This visually arresting painting is by an Austrian artist, Albin Egger-Lienz, begun in 1901 and completed the following year. It’s called Das Kreuz (“The Cross”) and depicts peasant religious life in the Austrian past, perhaps the late 18th or early 19th century. I could find very little on this specific painting itself, but as soon as I saw it I was mesmerized. The passion and extremism of peasant religion is brought out by the leering faces, and the farm implements they’re carrying as weapons suggest imminent menace. The image of the crucifix being held up suggests (to me, at least) the idea of God being used to justify some act of violence and to inflame the passions of the crowd. To me it looks like a scene out of a horror film.
Albin Egger-Lienz was an important painter at the very end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Early in his career–he was born in 1868–he sought to portray scenes of peasant life in the Tyrol region of Austria, where he was from. This was perhaps a throwback to the “romantic nationalist” paintings of the earlier 19th century. Egger-Lienz was on the cutting edge of the European art revolution that was occurring in the years just before World War I. The war, however, changed him profoundly. After being drafted in 1915, the horrors he saw in combat became a theme of his work for the rest of his life. He died in Austria in 1926, having been part of another artistic revolution: one that sought to document the human and psychological costs of the First World War through artistic expression.
It’s kind of hard to look at Das Kreuz, its passion and anger, and not think of the trauma of war that Egger-Lienz was eventually to experience. Although this picture was created in 1902, twelve years before the war began, I’m tagging this post “World War I” anyway, because the twisted visages in this painting definitely foreshadow the darkness that was eventually to come.