Amongst the talented people called to join the ranks of the Belgian army, we find a significant number of painters and artists. Pencil or charcoal sketches, water or oil paintings, on wood or on paper, dark or colourful compositions, portraits or landscapes… In the same vein as photography, the cinema and literature, their modest productions are unique and precious testaments regarding the lives and environment of the troops. They have nevertheless long been relegated to museum storage vaults, with their authors almost forgotten during the successive commemorations of the Great War. The Royal Army and Military History Museum (in Brussels) has an impressive collection of works by these "soldier-artists", that it only exhibited for the first time in 1993. And yet! Certain painters, most notably the members of the Section Artistique de l’Armée belge en Campagne (Artistic Section of the Belgian Army in the Field) demonstrated remarkable creativity and were active participants in the significant turning point experienced by European art in the early 20th century: the impressionist and symbolist movements had barely imposed themselves onto academic realism when they had to then make way for the modern avant-garde. As such, sometimes realistic and sometimes impressionistic compositions are found alongside colourful and luminous works, however surprising that may be, where we see the earliest traces of the burgeoning Fauvism and typical traits of Expressionism.
The first official painters of the Belgian army
Most of the painters called to serve in the ranks are beginner artists or academy students. But some others are already known, while others who had nevertheless escaped the mobilisation in view of their age, signed up voluntarily, such as Médard Maertens, Marc-Henri Meunier and Maurice Wagemans. Though originally from the Netherlands, painter Anne-Pierre De Kat joined the Belgian army at the start of the conflict. These are primarily simple soldiers who, taking advantage of lulls or of a break between two rounds of guard duty, illustrate the daily lives of the troops in the trenches or behind the lines. Most often with the materials at hand, thick pencils and pieces of paper, sometimes a few colours, they attempt to wipe away their anguish in the face of war and death. However, some artists such as James Thiriar and André Lynen also see their talents put to good use by the military authorities in order to prepare topographical maps and panoramic sketches used to to situate enemy positions, very often with more details than aerial photographs. Other painters such as Fernand Allard l’Olivier are taken into the "camouflage" division, the mission of which (quite new in the Belgian army at this time) is to render artillery positions, observation posts, roads and vehicles invisible to the opponents. Their role is therefore purely documentary or strategic and in fact, surprisingly and unlike the English, French and even German troops, the Belgian army has no "official painters" in the strictest sense of the term.
It was not until 1916, a relatively calm year on the Yser front, that the Section Artistique de l’Armée belge en Campagne (Artistic Section of the Belgian Army in the Field) was created. The origin of this unit is somewhat vague since no official decision is included in the general staff's Daily Orders, but its paternity is generally attributed to Alfred Bastien, with the support of the royal couple through the intermediary of Jules Ingenbleek, the King's secretary. Posted in Nieuwpoort, the Brussels painter is joined, between July 1916 and August 1918, by 25 other artists with differing styles and sensitivities; the youngest are Joseph Vandegem (20 years) and André Lynen (28 years), while the oldest are in their 40s. This is not a simple company of brotherly artists, as had been the wish of Alfred Bastien, but rather an administrative division of the General Headquarters (located in La Panne), directed by an officer and subject to strict regulations. Set down on 23 June 1916, these regulations stipulate that the Section members are free to exercise their art (Article I) but that "no painting, outline, drawing or sketch can be published or sold during the war without the approval of the General Headquarters censor" (Article V), while the government also retains "a right of priority for the possible purchase of their works" (Article IV) ; moreover, though there is "no provision for promotion in rank or salary increase" and while they "must provide for themselves" (Article II), the artists are dispensed from any guard duties and other tedious obligations related to their function as a soldier.
With the materials at hand, thick pencils and pieces of paper, sometimes a few colours, the "soldier-artists" attempt to wipe away their anguish in the face of war and death.
