The Context for
Brewer’s "Worthy Memorials"
During WWI, Brewer’s imposing etchings of cathedrals, city views, and medieval town halls in Belgium and Northern France implicitly warned of threats to their existence and in some cases lamented their destruction. But how well did they fit with other artistic currents of the time?
In a 2014 article in The Guardian, Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace, wondered if artists like Picasso and Braque and writers like Henry James and Marcel Proust “somehow felt a catastrophe was bearing down on them and their societies.... For some,” she wrote, “war and violence were not things to be feared but welcomed, as ways of speeding up the destruction of the old and the outworn. War, said the Italian futurist Marinetti, ‘is the sole hygiene of the world.’ Rupert Brooke longed, he told his friends, for ‘some sort of upheaval.’” In music, as Marc Swed has written in The Los Angeles Times, "With [Arnold Schoenberg's 1912} Pierrot lunaire, as far as scandalized contemporary critics were concerned, a hallowed art form, the soul of European civilization, was on the sure track to self-destructive anarchy."
An artist like Brewer, with a love of history and historical architecture, might have agreed with the critics of Pierrot lunaire. Certainly, his patrons would not warm to the idea of tearing down what the ages had passed on as a legacy. (Except for "Barnard Castle," remarkably, Brewer is not known to have done etchings of the many well-visited medieval ruins in Britain.) Other young artists might have welcomed a violent new beginning, but as a member of a family that included the editor of Henry VIII's letters, an architectural historian, a church organist, and the polymath author of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Brewer would have anticipated the onset of a destructive war with deep trepidation.
In comparison, we can follow the different path taken by the German expressionist Ludwig Meidner. At 17 he had been apprenticed to a stonemason, and his early scenes of Berlin buildings exhibited a workmanlike firmity, not too unlike an early Brewer drawing in The Graphic. But in 1912, perhaps influenced by the dystopian poetry of his colleague Georg Heym, he began a new series characterized by screaming comets, twisted architectural forms, frenzy, and disruption. In contrast, a eulogy for Brewer in the newsletter of the Ealing Art Club stressed that "most of all did eccentricity and distortion in the sacred name of Art arouse his fiercest indignation."
In his book Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, Alan Kramer thought Meidner’s visions “by no means expressed enthusiastic anticipation of war, rather dread and horror.” Sophie Goetzmann, however, sounded a cautionary note. “Far from being prophetic,” she wrote in a chapter of Wounded Cities, The Representation of Urban Disasters, “these visions of disaster and destruction were primarily the symptom of intergenerational conflict, and an aspiration to provoke radical change in the world order.” And Jay Winter, in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, agreed: "It was class war and not international conflict which loomed on the horizon."
Writing his post-war autobiographical Mein Leben, however, Meidner linked his pre-war art to the “great universal storm...already baring its teeth.” While Goetzmann found nothing he wrote before the war to corroborate such an interpretation, those looking for a military cause for all this teeming terror and devastation can point to Meidner’s 1913 “Bombardement einer Stadt” (Shelling of a City). This drawing shows a city flashing explosive lights under cannon fire and is certainly consistent in style and subject with his 1914 “Schlacht” (Battle). Meidner was at least including the possibility of armaments in his fevered, apocalyptic visions.
During the war, artists like Paul Nash, Otto Dix, Natalia Goncharova, David Bomberg, CWR Nevinson, Henry Tonks, William Orpen, Georges Rouault, and many others depicted images of grief, conflict, and ruin that made important contributions to public awareness and understanding, even as Brewer’s brother Henry did in his paintings of the bombing of London during WWII. In 1917, Brewer was called up to serve as a draftsman in the newly formed RAF, but with the help of family members, the production of his war etchings continued. At the same time, some American artists enlisted their talent as captains in the Army Corps of Engineers and were given free rein to capture the essence of war. “They could go anywhere they wanted to go,” according to Alfred Cornebise, author of Art from the Trenches: America’s Uniformed Artists in World War I. While the results included scenes of soldier life and combat as well as destroyed churches and devastated fields, the artists stopped short of showing any dead bodies like those piled up in the foreground of Meidner’s 1918 postcard illustration "Schlachtfeld" (Battlefield).
