The Visual Arts and World War 1

World War 1 and the Visual Arts, the excellent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commemorates the centenary of the U.S.‘s entry into that conflict.  Consisting of pen & ink drawings, photographs, posters and  lithographs, primarily by European artists – French, British and Russian, the exhibit also contains work by German artists, which I haven’t seen in the other shows on this subject. The 136 objects, drawn mainly from the Met’s collection, highlight how artists were conflicted by the war: some eagerly used their talents to create pro-war propaganda, while others sought to convey the horrors of the conflict through their art.  Several served as war correspondents, medics and even soldiers; some who started out in favor of war came to reverse their positions.

5-1/2% War Loan, Russian, Color Lithograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the hall leading up to the exhibit there are 10 posters from France, Belgium and Russia, whose bright colors and bold graphics exhort viewers to support the war – in this case, urging them to buy Russian war bonds.

Banking at 4,000 Feet, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 1917, Lithograph, Purchase, Reba and Dave Williams Gift, 1998

Christopher Richard Wynne (CRW) Nevinson (1889-1946) was appointed an official war artist  by the British government in 1917, after having volunteered briefly in France and then with the Royal Army Medical Corps.  This lithograph is based on an airplane trip he took over the English countryside.  Notice how the artist inserted his own hand, gripping the side of the plane – I’m sure it was a “white knuckle” experience! Nevinson’s work is prominently featured in this show, with ten pieces.

Recruits, John Copley, 1915 Lithograph, Johanna and Leslie Garfield

John Copley (1875-1950) was a prolific British printmaker. This image of recruits lining up to enroll – and standing very straight – illustrates how the war affected all strata of British society.  The wall label informs us that “By fall 1914, so many lives had been lost that the criteria for enlisting was changed:  the minimum height for male volunteers shifted from 5’8” in August 1914 to 5’5” in October and 5’3” by November.” 

In the Somme, Village in Ruins, Pierre Bonnard, 1916, colored chalks and watercolor, private collection

When I saw the above work, I was surprised to discover it was created by  the French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), as his name always brings to mind interiors.  It turns out that there is only one known war painting by him:  A Village in Ruins near Ham.  This chalk and watercolor was made in preparation for that 1917 work.

The Exodus, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, 1915, Lithograph, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sadly, The Exodus -1915 by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) has an all too familiar feel. Even though it depicts people fleeing Belgium after a German invasion, this image echoes (or should I say, presages) ones on the front pages of today’s newspapers.  Much of Steinlen’s art during the war focused the plight of refugees.

Doomed City, Natalia Goncharova, 1914, Lithograph, Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was a Russian avant-garde artist and writer.  She also designed sets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, where she was living with her future husband Mikhail Larionov, when war broke out.  They returned to Russia for Larionov to do his military service, then went back to Paris in 1917.

Mothers, Käthe Kollowitz, 1919, Lithograph, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928

I have long admired German artist Käthe Kolowitz (1867-1945) whose work centers on the lives of the working class and women.  The above lithograph is from her series Krieg (War). She appears as the central figure in this work, embracing her two sons; the younger one Peter was killed in combat when he was 18. 

from The War, Otto Dix, 1923-24, Etching, aquatint and drypoint, The Richard Harris Collection

Initially welcoming the start of World War 1, Otto Dix (1891-1969) served as a machine-gun operator in France and Belgium, where he was seriously wounded.  His war experiences turned him into a pacifist, known for his imagery of a corrupt, brutal and decaying post-war German society.  Der Krieg (The War) is a series of 51 prints, based on Dix’ memories of battles, as well as contemporaneous photographs, and is modeled on Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The disasters of war).

In the section The Intersection of Of Arts and Arms, you’ll find a set of helmets that were designed by Met curator Bashford Dean.  Thirty-three Met staff members served in the armed forces in World War 1 – in the Great Hall is a commemorative plaque for the two who lost their lives.

The Human U.S Shield, Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas, 1918, Gelatin silver print, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987

You’ll also find a work by American photographers Arthur S. Mole (1889-1983) and John D. Thomas (died 1947), who were commissioned by the US military to create photographs to lift war-time moral.  Using thousands of soldiers, they made a series of “living photographs” of icons of American history, including  the Statue of Liberty, Woodrow Wilson, and the Liberty Bell.  The U.S. Human Shield, above, was staged at Camp Custer in Michigan, using 30,000 men, and shot from an 80 ft. high viewing tower. 

Study for “The Coming of the Americans,” John Singer Sargent, 1921-22, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on off-white laid paper, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known as a society painter of the Gilded Age (especially for Madame X), but he also documented the horrors of the first world war (the monumental Gassed of 1918 is probably his best-known work of that era).  This study is for a painting, The Coming of the Americans, commissioned by Harvard University to commemorate alumni who died in the war. There are four other works by him in this show.

This is just a small sampling of the works you’ll find in this thought-provoking exhibit.

World War 1 and the Visual Arts   is on through January 7th at the Met, 1000 Fifth Avenue (83rd Street). Put it on your “to see” list!

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