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September 3, 2012
Moments in Art
Military Consequences
by Lawrence Jeppson

Military service, in war or peace, has profound effects on many artists. Sometimes battle ends promising careers. Sometimes peacetime service gives an artist free time to work out the future or new environments that provide visual stimulation.

In previous Moments in Art we examined the wartime experiences of French artist and tapestry revivalist Jean Lurçat (#6), tapestry genius Mathieu Matégot (#2), and Canadian Group of Seven painter Alexander Young Jackson (#15).

The military services of other artists have had significant chapters.

Painter Antonio Guansé (born in Tortosa, 1926) eventually followed the path of earlier Spanish artists who settled in Paris — Juan Gris, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso. Some critics and dealers hailed him as the successor to these three notables. Guansé painted ballet sets, wrote poetry, exhibited widely, and won many awards, including the coveted Prix de la Critique.

Guansé’s initial fame as a painter came from his paintings of the Pyrenees. Where did that inspiration come from? He first saw and painted them during his compulsory military service.

The Benedictine Monk Dom Robert has pleased thousands of followers by his highly figurative Rousseau-like Aubusson tapestries. Son of an ancient aristocracy, he received a far-reaching classical education. But it was not until his regiment was stationed in the wilderness of Aude province in Southern France in 1940 that he got his first vision of the paradisiacal nature than enriches his works.

Dom Robert (1907-1997), Les Oiseaux Rares / Rare Birds, Handwoven Aubusson Tapestry (from Murals of Wool)

Maurice-Elie Sarthou (1911-1999) painted the wild Mediterranean badlands west of the mouth of the Rhone River. He won many honors and at last count his work hung in at least 30 museums.

Sarthou, Maurice Elie (1911-1999), l’Etangaux Reflets /Pont Reflections, Oil on canvas, 32 x 32"

During WWII, Sarthou was stationed in the Citadel of Genie, Montpellier, France. He was determined to paint, whenever and however he could. In the wee hours of the night he clandestinely executed his first lithographs on the military press used to print the orders of the day. 

One of the most tragic figures in early 20th-century art was Franz Marc, born in 1880 in Munich, capital of Bavaria. There, in 1900, he began studying painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. Between 1903 and 1907, he hied off to Paris from time to time to visit museums and copy their paintings.

As he insinuated himself into various art circles over the next few years, he met important artists and performers. At first he was captivated by the work of Vincent Van Gogh, but in 1912 he met the French painter Robert Delaunay, who was five years younger. Delaunay’s use of color became a major influence on Marc’s art. By then Marc had founded Der Blaue Reiter journal, which became the mouthpiece for a number of important painters including the Russian Wasily Kandinsky (1886-1944).

Despite his mother’s Calvinist upbringing (perhaps because of it), Marc led a rocky life that included two marriages and a long affair with a married antiques dealer named Annette, who was nine years older.

The Great War exploded all over Europe. In 1916, the Kaiser decided to protect Germany’s artists from the carnage, and a list was compiled of those who should be withdrawn from combat. Marc was on the list.

But the recall came too late. Marc was struck in the head by a steel shell splinter and was killed in the never-ending, bloody Battle of Verdun.

He was 36. He had produced notable paintings and prints. What more might he have created had the Kaiser’s exemption arrived in time?

Franz Marc (1880-1916), The Blue Horse

His output was small, but its tribulations were far from over.

Hitler, too, had a list, but it was not so benevolent as the Kaiser’s. Hitler’s was a list of degenerate artists, whose work was to be confiscated and burned. Marc’s name was on the list.

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