On a recent visit to London, my daughter and I found ourselves wandering in the Tate Britain art gallery. It was full of wonderful and surprising things, and now and then one of us would cry, “Oh, I studied that in art class!”

One of the paintings that really caught our attention was “La Mitrailleuse” (The Machine Gun) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. It was painted in 1915 and shows soldiers in the trenches during World War I. The painter himself worked as an ambulance driver, and he found dealing with all the wounded soldiers very distressing. This painting is done in a Futurist style, with everything reduced to flat surfaces and straight lines.

The reason this painting made us stop and stare was because we have two books at home by D.B. Johnson and the style reminded us very much of his illustrations. You can see what I mean here:

Look how D.B. Johnson uses the same straight lines to divide up the picture and create flat planes that seem to be seen from different angles. We love D.B. Johnson’s books (you can see Henry Hikes to Fitchburg in an earlier post) so I thought I would do some more research into this style of painting.

I found this lovely landscape by Auguste Herbin, which was painted in 1913, the year before World War I began. It can be found in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. This painting chops up the scene into sections to create an impression of flat surfaces like shafts of sunlight. It’s a good example to compare with Henry Builds a Cabin because the artist uses very similar colours.

Here is another example by Johannes Itten, a Swiss artist who was painting around the same time. His “Group of Houses in Spring” was painted in 1916, and you can learn all about the artist and his work on the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza website.

All of these wartime artists were painting at a time when the world was changing very rapidly. Europe was caught up in a terrible war, and big machines that could work faster and longer than people could were taking over many jobs. Photography, which came into common use around 1900, meant that artists were no longer needed to create realistic pictures of things. They had to think imaginatively to make their paintings different from what a camera could do.

Artists at this time wanted to express their feelings about the changing world in a way that would grab people’s attention. Instead of painting in a realistic way, they tried to show movement, speed, and the way everything had become mechanical and robotic. Different artists influenced each other, so Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque started the Cubist style, and a group of Italian artists developed something similar which they called Futurism.

When I was younger I wanted to be an artist myself, so I have spent many happy hours looking at other people’s paintings. Visiting an art gallery is the best way to start, and like D.B. Johnson, maybe you will be inspired by something amazing!

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