From the dead zone, with love

Post­cards sent from a sol­dier to his sweet­heart find beauty amid the ter­ror of the Western Front, says Lucy Davies

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY -

Otto the artist met Irma the black­smith’s daugh­ter in 1913, in Dresden, where he was study­ing at the city’s pres­ti­gious art academy. He was 22 and smit­ten, though wor­ried his im­pov­er­ished back­ground meant he had lit­tle to of­fer her. Irma, a year older and by all ac­counts very beau­ti­ful, couldn’t have cared less, and the two fell fever­ishly in love.

Cast­ing a shadow over their fledg­ling ro­mance, though, was the forth­com­ing war and, in Septem­ber 1914, Otto was drafted into the Ger­man army and sent to the Western Front. For a time he would send let­ters, but by Novem­ber of the fol­low­ing year, he was seem­ingly no longer able to find words to de­scribe the things he was see­ing. In­stead, he fell back on his tal­ent for draw­ing, cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful vi­gnettes on the re­verse of the blank 4in by 6in post­cards that the mil­i­tary is­sued to soldiers, in the name of boost­ing morale back home.

Otto sent Irma nearly 100 post­cards in all, from all over Bel­gium and north­ern France. “Dear Irma!” he usu­ally be­gan, sign­ing off with a ver­sion of: “Take from my heart a thou­sand heart­felt greet­ings.” Mostly his com­ments were sparse and unin­sight­ful.

Very oc­ca­sion­ally they be­trayed his de­spon­dency: “I’m re­ally fed up with life!!!” he ad­mit­ted in De­cem­ber 1915. Sev­eral times he urged Irma to keep the cards, sens­ing even then how sig­nif­i­cant his visual record might be­come.

Rel­a­tively few of the cards con­vey the hor­ror of war, al­though it creeps into some, in glimpses of road­side graves, or blurred bod­ies on the ground, or a sol­dier’s weary face. More of­ten, Otto seeks in­stead to spare and even de­light his beloved, with fond por­traits of the French lo­cals and his friends, or brightly painted views of the towns and coun­try­side through which he was trudg­ing.

Otto’s mis­sives came to an abrupt halt in May 1916, when he was badly hurt at the Bat­tle of Ver­dun. That year, Ger­man ca­su­al­ties reached 3.5 mil­lion. The Western Front had be­come, as one com­men­ta­tor de­scribed, “a zone of death 500km [300 miles] long and 10-25km [6-15 miles] broad”. In some ar­eas, more than a thou­sand shells had fallen per square yard. Though his in­juries were se­vere, Otto was one of the lucky ones.

Irma, whom he mar­ried in 1919, did keep the post­cards. They were, af­ter all, a con­crete link to her ab­sent sweet­heart. “They re­flected his thought and care,” says Irene Guen­ther, who un­earthed the post­cards in 2005, and who has been re­search­ing Otto’s story ever since – her book, Post­cards from the Trenches, will be pub­lished this month. “He touched them, painted on them, spent time with them.

She savoured them, read them and reread them. Across the miles and miles of lone­li­ness, the cards pro­vided an in­ti­mate connection, a bridge from war to home.”

Otto’s full name was Karl Max Otto Schu­bert, though he al­ways went by Otto. He was a well­known artist in his day: a ris­ing star in Dresden at a time when the city was con­sid­ered the cul­tural pearl of Ger­many; part of a crew that in­cluded the mod­ernist Kurt Sch­wit­ters (with whom he shared an apart­ment) and the por­traitist Otto Dix, Schu­bert’s fel­low co­founder, in 1919, of the Dres­d­ner Sezes­sion Gruppe, of which Oskar Kokoschka was also a mem­ber.

Schu­bert was pro­lific, pro­duc­ing ac­com­plished port­fo­lios of war lith­o­graphs, along with hand­some wood­cuts and paint­ings. He il­lus­trated edi­tions of The Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Ra­belais, Balzac, Flaubert and Ae­sop. In 1918, he even won the Grosser Staat­spreis – Sax­ony’s most dis­tin­guished award for artists, in recog­ni­tion of his ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent.

All of which baf­fled Guen­ther when she found the post­cards, on top of a book­case in her re­cently de­ceased fa­ther’s study, be­cause, even as a pro­fes­sor of 20th-cen­tury Euro­pean his­tory with a great in­ter­est in Ger­man in­ter-war art, she had never heard of him. “I as­sumed it was an over­sight on my part,” she says, “and that learn­ing who he was, es­pe­cially in the in­ter­net age, would sim­ply be a mat­ter of look­ing up his name.” In­stead, she found “only nee­dles in haystacks that took me years to un­cover and con­nect.”

The an­swers were hid­ing in plain sight, though. First, Guen­ther dis­cov­ered an ad­ver­tise­ment in a Ger­man jour­nal of 1920 pro­mot­ing her poet grand­fa­ther’s lat­est book. The il­lus­tra­tor? One Otto Schu­bert. If that weren’t co­in­ci­dence enough, among her art his­to­rian fa­ther’s cor­re­spon­dence, she found a series of let­ters be­tween him and Schu­bert’s se­cond wife, Christa Schefler. “My fa­ther told her about his fa­ther’s per­sonal and pro­fes­sional con­nec­tions to Schu­bert and wrote that he wanted to in­tro­duce Schu­bert to art his­to­ri­ans and art lovers,” says Guen­ther. “She gave my fa­ther the hand-painted post­cards that he had cre­ated and mailed from the Western Front. She was deeply touched that some­one was fi­nally tak­ing an in­ter­est in her hus­band’s art. And here I was, some 30 years later, un­know­ingly pick­ing up where my fa­ther had left off.”

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, Schu­bert’s near-ab­sence from his­tory comes down to pol­i­tics. Un­der the hy­per­in­fla­tion and de­pres­sion Ger­many ex­pe­ri­enced in the late Twen­ties and early Thir­ties, Dresden be­came a with­ered out­post. Des­per­a­tion led him to join the Nazi party for a short time in the early Thir­ties,

'Across the miles of lone­li­ness, the cards pro­vided a bridge from war to home' Post­cards from the Trenches is pub­lished by Blooms­bury at £30

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