0298 War Painting and the Soldier as the New Man

Karl Sterrer’s Pilot Portraits and the Ambivalent Face of Heroism during the First World War

  • Christian Drobe (Author)
    Masaryk University, Brno

    Christian Drobe is a research fellow at the Art History Department at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied art history, German literature and history at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. His research focuses on figurative painting, New Objectivity, art during the Nazi era, and the conservative branches of modernism. He has published on artists such as Emil Nolde, Rudolf Schlichter and Ernst Wilhelm Nay, and on Magic Realism. His dissertation on the reception of Classicism in German Modernism was published in 2022 (Verdächtige Ambivalenz. Klassizismus in der Moderne 1920–1960). Among his recent interests are representations of youth, masculinity, and other strands of traditional imagery in Austrian, Hungarian and Czech art. In this context, a book project is underway on "Recovering from the War? Masculinity and Identity in Central European Art after 1918".

Identifiers (Article)


With his series of pilot portraits during the First World War, the Viennese painter Karl Sterrer made a significant contribution to the depiction of a modern heroic figure. It has not yet been analysed in the context of the modern soldier and his masculinity, which came under strain in the brutal trench warfare. At the mercy of an abstract war machine, the common soldiers could hardly find heroic moments to impress. Only a few new types of troops, such as the aviators, succeeded in doing so, which gave them a great deal of public recognition and made them part of modern visual culture. Ultimately, they were seen as New Man, above the horrors of modern warfare. At the same time, they were also role models for a noble habitus that met the phenomena of modernity calmly. This aspiration was evident in their elegant countenance, their extraordinary physiognomy. Unlike previous attempts in art history, however, this article provides a look at the conservative take on the subject – by a traditional, academic artist. This focus underlines the extent to which old and new soldierly values overlapped in modernity and became actualised by different artists regardless of their political orientation. The same applies to the stylistic realisation, which intertwines traditional elements with those of new movements such as New Objectivity.


war as a pictorial theme, World War I, aviators, pilots, masculinity, physiognomy, New Objectivity, Karl Sterrer