La Grande Guerre: French prints of the First World War at the Fitzwilliam Museum

By Richard Moss | 19 May 2014

The Fitzwilliam kicks off its First World War season with a look at some Gallic prints from the early days of La Grande Guerre

Click below to launch an image viewer of prints from the exhibition.

The first seven months of World War One are dramatically illustrated in this set of 36 colour lithographs and woodcuts from the print series La Grande Guerre.

Published in Paris, the series took inspiration from popular genres of prints, such as the inexpensive folklore inspired images d’Épinal, produced in Épinal in the northeast of France.

Accordingly they are Illustrated in an easy, commercial style, and in common with many prints of the period they recall the carefree tourist posters of the fin de siècle rather than the opening salvos of a cataclysm. 

But their natural combination of technique and content was however designed to appeal to the nationalistic spirit of an audience increasingly antipathetic to Germany. And the stylised imagery helped maintain a distance from the brutal reality of transpiring events.

Looking at them today they seem to say a lot about the naivety and optimism of the times. They also reveal Gallic attitudes to both the Germans and the British; the German soldier is depicted as a brutish aggressor while the British are shown fighting the Battle of the Aisne whilst playing the bagpipes, smoking pipes and brewing a cup of tea.

Elsewhere the individual trials and triumphs of the soldiers are highlighted through a descriptive caption below each image, which paradoxically creates a sense of visual reportage that is noteworthy for its even handedness - without recourse to mockery or caricature in its portrayal of the Central Powers forces.

Although unofficial, they remain fascinating propaganda pieces that offer a snapshot of ideals about to be usurped by the radical changes brought about by the First World War.

The prints are shown in chronological order, allowing visitors to experience a retelling of events from the perspective of France, from the taking of the first flag during the Battle of Saint-Blaise La Roche (August 14 1914) to the Fall of Przemyśl (March 22 1915).

  • La Grande Guerre: French prints of the First World War runs until September 28 2014. Admission is free.

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