The more I look at pictures, the more I am delighted, moved and intrigued by what I find. I’m sure that the name Georges Paul Leroux (1877-1957) is one unfamiliar to many, but his work is alternately beautiful and disturbing. He is something of a forgotten master, and I suspect that this is a result of the historical moment in which he lived, and his stark, bleak representations of The Great War.
Surely a look at the Academic male nude below demonstrates his mastery of form, his coolly controlled drawing and his sensitivity to light and dark. However, these qualities became less relevant as the Twentieth Century progressed, and the vapid tropes of Modernism came to the fore. As Leroux grew older, the fundamental artistic language he spoke was lost.
Leroux was born in Paris, son of Gustav Ferdinand Leroux, a printer of art prints. Leroux and his brother, Auguste, would study art in Trelly, before serving in the 130 Infantry Regiment, completing his military service in Chartres, where he would regularly draw and paint the cathedral. It was in Chartres that he met painter Paul Jouve (1978-1973), who became his lifelong friend.
Leroux studied at the national School of Decorative Arts and the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, later working in the studio of Leon Bonnat (1833-1922). Leroux painted many slice-of-life pictures of Paris before going to Rome in 1907. He would grow to love the Italy, and he would return there almost every year to paint the Italian countryside. On Friday, we will look at his most beautiful Italian picture.
The Great War, however, changed much of his life. He would marry Mathilde Gabrielle Planquais in Meudon in 1915, and his international travels were curtailed by the War. It was after the War that Leroux would paint two of his masterful war pictures.
In Eparges, 1915, Leroux depicts the stark horrors of war in a manner less grotesque than Goya, but equally compelling. The Great War irrevocably changed the notions of warfare in the popular imagination. The tens of thousands of dead – an entire Lost Generation – erased visions of heroic leaders cleaving through anonymous cannon fodder, the heavens above heralding the victory of God’s chosen. Rather, greater access to communications, photographs and written first-hand narratives underscored the fact that war involved vast quantities of mud, blood, pain, and dead men.
It is the dead, in fact, that create the focal point of In Eparges, 1915. Look at the living figures in this fascinating picture. The living men find the corpse of a comrade, examining his papers to identify him before lowering him into the grave that the others are digging. But all of these men are anonymous – faces are turned from us, or in shadow. It is almost as if the living were the ghosts … and the dead man the only animated figure.
The off white the dead man’s shirt and the focus of light on his white head and hands provide the human focal point. His uniform lies crumpled beside him (obviously stripped off by his brother soldiers) – he is no longer a soldier, a figure representing a nation or an ideology, but simply a dead man. There is no excessive gore or carnage to inspire horror – it is just our stark humanity laid bare. That, I think, is the root of the picture’s power.
The landscape is dotted with simple, hand-made crosses; the upturned mud littered with burial tools and stones. The only hint of transcendence, aside from the peaceful look on the dead man’s face, are the faint stars above. I cannot but help think the dead man looks at the stars, or that the stars look down on him. Otherwise, the circumstances surrounding the dead man would be too terrible to contemplate.