Art of the Great War

The Survivors by Käthe Kollwitz, Germany

The Survivors was used for a Peace Congress held in The Hague, The Netherlands in 1922. An accompanying text stated: Do not teach the children to glorify war and war heroes. Teach them to despise war.

Just as the war touched the lives of people at each and every corner of the globe, countries in conflict relied on men and women from every occupation to participate in the war. Artists were no exception. Many came to the war as patriots, enlisting in large numbers, including those who originally opposed the war. Others were called up. Some carried stretchers instead of guns. A few were medics, and many fought in combat. Just as many writers took solace in expressing their feelings through writing, there were artists who filled sketchbooks with pencil drawings that were later transposed into paintings and graphic arts. Their visual compositions became as much of a testimony of the war as did the poetry, novels, and journal entries of writers.

Some artists did everything they could to forget the war when it was over, leaving their sketchbooks to gather dust, and embarking on different subjects. However, there were exceptions, among them Otto Dix, George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka, and Paul Nash.

On the following pages you will meet several individual artists who have recorded their war memories through graphic art or painting. On the next page you’ll find an exercise that should be helpful in interpreting your own feelings about art. At the end of the section there are additional ideas for researching and working with the art created during the First World War.  

Activities: Learning to Look*

In this section of the module you will find a number of representative art works that came about because of the First World War. Each piece is unique, evokes special feelings for the person seeing it, and tells a story. The story might not be the one envisioned by the artist, but that this is the beauty of art, what works for one person can be totally different for another.  

Use the steps below to help you relate to a piece of art in this section. If you have an opportunity to locate the picture in full color, make a copy from which to work.

  1. Select a piece of art in this section of the module with which you want to work.  Remember as you look at the art that there is no “pre-determined truth” about the piece.
  2. View the image silently.
  3. Ask: What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that?
  4. Write down your comments. Consider the entire picture. Select portions of the piece in which you are interested and comment on them. Think about shades of light and darkness. Consider the images. What strikes you as being of primary interest? What questions does your piece bring up? What life lessons does it offer? How would you explain the piece to others? 
  5. Meet with others to discuss your piece of art and to share your ideas. Take turns explaining your selected piece. Ask for comments after you offer yours.  Accept each person’s comment neutrally, without judgment. Remember that art is purely subjective.
  6. Encourage more input. Notice how each person’s thinking evolves, and how some observations and ideas stimulate others, and note how opinions change and form.
  7. As this activity ends summarize what was learned through the exercise. Comment on how viewing art is an ongoing process and consider what skills are required in “viewing” art.

   *   The above exercise is based on the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) based on the research and developmental theories of Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist, and Philip Yenawine, an art educator.