• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Now and Then: The Great War Reflected in Contemporary Art

Now and Then: The Great War Reflected in Contemporary Art

Now and Then: The Great War Reflected in Contemporary Art

An essay on contemporary art reflecting on the World War I, originally published in the book entitled Red Poppy Fields [The Great War Reflected in Contemporary Photography] released by Photon, 2017.


“Gentlemen, we are now in a state of necessity, and necessity knows no law!” said German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg when he addressed the Reichstag on 4 August 1914; the day war was declared. Utterly confident in a swift victory against the French and British troops, he was unaware that he had unleashed the mightiest of forces, the likes of which had never been seen. It was not difficult to start the war that earned the name The Great War1 on account of its magnitude, but once it had begun it was almost impossible to stop it. The warring sides were extremely persistent and the conflict groundbreaking; it completely transformed the world in the years and decades that followed.

It is hard to imagine such irresponsibility on the part of world leaders nowadays, leaders who would be as willing to unleash an unstoppable level of violence and turmoil upon the world, yet humankind is once again living through a very unstable period marked with economic crises, migrations, conflicts, climate change and general lack of prospects. A comparison between these two historical periods, though a hundred years apart, is therefore almost inevitable. In the post-cold-war era one single empire (with its allies) prevailed and became a warmongering state, forcing other nations around the globe into submission. Nevertheless, the Western world remained a safe haven.

The situation in Europe was similarly unstable in the years leading up to 1914. After a long period of (relative) peace following the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871 tensions were high again, partly due to the so-called German problem. Despite not sharing in the adequate portion of the world’s colonies, Germany had grown too powerful economically, politically and militarily and was perceived as a threat. Together with the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was squeezed in Central Europe without any prospect of major colonial expansion. When the conflict started, European superpowers rushed to (im)prove their territorial and political positions in the global arena, which in some respects was the beginning of the end of Europe’s worldwide dominance.

Lara Ciarabellini, Silentium, 2015

Europe had become a dominant power in the 18th century when new technological and scientific developments paved the way for its military, political, economic and eventually cultural occupation of the rest of the world. The Industrial Revolution had been Europe’s greatest and most powerful invention as it enabled the formation of colonised lands overseas. By 1914 most of the world was divided between these superpowers, when economic growth and territorial expansion came to a standstill however, the developed world was faced with the series of recessions. The war came as a consequence of the Capitalist mindset that relied on perpetual growth, which as we now know, inevitably leads to catastrophe. The (first) world today, though otherwise very different and seemingly stable, seems to be repeating the same mistakes.

In his book Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, British historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that the year 1914 was a huge step towards the idea of the nation-state and of nationality. World War I only helped to boost identification of the peoples with their (nation) states. In a certain respect, even Socialist Internationalism was defeated with the advent of war, though the first successful socialist revolution took place in 1917.2
“While in established nation-states and powers the patriotic zeal of these intermediate strata was more than welcome to governments engaged in imperial expansion and national rivalry against other such states, we have seen that such sentiments were autochthonous and therefore not entirely manipulated from above./…/ Seen from the perspective of August 1914, one might have concluded that nation and nation-state had triumphed over all rival social and political loyalties.”3

Stane Jagodic, Countdown, 1996 (collage)

1914 thus marked the end of the golden age of the colonial era and the decline of the flourishing global economy based on uncontrolled exploitation and repression. The world of the global free market was temporarily defeated having succumbed to severe state control as a consequence of the war. Nation-states were left with no choice except to establish strong internal markets and build sustainable systems in order to maintain basic production and consumption.

The First World War overshadowed the optimistic and forward-looking beginning of the 20th century. Modern warfare set new political, economic and cultural milestones in the (developed) world but it was also a period of unprecedented innovation (some of which was the direct consequence of boosting the war industry) and social progress towards social equality and welfare. Progress, however, was costly and painful. Gradually, in the years following the First World War, basic human rights and living conditions of the majority of people, workers and peasants, improved with the standardisation of the eight-hour working day and women’s right to vote. Among the most important and novel of the changes were the new possibilities of media coverage and its manipulation.

Djordje Odanovic, Elevation 708, 2014

World War I was a first widely documented armed conflict where new media such as photography and film took the leading role in mass media coverage. However, at that time, free reporting and objective journalism were still unimaginable. Access to battlefields was rigorously restricted and the press were highly controlled and censored. Photojournalism as we know it now did not yet exist and only accredited photographers, who were members of war press offices, were reporting on the war. Away from the front lines, the public was thus unaware of the extent of the bloodbath, despite growing numbers of dead, wounded and traumatised soldiers. The principle is similar nowadays in the sense that press offices control public discourse by imposing embedding as the prevailing practice in war photography. Moreover, photographers have little control over the contexts and discourses in which their images appear. In our own times, biased media reporting on the ongoing war on terror has ensured that the public has been either uninformed or misinformed.

