It is something of a wonder that historians of German art have overlooked Otto Schubert (1892-1970), whose work is the subject of Postcards from the Trenches – A German Soldier’s Testimony of the Great War by Irene Guenther. The only artist to expose the savagery of the Great War in an exhibition of soldiers’ art at the leading Galerie Arnold in Dresden in 1916, he was also the winner of the prestigious Dresden Art Academy prize in 1918.Along with better known contemporaries Otto Dix and Conrad Felixmüller, Schubert founded the socially-critical expressionist Dresden Secession Gruppe 1919 and his gifts as a printmaker and painter were lauded by prominent contemporary art critics. One of this book’s many merits is that it restores Schubert’s name to its rightful place among the body of remarkable German artists whose work was indelibly marked by their experience during World War One.
Nearly as remarkable is how this book came to be written. As the author explains in her moving preface, her paternal grandfather Alfred, a poet, playwright and journalist who lived in Dresden and wrote about artists and cultural activities for two local Dresden newspapers during the Weimar Republic, knew Schubert (and also had his portrait painted by Otto Dix). Her paternal grandmother Genja, a modernist photographer, died just before the Nazis’ ‘Night of Broken Glass’ pogrom (9-10 November 1938) while the renowned modernist dancer Gret Palucca danced at her bedside to ease her final moments. Unbeknownst to Guenther, her art historian father, Peter, had hoped to exhibit Schubert’s war art and publish on it. Sadly, due to a tragic accident, the project never came to fruition. Not long after her father’s death in 2005, the author stumbled upon her father’s collection of Schubert’s eighty hand-painted World War I Feldpostkarten [field postcards], and his written exchanges with Schubert’s second wife. Thus, began her intense search for the elusive details of Schubert’s life. But while this book is indeed a labour of love, it is also a serious, insightful study and the first to examine in detail Schubert’s postcards as well as the most comprehensive account of his life and legacy in any language.
The first chapter treats how the visual culture of the war and its aftermath conveyed the vicissitudes suffered by soldiers and civilians in the belligerent nations. The chapter prepares the ground for the second chapter on German war art, which contextualises Schubert’s war art, and the third which focuses exclusively on Schubert’s life and work. Guenther explores the variety of psychological and physical sufferings of German soldiers, as well as the widespread civilian suffering caused either directly or indirectly by the British naval blockade. Especially telling is Guenther’s discussion of the war’s wide-ranging visual culture, which traces the myriad official propagandistic approaches to sustaining morale and considers how artists and press photographers variously idealised the war experience or avoided depicting its worst events, while others strove to expose its true savagery. Consideration of work by well-known German artists who served in the war – such as Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz—help frame Schubert’s work and life. The leitmotif running through this account is how the true viciousness of the war remained hidden while it was being fought. Personal concern for the anxieties of those at home, if not the need to pass the censor, led soldiers to play down the war’s ferocity in their Feldpostkarten, as Schubert’s own cards reveal. In fact, the postcard boom that began before 1914 became an obsession during the war years, but they at best gestured towards the nightmarish experiences of those sending the cards. For this reason, Schubert’s hand-painted or drawn postcards stand out as singular documents of one combatant’s personal experience. They are all the more striking in their emphasis on Schubert’s dual roles as a caring son and romantic partner and his forthright visual documentation of the war’s reality.
In the second chapter, the author recalls how some German artists, like many of their fellow soldiers, welcomed the war as regenerative for culture and society while others condemned it, particularly as the war wore on. In considering the work of German artists who were killed (which included several leading first-generation expressionists) or who survived and generally criticised the war in their post-war production, Guenther conveys the fragmentation of German artistic life as a result of the war, as well as the impact of the war on the course of German art during the war years and beyond. The work of several key serving artists, including Dix and Beckmann, and the suffering of civilians portrayed in Käthe Kollwitz’s graphic work, are given special attention.
The final and lengthiest chapter focuses on Schubert’s life and art. Wrenched from his studies at Dresden’s Kunstgewerbeschule [School of Applied Arts] early in the war, twenty-two-year old Schubert quickly found himself on the Western Front, and like other German soldiers, received Feldpostkarten on which to write to family and friends at home. From November 1915 until he was severely wounded in May 1916, Schubert sent at least ninety painted postcards. Reproduced and painstakingly translated here in their entirety and considered closely in relation to the artist’s immediate experience, they illuminate the artist’s anxieties, as much for what they exclude as for what Schubert chose to convey. These miniature works of art in watercolour and pencil, lovingly rendered and encompassing a range of everyday experiences, are a personal portrait that becomes all the more moving when the reader learns of the experiences Schubert had sensitively avoided in postcards. By setting side by side the artist’s postcards and his field drawings, Guenther reveals the dual and nearly dissonant ways in which soldier-artists recorded their experiences. To cite but one example, Schubert depicted the execution of a terrified individual, whose attire does not define him as either soldier or civilian, by two German soldiers, around the same time he drew the charming image of a ‘local beauty’. The chapter concludes with an account of Schubert’s career during and beyond the Second World War, which saw the artist confronting the murderous spectre of Nazism through paintings, drawings, and prints.
This beautifully produced book is a unique addition to research on the art of the Great War. While there is much to dwell upon here for both the general and specialist reader, the book’s restoration of Schubert’s art among discussions of the war’s visual legacy makes it a valuable resource on the history and history of art of the Great War.
Review of Postcards from the Trenches by Irene Guenther
Hardback, 248 pp
This review was first published on the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books) website on 5 January 2019.