Light and colours in a sombre context
This easing of military discipline does not necessarily imply better living conditions. Of course, passes allow them to travel throughout the unoccupied territory in order to fulfil their observation missions, but the daily confrontation with death and desolation saps away at the morale of these often solitary painters. Virtually left on their own, they take refuge in excessive alcohol consumption in the worse case scenario, just like many combat soldiers, or in the expression of their art, in the best case. Fleeing the suffering and cruelty of men. In the end, it's probably not surprising that, in their creations, the soldier-artists often focus on landscapes. From the numerous paintings devoted to them, it would seem that the surroundings of Nieuwpoort and Loos (near Ypres) were particularly popular. Dilapidated houses, ruined churches, broken dikes, flooded polders, muddy trenches, wooden footbridges zigzagging across expenses of water… all seem to hold great fascination for them. Day after day, bombardment after bombardment, these ruins offer a perpetually changing spectacle that they strive to depict. However, these are no sombre and lugubrious paintings. On the contrary, most of the painters deliberately play on lights, bright colours, while creating chiaroscuro effects… thereby giving these desolate landscapes a peaceful character, almost attractive. This play on glowing colours it is also found in the portraits that they paint of their comrades. Sometimes, nothing or only very little would lead one to think that the works were painted in wartime.
Moreover, as proof that beyond pure aesthetics, the members of the Artistic Section are producing their works with a documentary aim, indications of dates and places accompany almost each one of the paintings: in addition to the year and month, some go so far as to mention the day, and even the exact time of day. Some paintings also show how a landscape or building changes over the course of a longer or shorter period. For example, Alfred Bastien painted La maison éclusière sur le canal de Furnes à Nieuport for the first time on 29 January 1917, and a second time three months later; between these two dates, a section of wall collapsed after a bombardment. However, there is no change in terms of style; each artist, whether a realist, impressionist or fauvist, maintains the same style in all of his works… However, one painter is an exception: Achille Van Sassenbrouck, wounded by a shell at the age of 29 years, radically changes his painting style, from a rather naïve realist style to a fauvist style complete with impressionist traits. This change is perfectly visible in two self-portraits, one from 1915 and the other from 1918; in the second, entitled Autoportrait en uniforme (Self-portrait in uniform), the physical and mental suffering caused by the accident (he is blinded in one eye and experiences serious nervous problems) is expressed in an explosion of vivid colours that he applies heavily and traces out with a black line, notably highlighting his disabled eye.
Virtually left on their own, they take refuge in excessive alcohol consumption in the worse case scenario, just like many combat soldiers, or in the expression of their art, in the best case.
Exhibitions and the Belgische Standaard
With its 26 members, the Artistic Section is not the only unit working on cultural aspects, one also has to consider the Belgische Standaard, a newspaper working to promote the Flemish language and that regularly organises, starting in the summer of 1915, Flemish drawing contests. The first exhibitions are then held under the initiative of personalities and associations providing support to the troops; indeed, several are held at the Ocean Hospital (located in La Panne), and are frequently visited by the Queen of the Belgians, Elisabeth. These exhibitions present not only paintings by amateur artists, but also small objects carved or sculpted from shells, dowels or other metallic or wooden materials. This artistry from the trenches, while helping soldiers to deal with their boredom at the front, fascinates the public and generates a true commerce for souvenirs. In 1916, 1917 and 1918, the Belgische Standaard exhibitions are a clear success, but a few members of the Artistic Section agree to take part in them. Is this already something of a linguistic dispute? It would seem that they prefer to exhibit abroad, such as at the Salon des Armées de Paris in 1916, then in London (with its large community of Belgian exiles) in 1917. This "Exposition d’art belge au Front" (Exhibition of Belgian art at the Front) then tours the major Swiss cities: Basel, Bern, Geneva and Zurich… The Artistic Section discontinues its activities in September 1918, well before the end of the war, and never meets again.
This artistry from the trenches, while helping soldiers to deal with their boredom at the front, fascinates the public and generates a true commerce for souvenirs.