Reaction to the First World War: Max Liebermann and the Kriegszeit Lithographs

Routledge/Taylor and Francis
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Journal Article
AAANZ Journal of Art, 2016, 16 (1), pp. 71 - 91 (22)
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Between August 1914 and December 1916, the German painter Max Liebermann created a series of lithographs for Paul Cassirer's Die Kriegszeit (The War Time)thatdo more than document aspects of the First World War; they make a subtle commentary on war and the people who wage it. At first glance, as most Liebermann scholars assert, the lithographs seem like patriotic expressions typical of the general sentiment at that moment in Germany. But on closer examination, their content contradicts most Liebermann scholarship by offering a far more nuanced reaction to the war. Max Liebermann is an acknowledged pioneer who paved the way for German modernism ^ his work is praised for its technique, in particular his use of colour, light and motion, but he is criticised for his apparent disengagement with politics or social causes in his art.1 While it is true that Liebermann kept a wary distance from Wilhelmine party politics, he was active in cultural politics throughout his career, helping to found the Verein der XI in 1892 and the Berlin Secession in 1898 as reactions to the conservative art favoured by the Kaiser and speaking out in support of modern versus academic art throughout his life.2 Furthermore, Liebermann's war series does not conform to typical patriotic German art from the period and, from the beginning, it uses subtle visual cues to present a more balanced view of war and even to question the sense and logic of violent conflict. Many other contributors to Kriegszeit demonstrated an evolving attitude towards the war between 1914 and 1916, from blind patriotic enthusiasm to growing cynicism and scepticism as the realities of the conflict became known. Liebermann's position is reserved yet perceptive, as befits an older manwithsubstantiallifeexperience,which included serving as a medic in the Franco^Prussian War, where he witnessed firsthand the toll that war takes. As the series progresses, Liebermann subtly criticises and questions the idea of war, its inhumanity, the prosecution of the Great War, and the heroism of the people who waged it.
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