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Posts tagged ‘Remembrance Day’

Paths of Glory

As millions gather across the globe today around war memorials and in reflective places holding poppies in remembrance of the horrors and losses of the First World War which began 100 years ago, I have chosen to reflect in the way I know best: through art.

Few bodies of paintings have ever captured with such visceral power and unhindered emotion the horror of war as artwork capturing the Great War. In the past, we have been used to heavily state controlled glory paintings depicting wars as valiant great history paintings full of patriotism and honour; glinting uniforms and massed weaponry; flags flapping in the wind besides stormy seas and atop galloping horses. But depictions of the First World War were always startlingly different. Instead, the emphasis was on the stories of the individuals fighting in the fields; those who had come from small villages and towns across the world without military training to face a monster of conflict never seen on the earth before. The paintings focus on the futility and the waste; the continuous struggle to a pointless end. They show landscapes ravaged and lives likewise; a world torn apart; lives treated as mere playthings.

The reason for the difference is almost certainly down to timing. WW1 came along at a time of great movement in the history of art. The impressionists had been replaced by emotionally vivid expressionism, wildly colourful fauvism, and starkly mechanical vortism. So when the greatest conflict ever known to man came along, it can be no surprise that the artists either commissioned, or inspired to reflect it on canvas or paper did so with an intensely felt emotional reaction which is as roar today as it was 100 years ago.

Christopher Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917) Oil on canvas (Imperial War Museum, London)

Christopher Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917) Oil on canvas (Imperial War Museum, London)

Chief amongst them is Paths of Glory by British artist Christopher Nevinson, which for me is the most perfect artistic manifestation of the pointlessness of war. Against a conflict-ravaged landscape devoid of anything but barbed wire and the detritus of war, the bodies of two British soldiers lay face down in the mud, deprived of a proper burial, of the mourning of their families, of any honour. This is a painting depicting life as a mere instrument of war – pawns in a wider political game, laid to waste on fields of human detriment.

There can be no denying the power of the painting. And that power was equally startling at the time of its creation, so much so that it was censored by the British Government who thought it may hinder the war effort, and exhibited in 1918 with censored labels affixed across the dead bodies. Thank goodness that at that time, the Imperial War Museum saw the great value of the painting and incorporated it into their startling collection of war art. For as years go by, and not a single survivor remains alive to remember it, the horrors of war will only ever be truly visible to our generation through art such as this.

Paris, Dreyfus, and Vienna – the coincidences which led me to De Waal

Life is full of coincidences, and for me, this has been no more proved than recently, when I have been beset by a series of overlapping coincidence. The series of greatest significance has been the one leading to this post. It started in the early Autumn, when the fading of summer led me to start feeling my familiar autumn yearnings for a trip to Paris. In part-alleviation of this desire, I started reading the aptly titled Paris Requiem, by Lisa Appignanesi, which is, on its face, a period murder mystery, but set against the historically significant Dreyfus affair. I was already aware of Dreyfus on my periphery, being as the involvement of one of my favourite authors, Emile Zola, had pretty much destroyed his career, forcing him into exile in the UK when he sought to uncover what was one of the greatest conspiracies in French history, and unveiled a disturbingly vehement level of anti-Semitism both at the heart of the French Government and within French society at the end of the 19th Century.

The degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

The degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

The article which incriminated Emile Zola

The article which incriminated Emile Zola

Then, just as I was finishing Paris Requiem, the long-awaited new novel of another favourite author, Robert Harris, was published, this book also dealing with the Dreyfus affair from the point of view of the Army Officer who uncovered the scandal and suffered his own career-breaking consequences in the process. Mid-way through the book, a new documentary series started on TV. Telling the story of the Jews, the narrator, Simon Schama,  also told of this disturbing period of French History.

I thought the coincidences had ended there, but when I went to the National Gallery’s excellent new Viennese Portraiture exhibition, Vienna: Facing the ModernI picked up a copy of Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in the gift shop, and thought the time had come to read this much applauded novel. So, with Robert Harris’s sensational novel, An Officer and a Spy finished, I started De Waal’s captivating family history, originally narrated by tracing back the story of the Japanese netsuke which he had inherited from his Great Uncle Iggie. Starting off in 19th Century Paris with the story of the formidable art collector Charles Ephrussi (he can be seen in the top hat at the back of Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party) who was the family member who first bought the netsuke, it turned out that, guess what, Charles too had got himself involved in the Dreyfus affair – being Jewish, his support of the innocent Dreyfus could hardly be avoided, but, like Emile Zola, Ephrussi suffered social rebuffal as a result.

Amalie Zuckerkandl by Klimt - featuring in the National Gallery's new show on Vienna

Amalie Zuckerkandl by Klimt – featuring in the National Gallery’s new show on Vienna

The Netsuke

The Netsuke

Portrait of Charles Ephrussi by Leon Bonnat

Portrait of Charles Ephrussi by Leon Bonnat

The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir

The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir (with Charles Ephrussi in a top hat at the back)

Manet's Bunch of Asparagus (1880) - part of the significant impressionist collection of Charles Ephrussi

Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus (1880) – part of the significant impressionist collection of Charles Ephrussi

So suddenly, this story of Dreyfus, a Jewish scapegoat and symbol of the underlying currents of European anti-Semitism, had become a major focus, appearing, quite by coincidence, in reference after reference of both television and literary entertainment. But of course the Dreyfus Affair was only the start of the tragic scale of anti-Semitism which was to escalate in Europe, and as De Waal’s stunning book goes on to demonstrate, the horror of Europe’s anti-Semitic manifestation as the 1930s took hold was on a scale that none could have imagined in the persecution of that single man back in 1890s France.

Of course we all know the history of the holocaust and of mass-murder and injustice so unprecedented that words alone are not sufficient to describe it. But where De Waal’s book is so powerful, is that through his captivating narration of his family history, by the time the great Palais Ephrussi is ransacked by the Nazis in 1938, its art collections, along with everything else, stolen in a barefaced lawless destruction of Jewish life and liberties, you feel as though you know the family so well, have lived their history to such a degree, that reading of the exorbitant outrage, the dumfounding horrors suffered during that time actually becomes physically painful. You want to turn back the clock  there and then and somehow destroy the Nazi regime singlehandedly; you want to save all of those who suffered, and put all that injustice right.

The Palais Ephrussi

The Palais Ephrussi – ransacked by the Nazis

But history is what history was, although books like De Waal’s do an incredible job in bringing those emotions back to light. And, it is not just books which bring history knocking at the door of the present day. The last set of coincidences in this string was that in the same week as I read about the Nazi ransacking of the family art collections of the Ephrussi palace, I read an article about the biggest discovery of Nazi looted art in Munich for centuries, much of which is believed to have been stolen from some of the biggest Jewish collectors of the time, and then, but hours later, I saw that to my amazement, a TV documentary on Edmund De Waal himself was being shown on TV, a documentary which also dealt with the subject of the restitution of stolen Jewish art.

As to that documentary – that has provided its own source of inspirations which I will discuss tomorrow. But for today, what is my message? Well, not only that coincidences can happen in life, but more so that all of this reminder of the great injustices of war have coincided with today, which also happens to be Remembrance Day, when, in wearing a red poppy and marking the end of World War One, we pay our respects to those who have fought in wars throughout history, and in the present day.

Well, in paying my respects to those people this year, I will also be thinking of those who have suffered in wars, not just as fighters, but as innocent victims, families, Jews and non-Jews – the people to whom injustice was so great that history can never erase it, and words can never truly describe it. At 11am today, I will be thinking of them.