The macabre dance of the Great War. Satire and satirical portraits in an exhibition in Forte dei Marmi

Alberto Martini - Danza macabra europea
It will take place on the 27th of June the inauguration of the exhibition called “La danza macabra della Grande Guerra” (The macabre dance of the Great War. Satirical art works from the Isobella collection). The location is the very peculiar museum dedicated to satire and satirical portrait in Forte dei Marmi (Italy). The panel for the opening event is composed by Lodovico Isolabella, Elena Pontiggia, Andrea Tomasetig, Enrico Mannucci. With this exhibition we face a different side of the war with some of the artists who decided to use an expressive strategy very different from that of Otto Dix, for example. The question rising is if we better understand the contradictions and the tragedy of this conflict starting from a satirical point of view rather than from the inflamed atmospheres of the German painter. Of course the reality is that we need to take into account both artistic interpretations, yet without prejudice against the apparently lighter and smoother approach dictated by irony.

A work by Ezio Castellucci
The Italian exhibition curated by Cinzia Bibolotti, Franco Calotti and Linda Gorgoni Eufoni with the works belonging to the Lodovico Isolabella’s collection is giving the opportunity to see in one place the original paintings by Mario Sironi for the trench newspaper “Il Montello” and the rare series of 54 lithographed postcards by Alberto Martini entitled “Danza macabra europea”, a prominent piece of the collection. Just to give the idea of the abundance of the offer, we enlist the names of the artists hosted in the layout of the exhibition: Ezio Castellucci (beside his Kaiser on the top of a mountain of skulls), Claudio Bisi, Gabriele Galantara (founder of the famous satirical newspaper “L’Asino”), Antonio Rubino, Filiberto Scarpelli, Golia (Eugenio Colmo), Lorenzo Viani, Aroldo Bonzagni, the famous architect Gio Ponti, Giuseppe Scalarini, Francesco Cangiullo, Walter Trier, Eugène Ogé and the great German medal designer Karl Goetz. This exhibition is the third of a series commenced six years ago with a reconnaissance around “Le Mot”, the famous newspaper by Jean Cocteau and Paul Iribe, and continued with the exhibition dedicated to trench newspapers. We thank the “Museo della satira” and the collector Lodovico Isabella for giving us the opportunity to share with our readers some of the images from the exhibition.

“La danza macabra della Grande Guerra”
Forte di Leopoldo I - Piazza Garibaldi
Forte dei Marmi (Lucca)
T. 0584 280262 (Offices) 0584 876277 (Museum)
27 June – 28 September 2014
All days from 5pm to 8pm and from 9pm to 12pm (On Sunday also from 10am to 1pm)

Diaries of the World War I

Tagebücher des ersten Weltkrieg / Des armes et des mots is the twin title of a twin multimedia project on the Great War, which originates from a French-German cooperation. We should state immediately why we were particularly convinced by it among the floods of initiatives rising around the Centenary. Both its content and media are really fine and moreover wisely combined with each other, that’s why it enables the contemporary public to have new insights into the WWI, beyond any rhetoric. The project mixes up in fact a film production and a web portal and exploits so different communications techniques and succeeds so to value the documents (especially old photos are nicely integrated in the editing of these documentaries), on the one hand. On the other hand the content is not moved to the background but is the real core of the project so that one immediately perceives a truthful urgency to communicate it. An international team of professional historians and authors has worked many years to research and analyze more than 1.000 diaries and letters collections in order to select at the end a small number of personal fates, 14 touching life-stories of the WWI. And these 14 men and women are not generals or politicians, but simple soldiers or nurses, mothers and children overwhelmed by the war, coming from Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, French, England, Russia, USA and Australia. Rather than the battles and political events, the plain truth of human existence emerges thanks to this international choir which sings the common fears and pains, wishes and ideals, in short the concrete and minimal happenings of an everyday life in war time. This enables a deep compassion: according to the etymology of this word, we can share the basic feelings of all these men and women, relying on the common human nature and its essential rules and necessities; at the same time we do not run the risk to abstract these personal histories from their unique existential and historical contexts.

The crucial events and the turning points in the lives of the protagonists – especially in the time span 1914-1918 – are organized in thematic units (ranging from the ruin and the attack, to the anguish and the sadness, from the homesickness, the disaster, the homeland, to the insurrection and the ruins). The time gap between witnesses from the past and reconstruction at the present are not only visualized and summarized in the interactive homepage but also sewed up very well in the documentaries, which were broadcasted by the Franco-German channel ARTE and are now upcoming on the German channel Das Erste. A very interesting project, which shows how to combine multimedia and historical research in a profitable way.
Further information, also concerning the related books and DVDs, here.

