Richard Cork A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War

In Richard Cork’s A Bitter Truth he seeks to compile all the artworks and artists who responded to the Great War. He begins this book with his introduction explaining how often these works about war had been backdrops for writings about the war, but never been fully examined on their own. Studies of these artworks were previously grouped by country, show or commissions, but never allowed to be in conversation with each other on the same plane. Cork discusses the initial motivations for creating art in response to the Great War, and states that the unprecedented amount of loss and destruction was enough to cause anyone to need to respond. This response happened to fall into the hands of a generation of incredible artists.

In the prewar years the avant-garde movements were producing work with a quickening pace and under the principal of extreme renewal. This attitude was diminished as many of these artists were enlisted into battle. However many artists on the battlefield were resourceful and created charcoal etchings, or used war materials to continue to produce work. As for artists working from home, they were confronted with how to represent the grimness of the battlefield. Samuel Hynes pointed out that “to represent the war in the traditional ways was necessarily to misrepresent it, to give it meaning, dignity, order, greatness.. But there was as yet no other way to represent it.” Cork goes on to argue that “advanced modernist abstraction was an inadequate starting point for developing a viable approach to the conflict.” In the case of Mondrian he made the choice to not address the war within his work, and instead to crate scenes that were purist in nature. Picasso began to bring the war into his cubist paintings in discrete ways, because there was also a heightening tension between the avant-garde and the desire to renew connections to the past. Because avant-garde art was gaining traction at the same time the modern destruction of war was terrorizing Europe, there was an International desire for a nostalgic return to the past.

Cork’s analysis of the influences, approaches, and circumstances that influenced artists working during the Great War show just how difficult it was to create art that could encapsulate that feeling. The same issue was found in writing, and shows how the expression of such a traumatic war was not easily done. In my opinion I found Cork’s discussion of Dix’s work to be the most successful reaction to the Great War, because his fusion of modern and traditional expose the brutality of war in a way that is far more successful than most artists of this period.



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