As the world marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, it’s probably safe to state that no one reading this article had any personal experience of the war to end all wars. Yet one reason this particular war may seem more remote to most Americans today than does, say, World War II, or even the much earlier American Civil War, is the lack of instantly recognizable, prominent art associated with the “Great War” in this country.
There’s still no National World War I monument on the national mall here in Washington, for example, although twice as many Americans died in World War I as did in Vietnam. A notable exception however, can be found in the work of a French painter who settled down in America after his combat days came to an end.
Henri Farré (1871-1934) was born in Foix in southwestern France, close to the border with Catalonia. As a young man, he went to Paris to study painting at the legendary École des Beaux-Arts under the great French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898).
Stylistically speaking, Farré eschewed the rather spooky art of his master, and instead became something between an Impressionist and a Fauvist. After finishing his studies, Farré moved to Buenos Aires, and for a number of years he led a very comfortable life painting society portraits, landscapes, and mythological nudes while continuing to submit paintings every year for an exhibition at the annual Paris Salon from 1897 to 1914.
When World War I broke out, Farré decided to return home to France and do his part. Because of his artistic skills, he was given a rather interesting military commission to depict the war on canvas. While other artists, such as John Singer Sargent, also saw duty recording events like battles and troop movements during World War I, Farré was asked to record the brand new combat sector of military aviation for posterity. It would prove to be what set him apart from all other artists working at the time.
Between 1914 and 1917, Farré traveled to battlefronts and training grounds around France, painting images of aircraft and the men who flew and maintained them. These artistic duties often brought him into great personal peril, such as serving as a gunner at the back of a two-seater airplane, trying to machine-gun a German plane while trying to keep his sketchbook clamped between his knees.
What he saw up in the clouds, as he and his pilot stared at death head-on, often affected him so powerfully that sometimes he would start painting as soon as possible after getting back on the ground, while the colors and light effects he had seen were still fresh in his mind’s eye.
The paintings Farré produced were quite varied, and don’t fit neatly into a single category. Some of the images would not look at all out of place hanging next to a piece by Childe Hassam or Camille Pissarro––all sparkling tones and azure skies. Others are strikingly, violently different, featuring deep blacks and intense flashes of red, green, and yellow, symbolizing things like incendiary bombs or tracer fire. These works exhibit the kind of quick, punctuated, but deliberate brushwork that one sees from Henri Matisse or André Derain.
During the final year of the war, Farré embarked on a lengthy exhibition tour of the United States, bringing more than 100 of his works to our shores. Titled “Sky Fighters of France,” the exhibition was both a propaganda tool of the French government and a fundraising effort on behalf of the children of French aviators who had died in combat.
At these exhibitions, which toured all over the country for months, Farré gave talks about his art, and about the daring escapades of the combat aviators, as he drummed up public support for the war effort. Perhaps unexpectedly, Farré ended up liking America so much that he moved to Chicago at the end of the war, and remained there for the rest of his life, painting cityscapes of the skyline and scenes along Lake Michigan.
In 1919, Farré published his memoir of the war, titled after the exhibition and illustrated with a number of his works. He recounted his efforts to get to know (and capture in his art) the men with whom he served, and what aerial combat was really like. It’s an absolute howl of a book, despite its very serious subject matter, because these early flyboys were a riot: tough, smart, and daring, yet sophisticated and nonchalant. Farré was a generation older than they, yet they accepted him as one of their own, because he jumped right into the gung-ho spirit of things with them.
The Realities Of Life In Combat
In the book, Farré shares stories of some truly harrowing combat adventures, all the more terrifying when one realizes that there is no cover over the cockpit, no parachute, and no way to survive coming down if you get hit. As the pilots take him up on daring raids over the German lines, he describes the strange sounds and smells, the coldness of high altitudes, and the effects of different types of light on cloud formations and landscapes.
