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"The colour of tears": Fernand Léger’s and D.H. Lawrence’s Experiences of the Great War

Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên

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1In the Foreword to a commemorative exhibition at Caen War Memorial I found this phrase “ the colour of tears” along with enlightening remarks on artists during the First World War, especially Fernand Léger in whom I have always had a personal interest .

2By way of introduction, I will start with a few words on this Foreword. Then I will focus on Léger’s and Lawrence’s experiences of the war and then move on to the ways they came to terms with it in their arts. I will argue that Léger’s and Lawrence’s representations of the body – whether they be pictorial or verbal – were dramatically altered by the traumatic effects of WW1 but in opposite directions.

  • 1  All the translations from French into English are mine.

3The Foreword entitled “The colour of tears” focuses on WW1 as the first war of this kind that dramatically changed people and viewpoints on what could be done to human beings with mechanical and industrial devices. As a result, Europe at large was left exhausted and horrified as well as humanly and economically bled dry.1

  • 2 "Until then and with a few rare exceptions, artists and writers witnessed the war without taking an (...)
  • 3  " What they saw and endured, they did not paint. Could they do it even if they wanted to? How coul (...)

4Artists of all kinds coming from France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Great Britain were not only witnesses to but participants in the war2 so that very early on, painters like Léger but also Kokoshka, Dix, Beckmann, Derain understood that the war presented a challenge as concerned its representation, as if it resisted it, as if it did not match the traditional motifs that could help previous artists in their attempts at leaving a pictorial testimony of previous wars.3

  • 4 " European Avant-Garde artists, German Expressionists, French Cubists, British Vorticists, Italian (...)

5As a response to this impossibility, they in turn had to reject traditional means of representing the war and find new ways of expression in Cubism, Vorticism and Futurism, Expressionism and Abstraction.4

1st part: Experiencing war

6Those remarks serving as a backdrop to my study, I will now examine Léger’s and Lawrence’s personal war and post-war experiences through their correspondences at the time, but also through their art.

7As a stretcher-bearer from October 1914 to August 1917 and in a military hospital from 1917 to June 1918, Fernand Léger had a really terrible experience of the war, which brought his career as a 34-year-old successful painter to a halt. Instead of painting, he wrote letters and put into words what he could not paint. His letters to his lifelong friend Louis Poughon are first-hand accounts of everyday life in the trenches but also reflections on art and creation. Louis Poughon immediately realized the value of such accounts and treasured them so that they were kept and eventually published as Fernand Léger, Une correspondance de guerre.

8Reading his letters has helped me to bring out Léger’s main concerns during his days at the front. First, he clearly understood the new type of conflict that was emerging then, different from past and traditional forms of military conflict, which he expresses by the opposition between visual and acoustic differences:

[...] the evolution of our poor frail bodies under the effect of artillery fire. We are panic stricken by the noise. In the past, warriors made horrible faces to frighten the enemy. It was a visual fear. Now we are all still the same, but it is an acoustic fear. The tremendous shell detonations are more frightening, I’m sure, than the danger they can cause. (Léger 32)

9The fact that the war could not be seen but heard, and that what could be seen was a no man’s land, a post-apocalyptic moonscape devoid of vivid colours in which human beings themselves resembled zombies or burnt tree trunks was also traumatic. The terms he used to describe the war environment convey both horror at what is seen and frustration at being unable to represent it, like “ grey,” “ colourless,” “ a vast graveyard,” he wrote about mechanical gestures mindlessly repeated, soldiers back from Verdun turned into silent mud statues with dead eyes, walking shadows from the underworld:

Now the war is an utterly grey, colourless thing, without any change or novelty. It is something like a vast graveyard where countless gravediggers all dressed in the same uniforms mindlessly kill and bury. [...] I will always remember the gruesome streams of gaunt figures like blocks of mud with dead eyes. [...] They walked through Verdun in ruins like silent shadows. It was the same thing, the same colour. They did not even have the slightest curiosity in their eyes. (63-64)

10Secondly, he tried to protect himself from the human damages he witnessed as a stretcher-bearer by distancing himself from them and theorizing about it. Again, the terms he used are like so many protective layers against the aggression of such inhuman, soul-tearing surroundings: “curious,” “intelligent,” “linear,” “ lifeless,” “ perfect orchestration,” “ pure abstraction,” “a cubist war” :

This is a very strange war, I must say. [...] This is a very strange war, I must say. This war is the perfect orchestration of all the traditional and modern means of killing. It is utterly and completely clever. What is damned annoying is that everything can be planned. [...] It is as unimaginative and linear as a geometry problem. It is pure abstraction, purer than Cubism itself. I don’t even try to hide my liking for this manner of warfare. (36)

