Skip to main content

By Janice Childers

When the world erupted in war on July 28, 1914, artists were not immune from its effects. Artists had to make difficult choices about their work, military service, and stance on war. Decisions to remain neutral, choose sides,  become conscientious objectors or active participants were reflected in their work and had lasting influences on future artistic movements.

Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckman, Paul and John Nash, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Egon Schiele and others joined the armed forces, re-creating their experiences through art. Others, including John Singer Sargent, Wyndham Lewis, Arthur Streeton, Richard Nevinson, and Alfred Munnings went to the front as part of war artist programs, sending back graphic and vivid depictions of life and death at the front for public consumption.

Norman Wilkinson, a British illustrator and painter, is credited with the creation of "dazzle camouflage"  -- abstract patterns born out of the Vorticist and Cubist movements -- for war ships. Edward Wadsworth and other nautical artists designed these dazzle patterns intended to confuse an enemy trying to pinpoint the location of British ships in an age before radar use.

Newspapers and magazines employed cartoonists, including Will Dyson and William Haseldon, to provide sharp commentary on social and political aspects of the war. Notable poster artists such as Charles Dana Gibson, Frank Brangwyn, and Gerald Spencer Pryse were recruited to create poster art by Britain's Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, War Propaganda Bureau, London Electric Railways, and the United States' Committee on Public Information.

Other artists chose more indirect involvement than the front or government projects offered. Pablo Picasso made several sketches of his friend, soldier and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote of his horror at the front, "It's raining my soul, it's raining, but it's raining dead eyes." Pacifist artist Mark Gertler's 1916 painting, 'Merry-Go-Round', has been interpreted as a commentary on his objections to the war.

Artistic styles also underwent dynamic changes during war time. German Expressionism began several years before the war, but became more politically focused during and after the war. Guidelines set forth by institutions employing war artists brought about a return to more realist styles. In the post-war era, Cubism experienced a decline as a result of the Dada and Surrealist movements which sprang up during the Great War as an intellectual reaction to the violence and propaganda of the war.   

Users can explore the latest research on artists, artistic movements, propaganda, and the lasting influence of the Great War with ProQuest's International Bibliography of Art and ArtBibliographies Modern, the Art and Architecture Archive, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (TM), and Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War (1914-1919) offer contemporary commentary, reports, and images from the war years to round out an understanding of its effects.


Selected bibliography:
Bougault, V. (2012). L'art pendant la guerre. art during the war. Connaissance Des Arts, (705), 86-89.

Covert, C. T. (2007). Art at war: Dazzle camouflage. Art Documentation, 26(2), 50-56.


Mendelssohn, Joanna. "The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37." Artlink 31, no. 4 (2011): 90.

Merlo, Anna Maria. "Picasso a Teatro, i Colleghi in Guerra. Picasso at the Theatre, His Colleagues in the War.]." Giornale Dell'Arte30, no. 321 (2012): 35.

Stavrinaki, M. (2011). Messianic pains. the apocalyptic temporality in avant-garde art, politics, and war. Modernism/Modernity,18(2), 371-393.

Steward, N. (1997). James montgomery flagg: Uncle sam and beyond Collectors Press, distributed in the U. K. by Gazelle Book Services.

Van Schaack, E. (2006). The division of pictorial publicity in world war I. Design Issues, 22(1), 32-45.

14 Jul 2014

Related Posts

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear: A Look at Christmas Day 1914

Christmas Day in 1914 was much different than Christmas Day 2014 will be. As World War I raged across Europe, after nearly five months of war, and nearly six months to the day after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, Christmas Day…

Learn More

Travel back in time through the eyes of military attachés

Introducing ProQuest History Vault: U.S. Military Intelligence Reports, 1911-1944…

Learn More

Humanities Matter: Real Knowledge, from Conflicts in History

Students in the humanities aim to understand human nature and the lives of human beings.…

Learn More

Search the Blog