Overcoming Evil – Two painters’ response to the evil of mechanised war

Very often when I have been faced with challenges it has helped me to remember the lives of individuals who faced disintegration, and have been able to counter their fears and anxieties with what has been called an ‘obstinate vitality’. David Bomberg and Max Beckmann faced the challenges of their lives in exactly this spirit.

One German and one British, they both suffered nervous breakdowns after being at the front in the first world war. When they resumed their artistic work after the war, they had no interest in fitting in with the prevailing fashions of the art world. Instead, each crafted a new and authentic visual language in response to the wounds and dangers of their time. They saw a great danger which they characterized as the destruction of our individuality. Their decision to work in this spirit often left them without financial support or consistent patronage. They then witnessed the rise of Fascism, and suffered further isolation and poverty. At the time of their deaths in the 1950’s, neither was properly recognised. However, they were found to have left behind large bodies of remarkable work and they came to be seen not only as great visual artists but also as deeply moral human beings who enhanced our culture. This article is not a study of their paintings; it is a celebration of the attitudes and values that made it possible to keep making work despite many obstacles and setbacks.

Bomberg was born in England, the child of parents who had been victims of Polish pogroms. Coming from a poor background, he was an outsider who had still managed to establish a reputation for brilliance in the London artworld by the time of the First World War. He never belonged to any group formally, but he was seen as a Vorticist because he was intoxicated with the modernist idea that the city and the machine were the future. He was inspired by the liberating potential of mechanisation to free us from the slavery of manual labour.

Beckmann, on the other hand, was the child of middle class German parents and was not swayed by the ideas of modernism at all. Instead, his work was grounded in solid academic form and structure in marked opposition to the simplification and abstraction of many of his older contemporaries.

Their shattering experiences of trench warfare led to each suffering a complete mental collapse; breakdowns so profound that no theory could assuage its horror or its reality. Only one thing survived their confrontation with evil, namely an unquenchable belief in the human spirit which would rise up if we only dared to be our true individualised selves. With this as their lode star they set to work to deepen this insight and to pass it on to the next generation.

When Max Beckmann served on the front he was at first exhilarated. He served as a medical orderly. Rather than collapsing beneath the weight of suffering, he experienced the horrors of the wounded and dying and the multiplicity of human characters in such deep stress as a kind of gateway to another reality that lay below the surface of ordinary life. However, by 1917, the pressure of his experiences resulted in his complete nervous collapse. Still the experience of what lay below the surface of life was to remain at the centre of his work for the rest of his life.

In 1950, the year of his death, over thirty years after that terrible breakdown, Beckmann gave a speech when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Washington University. In his speech he said to the art students there:

But above all you should love, love, and love! Do not forget that every man, every tree, and every flower is an individual worth thorough study and portrayal… Art resolves, through form, the many paradoxes of life and sometimes permits us to glimpse behind the dark curtain that hides those unknown spaces where one day we shall be unified.

The world beneath the surface of life that he had first glimpsed as a medical orderly in 1914  had by then been made visible by loving observation, which allowed him to construct the fruits of his looking into masterly drawings and paintings

David Bomberg was so horrified by the life in the trenches that he shot himself in order to get away from the front. This act was fraught with danger, not least because soldiers who were found out to have done this were executed as deserters. After he returned home he experienced a complete mental collapse.

He realised that the machine age with all its promise of progress had enabled the horrors of trench warfare. This challenged all his assumptions. His deep belief in the power of mechanisation to liberate us turned out to be a terrible illusion. The dehumanisation of the soldiers, the loss of their individuality and the alienation he experienced in the years after the war – all this led to a completely different ideal built on practice and experience. He said

We have no need to dwell on the material magnificence of man’s achievement, but with the approach of scientific mechanisation and the submerging of individuals we have urgent need of the affirmation of his spiritual significance and his individuality.

Bomberg and Beckmann were known especially for their teaching. Passionately committed to their students, they sought to engage with them as individuals, getting involved and encouraging them to struggle to make work which arose from their deepest core. They cared that they would be their best and unique selves because only such people could build a just world.

Both artists believed in facing the challenges of their time with open eyed courage. They made work that could be painful, but which could lead to a place of healing. They were not sensationalists, dwelling on the monstrous or difficult in order to cultivate notoriety. They worked with one aim: to unite spirit with matter and thereby to heal the alienation brought about through the mechanisation of life.

Because they had experienced the destructive consequences of the mechanistic world-view, they tried to live and work in a cohesive way, to bring their whole self to whatever they did.

One of David Bomberg’s students said of him:

Bomberg had a profound belief in the integrity of the individual: that if the individual would be true to the vision he was given he would be an irresistible force in the world… Against the tyranny of systems, the tyranny of ideas, the tyranny of hopes and fears, he set his faith in the power of individual vision, realised through individual energy and individual work to free man from tyranny from without and within. For David Bomberg, this capacity within the individual depended essentially on the practice of virtue. He didn’t believe that a bad man could paint.

Peter Richmond

It is extraordinary that he held to this belief after the second world war, which had far outstripped the first in its monstrous dehumanisation and destruction. Still he faced our capacity to do evil, and recommitted to fostering our divine individuality.

To work so hard, to remain so optimistic, to concentrate not on fame or glory and recognition but the task in hand makes both Bomberg and Beckmann an inspiration. Their biographies are a picture of what is possible for us. They leave me with a question:

How would I describe what the philosophers call the good life, so that I can live in such a way that I might be what I wish to seem; that I may be that whole and integrated person that both Beckmann and Bomberg exemplified?

This article was first published in Perspectives magazine. To read the illustrated version and many other articles on allied themes, you can buy the current issue or subscribe via this link.

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