In yesterday’s article, I showed the rise of mud in paintings during the middle and late nineteenth century, ending with a couple of filthy road scenes from the winter in Poland.
Mud plays a significant role in this unusual modernised religious story by Fritz von Uhde, A Difficult Journey from 1890. This imagines Joseph and the pregnant Mary walking on a rough muddy track to Bethlehem, in a wintry European village. Joseph has a carpenter’s saw on his back as the tired couple move on through the dank mist.
Although the Franco-Prussian War started in the summer of 1870, its later stages, including much of the fighting around Paris and its siege took place in the late autumn and winter, when mud was at its height (or depth).
Anton von Werner’s In the Troops’ Quarters Outside Paris, from 1894, shows muddy soldiers in the luxurious Château de Brunoy, which had been abandoned to or requisitioned by occupying forces. Every boot seen is caked in mud, which covers the trouser legs of the orderly who is tending to the fire.
Artists in the Nordic countries were also starting to depict mud more realistically in their paintings.
Laurits Andersen Ring’s Father Coming Home from 1896 shows a mother and two children awaiting the return of their husband and father. He is still quite distant along the muddy track in this poor rural community in Denmark.
Further north in the valleys of Norway, Nikolai Astrup painted Farmstead in Jølster in 1902. Two women, sheltering from the rain under black umbrellas, are walking up a muddy path which threads its way through the wooden farm buildings, guiding a young girl with them. Astrup delights in the colourful patches which make up each of the turf roofs, and the contrasting puddles on the grass. His unusual aerial view might prevent us from seeing the mud covering the hems of their coats and dresses, but we know that it’s there.
A few years later, Ring painted Short Stay (1909), showing an elderly man and woman standing in the mud in silence and facing in opposite directions. He’s towing a small sledge on which there is a sack; she’s carrying a basket in which there is a large fresh fish wrapped in paper (I think).
Ring’s friend Hans Andersen Brendekilde painted this Village Scene in the Early Spring in 1911. The rutted mud track is slowly drying from its winter role as main drain. A man is out cleaning the tiny windows of his cottage, and two women have stopped to talk in the distance. Smoke curls idly up from a chimney, and leafless pollards stand and wait for the season to progress.
Three years later, this muddy peace was shattered when Europe went to war, digging trenches across huge swathes of the muddy fields of northern France and Belgium.
An official war artist, CRW Nevinson’s Paths of Glory was exhibited with a quotation from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard (1750):
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Like Marshall Ney, the bodies in Nevinson’s famous depiction of the aftermath of the destruction of war lie face down in the mud. Here isn’t dust to dust, or ashes to ashes, but mud to mud. Rifles, helmets, the bodies themselves are being engulfed in all-enveloping mud.
Other artists who went to the front recorded different aspects of its mud. François Flameng’s view of an Attack (1918) being made on duckboards over flooded marshland, brings home a clear picture of what actually happened over and in the deadly mud. His war paintings, many of which were not published until the end of the war, were criticised for being too real.
This scene of devastation at The Cliff of Craonne (1918) shows part of the battlefield of the Aisne in 1917 which gave rise to one of the famous anti-military songs of the Great War, La Chanson de Craonne. It is a landscape in which only the mud has escaped destruction.
Typical of the paintings which Paul Nash made of the Western Front is his watercolour Wire (1918). It shows a characteristically deserted and devastated landscape, the mud pockmarked with shell-holes and festooned with wire fencing and barbed wire. Its only landmarks are the shattered stumps of what was once pleasant pastoral land.
Nash’s The Menin Road (1919) was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee in April 1918 for its Hall of Remembrance, for which John Singer Sargent’s Gassed was also intended. It shows a section of the Ypres Salient known as Tower Hamlets, after what is now a part of eastern London. This area was destroyed, reduced to barren mud, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.
The history of mud in European painting is curiously brief. Perhaps this is because it was one of those embarrassing everyday irritations which artists came to ignore until it became important to the reading of their paintings. Maybe if we retained the association between the mud of Nash’s Menin Road and the apocalyptic destruction of war, we might show greater respect for peace. And for the great changes in society which now make mud a much lesser part of our lives.