Since the vivid horrors that flooded American living rooms during television coverage of the Viet Nam war, we have been shielded from graphic images of war and its victims in-and-out of uniform. Perhaps if looking at the day-to-day dying during war returned to our sanitized television sets, with its mud and its senseless carnage, there would be fewer armed conflicts. Certainly American citizens would be less willing to allow our elected leaders to engage in mechanized manslaughter.
First-hand accounts of the Great War started early. Because of an increased literacy among the rising middle class, more and more books and newspaper accounts were available, bringing the realities of the conflict into stark relief. Following is an account by Fernand Léger about the siege of Verdun, penned on November 7th 1916: I climbed up to the top of the gully I am in. Behind me was Fleury, and in front of me Vaux and Douaumont. I could see out over an area of ten square kilometres that had been turned into a uniform desert of brown earth. The men were all so tiny and lost in it that I could hardly see them. A shell fell in the midst of these little things, which moved for a moment, carrying off the wounded - the dead, as unimportant as so many ants, were left behind. They were no bigger than ants down there. The artillery dominates everything. A formidable, intelligent weapon, striking everywhere with such desperate consistency.
Leroux painted Hell (L’Enfer) in 1921, and it can currently be seen in the Imperial War Museum. The picture represents the experience of serving on the Western Front – where war became industrialized. The picture was probably inspired by the 1916 battles in defense of Verdun. The French Army lost nearly half a million men between February and December 1916 repelling repeated German attacks. Staggering casualties occurred on both sides, but the face of warfare changed from hand to hand combat to high-tech artillery bombardments.
Leroux frames the grotesque image with an arch of brown smoke (created, no doubt, by the background fires). The landscape is littered with corpses and with blasted trees; there is no life or vegetation on view, and it almost seems as if the earth were coughing up corpses.
A mud hole is filled with dead or dying men, and others trying to escape. Taken out of its Great War context, and it could easily serve as an illustration of the Biblical Hell. Leroux consciously draws on centuries artistic depictions of hell to tell his story; the picture quakes with echoes of Dante and Bosch. The fires, which serve to maximize our attention on foreground figures, also highlight several blasted trees that almost look like ruined crosses. Here, Leroux says, there is no hope for salvation.
In yesterday’s painting, In Eparges, 1915, Leroux showed us the face of an everyman finding repose in death; here we do not even have the solace of the grave.
Tomorrow – a beautiful picture from Leroux’s long-term love affair with Italy.