Two hundred and thirty five

World War One : a large snake, symbolic of a gas attack. strikes at a sleeping solider.

c1914 by Louis Raemaekers
Wellcome Collection

Raemaekers was a Dutch artist who began drawing for newspapers in 1906, despite being a well-established painter of pastoral scenes. Though Holland were neutral in the First World War, Raemaekers travelled to invaded Belgium, probed by the stories of brutality told by the fleeing refugees. Shocked and appalled by what he saw there, Raemaekers’s subject matter took a sharp turn and he began documenting and critiquing the German army and their occupation. His first anti-German drawing (published in the Amsterdam ”Telegraaf”) took little time to provoke a German response and there was soon a 12,000 Dutch guilders price on his head, dead or alive, and pressures on the Dutch government to prosecute him. Once tried, though a jury acquitted him, Raemaekers and his family moved to London in 1915, where an exhibition of 150 of his drawings was planned supported by the London Times. What perhaps most appealed in Raemaekers’s drawings was the soft and emotive style. Though A Large Snake… is particularly free in terms of style, most of his drawings possess this sketchy and tonal technique that escapes the harshness of the line and the typical satire of cartoons. There is more of an atmosphere to his drawings, they are illustrative, and their realism honest and provoking, avoiding the crudeness that comedy often brings. It is a more apt medium for a subject that was felt so acutely by those living through the war, bringing a sensitivity, a nostalgia and comfort, to these drawings that documented their lives. A Large Snake… almost reads like an illustration in a storybook — the soft charcoal evoking the image as if from a dream. Indeed, it is an image — a loved one asleep in a trench — that many back home would have imagined. The snake then confirms the face of the enemy in imagination — with bulbous body, cold cutting eyes and a fiery tongue, he is the epitome of a monster in a nightmare. The drawing is all shadows and darkness, lit only by the light of the moon and the glow that surround the snake’s livid hot mouth. Germany appears truly evil, yet through a symbol that we are accustomed to in tales gone by; Raemaekers’s effect is not to trivialise, but to visualise in a way that provokes and hits home.

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