1915 in Art

Juan Gris - Still Life with Checked Tablecloth

Juan Gris – Still Life with Checked Tablecloth

The Crowd ?exhibited 1915 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

Wyndham Lewis – The Crowd

Marc Chagall – The Poet Reclining

Marc Chagall – The Poet Reclining

Giorgio de Chirico – The Double Dream of Spring

Giorgio de Chirico – The Double Dream of Spring

Bursting Shell 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946

C. R. W. Nevinson – Bursting Shell

Jean Metzinger – Soldier at a Game of Chess

Jean Metzinger – Soldier at a Game of Chess

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Self-portrait as a Soldier

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Self-portrait as a Soldier

C. R. W. Nevinson - La Mitrailleuse

C. R. W. Nevinson – La Mitrailleuse

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W. L. Wyllie – The Track of Lusitania

Gustav Klimt - Death and Life

Gustav Klimt – Death and Life

Eric Kennington - The Kensingtons at Laventie

Eric Kennington – The Kensingtons at Laventie

Diego Rivera – cubist portrait of Ramón Gómez de la Serna

Diego Rivera – cubist portrait of Ramón Gómez de la Serna

George Bellows – Riverfront No. 1

George Bellows – Riverfront No. 1

Boris Kustodiev - The Beauty

Boris Kustodiev – The Beauty

Konstantin Yuon – March Sun

Konstantin Yuon – March Sun

Grace Cossington Smith - The Sock Knitter

Grace Cossington Smith – The Sock Knitter

Helene Schjerfbeck – Self-portrait with black background

Helene Schjerfbeck – Self-portrait with black background

Juan Gris - Still Life with a Poem

Juan Gris – Still Life with a Poem

Piet Mondrian – Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean

Piet Mondrian – Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean

Albert Gleizes - Composition for 'Jazz'

Albert Gleizes – Composition for ‘Jazz’

Joe Hill

Joe_Hill_about_July_1915

Taking a break from the war for a moment, the excellent Between The Liner Notes podcast has a history of Joe Hill, the songwriter whose work would inform the political side of folk music for the rest of the century, who was executed for a murder he almost certainly did not commit in 1915.

Between The Liner Notes #13 – The Execution of Joe Hill

Birth of A Nation

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Not only is there no defending The Birth of A Nation in 2019, it’s wildly offensive even for 1915. A film made to glorify the Klu Klux Klan by claiming that they saved the USA from (appalling racist caricatures of) unruly black people, it was picketed by the NAACP on release, but was enough of a hit to inspire the real KKK to return from semi-retirement to murder thousands of black people. It would be hard to imagine another film doing as much to harm humanity as a whole, and beyond any other considerations, this should clearly mark it as a bad film.

Birth Of A Nation 3

Inconveniently it’s also a landmark in filmmaking history – not the first feature film, but the one which was big enough to get everyone else making them, and a spectacle so vast and varied that it wouldn’t be matched in scale for decades. Director D.W. Griffith was a leader in the field already, but the release of the film shot him into superstardom, and he took the sleepy Californian community of Hollywood with him.

Birth Of A Nation 2

So I watched Birth of A Nation, all three hours and thirteen minutes of it, to find out if there is anything to salvage.

In terms of writing, no. The script is a hackneyed bunch of racist cliches muddled with sentimental war stories and bad political fantasy. In terms of acting, also no. Lilian Gish puts in some fairly decent work as ever, but the horrible blackface performers undo everything – the public in crowd scenes are no worse than most of the other actors. But in terms of cinematography, in the first half of the film at least, there are some moments of sublime beauty which this piece of trash does not deserve in any way. These don’t really come across in still images, but I’ll try.

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Part of it is awe at the scale of everything, but I can’t deny there was some real talent wasted in making this film.

If you want to judge this for yourself, the whole thing is available on Youtube.

Gallipoli

Charles Dixon - Landing at Gallipoli

If you’re looking for stupid, pointless wastes of human life in the First World War, you really are spoilt for choice, but, even among such inauspicious company, the Gallipoli campaign manages to stand out as particularly stupid and particularly pointless.

To sum up: The Ottoman Empire sort-of-accidentally entered the war on the side of the Germans, the allies were at a complete stalemate and Winston Churchill suggested trying something a bit different. In theory this meant smashing through a passage to Russian Black Sea ports to the Mediterranean, in practice it meant sending shiploads of conscripts to disembark on exposed beaches and get shelled by Turkish soldiers.

One memorable account has a party of British officers arranging a conference with local Ottoman officers, whose first question is “Why are you here and why are you letting us shoot your men?”

Here is an episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class on Gallipoli

Here is an episode of BBC Voices of The First World War with original accounts of Gallipoliand here is part two.

Needless to say, anything on this subject is unlikely to relent in its grimness.

Kafka’s The Trial

kafka the trial first edition dustjacket

I read The Trial and everything else I could find by Kafka while living a couple of tram stops away from his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague in 2004. The New Jewish Cemetery was opened in 1891 as the Old Jewish Cemetery was full – the vast open space in the lower half of the grounds tells a story more grim than anything found in pre-war fiction. But anyway.

The Trial isn’t my favourite Kafka (that would be The Castle) – but it sums up a lot of what keeps me coming back to his books. What I love most of all is the complete repudiation of free will and meaningfulness in the universe. It’s something many writers play with, but I can think of nobody else who accepts it so completely, and without any sense of melodrama.

Recommended listening: this episode of the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Franz Kafka’s novel of power and alienation ‘The Trial’, in which readers follow the protagonist Joseph K into a bizarre, nightmarish world in which he stands accused of an unknown crime; courts of interrogation convene in obscure tenement buildings; and there seems to be no escape from a crushing, oppressive bureaucracy.

Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who lived in the Czech city of Prague, during the turbulent years which followed the First World War. He spent his days working as a lawyer for an insurance company, but by night he wrote stories and novels considered some of the high points of twentieth century literature. His explorations of power and alienation have chimed with existentialists, Marxists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists – and Radio 4 listeners, who suggested this as our topic for listener week on In Our Time.

And you can buy The Trial here.

Blueprint for Armageddon

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If you’re looking for coverage of the First World War in podcast form then the obvious first stopping point is the Blueprint For Armageddon series of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, and since I’ve listened to the whole thing, twice, I should really write something about it here. But what exactly? Was it good? Well, yes, I suppose so, it was certainly an immersive, meticulously researched, astonishingly in-depth description of the war, and Dan held my attention through each of its three-hour-plus episodes, but from time to time I did think about how this was a man making a very forceful speech about the deeds of other forceful men from a century ago, and it did seem like an example of much of what is wrong with the world of podcasts. What saved it was Dan’s genuine horror at the scale of suffering, this cut through the form completely and was the reason I listened again. Do I recommend it? Um…

You can hear Blueprint for Armageddon here, though you may have to pay for it, it seems to change from time to time.