Miguel de Unamuno in the debate of the First World War, between neutrality and action

In Italy we recently had the opportunity to read the full collection of pieces that the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno put together during the years of the Great War. Probably it's not by chance that it was an Italian publisher who took care of re-releasing this corpus of writings. In fact we can consider Unamuno's dedication to the fundamental theme of the First World War as a sum of two distinguished levels of reflection. The first part of the book goes back to his presence in the area of Kars, where he spent some time in September 1917 as a representative of a Spanish delegation of intellectuals, together with Manuel Azaña, the future president of the Spanish Republic. As everybody knows, Spain was not involved in the two World Wars of the twentieth century but had to face a bloody and devastating civil war during the 30s. And it’s a point of interest for us to understand what the avant-garde of Spanish writers and especially Unamuno as one of the most influencing and valued writer of his time thought about the “European war” and about the special case of Italy in the panorama of the European powers. In this first part of the book we read about the meeting with the Italian general Cadorna and we probably find here a different portrait of the man and of the general, that is very far from what is the common perception. The second part of the volume is more devoted to combine his personal view of the war with the reality of the massacre, and if Unamuno is extremely rich in detailing the interests that brought to war, at the same time he is not taking an open antimilitary position. On the contrary, like José Ortega y Gasset and the poet Antonio Machado, Unamuno wanted his country to be an active part in the conflict and was extremely harsh with the political decisions of Spain.

The title of the book in Italian is “L’agonia dell’Europa” (The agony of Europe). The perception of an “agony of Europe” is a recurring trait in many Spanish philosophers of that time – think about Maria Zambrano, for example. Unamuno's point of view is probably too intertwined with some views of the Nineteenth century: he does not consider for example the tragedy of the life and death in the trenches and the mass destruction caused by the mix of new weapons and old war techniques, and he is even too far from taking this into consideration; he rather sees the European war commenced in 1914 as a war among populations which has solid roots in the conflicts of the late nineteenth century, even as an opportunity. And of course this is a part of truth, but only a little one. And yet it is worth to underline Unamuno’s peculiar participation to the huge debate risen after the war’s outbreak (and we have to consider that we are with his writings in the long and terrible 1917, not at the beginning of the war). Similarly we could examine all the different positions in the Italian debate about the opportunity to fight or not to fight the war (and against who?), between July 1914 and May 1915, as well as we could enlist the reasons in favour or against neutrality. This would probably result into a never ending debate bringing us to a kind of no man’s land where the reasons of non-involvement and the reasons of interventionism delete each other’s motivations and explanations. Today it would be only hypocrisy not to look at the First World War considering the different motivations in favour of war or neutrality. Of course in occasion of the Centenary celebrations it’s preferable to share common and “warm” – yet not too hot – themes (like the human and psychological tragedy, the role of women, the development of medicine etc.: all crucial aspects which alone cannot however exhaust the whole topic), but we consider an incomplete approach the one which forgets that at the end this was a real war, i.e. a result of political decisions, with a winning and a losing part, even if the armistice was only a temporary truce. We stop here, otherwise we could open the huge chapter of the hypocrisy connected with all the conflicts and their inheritance, with clear examples from the present wars. This is why we suggest not to forget Unamuno’s contribution to this debate.

Paris and the Great War

If you are in Paris this year and you are interested in Great War you will not run the risk to get bored. A cluster of activities and meetings are planned during this year to mark the begin of the WWI one hundred years ago (an overview here). Today we’d like to point out a couple of exhibitions.
The first one takes place at the Galerie des Bibliothèques de la Ville de Paris and displays the photo collection of Charles Lansiaux (1855-1939), who covered with his camera the French capital during the years 1914-1918. Its shots witness therefore meticulously the impact of the Great War on the population, ranging from the general mobilization at the beginning of the conflict to the refugees, from the collective engagement in supporting the military effort by attending the wounded or raising money to the first bombings. Furthermore the tragedy of orphanage, mutilation and civil privation are depicted. There are also interesting images of the city, both desolated or crowded by human masses. This exhibition – entitled Paris 14-18: la guerre au quotidian, till 15th June 2014, further information here – is for sure interesting, yet very small and the entrance ticket is maybe a little bit too expensive for the whole. That’s why we suggest to combine another exhibition, which is equally fascinating but with free admission. You just have to move to the Jardin de Luxembourg.

