In Paris, the former members of Dada mainly gravitated to the Surrealist movement under the leadership of Andre Breton, including the German artist Max Ernst who had been active in Cologne Dada. For the Dadaists in Germany, however, the reality on the ground was much starker. Faced with the political and economic chaos of the Weimar Republic, notably the hyper-inflation that had resulted in the erosion of the middle class; rapid and unprecedented social changes and the unbridled excess and decadence of the cities, as well as a purely artistic reaction against the prevailing style of Expressionism in German art circles led to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Different interpretations of the New Objectivity can be found in the various regions of Germany, however it was the verists tendency predominant in Berlin who have shaped the popular conception of the Weimar Republic, notably Rudolf Schlichter, Christian Schad, Otto Dix and especially George Grosz (see also Eclipse of the Sun), all of whom were involved in the highly politicised Berlin Dada (see “Everyman His Own Football”).
Grosz’s early paintings, although painted in the manner of German Expressionism, possess a ferocity that is all together new, notably in 1916’s fevered and over-saturated Suicide and the hellish city-scape of The Funeral (Dedicated to Oscar Panizza) from 1917. After the war Grosz was one of the leading figures of Berlin Dada which was by far the angriest of all the various Dadas. A photograph from 1918 shows Grosz as Dada Death and with his friend John Heartfield he invented the technique of photo-montage. His engagement with Dada lent a sharpened satiric edge in his work of this period, including Panorama (Down with Liebknecht) from 1918 and the collage influenced Daum marries her pedantic automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it and Republican Automatons both from 1920.
The Verists emphasis on a new kind of clinical, detached portraiture suited Grosz’s style of savage caricature and enabled him to memorably lay bare the ugly and sordid metropolis of prostitutes, politicians and profiteers. Along with Eclipse of the Sun the 1926 painting Pillars of Society is one of Grosz’s most stinging critiques of the corruption inherent in the upper, ruling strata of society.
Grosz was also a brilliant draughtsman and his street scene drawings retain a compelling immediacy. His erotic work ranks amongst the finest of the century (I will post separately on this topic).
Grosz, a vehement critic of Hitler emigrated to America in 1933 when the National Socialists came to power. The New Objectivity was unsurprisingly declared ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazi regime. Grosz abandoned his previous subject matter after his move to America and his style softened considerably (with a few occasional exceptions) and in the process lost most of its brutal energy. He returned to Berlin in 1954 where he died in 1959.
Paul Nash is one of the foremost of British artists of the 20th Century as well as a major landscape painter. He was an official war artist in both World Wars, a leading exponent of Modernism in England , a founding member of the avant-garde group Unit One, whose members included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the art critic, poet and writer Herbert Read, with whom he organised the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London in 1936.
Nash’s paintings and lithographs that he produced as official war artist during WWI are some of the most potent and visceral images of the devastated landscapes wrought by the infernal mechanised weapons of war. Justly famous are The Ypres Salient At Night and We Are Making A New World both of which are part of the Imperial War Museums permanent collection.
The war had left Paul Nash emotionally and artistically drained. In 1933 he formed the short-lived but important avant-garde group Unit One. He formed links across the
Channel with the Surrealists, later commenting that he hadn’t found Surrealism, Surrealism had found him. Around this time he was based in the seaside town of Swanage on the Dorset coast, which led him to formulate his theory of ‘Seaside Surrealism’. He also began an affair with another exceptional Surrealist, Eileen Agar ( see Surrealist Women: Eileen Agar). Notable works of this period as the found objects collage Swanage and the painting Landscape In A Dream from 1936-1938.
At the start of WWII, Nash was again commissioned as a official war artist, this time with the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry, which led to one of his most haunting paintings, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), (see below) based on Caspar David Friedrich’s TheSea of Ice, which was inspired by a field of crashed German aircraft in Cowley, Oxfordshire.
Paul Nash died in 1946 from heart failure resulting from his long-term asthma. He is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate until March 2017. Recently there has been a critical re-evaluation of his work, especially the important paintings from WWI and WWII, and he is generally considered the most important British painter between J.M.W Turner and Francis Bacon.
Avant-garde catalyst, the quintessential modernist and fashionable man about town, Guillaume Apollinaire saw himself as a spiritual heir of Charles Baudelaire, an urban poet who doubled up as an art critic. He coined the term Cubism and was the most impassioned and ardent of its early defenders. He also coined the term Orphism (a tendency in abstract art) and more famously, Surrealism, to describe Erik Satie’s music for Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade.
His list of contacts within Parisian artistic and literary scenes reads as a veritable who’s who of the pre-war avant-garde and include Picasso (a particularly close friend), Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Henri Rousseau, Andre Derain and Giorgio de Chirico, who painted a Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire in 1914 that eerily predicts the wounds that he was to suffer during WW1 (see Premonition).
His 1913 collection Alcools is a landmark in literary modernism and features the important poem Zone that, while grounded in Symbolism, points towards the future in its emphasis on the energy and vitality of the modern city and engagement with (then) new, evolving technologies.
Apollinaire also wrote several erotic novels including Les Onze Mille Verges, (The Eleven Thousands Rods), and he also led to the critical re-evaluation of Marquis De Sade of whom he remarked was ‘the freest spirit to ever live’.
Apollinaire volunteered during the first WWI and was stationed, appropriately for someone who was known for his fondness of a drink, in the Champagne Region. He suffered a head-wound in 1916 that required trepanning; he never really recovered although he published in 1917 another landmark collection of poetry Calligrammes that uses typography to startling effect, poems are shaped like a mirror, heart, a watch etc.
In 1918, still weakened by his war wound Apollinaire succumbed, like 19 million others to the Spanish Flu. He was 38 years old.
After his death Andre Breton, who admired Apollinaire and was very much in the tradition of poet/critic and cultural instigator, would take his coined phrase Surrealism and make it into one of the major intellectual and artistic movements of the 20th century.
I would have liked to include his seminal poem Zone, however it is a very lengthy poem, so I have chosen instead one of his poems from his 1913 collection Alcools;Hotels.
The boss is doubtful Whether you’ll pay Like a top I spin on the way
The traffic noise My neighbour gross Who puffs an acrid English smoke
O La Vallière Who limps and smiles In my prayers The bedside table
And all the company in this hotel know the languages of Babel
Let’s shut our doors With a double lock And each adore his lonely love
Although the relationship between the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists was an uneasy one to say the least; the Surrealists were highly critical of anything he painted post 1919 and de Chirico doesn’t have a good word to say about his dealings with the group, in his memoirs he describes Breton & Co as cretinous and hostile, it was de Chirico’s paintings of the metaphysical period that were undoubtedly the greatest single influence on visual Surrealism.His eerie vision of deserted piazzas and frozen cityscapes inspired and influenced Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Tanguy and Balthus among many others.
The 1914 painting of the poet and instigator of many a avant-garde movement, Guillaume Appollinaire (who also was the man to coin the term sur-realism, which he used to describe the Cubist ballet Parade, composed by Erik Satie) conveys a sense of enigmatic menace. A classical bust of a man wears the dark glasses of a blind man. His blindness paradoxically means that he can see what others can’t. He is the poet as seer. To his right there fossils of a fish and a sea-shell stamped on a precarious column. In the background there is a shadow of a man, the poet Apollinaire with a white outline marked on his cranium and shoulder, the suggestion is unmistakably of target areas. In WWI Apollinaire enlisted and was wounded in the head by shrapnel that led to a series of operations immediately before his death from influenza.