Painting the sky in blood: The Red Baron as a folk artist

‘Pilots are almost by nature individualists, and the First World War gave these men the opportunity to let their extrovert personalities have free rein. This took many forms: wild and riotous living, hair-raising stunt flying, a constant attempt to debunk authority, “brass hats” in particular, and last but not least the extraordinary private markings of their aeroplanes. ‘

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This generalisation of the character of pilots, whilst happily coincident with the devil-may-care, skilled but anti-authoritarian, anti-hero so prevalent in popular fiction (Han Solo in Star Wars for example), is not borne out by fact. Thus it is startling that the ‘extraordinary private markings’ which actually were adopted by thousands of individual aviators in the First World War should have come about primarily due to the action of a man who was profoundly respectful of authority and a member of the aristocracy (Nowarra & Franks 1958), described by Ernst Udet (the highest scoring German pilot to survive the war) as ‘the least complicated man I ever knew. Entirely Prussian and the greatest of soldiers.’ (Udet 1935 p72)

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So inexorably tangled is this man with the image he created through the medium of his aeroplane that his very nickname, now almost shorthand for the Great War Air Ace, references his work with a paintbrush. ‘The Red Baron’ is arguably most famous today as Snoopy’s imaginary opponent in Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip (Schulz 1950-2000) he has also featured in several films, most recently an eponymous German production of 2008. This is all due to the fact that in early 1917 Manfred von Richthofen painted his aeroplane red; A seemingly random act by a man in thrall to military ideals and almost by definition, the epitome of the non-creative spirit. So why did Manfred von Richthofen paint his aeroplane red? Can this and other decorated German fighter aircraft be considered an example of applied art?

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In 1917 the aeroplane was barely ten years old and the first instance wherein one aircraft had intentionally destroyed another had occurred less than two years previously (Gunston 1975). Despite the very short time frame involved, another pilot had already painted his entire aircraft red and achieved passing fame. His name was Jean Navarre and he much better fitted the ideal of the mercurial anti-establishment figure. He would become known as ‘The Sentinel of Verdun’ and was briefly France’s premier fighter pilot before a medical board declared ‘Lieutenant Navarre’s mind is deranged’ and he was removed from active service (Sykes 1937).

At this time Richthofen was on the Eastern front so there is little reason to suppose he was aware of the all-red aircraft of Navarre (Nowarra & Brown 1958). Manfred von Richthofen was born in 1892 and ‘grew up in an atmosphere comparable to that of the son of an English country squire at the turn of the century. His pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing were not dissimilar’ (Nowarra & Brown 1958: p9) His father was a Baron and an officer in the Prussian army and his mother was a wealthy heiress (Richthofen 1917) Manfred was a member of the ruling classes; he was not an anti-establishment figure. Much of his autobiography is taken up with accounts of hunting; his subsequent prowess at destroying aircraft is treated essentially as an unusual form of game shooting. Manfred went to military school as a cadet from the age of eleven and was serving as a lancer by 1911. In 1915 he transferred to the air service. He flew for a time as an observer before training as a pilot. By the time of his death in April 1918 he had shot down 80 aircraft, officially more than any other pilot of the war. At this point he had been flying an all red aircraft for about a year (Wohl 1994).

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Richthofen’s autobiography was first published late in 1917. It is partly a work of propaganda but there is no reason to suppose that the sections that do not deal directly with the war as it was being fought had any external influence. Richthofen describes painting his aeroplane thus ‘It occurred to me to have my crate painted all over in glaring red. The result was that everyone got to know my red bird.’ (Richthofen 1917) This was just the first of several all-red aircraft that he would fly. It is interesting here that Richthofen states what the result actually was but not whether this was the intended result. Also it is not clear whether he meant, by ‘everyone’, his squadron (whom he was now leading), the German air service as a whole, all the armed forces of both sides or, really, everyone. It is certainly the case that his fame, or rather the fame of his aircraft, spread rapidly. In early 1917 Richthofen contrived to crash his aircraft next to the British machine he had just forced to land, ‘I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it “Le Petit Rouge”.’(Richthofen 1917)

Evidently, if Richthofen’s aim was advertising then he had succeeded. Indeed he succeeded rather too well for ‘the English had put a price on Richthofen’s head, with the stipulation that the red machine is shot down’. Or at least that was what was believed by other German pilots (it was not true) (vanWyngarden 2004) Before long, under the guise of protecting their leader from being singled out by the enemy, the whole squadron wanted in on the act as recounted by Manfred’s younger brother Lothar:

‘It had long been our wish to have all the aeroplanes of our Staffel painted red, and we implored my brother to allow it. The request was granted for we had shown ourselves worthy of the red colour by our many aerial kills. The red colour signified a certain insolence. Everyone knew that. It attracted attention. Proudly we looked at our red birds.’ (vanWyngarden 2004: pp12-13)

This shows that the colour red now signified a certain merit. One couldn’t just paint one’s aircraft red, one had to earn it and one is proud of it. Also the psychological connotations are plain to Lothar, even if his older brother hadn’t bothered to mention any. Red attracts attention and signifies ‘insolence’. The red of the aircraft is a statement, not a practical consideration. When Richthofen painted his aircraft red it could have been argued that it served to make him, as leader, instantly recognisable to his squadron mates. Richthofen himself said that a leader’s aircraft should be easily identifiable. This squadron-wide move by contrast looks like pure chutzpah in the face of the enemy.

