to commune with his son Kingsley, who had died of pneumonia a year after being wounded at the Somme.

(By contrast, Conan Doyle’s acquaintance and fellow war enthusiast Rudyard Kipling, who also lost a son on the Western Front, took inspiration from the Old Testament story of Saul’s encounter with the medium who lived in Endor, and wrote a poetic warning that, tempting as Spiritualism was for the grieving parent, “nothing has changed of the sorrow in store” for those seeking to communicate with the dead. Dorothy Sayers’ criticism was more biting; in Strong Poison, Miss Climpson’s encounters with the naifs excited about Spiritualism and the charlatans who took advantage of them left her “[wondering] greatly at the folly and wickedness of mankind” — p. 188.)

Nash, We Are Making a New World
Paul Nash, "We Are Making a New World" (1918) - Imperial War Museum

Also striking is how Christian eschatology, if it shows up at all in the most famous literature and art responding to the war, was radically reconfigured. Consider Paul Nash’s 1918 painting, “We Are Making a New World,” which in another time or artist’s hands might have been an illustration of the new earth foreseen in Isaiah and Revelation as it is bathed in a Resurrection dawn. Nash’s apocalypse is less hopeful: an ice-cold sun rises (sets?) over the Western Front, looking like nothing so much as Tolkien’s Mordor. Or read W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” which cribs some of its apocalyptic images from Revelation, but by no means indicates that the poet finds hope or rest in a knowledge that Christ will come again.

Tomorrow: Adolf Hitler promises a very different kind of hope, as we tour the Munich that gave rise to a fledgling movement called National Socialism.

<<Day 19          Day 21>>

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