1918 ➤ War: the 20th-century way to build a new world

We Are Making a New World,  Paul Nash,Imperial War Museum,Robert Hughes, Shock of the New

We Are Making a New World, 1918: war artist Paul Nash’s ironic vision of the Western Front (Imperial War Museum, London)

❏ Robert Hughes laments the effects of war in The Shock of The New, his 1980 BBC series on modern art (6 minutes)

Robert Hughes , Sylvia Shap,Smithsonian Institute

Robert Hughes (1981): detail from portrait of the critic by Sylvia Shap (Smithsonian Institute)

❚ “IF YOU ASK where is the Picasso of England or the Ezra Pound of France, there is only one probable answer: still in the trenches.”

In 1980 the no-nonsense art critic Robert Hughes was standing in the former waste-land created in France by sustained bombardment between 1914 and 1918. He was presenting the milestone TV epic, The Shock of the New, which spanned the 20th century in eight hour-long episodes described recently by one critic as “the greatest series on art ever made”. Just as Jacob Bronowski’s powerful documentary series The Ascent of Man had transformed how new generations thought about science in 1973, so too did the Australian-born Hughes for art.  He had already been the critic for the weekly Time magazine for ten years, and the insight, wit and accessibility evident in his TV series confirmed his status as the world’s leading voice on contemporary art.

“World War One destroyed an entire generation,” Hughes maintained in episode two, titled The Powers That Be. “We don’t know and we can’t even guess what might have been painted or written if the war had never happened. As for the waste of minds, we know the names of some who died: among the painters, Umberto Boccioni, Franz Marc, August Macke; the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska; the poets Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen. But for every one whose name survives there must have been scores, possibly hundreds of those who never had a chance to develop.”

Guillaume Apollinaire ,Henri Rousse

Muse Inspiring the Poet (1909): Henri Rousseau’s painting of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin (Art Museum of Basle)

Today being Remembrance Sunday — the closest to “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918 when the Allies confirmed the cease-fire by signing an Armistice — the BBC not only recalled “the pity of war” through the familiar poems of England’s romantic realists Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Radio 4 also shocked us with a slice of the French poet so avantgarde as to bravely interlace his awe at the nightmare spectacle of the trenches with themes of eroticism, mechanization and other modernist speculation — Guillaume Apollinaire, the man who gave us the word surrealism. He too had sustained a serious shrapnel wound fighting in the trenches, and died just before Armistice Day.

“Ah Dieu! que la guerre est jolie,” he declared in 1915, which can be roughly translated into English as “Oh! What a lovely war” but unlike the anti-war stage musical of that name created by English Theatre Workshop producer Joan Littlewood, and the subsequent film, Apollinaire’s line was devoid of irony. His first war poem, The Little Car written in August 1914 after he’d driven into Paris to find mobilisation being announced, contained these prescient lines:

We said farewell to an entire epoch
Furious giants were rising over Europe
Eagles were leaving their eyries expecting the sun
Voracious fish were rising from the depths
Nations were rushing towards some deeper understanding
The dead were trembling with fear in their dark dwellings

Dogs were barking towards the frontiers
I went bearing within me all those armies fighting
I felt them rise up in me and spread over the regions through which they wound
The forests and happy villages of Belgium
Francorchamps its l’Eau Rouge and its springs
A region where invasions always take place
Railway arteries where those who were going to die
Saluted one last time this colourful life
Deep oceans where monsters were stirring
In old shipwrecked hulks
Unimaginable heights where man fights
Higher than the eagle soars
There man fights man
And falls like a shooting star

Within me I felt skilful new beings
Building and organising a new universe
A merchant of amazing opulence and prodigious stature
Was laying out an extraordinary display
And gigantic shepherds were leading
Great silent flocks that grazed on words
While every dog along the road barked at them

➢ Listen to Radio 4’s Oh What a Lively War — Martin Sorrell explores the work of Guillaume Apollinaire
➢ The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change
— Robert Hughes’s book updated and still on sale

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