In 1917, while he served as a Red Cross orderly in several Belgian field hospitals, Erich Heckel painted Seascape near Ostend. Unlike Max Beckmann or Otto Dix, Heckel didn’t explicitly depict the horrors of war, yet the omnipresent threat also makes itself felt in his art. His Seascape, for instance, shows a wide stretch of beach interspersed with water-filled tidal inlets. The water is calm and smooth, yet the overall impression is anything but peaceful: the pointed inlets and the angular band of clouds resembling a rock formation exude a threatening atmosphere. The battlefront didn’t run through Ostend, yet the continuous boom of canons, exploding bombs and gunfire in the distance would have put a constant strain on Heckel and his companions.
In the 1920s, Heckel intensified his artistic exploration of the landscape: light, ever changing especially on the coast, became the real subject of his paintings. In September 1922, the artist and his wife, Siddi, stayed in the town of Sankt Peter-Ording. The following year he painted North Sea Dunes, in which the eye is guided along a trail through the tall dunes to the beach. It shows a storm spreading over the water: a very dark, dramatically dense wall of clouds drops backlit sheets of rain down onto the dark blue water, as churned-up waves are already licking the stretch of beach.