11Léger even wrote that he loved Verdun for its impressive calm and quiet and the unexpectedly picturesque subjects it offered for a Cubist painter like a chair perched on a tree – a bold composition or still life:

I love Verdun. [...] This old town in ruins with its impressive silence. [...] There are in Verdun quite unexpected subjects to paint that can only satisfy my Cubist inspiration. For example, you can see a tree with a chair on top of it. [...] Verdun can be the source of all the pictorial fantasies. [...] the comical nature of Verdun as an academy of Cubist painting! (72)

12He also defined human remains as "extremely weird things.” Quite understandingly, this apparent theoretical stance is but a way of coming to terms with the horrors of war:

I have seen extremely weird things. Nearly mummified human heads emerging from the mud, so small in this sea of mud. Almost like children’s heads. The hands mostly are extraordinary. There are hands that I would have liked to take an exact picture of. Hands are the most expressive of all. ( 66)

13Thirdly, he recognized the damaging barrenness of all this and the impossibility of rendering it in a satisfying visual way so that the written words became a sort of lifebuoy that kept him alive in his incapacity to create pictorial works of art.

14Of course D.H. Lawrence’s experience of the war was not first-hand as for Léger but he felt both miserable and angry about it, what with “ Frieda’s German origins and feelings” (Kinkead-Weekes 151), the expulsion order in 1917 and the humiliating medical examination in September 1918 that definitely turned him into an “ alien” in his own country. But his viewpoint on the war is not so different from other artists’. Here are a few excerpts from his letters, testifying to the violence of his reaction but also to his estrangement from Europe, his awareness that this world as it was then would never recover from that ghastly war unless it found new forms of being, hence the idea of Rananim, as in those passages from letters: “ The war is just hell for me. [...] I can’t get away from it for a minute: I live in a sort of coma, like one of those nightmares when you can’t move.” (Kinkead-Weekes 151) or “ The war makes me depressed, the talk about the war makes me sick, and I have never come so near to hating mankind as I am now. [...] the ghastliness and mechanical, obsolete, hideous stupidity of war, [...].” ( Boulton 79)

15Along with this gradual estrangement and weariness came - just as with Léger - the realization that the mechanical, unnatural quality of that war endowed it with virtual distance from the flesh and the blood and that men had to submit to this new war of machines. In an essay published by Lawrence in the Manchester Guardian in 1914, “ With the guns,” he described what he had seen, or rather not seen: an artillery battery shelling an invisible target, men huddled in trenches, or vulnerably exposed at night, lit up by a star-shell.” (Kinkead-Weekes 151).

  • 5 “ Representing Contemporary War” by David Campbell in Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 17.2 (...)

16Lawrence’s remarks exactly match Léger’s when he speaks of a war that could be heard but not seen, a war that used machines to harm and maim men from a distance, a war that has found an ultimate contemporary example in the videogame-like, green images of the Irak war, so utterly devoid of any blood or corpses, which nevertheless offer viewers beautiful night visions of bombings. 5

2nd part: Representing the war

17Both Léger and Lawrence had painfully to come to terms with the war and its dreadful consequences - Léger by accepting the fact that the war had affected him both as a man and as a painter and Lawrence by estranging himself from the world. As a stretcher-bearer Léger saw the damage inflicted on vulnerable bodies. If he was already interested in Cubism and Futurism before the war, those artistic approaches offered him the means to avoid the question of representing the war as it was in pictorial terms: the Cubist and Futurist language of geometry and fragmentation helped him to get round the obstacle of representing what could not be represented, because that war was not visible or all that was visible was shell explosions, grey clouds or earth and mutilated bodies. Turning what he had seen at Verdun for example into subject-matter for his art was a way to survive and absorb the shock but also to re-imagine it visually when it has constantly been noted that the eye was useless in the trenches – a uniformly grey, muddy, colourless environment in which men crawled on all fours and hid in fear of explosions. This is what Léger wrote in 1938 on WW1:

The war was grey and camouflaged. All lights, colours, hues even were prohibited on pain of death. A life of silence, a life of groping in darkness, as everything that could be seen or glimpsed had to be hidden and disappear from sight. Nobody actually saw the war, everybody was hidden, camouflaged, concealed, on all fours, mud-coloured; eyes were useless and could see nothing. But everybody “ heard” the war. (Pierre 25)

