The Trauma of War: through the Lenses of Beckmann, Kirchner and Apollinaire

Following our First World War timeline, today I will be guiding you through a pretty rough patch, which is the living scars the war perpetrated in the creative souls of its time. Several artists, writers and performers served their country and formed part of the troops that were helplessly thrown into the battlefield with little hope for survival. Many died. Others endured the nightmare and took their terrors back home, and this is reflected in their works. There are many of these people who deserve attention, but Beckmann, Kirchner and Apollinaire reflect and summarise well their case study. Before I tell you their stories, I am afraid I’ll have to warn you, they will not have a happy ending, and they have in fact moved me. So if you are sensitive, take this with a pinch of salt…

The three artists were born in the 1880s, an era where the arts were heaving. Max Bechmann was born in Leipzig (Saxony). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was German as well, from Aschaffenburg, (Bavaria). Guillaume Apollinaire’s back ground is, however, more intricate. He was born in Rome, under the name of Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, but he grew up in France- his name for sure gave away already that his ancestry was Polish. Bechmann served in the war as a medical orderly, and spent a lot of time surrounded by the wounded. Kirchner volunteered to the army in capacity of driver for the reserve unit of the 75 Mansfeld Field Artillery Regiment- he was eventually discharged due to a mental breakdown. Apollinaire fought in the war and received a wound to his head, in the temple from which he never fully recovered. The traumatic experiences of these three artists coincide with a moment of change or self-development in their styles.

In the case of Bechmann, it was after the war that his academic style changed into something twisted, deformed. His visions of space and figures would become his resource for success. He achieved great renown because of his self-portraits, which reached numbers and intensity close to those of Rembrandt and Picasso. Kirchner’s experience is somewhat similar. He was one of the founders of the “Die Brucke”, one of the leading groups that contributed to the foundation of Expressionism.  However, since his unsettling experience as a military volunteer, he started producing many paintings of himself as a soldier. This eventually lead to his admittance in a sanatorium in Königstein in Taunus in December 1915. He was there diagnosed with a severe addition to alcohol and Veronal-which was used as a sleeping aid until the 1950s. Since there on Kirchner’s emotional stability got in the way of his artistic production, and even though he had moments of splendor and financial security, his issues ended up getting the best of him. After 1920, when he was experiencing good health, his art started deriving towards the abstract end of the scope. However, with the rise of Nazism, the works of both artist were classified as degenerate art by Hitler and his associates. As a result, many of their art works were confiscated, or even repudiated, making the selling and the exhibition of Bechmann’s and Kirchner’s pieces extremely difficult. The artistic disturbances created by the Nazis lead both artists to flee their fatherlands. Bechmann moved to the Netherlands in an attempt to obtain a visa to travel to the United States. Kirchner looked for refuge in Switzerland.

Meanwhile in France, Guillame Apollinaire’s career took a different path from those of the German duo. The artist was versed in a different creative branch, for he was foremost a poet, writer and art critic. He was well acquainted with Picasso, and was a great defender of Cubism as a concept. Moreover, it was Apollinaire who first used the terms Orphism and Surrealism in 1912 and 1917 respectively. In addition,  he did work on several poems about the war during this time, although these were not published until after his death. These were his famous Calligrammes, so in that sense they are a form of visual poetry, where the spacial disposition of the words and letters is just as meaningful as the writing itself. This eccentric type of productions linked with Surrealism is what he focused and developed in-depth after the war. Unfortunately for Apollinaire, his battle trauma was not so palpable in his pieces, as in the case of the Bechmann or Kirchner; instead it was very real and very physical. The injury in his head caused him to suffer from very poor health, and contributed to his untimely death in 1918 due to influenza during the Spanish Flue outbreak.

Some recordings of his work can be found online

As for the German artists, their future was not much brighter. After the inclusion of Austria into the Third Reich’s territories, Kirchner became greatly disturbed by the possibility of the Nazis taking over Switzerland. This also coincided with a time where he experienced particularly bad health. His physical and mental state lead him to take his own life with a gun on the 15th of June, 1938. As for Bechmann, he eventually moved to the states where he worked as an art teacher in a few institutions such as the Washington University in St Louis and the Brooklyn Museum. He passed away at the end of 1950 after suffering a heart attack. Nevertheless, the art of Bechmann, and that of Kirchner likewise, survived in the United States, where both their art works have been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art (New York). They became deeply influential for the new generations of American modernist. As for Apollinaire, he was the poet of his time in France, and a role model for many to come since then. His work resounded in the Futuristic and Surreal tendencies of Europe, not only for those of pen and paper, but also for artists and even film producers. These individuals, with their deep traumas and troubling experiences showed the world, through their eyes what the world was experiencing: a time of change, of commotion. A time, indeed, very twisted and dark, but equally innovative. Their names may not be taught in schools, to the same degree of others like Picasso, but perhaps they should, as a signifier of the impact that the Great War had not only on the nations that played a part, but in their people, and said people’s minds.

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