This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Art in a Time of War

30 May 2020

For a brief moment
the photographer is the center of attention.
The eyes of every soldier,
French, Russian, even German,
are focused on the camera
as it records a special occasion.

We know it is wartime
as the years 1914-15
are marked out with small pebbles
on the ground in front of the men.

But why would
so many soldiers of different armies
engaged in a terrible global conflict
be peacefully gathered together?
For art appreciation of course.

They were a captive audience.

The soldiers are gathered around a giant relief sculpture
of a Kazak or Cossack cavalryman
astride a black horse with his lance and sword.

A Russian Cossack print 1813
Source: Brown University Digital Repository

The Cossack people came from the steppes north of the Black Sea
and were famed for their fierce mounted warriors.
Throughout European history,
the Cossack on horseback
has remained a poplar romantic image
and powerful symbol of Russia,
as seen in this print from 1813
and a postage stamp from 2011.

2011 Russia 15p postage stamp

The sculpture of the Kazak lancer also resembles
the mounted horseman in the Russian Imperial medal,
the Cross of the Order of St. George,
Russia's highest military award.
Russian Imperial medal
Order of St. George, 4th class

The full image shows
that the relief sculpture
is about 6 meters square,
presumably carved from
a mixture of sand, plaster, or lime.

The caption reads:
Sandplastik ausgeführt
von Kriegsgefangenen

Sand sculpture executed
by Prisoners of War

Gefangenen Lager

The back is stamped in a very official German manner that clearly identifies the Königsbrück lazarett hospital and prisoner of war camp. Königsbrück is a small town in Saxony, south of Berlin. In the early 20th century it was the site of a military training center and when the war began in 1914 it was quickly converted into a prison camp. Königsbrück was one of nearly 300 detention centers constructed in Germany for enemy soldiers captured on both the western front and the eastern front. In the first month of the war after the defeat of the Russian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg, the German military command had to contend with over 100,000 captured Russian soldiers. The next month September 1914 brought similar numbers of Belgian and French soldiers taken prisoner. By 1917 the camp at Königsbrück was reported to house 15,000 POWs. By the end of the war in 1918 Germany held 2,400,000 soldiers of the allied forces.

Map of Prisoner or War Camps in Germany
during WW1 (1914–1918)

A second photo postcard taken around the same time shows another group of soldiers, this time with more French than Russian, assembled around another sand sculpture. This one shows a woman sowing seed as the sun rises. It is labeled France.

France 1 franc coin, 1907
Source: CoinfactsWiki,com

The figure is Marianne,
the iconic symbol of the Republic of France.
Here she is rendered on the one franc coin
as La semeuse ~ the sower
from a design by  Oscar Roty, (1846–1911)
the noted French medalist.
The same female symbol
appeared on French postage stamps.

France, 10c postage stamp 1910

Like the other relief sculpture, 
this giant figure of Marianne
measures about 6 meters square
and is painted.

The photo is also captioned like the other postcard,
Sandplastik ausgeführt
von Kriegsgefangenen 
Sand sculpture executed
by Prisoners of War
Königsbrück 1915

It was posted by a French soldier, Maurice Georgin, a corporal in the 37e Regiment du Infanterie to his family in Nancy, formerly the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, and the French province of the same name. In 1915 Lorraine and Alsace were part of Germany, a prize from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but Nancy remained part of France.

I have been unable to get a proper English translation of the German word Sandplastik. I suspect it is a plaster like concoction, made principally, or entirely, of sand, as sand is sand in both languages. Königsbrück seems to have had a lot of it. This postcard shows French POWs laboring with shovels and carts in a sand pit, and the postmark is from Königsbrück dated 25 February 1915.  This work, digging up a basic material for building construction, may have been the inspiration for making these works of art.

I used this image in my story from January 2019, The Prisoners of Königsbrück. For some unknown reason, perhaps a photographer secured military contract to produce propaganda postcards, the camp at Königsbrück is documented in more photographs than any other POW camp. I have quite a few relating to the music and theater at the camp which I plan to present in the near future.

The last photo is another representation of national pride.
It shows two profiles carefully carved into sand.