18Two paintings are typical of the creative process of accepting the war in its non representability for a painter. In Le soldat à la pipe painted during a 1916 leave, Léger chose to represent a soldier as a grey automaton that hardly stands out against a background made of the same matter and colour – his drawings at the front had the same non-representational quality. The flesh-and-blood humanity of the soldier has totally been wiped away from the canvas only to reveal what Lawrence described as “huge lumps, tubes, cubes, planes, volumes, spheres, cones, cylinders, all the “ pure” or mathematical forms of substance.” (Phoenix, 565)

19In the 1917 painting La partie de cartes, even if colour is back, the three card-players are still broken, fragmented metallic assemblages of parts, like robots or even shells or howitzers:

Colour only comes back in Léger's paintings when he [...] starts working on the large composition of La partie de cartes in the autumn of 1917. [He] fragments and disjoints the three figures which are sitting at a table that looks like a ravaged battlefield, above which are stretched mechanical limbs, as cold and naked as howitzers. (Pierre 25)

20His inability to paint what he saw expressed itself in distant, cold, metallic utterances, almost cruel in their inhumanity, and is reflected in his writings of the time. Indeed writing about the war and painting about it, helped him overcome the trauma:

I can’t believe how much I wrote during this war. It’s a good thing I had this derivative. I would have died without it. I am not a man of action in the least and the current circumstances cannot give me any outlet for my own activity. I cannot paint, so I write. [...] I am not buried yet. I am fully alive, more so than ever. (Léger 58)

21Lawrence, on the other hand, wrote vivid accounts of civilian life during the war, evoking the terror engendered by Zeppelin raids. But something else is already emerging in those descriptions, the hope for a new world rising from chaos and destruction, like the phœnix rising from its ashes. In a letter of September 1915 to Lady Ottoline Morrell, he comments on the superimposition of a new world over the old one, already transcending and negating the present horrors of war - which are also evoked in Kangaroo:

Last night when we were coming home the guns broke out, and there was a noise of bombs. Then we saw the Zeppelin above us, just ahead, amid a gleaming of clouds: high up, like a bright golden finger, quite small, among a fragile incandescence of clouds. [...] It seemed as if the cosmic order were gone, as if there had come a new order, a new heavens above us: and as if the world in anger were trying to revoke it. [...] It seems the Zeppelin is in the zenith of the night, golden like a moon, having taken control of the sky; and the bursting shells are the lesser lights.

So it seems our cosmos is burst, burst at last, the stars and moon blown away, the envelope of the sky burst out, and a new cosmos appeared, with a long-ovate, gleaming central luminary [...] ( Kinkead-Weekes 105-106)

22The war is also the background for “The Border-Line,” written in 1924 for the Hutchinson Magazine in which Katherine Farquhar first married to a Scotsman, Alan Anstruther, who went missing in action in 1915, is now remarried to Philip Farquhar. During her journey from Paris to Baden-Baden to meet her second husband, she stops in Strasburg where the ghost of her dead first husband appears to her. Again, Lawrence’s starting-point is that of a civilian’s experience of the war, but this time, Katherine actually journeys through war-scarred scenery, that could echo Léger’s accounts. That is why it is not surprising either that she should describe the landscape from the train window as a nightmarish one, a hellish vision of the horrors of trench life, the “ fields of greyish earth” like “ compound of the clay of dead men,” the trees “ pallid, stark and thin” like bones, the houses like “ rotten teeth,” when she realizes that she is now in the “ Marne country,” “ the border country, where the Latin races and the Germanic neutralize one another into horrid ash.” ( Borderline 375-376)

23In the following extract, we can see how Lawrence, just as Léger, tends to non-represent the war, to represent it obliquely or indeterminately. The landscape is flat, like a flat empty canvas and "can only realize itself in Katherine’s consciousness," the roads are abstract, the trees are wiry. The war resists representation even for a writer:

As she looked unseeing out of the carriage window, suddenly, with a jolt, the wintry landscape realized itself in her consciousness. The flat, grey, wintry landscape, ploughed fields of greyish earth that looked as if they were compounds of the clay of dead men. Pallid, stark, thin trees stood like wire beside straight, abstract roads. A ruined farm between a few more wire trees. And a dismal village filed past, with smashed houses like rotten teeth between the straights rows of the village street. ( ibid. 375-376)

3rd part: Post-war, long-lasting effects

24Not only did WW1 challenge both Léger and Lawrence in terms of representation during and immediately after the war, but it also had a long-lasting impact on their art.

