1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Artist Gert Heinrich Wollheim's painting "The Wounded Person" from 1919
Image: 2014 Nachlass Gert Wollheim

Depicting horror

Sabine Oelze / asb
April 9, 2014

Paint and canvas were hardly enough. German and French artists struggled to capture the Great War's brutality. Many of their works have gained fame, and are part of an exhibition underlining the countries' friendship.


Only six weeks after Germany declared war on France on August 3,1914, Germany traumatized France for the first time by launching 25 grenades at the famous Reims Cathedral, one of France's most important churches.

Historians are still discussing whether the attack was triggered by a lust for destruction and revenge, or whether German soldiers had suspected French scouts were hiding in the church tower. One thing they agree on is that from that moment on, France didn't see its neighbor as a cultured nation anymore, but as barbarians.

Given this history, it is fitting that the exhibition "Human Slaughterhouse," currently showing at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, was conceptualized in close collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts in Reims. Together the two museums systematically worked out a German and a French point of view concerning World War I.

Museum director and curator of the exhibition Gerhard Finck said he wanted to use art as a means to "show what happened between 1914 and 1918, especially to Germans who hardly remember World War I because they mainly remember World War II."

Based on a short novel

The exhibition dedicates an entire room to the destruction of the Reims Cathedral. French artist Paul-Hubert Lepage, who studied with symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, tried to depict the tragedy in an impressionistic manner. He painted the impressive church building in the style of French impressionist Claude Monet: at night, at day, at sunrise, and covered in snow. The impetus of the destruction, however, gets lost in the play of colors.

Artist Gustave Fraipont's painting of the burning Reims Cathedral, Copyright: Musée des Beaux-Arts Reims
Artist Gustave Fraipont painted the burning Reims CathedralImage: Musée des Beaux-Arts Reims

The title of the exhibition, "Human Slaughterhouse," is based on a short novel of the same name written in 1912 by Wilhelm Lamszus, a teacher from Hamburg. He was one of the few at the time who didn't hesitate to speak his mind when foreseeing the demolition the war would cause.

"The machinery of war has evolved to a brilliant level, to an artistic level; 240 bullets and more in less than a minute!" he wrote.

Back then no one wanted to listen to him; quite to the contrary, he was persecuted because of his writing.

Playing down the horror

Artists at the time also appeared to avoid the topic of the approaching war. The modern war was not an issue for the representatives of the avant-garde until it broke out in 1914. The paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, and Felix Valloton are far from a gloomy apprehension of the imminent horrors.

Artist Georges-Edouard Darcy's painting of a cemetary cose to the city of Verdun, Copyright: Musée des Beaux-Arts Reims
In 1917 artist Georges-Edouard Darcy created this painting of a cemetary cose to the city of VerdunImage: Musée des Beaux-Arts Reims

Only Max Slevogot grew worried, as can be seen in his series on the Trojan War, which he likely painted as a reaction to the crisis in the Balkans or Morocco. However, Slevogot's warriors aren't soldiers but honorable heroes. Instead of machine guns, they use spears. There is nothing to indicate deadly carnage.

Prior to the Great War, the Germans saw themselves as disadvantaged and wanted to use the chance to expand their borders, as can be seen in Ernst Barlach's sculpture, "The Avenger." But the French were ready for anything as well and the humiliation of the establishment of the German Reich in Versailles in 1871 still bothered them.

Both soldier and artist at the same time

Caricaturist Gustave Wendt defamed Germans as "the potato, also known as sausage" and "the imperial rutabaga." Once they were in the middle of war, both German and French artists tended to glorify the unexpected severity of the war.

But there were hardly any large paintings and mostly pen and ink drawings directly from the battlefield. It was the only material that was still available.

Wilhelm Morgner, himself a soldier on the front lines, painted the German soldiers as superior aggressors, their gun barrels pointing into the invisible.

Otto Dix's painting
Otto Dix was one of the few artists who really showed the horrors of the war in his artImage: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014

Many artists like Jean-Louis Forain were released from combat after having been injured physically and mentally. After Forain lost his right arm, he painted a self-portrait in which he looks powerless and anemic.

German artist Max Beckmann was reassigned to work in a military hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. In a self-portrait picturing him as a male nurse in 1915, he looks at the viewer with a questioning expression. In a letter to his wife dated May 21, 1915 he writes, "You can hear our firings blaring left and right (…). I wish the war were over and I could paint."

Paint couldn't capture the horror

The exhibition impressively shows that the art of painting was inferior to photography and film when it comes to depicting the battles. Compared to impressive historic film shots of distorted war invalids and debris, paintings come off second-best.

"I think the artists tried, but they didn't manage to capture the horror on canvas," Finck said.

One of the few exceptions is Otto Dix's work of printed graphic maps, which appeared in 1924. Its radical nature can be compared to "Desastres de la Guerra," a famous series of etchings by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya portraying the atrocities of the occupation by Napoleon.

Dix shows everything he was forced to witness as a solider himself: grenade holes, dead bodies after a toxic gas attack, rapes, women having lost their children, soldiers who've gone crazy, faces that were shot to pieces. "I made a proper reportage to depict the havocked country, sufferings, and wounds," Dix wrote about his work.

Heinrich Hoerle's painting of mutilated German soldiers after the war, Copyright: Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal
This painting by German artist Heinrich Hoerle shows mutilated former soldiers now begging for money on the streets of GermanyImage: Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal

France and Germany coped with the time after World War I very differently. The French government supported its soldiers, partly with the reparation payments from Germany. But German soldiers often had no choice but to beg for money on the streets. A painting by Heinrich Hoerle shows the mutilated former soldiers.

Once the exhibition closes in Wuppertal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will reopen it in the city of Reims. That's not only where the Germans destroyed the cathedral in 1914, but also where former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and former president Charles de Gaulles sealed the German-French friendship in 1962.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section Related topics
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Hands holding a rainbow flag

Russian law bans LGBTQ 'propaganda'

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage