Landscapes devastated by the 1914-1918 war

Landscapes devastated by the 1914-1918 war

  • Cloister of the Cordeliers in Reims.

    CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

  • Ambulance cars waiting for the wounded in Boesinghe, Belgium, September 10, 1917.

    CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

  • Bombardment of September 2 and 3, 1916, Dunkirk.

    CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

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Title: Cloister of the Cordeliers in Reims.

Author : CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

Creation date : 1917

Date shown: April 03, 1917

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Autochrome Caption: Backlight effect, in the background: apse and towers of the cathedral

Storage place: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

Picture reference: 08-546981 / CA000355

Cloister of the Cordeliers in Reims.

© Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

To close

Title: Ambulance cars waiting for the wounded in Boesinghe, Belgium, September 10, 1917.

Author : CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

Creation date : 1917

Date shown: September 10, 1917

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Autochrome

Storage place: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnausite web

Picture reference: 08-546004 / CA 000698

Ambulance cars waiting for the wounded in Boesinghe, Belgium, September 10, 1917.

© Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

To close

Title: Bombardment of September 2 and 3, 1916, Dunkirk.

Author : CASTELNAU Paul (1880 - 1944)

Creation date : 1917

Date shown: September 02, 1916

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Autochrome

Storage place: Architecture and heritage multimedia library website

Contact copyright: © Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

Picture reference: 07-534204 / CA000606

Bombardment of September 2 and 3, 1916, Dunkirk.

© Ministry of Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Paul Castelnau

Publication date: April 2009

Historical context

The ruin of Europe at war

From 1914 to 1918, the Great War raged in the four corners of the globe, concentrating in France on a strip of 800 kilometers long and about thirty kilometers wide: at the end of 1914, the war of attrition succeeded to war of movement. Rather than the horrors of war, made visible by the announcements of deaths, civilians seek to inform daily life, to imagine the survival of those who defend the homeland with their bodies.

Even if it was the cinema which embodied the real novelty in the documentation of the real of war, photography played an important role in military strategy (scouting) and in communication to frontline soldiers or civilians. from the back. The images he brings back are made using the Autochrome process patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907. This technical constraint leads Castelnau to capture rather static scenes, and he photographs in particular the destruction of the Great War - whether past (Reims), continuous (Belgium) or repeated (Dunkirk): the war sets in, and its devastation spreads.

Image Analysis

The destruction in color

On September 26, 1914, the cathedral of Reims was hit hard by German bombs, a new cultural "atrocity" after the destruction of Louvain at the end of August. The Cordeliers cloister, completely shaved, allows the photographer to try out games of perspective and light: his shot is captioned "backlighting effect". In the background stand the intact towers of the cathedral, which could have known the fate of the convent: nothing more than an indistinct heap of charred stones and rubble where weeds grow.

The scene set in Belgium a few months later is striking with the paleness of the colors, as if everything had been covered in dust during the summer. Precariously sheltered behind a crumbling building, whose roof towers its dismantled frame pitifully skyward, the ambulances and their driver (in the background) wait. Only the black smoke that obscures the sky indicates the proximity of the front. The ruts and holes dug in the ground testify to the repetition of military actions, henceforth rendering unsuitable for agricultural activity the land which made the plains of the Plat Pays so rich.

The bombardment of Dunkirk in September 1916 has nothing to compare with the ruins of Reims or the occupation of Belgium; but here the destruction is seized on the spot. The photographs of the warehouse of the Baths are the most spectacular of the series dedicated to this event, and this image stands out for its very balanced composition. Heaven and earth divide the space horizontally, the standing tower connects the two and divides the image vertically. To the right, the water projections veil the building located in perspective; adults and civilian children observe the scene without participating. On the left, we can see the firefighters in action, fragile rescuers in the face of the scale of the destruction, clearly underlined by the imposing steel machine in the foreground, at the edge of the frame.

Interpretation

Cultural "atrocities" and suspended life

Of the 375 autochromes by Paul Castelnau kept in the Architecture and Heritage Media Library, around 200 represent Reims and its inhabitants, survivors of stone and flesh. In his famous article in Morning (September 29, 1914), Albert Londres writes that "it is no longer the cathedral, it is its appearance", that the photograph will not be able to render its state, any more than it does "the tint of the dead" . The litany of ruins and devastated shops, however, allows Castelnau to practice, he the geographer who knew nothing about photographic technique before being assigned to the Photographic Section. But no more than the fighting, he dared to take pictures of the wounded, the blood, the emergency that would upset the place from one moment to the next; however, the absence of men marks the presence of death. The photographs of Dunkirk bombarded in September 1916 probably did not impress the public so much that it was imbued with images of the lunar landscape of Verdun. But they feature a little-known front, with a troubled reputation - the inhabitants of the area occupied by German troops are nicknamed "Boches du Nord" - and discreet heroes.

Developed on a glass plate (20x30 cm), the autochromes will be shown in slides. Unlike the cinema where the colorization processes do not create an illusion, color makes the shots particularly vivid, intended to captivate the weary attention of a population that is also suffering from war on a psychological level. That said, like the press clichés, autochromes are in effect reduced to anecdotal genre scenes, unrelated to a war experience in which death and violence triumph. Heirs to the pictorial model of Impressionism in painting and the pictorialist vein of photography, they betray the documentary and testimonial vocation of the cliché by leaning it towards artistic staging, failing to restore the modernity of the conflict.

  • War of 14-18
  • fire
  • ruins
  • Dunkirk
  • bombing raid
  • destruction
  • cathedral
  • photography

Bibliography

Jean-Jacques BECKER, World War I, Belin, 2008 (reed.) Laurent GERVEREAU and alii, Show war? Information or propaganda, Paris, CNDP, 2006.John HORNE, Alan KRAMER, 1914, the German atrocities, Tallandier, 2005.Jean-Marie LINSOLAS, Jean-Baptiste PERETIE, “War photography: a mirror of truth? », In Christophe PROCHASSON and Anne RASMUSSEN (dir.), True and false in the Great War, Paris, La Découverte, 2004, p.96-111 Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Landscapes ravaged by the 1914-1918 war"


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