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Paul Gough
'Mayhem and Madness: the Art of War'
Commissioned by
The Art Newspaper, International Edition, Issue 261, October 2014

It is a dreadfully familiar image of mayhem and madness: a foreground crammed with wildly gesturing fleeing figures, their hands clasped across distraught faces, eyes bulging with urgent fear. Behind this convulsing crowd a city burns. Swathes of smoke obscure the detail, but the sky is underlit by fires, buildings seem ready to topple. Indistinct crowds gather amongst the wreckage: are they fleeing civilians or the rampaging enemy? It matters little, because we are drawn inevitably to the prone figure in the mid-distance, a townswoman caught in the no-man’s-land between extreme danger and dubious safety. It is the only moment of stasis in the entire composition, the rest of the image pulls us from left to right and back again. Yet despite the movement, the fleeing crowd seem locked into the frame; there will be no escape.

This remarkable lithograph is the work of Gisbert Combaz (1869-1941), a Belgian lawyer, artist and professor in the decorative arts who designed book covers and furniture but is best known for his posters, which typify the voluptuous flowing rhythms of Art Nouveau. Although his name might be obscure, his posters are instantly memorable and he is one of very few poster artists from
La Belle Epoch to create a personal style and pictorial language that is recognisable today.

The destruction of Louvain was one of the first momentous violations of the Great War. Only weeks after the outbreak of the conflict and after a terrible massacre in the village of Dinant, the invading German army chose to punish the plucky resistance of the Belgian army by systematically looting and burning Louvain, including its renowned university and ancient library founded in 1426. Under the appalled gaze of the international community, the German Embassy in USA actually confirmed the massacre in a chilling wireless statement from Berlin: ‘Louvain was punished by the destruction of the city.’ Outraged and distraught, artists across the world, including many Belgians like Combaz responded with fierce condemnation and powerful images that resonate today.

Gisbert Combaz (1869-1941) ‘Louvain’, 1916, Koninlijke Bibliothhek van Belgie [Bibliotheque Royale de Belgique]

With thanks and credit to: www.theartnewspaper.com/issues
Gisbert Combaz (1869-1941) ‘Louvain’, 1916, Koninlijke Bibliothhek van Belgie