What is not clear is that the enemy read it exactly in this way however. It is worth remembering that when Richthofen painted his aeroplane red, Europe was still a continent of Edwardian values and his action was more socially outrageous than it might at first appear. By way of example, in Death in Venice, written five years earlier,Mann writes that, as his mental state collapses, Asenbach’s ‘necktie was scarlet, his broad-brimmed straw hat encircled with a many-coloured ribbon.’ (Mann 1912: p263). This in direct contrast to the sober clothing of the rational German titled author who is definitely not in the business of falling for beautiful boys; Or the sort of man who paints his aeroplane red?

‘A very amusing thing occurred. One of the Englishmen whom we had shot down and whom we had made a prisoner was talking with us. Of course he inquired after the Red Aeroplane… there was a rumour that the Red Machine was occupied by a girl, by a kind of Jeanne d’Arc. He was intensely surprised when I assured him that the supposed girl was standing in front of him. He did not intend to make a joke. He was actually convinced that only a girl could sit in the extravagantly painted machine.’ (Richthofen 1917)

Perhaps: Not the reaction of a man impressed with the brio of his opponent as a combatant so much as admiring the bravery of some kind of aerial transvestite in parading about in a suspiciously feminine aircraft. In the first English language edition of Richthofen’s autobiography, C G Grey, the noted aero journalist, can’t entirely suppress a patronising tone on the subject:

‘Their leader chose to paint his little Albatros a brilliant pillar-box red. The others painted their machines according to their fancy. Some had yellow noses, blue bodies and green wings. Some were pale blue underneath and black on top. Some were painted in streaks, some with spots. In fact, they rang the changes on the whole of the paint-box.’ (Richthofen 1917)

Grey makes it plain the effect that Richthofen’s red aeroplane had on his comrades. Apparently unworried by the gender concerns of their opponents, German pilots painted all their aircraft in a great variety of colours, a tiny handful of which are depicted in the appendix. What is particularly surprising about this is that the German army, an organisation stereotypically famed for its discipline should allow this to occur at all. It would appear that the fame of Richthofen and his all-red aircraft effectively precluded any objection to encouraging other pilots to emulate the hero. The British high command, by contrast, ‘regarding uniformity as a virtue, viewed the unorthodox in aircraft markings with as much distaste as variations in airmen’s uniforms’ (Green and Swanborough 1981: p8).

The example of the ‘Seven Swabians’ Fokker D.VII flown by Wilhelm Scheutzel serves to represent the aesthetic development of the short-lived era of individual aircraft decoration from the broad stroke abstraction of Le Petit Rouge. Corporal Wilhelm Scheutzel (a corporal it should be noted – nearly the lowliest rank of all), destined to shoot down a single enemy aircraft, decided to decorate his aircraft with the Seven Swabians from one of Grimm’s more obscure fairy tales. It is unusual amongst its contemporaries in that it depicts human figures but apart from that it can be considered relatively typical. The Swabians in question, all carrying the same lance, fall in a river and drown after mistaking a rabbit for a dragon. It serves no practical purpose – It certainly isn’t camouflage nor can the scheme be considered as a practical means of identification. In fact it would be hard to say that it serves any purpose at all save to appeal to the taste of the pilot. As a propagandist tool the Swabians are not a symbol to inspire fear in an opponent or martial enthusiasm in an ally. It refers to an act of militaristic incompetence by Germans. The Swabians were stupid and died. The dragon was a rabbit. The image is comical, charming, pretty even. It would not look out of place on a child’s bedroom wall. Scheutzel’s aeroplane delights in a self-deprecatory joie de vivre that contrasts with the circumstances of its creation in the midst of the bloodiest industrialised war the world had yet seen.

How to explain this phenomenon of which Richthofen was the vanguard and remains the standard bearer? Could the decorated fighter aircraft be an example of folk art?

It is unlike any other movement in any field of art before or since, indeed it is quite separate from later examples of aircraft decoration or graffiti. In the Second World War aircraft, particularly American, were often decorated with various painted decorations, which became generally known as ‘nose art’, and this has received some academic attention. Most of it was profoundly sexual in nature and much was simply the work of pin-up artists such as Vargas and Petty copied onto the aircraft’s skin (Ethell and Simonsen 2003) ‘Army Air Force Regulation 35-22 officially sanctioned nose art as a means of “increasing morale”; however, the regulation was meant to curb the suggestiveness of the nose art particularly in the field’ (Bilsing 2005: p20). There was no need with the German aircraft of the First World War. Figurative elements are minimal at best and there is not a woman in sight . This may say a good deal about the preoccupations of contemporary German society and that of America in the ‘forties but it does, I think, make the German work more interesting. It is abstract and often based solely in colour. It is does not consist of the application of a decoration onto an existing colour scheme, though it may contain decorative elements. There is very little copying. It is not functioning in the same way as ‘nose art’.