25If Léger could not represent the martyred body of the soldier during the war, the painter chose to represent it as an object after the war. When visiting a factory in Chicago in 1931, Léger was shocked by the noise of the machinery and the hammer drills that reminded him of the pounding and shelling at Verdun so that he envisioned the economic and industrial growth as another type of war, the figure of the soldier became that of the worker while the machine that used him was the new weapon. But again, just as he protected himself from the horrors of Verdun by describing it as a cubist abstract place, Léger represented the body of the soldier turned worker as a beautiful, metallic, glinting object, grey and hard while keeping his colours for the surrounding objects or machinery. It thus seemed to me that Léger’s reification of the body (Les acrobates de cirque, 1918, Disques dans la ville, 1920-21, Mère et enfant, 1922 ) is a long-lasting effect of the war on his identity as a painter and that he refused to consider the vulnerability of the body's flesh and bones. The inexpressive, distant, almost absent quality of his figures/objects, the body parts that seem like fragments or elements of still lives are as many expressions of his refusal to paint the body in the flesh. It is almost as if Léger was painting life and colour around bodies that seem transformed into shell-like objects, shells to be understood both as artillery parts and crustacean appendices. This fascination for body fragmentation found an echo in the cinema with Charlot, the epitome of the actor-object, with his almost abstract, geometrical, black-and-white silhouette.

26Of course Lawrence’s post-war representation of the body in both his writings and paintings evolved differently from Léger’s. My previous comments on the shell-like quality of Léger’s bodies bring to mind Freud’s notion of an artificial man armed with protections against violent natural forces, like tools, dwellings, engines, machines, so that “ man has become, so to speak, a god with artificial limbs,” “ with auxiliary organs” ( Freud 29). There are such men in Lawrence’s novels: Thomas Crich, the industrial magnate, Gerald Crich, the "god of the machine" in Women in Love and Clifford Chatterley in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a victim of WW1 grafted to a piece of machinery or “ rattling engine” that pollutes the air of the woods with its “ industrial noise.” Cifford has truly become “ a creature with a hard, efficient shell of an exterior and a pulpy interior, one of the amazing crabs and lobsters of the modern industrial and financial world, invertebrates of the crustacean order, with shells of steel, like machines, and bodies of soft pulp[...]” ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover 114) Unsurprisingly, the gamekeeper who brings Connie back to life deplores that “ All vulnerable things must perish under the rolling and running of iron.” (ibid. 123). Quite logically then, Clifford’s motor-chair always referred to as a “ she” is an alien thing for Mellors – “ Do you know anything about motors?” asked Clifford sharply. “ I am afraid I don’t. Has she gone wrong?” “ Apparently!” snapped Clifford. The man crouched solicitously by the wheel, and peered at the little engine.” (ibid.195)

27Mellors is literally bowing to the new god of the machine that threatens to take the better of him.

28Lawrence’s celebration of the body in his writings and paintings may then be seen as a reaction to the trauma left by WW1. Contrary to Léger who avoids the subject of the body by turning it into an object, Lawrence chooses to show and glorify the body as subject, he also chooses flowing blood, tears, bodily fluids rather than frozen carcases or metallic tubes and cones.

29He chooses a return to the prelapsarian wholeness of the body, as a refusal of the shameless horror of the damaged body, his own as well as the soldiers’. Léger did not paint the body shamed by wounds or death, and showed it as a metallic construction, Lawrence consistently represented the body as whole and innocent. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie tries to see her own nudity by using two mirrors – “ She looked at herself naked in the huge mirror. [...] She looked in the other mirror’s reflection at her back, her waist, her loins.” ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover 71-72). Thus when re-discovering her own body in the mirrors, Connie is also contemplating the denial of woman’s body, its dematerialization so to speak and the necessity to re-materialize it – “ She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial, yes, denial. Fashionable women kept their bodies bright like delicate porcelain, by external attention. There was nothing inside the porcelain [...] . ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover 72)

30The body is concealed under various shells, clothes, porcelain or metal, motor chairs or military helmets and uniforms, and it has turned into pulp and “ insignificant substance” ( ibid. 72). Thus uncovering the subject, undressing the body, writing and painting its “ real existence,” making it “ artistically palpable," is giving it its so often quoted “ thereness,” which is like the “ appleyness of Cézanne’s apples” or the “ horsiness” of Etruscan representations of horses ( Phoenix 568). Mellors’s “smallish, short, alive hand, browned by the weather” ( ibid, 200) can caress Connie back to life and is an answer to Léger’s small mummified hands emerging from the trench mud of Verdun.

31The heavy materiality of the body is also present in Lawrence’s paintings, often criticized for their ugliness and shamelessness that could make many viewers “ recoil in horror” according to a critic, or “ censor-moron” as Lawrence said. But wide hips, round buttocks, full breasts are pictorial instances of this will to counterattack the obscene shock of grotesquely mutilated and fragmented bodies.