On the left is
His Imperial and Royal Majesty,
Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941)
of Prussia and Germany.
The likeness looks very like
the Kaiser's image on Prussian coins.

Prussian 5 mark coin 1908

On the right, facing Wilhelm,
is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty,
Kaiser Franz Josef (1830–1916),
Emperor of Austria,
and King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia.
His image is a close match to the one
used on Austria's corona coins.

Austria 10 corona coin, 1911

Together the two profiles are carved
into a large sand box about 6 meters square.
The painting alone is impressive 
for the extra ornamentation
of an imperial crown and cross.

But what is most striking
about this photo postcard
is that unlike the other two
here there are no soldiers in front of the camera.

The street is empty,
a subtle reminder that
the creators of this sculpture
were still foes of the two Kaisers.

This card was sent in a letter by a German man, presumably a soldier serving in the Königsbrück camp guard. The photographer was Carl Schmidt of Königsbrück and Berlin.

* * *

I've been unable to find any information on the occasion that inspired these impressive art installations at the Königsbrück POW camp. Finding examples of the postcard series with clear postmarks is difficult, but a rough estimate dates this prison artwork to June/July 1915. Was it for a memorial? A celebration of sorts for the anniversary of the war? These are questions that may never have answers.

It seems clear that the art was produced by the imprisoned soldiers. There were likely many French and Russian artisans there who were employed before the war in the decorative sculpting and carving trades for architecture, metalcrafts, pottery, and furniture. Some may have been trained in fine arts of painting and engraving.  There may be more installations made in the Königsbrück camp as I know of at least one more giant relief monument to the German free state of Saxony. I do not see any British uniforms in the crowd of soldiers, but if there were, it seems likely that there would be something commemorating Britain. 

The common shared element in these three works is national pride. The soldiers' choice of art subjects shows their desire to honor their homeland and salute their heritage. That they were allowed to do this and would reciprocate with a respectful design for the monarchs of Germany and Austria is a remarkable example of fraternity and decency.

In a way it also shows an optimism that the war would soon end. But as the calendar pages turned from 1915 to 1916, then 1917, and 1918, the soldiers' proud bright faces that we see looking into the camera undoubtedly changed to a darker, more grim countenance. Imprisonment may have saved these men from the horrible violence of the war, but it also stole some of their dignity and left them with many distressing issues to reconcile after the war. But for a time, however brief, they were united in an appreciation of art.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where we never know what treasure
Alan may dig up.


Wendy said...

This is really a head-scratcher. I like seeing the same images in sand, metal, paper. What really amazes me though is that the sculptures were done at all. I guess I don't really understand people. I would have thought POWs would be too angry and depressed to engage in art, but I'm glad to know that "fraternity and decency" won out. We need more of that.

La Nightingail said...

Like music, art is a form of universal hope for the soul. Wise 'jailors' to allow their prisoners the pursuit of such. Your post reminds me of the Italian Chapel on Orkney in Scotland where the Italian prisoners were given a quanset hut to use for church services and one of their number, being a fine artist, it was beautifully decorated. A pictures of it gives a good idea of its beauty, but being there, seeing all the fine detail in person, was amazing!

Sandra Williamson said...

I wonder how long they lasted after they were made? I also wonder if they were all made at the same time, or perhaps when one dissolved the next one was made to take it's place. Being captured at the beginning of the war means that they in custody for a long time this would have certainly kept their spirits us and their minds distracted and busy.

ScotSue said...

A fascinating link to the prompt photograph. My favoutite image is that of the Cossack in the Russian stamp. In the Scottish Borders a map of Scotland was created in the ground by Polish troops, stationed there during the war, training for D Day. The map iat what is now a hotel has recently been restored.

Kristin said...

Good to see art appreciation in a prisoner of war camp. Although the mind runs rampant about how it came to be. Hopefully by choice. But it is a prisoner of war camp. Maybe done for publicity about how humane the camp was? Maybe at this point I am just far from optimistic.

Jeannine said...

Really interesting post, Mike. I have to say that I was a little surprised that prisoners of war would partake in creating these beautiful art/sand sculptures. Although perhaps doing so broke the monotony of being confined in the prisons. Well done.


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