The Avant-Gardes at War

8 November 2013 to 23 February 2014

The first and second decade of the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented explosion of artistic movements all over Europe. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought much of this creative ferment to an abrupt end. At a time when politics sought to stoke enmity between Germany and France, artists exchanged ideas and collaborated across national borders with unprecedented intensity. Paris was the centre of the new art, yet it found its most enthusiastic early advocates in Germany.

«I am inwardly riven and immunized against everything, but I am fighting to express this too through art.» Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

The exhibition is the first to investigate and present in depth the fate of modern art in the context of the First World War by presenting some 300 works from around 60 artists.

Before 1914: The first section of the exhibition investigates the way different artists related to the war. Even before 1914, artists in Germany and Austria – for example Alfred Kubin, Ludwig Meidner and Oskar Kokoschka – had given visual expression to disturbing apocalyptic thoughts. Other artists like Ernst Barlach, Franz von Stuck, Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Luigi Russolo or Gino Severini indulged in manifold images of fighting.

From the Studio to the Battlefield: The collapse of the newly-built edifice of international artistic exchange and collaboration dealt Modernism a decisive and tragic blow. Many artists left their studios for the battlefields, some – among them Umberto Boccioni, Franz Marc, August Macke, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Albert Weisgerber – never returned. International artists’ groups disbanded because the former guests had become ‘enemy aliens’ and had to leave the host country: Kandinsky went back to Russia, Kahnweiler was forced to leave France, Chagall could not return to Paris, the Delaunays fled to neutral Spain etc. In 1915 Marcel Duchamp, who had gone to New York, wrote ‘Paris is like a deserted mansion. Her lights are out. The friends are all away at the front. Or else they have already been killed.’

‘Avant-garde in uniform’: While artists such as Franz Marc, André Mare and Dunoyer de Segonzac used avant-garde forms in the design of military camouflage, Kazimir Malevich in Russia, Raoul Dufy in France, Max Liebermann in Germany produced patriotic pictures.

Severe Traumatisation: The third section of the exhibition looks at the severe traumatisation of many artists within months of the outbreak of the war. The existential experience of suffering and destruction led painters and graphic artists such as Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix or Egon Schiele – even Paul Klee – to poignant new themes and novel techniques. It was during the first year of the war that Franz Marc collected the motifs for a future pictorial world. Félix Vallotton, Frans Masereel and Willy Jaeckel created graphic series.

Prospects for the 20th century 1915–1918: In 1916, with the war still raging across Europe, a group of émigré artists in neutral Switzerland founded the Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dada, that international protest movement against absolutely everything. At that time Duchamp was already working on his Large Glass. In 1917 Guillaume Apollinaire called for an esprit nouveau as the epitome of culture shaking off the fetters of the old and coined the term surrealism. Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich approached the complete abstraction. Thus it was during the war – outside its direct sphere of influence –that major perspectives for 20th century art were developed.

The exhibition is under the patronage of the German Federal President Joachim Gauck.

Show bibliography

Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland

Museumsmeile Bonn
Helmut-Kohl-Allee 4
53113 Bonn
T +49 228 9171–200

Opening hours

Mondays closed
Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Thursdays–Sundays, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
(including public holidays even those which fall on Mondays)