A telling point of comparison with Brewer’s art can be made with the work of American artist George Bellows.
In 1918, Bellows created a series of evocative tableaux—five large oils and multiple prints and drawings— titled War. These documented the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. His execution scene from Dinant—a painting with much the same wrenching emotional power as Picasso’s "Guernica"—presents a stark contrast with Brewer’s serene memento of the interior of Dinant’s Church of Notre Dame, shown as it existed before the German offensive blasted its way through the town on the way to France. While Brewer's etching is reverent and soothing, its impact was not inconsiderable. Said to have been done before the war began, it was published in 1915 as the world was still reeling in disbelief after reading reports of the invasion. When it was reprinted at the end of that year in The Outlook, together with the etching of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, they were praised by the influential political magazine as “worthy memorials of magnificent edifices which are now partly or wholly in ruins.” In contrast, after the war, art critic Virgil Barker wrote that the paintings in the Bellows series were as "ill-judged in their appeal to the passion of hatred as anything produced in America’s most hysterical war years...."
In this context, despite art prints being nominally among Marshall McLuhan's "hot" media, we can value the "cool" quality of Brewer's war etchings—artwork that invites, even requires, a high degree of viewer involvement for its full impact. They are quietly symphonic—exhibiting scale, color, technique, approachability—and quite different in effect from the chamber music played by the works associated with the "etching revival," with their more personal artistic language. Think Vaughan Williams A London Symphony, not Pierrot lunaire.
During the war, Brewer published seven etchings of Rheims Cathedral, whose extensive damage was an architectural rallying cry for supporters of the Allies. Each of these etchings is filled with a sense of monumental loss like that expressed in "The Goblin at Rheims," a sonnet by American poet Hortense Flexner:
From his high arch, nestled in stony nook,
He used to leer across the twilight space
Of the great aisle — the goblin with the book,
Bent in huge hands. Half lost in ivoried lace
Of shadow carving, scrolls and thick-twined gorse,
His savage face was sly with some dark jest;
I thought it strange he lived so cruel, coarse,
Above five centuries’ drifted prayer and rest.
To-day I knew him by his evil sneer,
In shattered rose-glass, fretwork, fallen towers;
And wondered if he told his maker’s fear
Of this far shame. But no — who dreamed these flowers,
Modeled of light, this laughing cherub’s wing,
How should he think men’s hands might do this thing?
This same unanswerable question is asked by Brewer’s subtly poignant and silently reproachful WWI etchings. In this sense, they may be appreciated as lacunae of ruin, all the more powerful in their urgency because of their restraint. They resisted the incendiary impact of illustrations like those of Gustave Fraimont but had great meaning all the same. As author Alan Kramer wrote in a letter, “The etchings are remarkable because they are understated, yet they would resonate strongly for viewers at the time with the knowledge of contemporary events.”
What Abbé Morel said of the Miserere series by Georges Rouault is even more appropriate for Brewer: He had found a way "to participate in the battle by rebuilding what the battle had destroyed in man."
"Bouteille, clarinet, violon, journal, verre" by Pablo Picasso, 1913,
The art of Ludwig Meidner and J. Alphege Brewer
in 1910 before they went in different directions.
At top, Ludwig Meidner's "Bau der Untergrunbahn" (Subway Construction in Berlin). Below it, J. Alphege Brewer's "Charing Cross As It Looks Today," published in The Graphic. Note that where Meidner places a derrick, Brewer centers Nelson's Column.
Above, Ludwig Meidner's 1912 "Apokalyptische Landschaft." Below, his 1913 "Bombardement einer Stadt."
At left, Brewer's 1915 "The Church of Notre Dame, Dinant-on-the-Meuse, Belgium." Below, George Bellows' 1918 "Massacre at Dinant."
Below, J. Alphege Brewer's 1914 "The West Front of Rheims Cathedral." Because it was published without a US copyright, the etching was reproduced by many printers and sold widely throughout the United States. As a silent witness to a great loss, the image was hung on parlor walls where pictures of the firestorm in September 1914 (like the illustration by Gustave Fraimont to its right) would have seemed inappropriate.