Despite these restrictions an enormous amount of photographs and film footage from The Great War has been preserved, having been produced by media outlets, propaganda units, as well as the soldiers and officers themselves as many owned portable cameras. The First World War was thus the first attempt at waging an information war, which included intelligence missions, complete control over the media landscape, and detailed documentation of the developments.

Today, like it was one hundred years ago, activists and artists were/are at the forefront of radically and critically reflecting on conflicts. They were/are relatively free to express their opinion because in most cases they did/do not pose a big enough threat to the governing structures. At the beginning of the 20th century, like the 21st century, the majority of the public regards art as marginal, in terms of its influence on political opinion, in comparison to mainstream media and popular culture.

Pavel Maria Smejkal, Instant Inspiration, 2011

Already during the war and especially after it ended, visual artists started reflecting on it. The Dada movement in Zürich expressed its discontent by ridiculing warmongers and by establishing an art form based on total absurdity while other artists participated in the war, either because they saw it as their duty or because they were not fortunate enough, or wealthy enough, to afford life in neutral Switzerland. Whether participating voluntarily or by conscription, many artists who survived the war expressed their traumatic experience of combat through art making after returning from the front lines. Artists such as Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix and Ernst Friedrich were horrified and shocked by the war and therefore depicted it in an extremely dark and almost surreal manner: but it was the war that was surreal, not the pictures depicting it. Probably the most radical and explicit among these artists was political activist and anarchist Ernst Friedrich who in 1924 published a book War Against War! (Krieg dem Kriege!).

Friedrich was outraged by scale of barbarism and by the massive destruction caused by the First World War. The photobook War Against War! is collection of pictures and other visual material taken from mass media showing the consequences of the war through its explicit images of tormented, traumatised and disfigured bodies of disabled (or dead) soldiers. Friedrich did not only attempt to illustrate the tragic consequences of war, but also the lies and hypocrisy of the social, political and economic forces that produced and promoted it.4

“This book is dedicated to all war profiteers and parasites, to all war provokers, and is consecrated also to the “kings”, generals, presidents and ministers of all lands. To the priests, however, who blessed the weapons in the name of God, this book is dedicated as a War bible! Show these pictures to all men who still can think! He who then still believes in this mass butchery, let him be locked up in a madhouse, let us avoid him as we do the plague!” wrote Friedrich in the foreword and added, “I, therefore, always say to my brothers, the proletarians, I say to the class-war fighters: Free yourselves from bourgeois prejudices! Fight against capitalism within yourselves! Fight against Capitalism – and you fight against every war!”5

Ernst Friedrich, War Against War!, 1924 (photobook)

The author was acutely aware of the restrictions on free speech imposed by Capitalists and political figureheads; they were the ones who triggered the bloodshed, and he responded with counter-propaganda. War Against War! was a protest against the savagery of modern warfare. The book, comprising trilingual texts and captions, was aimed at an international audience while its images shocked and provoked people. Consequently, Friedrich was a victim of prosecution by the authorities of the Weimar Republic even though he had only reused archival images. And yet, with the development of photography, film and digital media, modern societies subsequently became quite accustomed to (visual) shocks through mediated images–no longer getting emotionally affected. The public became resistant to the suffering of the Others.

Subsequently, the viciousness and violence of the Second World War (1939-1945) soon suppressed the First World War in collective memory. It affected people and inspired artists more than The Great War, which was nearly non-existent as a subject in modern and contemporary art since the 1940s. After 1945, the world had undergone massive change that led to the common conclusion that war on a global scale should never again be repeated. Moreover, there was unanimous consent that the First World War was unnecessary. It was not, like the Second World War had been, a clash of different ideologies, since the warring sides had a similar economic and political agenda. Instead, the First World War was perceived merely as a struggle for territory and power, which as it turned out, was completely futile. Fallen soldiers and civilian casualties alike were now commonly considered to have been the victims of an aimless bloodbath rather than war heroes or patriots.

Darije Petkovic, Sarajevo Reflections (1914-2014), 2014

But how are the few contemporary artists and photographers today who deal with historical occurrences able to critically reflect on events, and on a period long since past, of which nobody has direct personal memories or experiences? All their sources are secondary, mediated through historical discourses and subject to available imagery. Among the contemporary artists who focus on the First World War two main approaches have prevailed: first is use of available archival materials, mostly photographs, films and memorabilia which artists appropriate and manipulate according to their concepts and visions; the second and very characteristic approach is the so called aftermath photography where artists revisit and document places of huge symbolic significance, such as locations of battles, or similarly crucial historic events.