He also shares the human elements of what he observed, such as when the aviators need to relax and seek out the best places to get plastered amidst the ruins of the devastated French countryside, or when they send their chauffeur to go pick up their laundry or deliver love notes to their flame back in Paris. In quite a few cases, the men Farré introduces us to in the book, and whose portraits he paints, end up dying in battle just as we are getting to know them, making their losses all the more poignant.
To give an indication of just how rudimentary conditions were for World War I pilots and maintenance crews, consider Farré’s description of preparing a combat airplane for a morning raid:
How many times at sunrise I have seen them brush snow off these planes; seen the arched wings leave the earth and soar up to their mission! A simple tent, anchored to the ground, protected them during the night; and watchmen mounted guard over them to see that the wind did not tear them down. It is a real war – here today, there tomorrow. Today one has a good bed and tomorrow he is satisfied to crawl under the wings of a plane for protection. Of course, one may not always have a bathroom at hand, but I am sure that is about the only thing missing.
The more experience he gained in the air, the more Farré’s perspective as an artist began to change. “Of course, being only a student observer,” he noted, “I was picking my way and training my eye. Now, instead of seeing things horizontally, I saw them vertically: that is to say, up and down.” It’s this radical alteration in his perception of the world around him that eventually led to the production of some spectacular images of aircraft in battle: images that were unprecedented in the history of art before Farré first created them on canvas.
This is why it’s always important to take a step back and consider art in the context of the history and culture of when and where it was made. While today you might be more taken with the archaic airplanes depicted in Farré’s work, try to put yourself back in the mindset of your great-grandparents in places like Boston, New York, or Washington, when they visited the Farré exhibition and looked at these paintings. They had never seen anything like this, for the simple reason that art depicting aerial combat was something completely new.
Most people seeing this work for the first time during Farré’s 1918 tour of the United States had never been in an airplane, and many had never even seen one up close. After all, Farré was painting his images of swooping, looping aircraft only a little more than a decade after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.
At this point in his life, aviator Charles Lindbergh was just a teenager who would not make his famous transatlantic flight for several more years. Commercial aviation only really began to get underway across the country during the 1920s, and the overwhelming majority of Americans couldn’t even afford to purchase an airline ticket until after World War II.
In looking at his art and coming to understand its importance, think about all the different types of art that Farré’s innovations affected. Directly or indirectly, comic book and novel illustrations, storyboards and concept art for movies like “Dunkirk” and “Star Wars,” plus graphic designs for video games and flight simulators, all owe at least some debt to the work of this pioneering French aviation artist. What may have begun as a military propaganda exercise has had a lasting impact, particularly on the way that we see environments most of us will never actually get to experience ourselves.
Documenting the Spirit of America’s Fighters
However much we may acknowledge the innovative nature of Farré’s art––and its influence on other areas of artistic and creative endeavor over the past century––the real importance of his work is its chronicling of the brave souls who took unimaginable risks to fight for the freedom of their fellow citizens. Taking to the skies in aircrafts constructed out of the flimsiest materials, with little to guide them other than their visual acuity and an instinctual understanding of human nature, they helped decide the course of the war.
Today, these stories are not as well-known as those involving battles on land or sea, but we can still honor their sacrifice and valor by learning more about them through the remarkable artist who worked to commemorate their efforts, at no small personal risk to himself.
If you’re interested in a brief visual introduction to Farré, be sure to check out “Henri Farré and the Birth of Combat Aviation,” on display at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia now through January 2019. It features a number of paintings from the Military Aviation Museum in nearby Virginia Beach, along with works by other artists of the time, and even some of Farré’s sketchbooks.
However, my best recommendation is: pick up a copy of “Sky Fighters of France” and immerse yourself in this forgotten, unfamiliar world from the dawn of aviation history before you go and take a look at Farré’s art. It’s an unforgettable book by an artist working in the vanguard of a completely new world, demonstrating what a dynamic, resourceful, and, indeed, daring figure Farré was. It also humanizes the bravery and sacrifice of those whom he fought alongside, and sought to honor in his art.