New book by Rice art historian explores artists and World War I

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, one of the deadliest conflicts in history and one that paved the way for major political changes. A new anthology co-edited by Gordon Hughes, the Mellon Assistant Professor of Art History at Rice, and German historian Philipp Blom examines how the physical and psychological devastation of that war altered the course of 20th-century artistic modernism.

“Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I” (Getty Publications) accompanies the current Getty Research Institute exhibition “World War I: War of Images, Images of War” that Hughes co-curated with Blom and Getty Research Institute curators Anja Foerschner and Nancy Perloff. Both the exhibition and book have received international media attention, including coverage in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and on German public radio.

“I’m especially interested in the fact that even though almost all the major artists of the early 20th century were in one way or another caught up in the events surrounding World War I, in France — unlike, say, in Germany — there are no explicit modernist representations of the war following its end,” Hughes said of his fascination for this unusual time in art history. “I thus became especially interested in the ways that artists ‘represent’ the war without representing it directly.”

The anthology’s evocative title comes from Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Storyteller”: “A generation that still drove to school in horse-drawn carriages suddenly stood under the open sky in a landscape with nothing but the clouds unchanged, and in the center, in a force field of destructive currents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”

GORDON HUGHES

The impetus for Hughes’ involvement with the exhibition and book evolved during his time as a research scholar in residence at the Los Angeles-based Getty Research Institute in 2012-13, when he studied French modern artist Fernand Léger, who served in World War I.

“In my own research, I became particularly interested in how the experience of the war affected Léger’s artistic production,” Hughes said. “He served at both the battles of Argonne and Verdun, scenes of some of the heaviest and most brutal fighting of the war, and was clearly traumatized by his experience.”

Following the lives and works of 14 artists before, during and after the war, the book demonstrates how the conflict and the resulting trauma actively shaped artistic production, Hughes said.

“In the majority of cases, this means that they (the artists) were combatants, but some were not,” Hughes said. “Käthe Kallwitz, for example, lost her son to the fighting early in the war, and Ernst Ludwig Krichner had a nervous breakdown as a result of the war but never saw action.”

Hughes expressed appreciation for the contributions of Art History Department colleagues in the creation of the book, notably Associate Professor of Art History Leo Costello and two art history Ph.D. students, Hannah Fullgraf and Betsy Stepena Zinn.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.