Germany’s Black Years Seen From the Inside (Art Exhibit/Paris)

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It can be argued that Impressionism killed off historical painting, and with it the tradition of portraying military victories on canvas. Yet the genre was not quite dead. Early in the 20th century history painting made another appearance in art, and this time, stripped of glory and heroism, war was finally shown in all its ugliness.

In a sense it could not be otherwise. Before World War I, most major conflicts had been wars of movement, climaxing in set-piece battles resolved in a day or two. Trench warfare changed everything. For four years, Europe’s soldiers pummeled one another mercilessly. And the artists among them were trapped in the mayhem.

By then, movie and still cameras were already present, and they would soon come to dominate how wars were seen. Yet in World War I artists often proved more effective in conveying the grotesque nature of the struggle, as if it required imagination to present reality to people far from the trenches.

An exhibition at the Musée Maillol in Paris through Feb. 4 examines this art, yet its title, “Allemagne, les Années Noires,” or “Germany: The Black Years,” makes a different point: that the most prominent of these war artists — Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Ludwig Meidner and Jacob Steinhardt — were all German.

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