Sometimes the schemes contain elements of heraldry or chivalric devices but it does not fit easily into a heraldic tradition. It is true that some pilots were from the aristocracy, Richthofen himself for example, however most were not. Shields, dragons and other heraldic figures are used without regard to their historic function but for their aesthetic appeal or generic warlike or fierce qualities. Historically-

‘each participant in a passage of arms, whether of a warlike or merely sporting character, wore a coat of arms on his shield… and on the trappings of his horse. This was the only means of distinguishing him from other combatants’ (Neubecker 1979: p14)

National markings had rendered this function obsolete, thus whilst the combatants of this war might serve to render their aircraft distinguishable it was generally for their own benefit and not to render them recognisable to others.

The First World War produced a plethora of what is now known as trench art which fits into a folk art tradition exemplified by the scrimshaw work of sailors (Saunders 2003). However, trench art is defined as ‘objects made by soldiers…from the waste of industrialised war, and a host of miscellaneous materials’ (Saunders 2003: p9) Richthofen did produce trench art: ‘a lamp which I made from the engine of an aeroplane I had shot down. I fitted small bulbs into the cylinders’ (Richthofen 1917) but his and others operational aircraft are not the ‘waste of industrialised war’ nor are they ‘miscellaneous materials’. A better comparison would be the mass of ornament that covered wooden fighting ships until the mid nineteenth century. Like a fighter aircraft the ship is simultaneously a conveyance and a weapon. However the decoration of warships was applied during construction and carried out by craftsmen (Dodds and Moore 2005), the aircraft of the Great War were mass-produced and decorated by their pilots.

Cars are also mass-produced and some are extensively redecorated by their owners in a process collectively referred to as customisation and Cooper 1994 discusses this practice as an example of ‘working class art’. The awkward reality of the pilots of the Great War is that they were not generally working class (some were). Richthofen was an aristocrat, most were middle class. Despite this, they were functioning in an unusual situation that served to break down the greater extremes of class distinction so I feel the comparison is not unwarranted. Indeed is it possible that these aircraft represent a very specific form of outsider art? In The Artist Outsider Gerald L Davis states ‘“Outsider art” seems to be one of those pleasantly unambiguous phrases intended to represent exactly what it describes, aesthetic creations produced by people trained outside of a fine arts tradition.’ (in Hall and Metcalf Jr 1994) These decorated aircraft as aesthetic creations fit this definition. However I think that describing the phenomenon as outsider art is, frankly, erroneous. Nonetheless Dubuffet argues that Art Brut was

‘produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry … so that such creators owe everything – their subject-matter, their choice of materials, their modes of transcription, their rhythms and styles of drawing, and so on – to their own resources rather then to the stereotypes of artistic tradition or fashion’ (Dubuffet 1973: p91)

The artist-pilots were entirely reliant on their own resources and materials, down to the very canvas they used – the literal canvas their aircraft were covered with. These men were not the outsiders in the sense of the insane or the disenfranchised that so fascinated Dubuffet. Nonetheless, that the pilots were people from diverse backgrounds who found themselves in a unique, dangerous and new situation is undeniable. Their aesthetic response was also new and unique. The notion of the outsider here is that the rarefied qualities of their experience placed them outside (quite literally, at times, above) the rest of society and rendered them therefore different, though different as a group. The particular accident of their nationality and the attitude of those who governed them created the environment in which their work could flourish.

CONCLUSION

I think it is fair to say that this represents a totally unique form of folk art and Richthofen a totally unique artist-creator. It has no true precedent and it lasted barely two years but during that period became so popular amongst its practitioners that by the time it ceased it had become virtually universal amongst an absolutely specific band of soldiers. What is certain is that it can never happen again. Writing in 1957 Barthes had this to say about the pilot of the past compared to the modern ‘jet-man’ pilot of the fifties.

‘the traditional hero, whose whole value was to fly without forgoing his humanity (like Saint Exupéry who was a writer or Lindbergh who flew in a lounge-suit). But the mythological peculiarity of the jet-man is that he keeps none of the romantic and individualistic elements of the sacred role’ (Barthes 1957: pp72-73)

They may not have written like Saint Exupéry but they painted like there was no tomorrow. The tragedy of their particular school is that for so many of them, Richthofen included, there wasn’t to be one.

By Ted Ward

Illustrator, historian and founding member of Uke Attack! Uke Attack!

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