In addition, there are number of other approaches, often hybrid and highly original, that artists use in order to express their relation towards that turbulent era. These mostly compare the period one hundred years ago to the current period, trying to find similarities and patterns on political, social and economic level. The comparison is logical and correct as, apparently, the world has not as yet managed to learn from historical mistakes.

Zagreb based photographer Darije Petković explores long-lasting consequences of the First World War from a contemporary perspective. In no other place has war left such deep antagonisms as it has in Bosnia and Herzegovina, antagonisms which are still the subject of ideological and historical disputes. Petković documented the celebration held in Sarajevo on the centenary of the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in order to show the ghosts of the past since, one hundred years later, there is sill no consensus whether the assassin was a hero or a terrorist. The photographer took snapshots at the very place where the historic event, widely accepted as the trigger for the First World War, took place–exactly one hundred years after the decisive moment.

diSTRUKTURA & Barbi Marković, Locus Suspectus, 2014 (short version)

Serbian art collective diSTRUKTURA & Barbi Marković focus on the same event and same issue but with completely different means, through the complex process of urban psychogeography. Marković strolled around the streets of Sarajevo where the assassination took place on 29 June 1914 collecting sounds, inscriptions, messages, advertisements and conversations, and composed them into a score/text that she later performed for the camera at a highly symbolic place, in Košutnjak near Belgrade where Gavrilo Princip received his guerrilla training.

London based photographer Jonathan Olley showcases the vast destruction in the area around the fortress of Verdun where one of the gravest and longest battles of the war raged for several years. He entered the forest, which is still sealed off because of the high concentration of explosives, in order to confront the viewer with the unimaginable intensity of the war with its still visible scars on the landscape.

Jonathan Olley, Forbidden Forest, 2009

Lara Ciarabellini’s topography of the Isonzo Front (1915-1917) documents the silent remnants of the war that changed the political landscape of this area. Today, the area is very marginal, far away from centres of power, but one hundred years ago, it was a scene of immense geopolitical turmoil. On the other hand Peter Hebeisen travelled thousands of kilometres to make a topography of European battlefields. The monumental landscapes and calmness of ordinary life depicted in the pictures nevertheless represent places of huge symbolic and historical importance.

Czech artist Vladimir Židlicky appropriates archival material, specifically photographs from his personal archive, which he found as a child in the attic of his family house. The pictures, showing aeroplanes in the sky, belonged to his grandfather who fought and died in the war and it is therefore impossible to know who took them and what they really represent.

Vladimir Zidlicky, Reinterpretation of Aerial Photographs From WWI. Dedicated to the Memory of My Grandfather Who Died in This War, 2007-2013

Even more direct, in terms of his ability to perceive the past through the present, is Borut Peterlin. In documenting empty factories around his hometown that were closed because of the economic crisis, he refers to recessions and depressions in recent history that led to them, and to the conflicts that were caused by them. He addresses the interrelatedness of economy, politics and war through the symbolic gesture of using the archaic photographic technique of wet collodion.

Contemporary artists usually do not have the need to address the First World War from the point of view of official historical discourses and overviews; they are aware that individual perception of a certain event is usually different from official collective discourses. They focus instead on intimate stories and marginal events to which they can relate on a more personal level. Peterlin, for instance, documents ruined factories to show consequences of global developments on a local level, but at the same time, his starting point is very intimate as his father, and many of his father’s friends, used to work in these factories. Nowadays, it is a widely accepted fact that history is never unambiguous but rather composed of small bits and pieces of interrelated experiences of individuals.

History as such does not exist. All that exist are single incidents, single individuals, the fleeting impressions of one’s mind. Small and fragmentary incidents of individuals make up a battle6, and a war. The artists are largely aware of the fact that a battle, or a war, cannot be viewed from a distance, from some elevated position, like a historical painting, but can only be seen from the perspective of its participants.

Borut Peterlin, The Great Depression, 2014



1 Stuart Lee, The War, The Great War, The First World War; in the WW1 Centenary, University of Oxford, 2014 – http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk (accessed on 29 Dec. 1916)

2 Eric Hobsbawn, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge University Press, 1990; pp 116-118

3 Ibid., p 122

4 Craig Ritchie, WAR Against WAR!, 2011; from the blog – http://craigritchie.co.uk/archives/2581 (last accessed on 5 January 2017)

5 Ernst Friedrich, Krieg dem Kreige, (first published 1924, reprint Berlin 1998); pp12-13

6 Nicola Chiaromonte, Fabrizio at Waterloo, The Paradox of History, London 1970, pp 4-5


© Miha Colner, February 2017 [proof reading: Ana Cavic]