Fine artists from combating countries traveled to the front-line to capture the atmosphere there.
World War One, also known as the Great War, was also the first world-level conflict that enjoyed an abundant illustration through film shots, photographs and fine art images. Fine artists from all sorts of combating countries traveled to the frontline, of their own free will, or commissioned by various institutions, in order to capture scenes from the battle but also the atmosphere on the frontline.
Romania made no exception. On June 23, 1917, one year before the Great Union of 1918, General Constantin Prezan issued an order mobilizing a great number of painters to the frontline, as well as top-flight graphic artists and sculptors, since they were assigned to create documentary images for a future military museum. The director of the Institute for the History of Art Adrian-Silvan Ionescu will now be speaking about the artists who were summoned to serve the Romanian flag not in arms, but with the pencil and the sketch book.
Adrian-Silvan Ionescu: “The army already had a film and photo department, but everybody agreed that a painter’s touch was probably more important than the rough and realistic presentation provided by the camera. Some of the artists who were called up had already been reserve officers, as well as others who had no military training whatsoever, they weren’t even conscripted, yet they had been granted the honorary lieutenant’s ranking, also being offered the required pay grade. Part of that group were, among others, sculptors Ion Iordănescu, Ion Jalea, Cornel Medrea, Oscar Han, as well as painters Teodorescu-Sion, Traian Cornescu, Camil Ressu, Alexis Macedonski, Nicolae Dărăscu, Petre Bulgărăş and many others. To complete their work, these fine artists were commissioned at a short notice. They began in late June, while in September they already prepared an exhibition, at the Fine Arts School in Iasi”.
In order to better capture the fierceness of the fights and the efforts of soldiers, these visual artists did not hesitate to venture into the front line. Some of them even fell victim to gunfire. Such was the case of the talented sculptor Ion Jalea, who, while on the Marasesti battlefront, doing some sketches, was hit by a projectile and lost his left arm. What did the artists’ works look like?
The soldiers’ daily drama and their miserable life in the trenches were the main topics, as art historian Adrian Silvan Ionescu tells us: “The scenes of violence and fierce battle are not dominant. The daily life in the trenches, with its routine that included reading the newspaper and taking the wounded to the hospital, along with the scenes with prisoners, are more frequent. Artists do no longer venture, as they did during the previous wars, to capture impressive battle scenes with cavalry attacks, artillery blasts and bayonet attacks which they had probably never witnessed. Glorifying the war was no longer the goal of these battlefront artists, but rather a realistic presentation of it.”
It was not only the artists officially summoned by general Prezan who did their job on the Romanian battlefront. There were also independent painters. Among them was Iosif Iser. Although he officially worked with the Army’s Geographic Service and drew up maps or menus for the superior officers’ dinners, he also found the time to paint or draw scenes from the daily life in the trenches. Among the artists who were not under the patronage of the General Headquarters was also Costin Petrescu, the author of a large fresco inside the Romanian Athenaeum.
Art historian Adrian Silvan Ionescu gives us details about the other visual artists: “Victor Ion Popa, an admirable draughtsman and a highly cultivated man, co-founder of the Bucharest’s Village Museum, a playwright and a literary and art critic, was a constant collaborator of the press at that time, which he provided with both humoristic and highly expressive works. Another visual artist who was not part of the General Headquarters’ group was Sabin Popp. He was affiliated to the air fleet stationed in Barlad. He was even involved in an accident once. Popp was almost thrown out of the cockpit at a swerve, but he managed to cling to the wing and escape a terrible death. Sabin Popp was initially quartered at an infantry battalion, then transferred to the air fleet where he had enough time to paint and draw portraits of soldiers.”
The way in which these artists illustrated the tragedy of the Great War can also be admired within the exhibition opened at the National Art Museum in Bucharest.