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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

November 13, 1994|Thomas Frick

A BITTER TRUTH: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War by Richard Cork (Yale University Press: $49.95; 336 pp.) The arts just prior to World War I were charged with profound upheaval, feverish vitality and brilliant invention, as if the Zeitgeist knew that dramatically different visual languages and techniques would soon be required to register the monstrous carnage of "the last days of mankind." Expressionism, with its strident disruptions of classical composition and the human form, secured a central place in this brave new artistic world. Its tendency to reduce people to generic types provided a chilling counterpoint to the dehumanizing means and scale of modern warfare. Ludwig Meidner's apocalyptic landscapes (with which this book opens), painted in the two years before the war, show how mysteriously intertwined these upsurges of creative and destructive energy could be.

"A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War," is, amazingly, the first book to comprehensively treat its subject, and it does so masterfully, teeming with trenchant anecdote and telling detail. Cork moves chronologically, combining historical background, biographical incident and cogent visual analysis in a highly integrated and readable text. The illustrations, moreover, are profuse, superbly chosen and excellently reproduced: In some ways the book forms the perfect visual complement to Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory." Among numerous unexpected discoveries is the striking work of British painter Paul Nash, a gentle, countrified aesthete whose battlefield experiences as a commissioned war artist utterly transformed his vision and his work. In this he serves well as an emblem of all that was done and undone by the Great War.

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