‘I had to experience how it would be if someone beside me suddenly fell over and died from a direct hit. I needed to experience it directly. I wanted to. So I’m not a pacifist at all – or am I?’ German artist Otto Dix’s ambiguous attitude to the First World War is typical. Nothing about the ‘Great War’ was simple and straightforward. Every country had its own particular reasons for going to war (or, like the Netherlands, for remaining neutral). And each artist who recorded the experience of war took a different attitude to it. The ‘Picturing the Great War’ presentation in the Berlage Room at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag uses work by German and Dutch artists like Otto Dix, Ludwig Meidner, Käthe Kollwitz, Jan Toorop, Leo Gestel, Jan Sluijters, Piet van de Hem and Willy Sluiter to reveal something of this diversity.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 is almost invariably identified as the key event that triggered the First World War. Assuming that Serbia was involved in the murder of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Austrians invaded and plundered the country. This attack produced a domino effect and soon all the major powers were at war. Within months, Otto Dix volunteered for the German army. He was 23 and wanted ‘to fight for a new and better world’. However, service as a machine-gunner on the Western Front soon opened his eyes to the less glorious realities of trench warfare. His 1924 cycle of prints entitled Der Krieg (‘The War’) gives such an intense and detailed picture of the horrors of war that it can easily be regarded as a powerful anti-war statement. But Dix’s own attitude was always equivocal. While he admitted to suffering from nightmares, he also said that he would not have wanted to miss the experience of war. It had shaped him both as an individual and as an artist.
German publisher Paul Cassirer was initially equally upbeat. In August 1914 he began issuing Kriegszeit (‘Time of war’), a weekly four-page ‘newspaper’ in which artists like Max Liebermann and Ernst Barlach responded to the events of the war. At first, their images were heroic but by March 1916, when the last issue appeared, the tone was completely different; nobody believed in the war any more. Cassirer replaced Kriegszeit by a pacifist magazine entitled Der Bildermann (‘The picture man’). Two years before the outbreak of war, German Expressionist painter Ludwig Meidner had been in a completely different mood when he produced his Apocalyptic Landscape – a painting that literally anticipates the course of events, predicting the devastation wreaked by the war with frightening accuracy. German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz was also quick to adopt the slogan ‘WAR – NEVER AGAIN’. She saw poverty and political turmoil all around her and in 1914 her son – a fusilier in the German army – was killed in an attack on the Flemish town of Diksmuide. Kollwitz responded by producing posters in support of humanitarian organisations and by drawing attention to the consequences of war in arresting drawings. The image of war that Kollwitz projects is that of the innocent civilian suffering the consequences of political decisions.
Although the Netherlands remained neutral throughout the First World War, it was not entirely unaffected. When the first Belgian fort fell into the hands of German occupying forces on 30 September 1914, the event prompted a mass exodus of Belgian refugees through Zeeland into the Netherlands. A number of artists – including Jan Toorop and Leo Gestel – were struck by the humanitarian disaster and produced works depicting it. Living in Domburg (Zeeland), Toorop witnessed it at first hand. Gestel was not living there but chose deliberately to go to the border area and produced over a hundred prints and drawings of the refugees. Other artists in the neutral Netherlands could take a more detached view of the war. Starting early in 1915, Jan Sluijters, Piet van de Hem and Willy Sluiter produced cartoons about events in the war for a periodical called De Nieuwe Amsterdammer (a forerunner of today’s Groene Amsterdammer). They criticized the conduct of the war by the major powers but did not spare the neutral Netherlands either.