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Through the Prescient Eyes of Lucien Jonas: World War I Revisited

Only recently and on November 11, 2018, French President Emmanuelle Macron hosted sixty poppy-clad world leaders attending the one-hundred year commemoration of World War I, an ignoble war that set the stage for a century beset by the bloodiest wars in recorded history. These dastardly wars continue to plague humanity even into the nascent 21st century.

At “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 the combatants embroiled in World War I, The War to End All Wars, convened to sign the Armistice of Compiègne; Compiègne is a French commune some 82 kilometers north of Paris, France. And on June 28, 1919, the treaty of Versailles was signed, and ever since, the new appellation for this commemoration goes by the moniker Armistice Day Commemoration. Appallingly, The “I am a genius” Donald Trump does not know the difference between a commemoration and a celebration.

Nationalism, militarism, ethnocentrism, nativism, an arms race, demagoguery, self-interest, exploitation and colonial competition for natural resources across Asia and Africa were the major causes that helped launch World War I. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was but the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back of a European continent ready to explode at the seams.

While authors, poets, and playwrights have written works that recount the horrors of World War I, visual artists have perhaps best captured the depravities of war and their dehumanizing impact on humanity.

In his twelve iconic World War I images executed in1918, the war’s final year, French artist Lucien Jonas created peerless original prints under the collective title The Soul of France.

Born in 1880 in the small town of Anzin, Northern France, Lucien Jonas was the winner of numerous awards and prizes, including the coveted 1905 Prix de Rome and the Prix Nationale at the 1911 Paris Salon. In 1935 Lucien was awarded a medal for his World War I prints, paintings, photogravure, and engravings. For his service to his country, in 1929 he was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. His works have been exhibited in numerous museums across the world.

Most of his works depict the banality of war and the depraved horrors inflicted by the dissolute egomaniacs on the weak and helpless.

Some fifteen years back I acquired a set of Jonas’ twelve The Soul of France original photogravure; a photogravure print utilizes a lithographic print-making process.

I have grouped these twelve black and white prints into four themes: The Call to Arms (duty to country with a subtle comment on nationalism and the glorification of war); Horrors of War (Wars’ reprehensible brutality); Life Must Go On, Even During War (demonstrations of kindness in the midst of the wantonness of war and the need to carry on with the essential quotidian, mundane assignments); and The Lasting Effects of War (the impact of wars’ abandonment of human decency as a result of orgiastic debauchery of senseless killing).

In The Permanently Disabled composition, Lucien depicts a paraplegic soldier in a makeshift wheelchair (more like a child’s wagon). They Must Wait for Revenge depicts a widow and her orphaned child cowering as German officers prance by; the ghastly expression on the child’s face is reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream. I Love You the Better As You Are is a hospital operating ward scene in which the head-to-toe bandaged soldier is lovingly held by his paramour. Similar in theme and in a nun’s habit, Mater Golorosa (Mother of Sorrows) is the archetypal grieving mother reminiscent of Michel Angelo’s iconic Pieta. In The Blind Chaplain a blindfolded chaplain carries a wounded soldier on his back as the former, physically able yet blind, is guided by his comrade through a scarred, war-ravaged landscape. Self Sacrifice depicts an abbe offering up his life to ruthless executioners to shield the tortured and wounded captives, including children, from imminent death. In I Shall Tell Nothing a worked over, bandaged prisoner is threatened by one of the interrogators wielding a pistol aimed at his temple.

In The Blind Soldier, the soldier is holding onto an extended walking cane which draws attention to his plight – while being led by a nurse in period attire.

In the background Lucien depicts the base on which the gilded equestrian sculpture of Joan of Arc is positioned. Commissioned in 1874 by Napoleon III, the sculpture’s depiction of Joan of Arc’s riding into battle was intended to instill confidence in France and her people in the aftermath of France’s 1870 humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussian army.

Two women in the background, one on each side of the blinded soldier and his nurse, stand staring in what appears to be horrified shock and pity. A man and two other human forms are peering from behind the covered arcade in equally perturbed facial expressions.

While barely significant, the image of a young newspaper vendor is as poignant a comment as the young soldier’s loss of vision. With his back to the viewer, the young lad’s attention to his stack of newspapers is Jonas’ way of telling us that the victim, should he be lucky enough, will receive scant recognition in an inconspicuous column.

And, while politicians, generals, war profiteers and all their ilk line their chests with glitzy medals, get rich by manufacturing and selling arms, have monuments and buildings erected to glorify their vainglorious brutalities, men, women and children continue to be the fodder milled in the factories of the most lethal killing machines.

And behind the scenes at the 2018 Armistice Day Commemoration the 60 odd presidents (including the petulant, willfully orange-hairdo-conscious Donald Trump), prime ministers, and generals attending the commemoration were discussing defense, arms deals, nuclear proliferation, and self-serving strategies while mother earth is desperately crying for help to stop the pain inflicted on her. And somewhere in the backdrop the weak and defenseless across the globe are wailing for freedom, dignity, and peace in agonizingly piercing screams.

The irony is that the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for 21st calamitously bloody wars in the Near East, North Africa, and Central Asia – the consequences of which have been a massive migration of refugees flooding to all parts of Western and Central Europe.

Lucien Jonas’ artwork is poignantly prescient in theme.

More articles by:

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com

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