We suggest to run immediately to the Orangerie du Sénat, where the exhibition Jours de Guerre 1914-1918 (detailed information here) takes place. The sources of this initiative are provided by the Excelsior, one of the first French daily newspapers illustrated with photos. Founded in 1910, its photographical materials had been published never again. Only a small part (120 pictures) of the 5.000 photos (selected among the 20.000 shots covering the time span 1914-1919) are on display, but they offers a incredible testimony to both the military and civilian life, both French and other nationalities’ people, both animal and human beings, moving between the front (namely the western one) and the rearguard. The meaning of global war is so transmitted very well and some pictures are really touching and outstanding.

To conclude, we suggest to walk across the Luxembourg gardens – also in front of the Senate there’s a nice installation, have a look at – and exit at Place Edmond Rostand, in front of the Pantheon. Along the grating of the garden another exhibition is waiting for you. Contemporary images from the old battlefields are printed on big panels and combined with short capitations in French, English and German. These photos are part of the biggest projects Fields of Battle – Lands of Piece 14-18, a street gallery exhibition which is now to tour internationally, and found a dock also here in Paris. Another example how to build bridges between past and present and among all countries and culture in occasion of the centenary and – we really wish – even beyond.

The sound of the Great War at the Historial Museum

Apollinaire, La Mandoline, l'œillet et le bambou
We are already (almost) accustomed to notice and recommend interesting exhibitions organized by the museum Historial de la Grande Guerre, and yet we are always pleasantly surprised at them. This time the title drew our attention: Hearing the War - Sounds, Musics and Silence in 14-18; because the hearing is – with the sense of smell – very hard to recreate and because the subtitle gathers the wide range of experience, up to the stillness. Running from March to mid November 2014, this special exhibition of the Historial Museum enables the visitor to discover the unprecedented sound transformations which occurred during the WWI and to enter into a new “sound universe”, making use of all sorts of testimonies (objects, sounds, images, texts). 

Let’s start with a given. It is impossible for us to hear once again the exact sound of the Great War, even if in the Historial Museum we can listen to the only survived (and now restored) original recording of those years: the testimony of a sound spectrogram which recorded the moment the battle ceased on Armistice Day and the following silence – and especially this latter is touching. Nevertheless the exhibition succeeds in its intent by developing two themes. It firstly explores the sound of war, including the roar of artillery, the machine guns and the clashes of combat or the noises of the rear guard, the attack and defense sounds, but also the music made during the war, improvised by the soldiers and accompanied by self-made instruments. Secondly the attention is focused on musicians and on their way to approach, describe, elaborate or remember the war. Through recordings and music scores, visitors discover not only military marches, national or victory anthems, funeral or popular songs (including the cinematographic tradition or jazz), but also the works of the leading composers, such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Stravinski and many others. 

All this was made possible by an innovative staging concept – which recalls a music score with objects and documents presented like musical notes –, by appropriate listening devices (headphones, sound showers and listening chairs) and by the innovative sound wall, designed by Luc Martinez, in the small exhibition hall. 

After a first overview of the aim of the exhibition in the entrance lobby (and have a look at the original manuscript of Apollinaire’s poem Les obus miaulent en boche too!), different aspects of the topic are addressed. The exhibition starts with the military music of the troops marching and with their instruments, with the songs of the rear guard and the front line, the soldier’ instrument made in the trenches with raw material and the industrial ones. It shows then photos and originals of renowned war composers; also funeral music as national culture of mourning is displayed with scores, posters and images. A section is devoted to the concerts which took place with charitable and patriotic purposes in the rear guard, other sections to concerts on the front line and the music in the camps and in the occupied territories. Also the impact of the new sound universe of the new Jazz music is illustrated. Moreover the exhibition introduces the visitors into the themes of acoustic wound and excessive noise (in the section entitled “the amputated ear”), as well as the silence of the Great War as symbol of mourning. In the end a section discusses the musical creation connected – since the end of the conflict – to the memory of the Great War.   

In short, don’t miss the exhibition Hearing the War - Sounds, Musics and Silence in 14-18 because it guarantees a unique experience into the sound universe of the World War One.
Further information here.