Friday, 27 November 2015

Art of the First World War: Otto Dix

Otto Dix (1891-1969) was one of the great artists of the early 20th century, renowned for his harsh modernist, yet realistic depictions of the First World War and postwar German society under the Weimar Republic.

Dix volunteered for military service when war broke out in 1914. An enthusiastic soldier at first, he painted himself as a ferocious "Nietzschean Warrior."


As time went by Dix's enthusiasm for the war dimmed and was replaced by a sense of abject horror, reflected in his "Self-Portrait as Target," with the buttons on his hat reminiscent of the bullseye on a paper target.


Dix's war paintings are among the most ghastly and ghostly done by any artist, reminiscent of Goya's paintings of the Spanish war of liberation against Napoleonic France. One example is the apocalyptic "War." This is part of a larger triptych.


Two versions of "The Wounded Soldier" convey the haunting madness and futility of the war, as does the memento mori "The Skull."




Dix's postwar paintings of Weimar German society often emphasized the horrendous price paid by the nation's military personnel, as in "War Cripples.".


Dix juxtaposed those who had done well out the war and those who endured untold suffering in woks like "Prague Street" with the woman rushing past cripples and its hints of a rising antisemitism.


The triptych "Metropolis" features contrast the suffering of the veterans with the degenerate revelry of  the wealthy, uncaring bourgeoisie.


The Nazis hated Dix's paintings as counter-productive to their militaristic and nationalistic goals. They destroyed many of them after exhibiting them in an exhibition called "Degenerate Art."

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Suffragette and Anti-Suffragette Posters

This blog post was inspired by the film "Suffragette." On seeing the film, I recalled an exhibition of suffragette and anti-suffragette posters I'd seen many years ago, and decided to find some and share them with you, dear readers.

The first one refers to an act passed in 1913 allowing the authorities to release jailed suffragettes who went on hunger strikes, then rearrest them after they fattened up, until they completed their sentence. The Liberals were in power at the time, and the suffragettes of the WSPU (The UK Women's Social and Political Union) made the most of the law's conflict with proclaimed Liberal values. 

The failure of this act made the concession of women's suffrage in the UK almost inevitable. Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918. In 1928 to was extended to all women and men over. 21.


This poster emphasizes the fact that women were classed with convicts and the mentally incompetent in having no access to the vote.




The next poster stresses the handicap women labored under without access to the vote.



Poster highlighting the horrors of force feeding of hunger strikers. The outcry over this strategy led to the Cat and Mouse Act.


Ads for the Suffragette newsletter, edited by one of the daughters 
of leader Emmeline Pankhurst.


The opponents of women suffrage produced many posters as well. Here are a few. Sorry, they are offensive.











Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Art of the First World War

The First World War, which ended a century ago, killed at least 10 million soldiers and millions more civilians, led to the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and World War II.  The guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day, of the 11th month. Clearly, the armistice makers had a sense of history. WWI was not the first war to be photographed or filmed, but none had ever produced so many images in those media. The war also produced a huge body of painting and art, most by those who fought. Here are a few examples, in realistic and more modernist styles.

    
C.R.W. Nevinson, "Paths of Glory" 1917. "Dulce et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori."

Nevinson, "Harvest of Battle" 1919. Blind leading the blind.


Nevinson, "Machine Gun," 1915. French soldiers.


Frank Branwyn, "Tank in Action" (1925) Painted for a public building in Britain. Rejected as "unacceptably morbid." In other words, too accurate.


Henri de Groux, "Gas Masks" (1916). French soldiers. Note resemblance to pigs. Asphyxiation by gas was perhaps the most horrible way of dying.


George Leroux, "L'Enfer" ("Hell") 1917, Suitably named. Artillery killed more men than any other weapon.


William Orpen, "Dead Germans in a Trench" 1918


Paul Nash, "The Menin Road" 1919


Nevinson, "Taube" 1916. Child killed by German aerial bombing. Total War.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Prosperity, Pestilence, and Perversity

South Carolina, the wealthiest and unhealthiest colony in British North America at the time of the Revolution, was long notorious for its deadly fevers, notably malaria and yellow fever, both transmitted by mosquitoes.


Prosperity and pestilence both arose from the cultivation of rice with enslaved Africans, who made up a majority of the population from 1708. Perversity was the denial of that reality. 

It is well known that whites suffered terribly from disease in Carolina lowcountry plantation areas. In Christ Church Parish in the early 18th century, 86% of baptized children died before age 20. Between 1750 and 1779, planter Henry Ravenel and his wife had 16 children. Eight died before age 5. Only six survived past 21. Of their seven daughters, none lived to be 20. Many other families fared the same or worse.

Less well known is that Africans also died in large numbers from these diseases and many others. This is due to the staying power of pro-slavery arguments of the 19th century, which claimed that Africans were immune to the “tropical” fevers that killed so many whites. A benevolent God had “designed” African constitutions for this work. 

Gov. John Drayton summed it up in 1802: “these situations are particularly unhealthy, and unsuitable to the constitutions of white persons … that of a Negro is perfectly adapted to its cultivation.”


In contrast, 18th century observers had often commented on the heavy mortality of the enslaved. Dr. Alexander Garden, a physician-naturalist for whom the gardenia is named, inspected slave ships, which he found appalling: “Most have had many of their cargoes thrown overboard; some one-fourth, some one--third, some lost half; and I have seen some that have lost three-fourths of their slaves … they are so filthy and foul it is a wonder any escape with life.” (Image: JMW Turner, Slave Ship, showing sick slaves being thrown overboard, alive, based on the infamous Zong Case 1783)



Many Africans died on the ships in harbor waiting to be sold. Their bodies were often thrown overboard into the Cooper River to save the cost of burial. In 1769, the royal governor published the following proclamation in the South Carolina Gazette: “… a large number of dead Negroes have been thrown into the river … the noisome smell arising from their putrefaction may become dangerous to the health of the inhabitants.” The governor offered a reward to be paid “on the conviction of the perpetrators” in hopes of ending this “inhuman and unchristian practice.” Yet the practice continued. (Image: Charleston harbour, c. 1768)


In 1807, The Courier of Charleston reported on an inquest on the body of an African woman found floating in the harbour. The jury concluded that “she came to her death by the visitation of God. [They] supposed her to belong to some of the slave ships in this harbour, and thrown into the river, to save expence of burial.” This was not an isolated incident. The editor of The Courier added that “this nuisance has become so common, that the citizens should interest themselves in discovering the authors of it. … It is by no means a pleasant reflection, that [the citizens] may eat the fish which are caught in our harbour, that have fattened on the carcasses of dead Negroes.”

Alexander Garden also treated many sick and injured Africans, of whom he wrote:  “Masters often pay dear for their barbarity, by the loss of many … valuable Negroes, and how can it well be otherwise -- the poor wretches are obliged to labor so hard … and often overheat themselves, then exposing themselves to the bad air…” The result was pneumonia and other respiratory disorders, “which soon rid them of cruel masters, or more cruel overseers, and end their wretched being.”


Further Reading: Peter McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, PB, 2014) Winner of the SHEAR Prize for Best Book on the early American Republic, 2012. Available at Amazon.