32I started this paper with the lovely phrase “ the colour of tears” because it seemed appropriate to delve into the war experiences of a painter and a writer. But it seems now that the colour of tears has a metallic glint for Léger, or rather that tears as such are frozen into metal, while for Lawrence the colour of tears is less important than their flowing freely on liberated bodies in the same way as rain on Connie’s body – “ her hair was plastered down with rain, her face was flushed ruddy and her body glistened and trickled. [...] with her full, trickling, naïve haunches, she looked another creature.” ( Lady Chatterley’s Lover 231 – Another creature indeed, that would be the last word for Lawrence, who said in his Introduction to these paintings:

We, dear reader, you and I, we were born corpses, and we are corpses. I doubt if there is even one of us who has ever known so much as an apple, a whole apple. All we know is shadows, even of apples. Shadows of everything, of the whole world, shadows even of ourselves. We are inside the tomb, and the tomb is wide and shadowy like hell, [...]

33We are not solid. We don’t live in the flesh. And the touch of anything solid hurts us. For our instincts and intuitions, which are our feelers of touch and knowing through touch, they are dead, amputated. (Phoenix 570-571)

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Primary Sources

Boulton, James, Selected Letters, D.H. Lawrence. Richmond: Oneworld Classics Ltd, 2008.

Lawrence, D. H., Kangaroo. London: Penguin, [1923] 1992.

—, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000.

—, Women in Love. London: Penguin, [1920] 1995.

—, “The Borderline”, Selected Short Stories. London: Penguin, [September 1924]1982.

—, “Introduction to these paintings," Phoenix. London: Heinemann, 1961.

—, With the guns, 18 August 1914,

Léger, Fernand, Une Correspondance de Guerre ( Lettres à Louis Poughon, 1914-18), Paris : Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, Hors-série Archives, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Campbell, David, “ Representing Contemporary War”, Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 17-2, pp.99-108, Fall 2003.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark, Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pierre, Arnauld, Fernand léger, Peindre la vie moderne. Paris : Gallimard, 1997.

Electronic Sources

Avant-propos à l’exposition au mémorial de Caen, pour la commémoration de 1998 <>

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1  All the translations from French into English are mine.

"It was the first industrial war, the war of endless technical inventions, of massive productions, general mobilizations of all human, economic and mechanical resources. From WW1 there emerged a completely new Europe, exhausted, horrified and modernized by force.” (Avant-propos à l’exposition au mémorial de Caen, pour la commémoration de 1998 )

2 "Until then and with a few rare exceptions, artists and writers witnessed the war without taking any part in it. For the first time in 1914, they were forced to participate in it, in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Austria and France. Léger became a stretcher-bearer, Kokoscha a rider, Beckman a male nurse, Derain a gunner, Camoin a camouflage artist, Dix a machine gunner. Many of them painted or drew what they saw and experienced then. From drawings in sketchbooks on the frontline to paintings made after they came back from the war, they left intense and accurate records.” ibid.

3  " What they saw and endured, they did not paint. Could they do it even if they wanted to? How could a painter represent the trajectory of a shell or a bullet, the noxious cloud of chlorine, the underground positions that could only be seen by barbed wire networks and mud parapets?” ibid.

4 " European Avant-Garde artists, German Expressionists, French Cubists, British Vorticists, Italian Futurists all abandoned the traditional rules of battle painting. They did their best to overcome the difficulties and find new motifs and means adapted to the new monstrous reality of the war. These means are mostly those of Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, those of Abstraction.” ibid.

5 “ Representing Contemporary War” by David Campbell in Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 17.2 ( Fall 2003) The author asserts that the “ images of the conflict produced by the allies’ media was so relatively clean, being largely devoid of the dead bodies that mark a major conflict. [...] The relatively bloodless coverage of conflict derives from the media outlet’s invocation of the criteria of “ taste” and “ decency”. [...] The media’s concern for taste and decency has meshed perfectly with the military’s long –established aversion to images of death. In WW1, the British War Office prohibited the appearance of bodies ( regardless of whether they were British or German) in any official photograph or film, an edict that led also to the censorship of war paintings that depicted dead soldiers.”

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Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên, « "The colour of tears": Fernand Léger’s and D.H. Lawrence’s Experiences of the Great War », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.242

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Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên

Université de Reims

Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên is a lecturer at the University of Technology in Reims, where she teaches Business English. Her Ph D dissertation focused on D.H.Lawrence as an artist and art critic. She has been a regular participant in Lawrence conferences at Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense for many years and has published several articles in Etudes Lawrenciennes.

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