World War 1 Through Artists’ Eyes

Poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1917

The NY Historical Society  is also commemorating the 100th anniversary of the US’s entry into the First World War, with World War 1 Beyond the Trenches, a terrific exhibit of more than 55 paintings and posters from that era.  The show opens with works by Man Ray, George Bellows and Childe Hasssam. 

detail, Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919, oil on canvas

However, it is John Singer Sargent’s oil of blindfolded men who had been gassed that dominates the room, not only by virtue of its size at 7-1/2 ft x  20ft, but also because of his technical mastery and use of classical composition to capture the horror of the combat.  Sargent created this for a Hall of Remembrance in London, based on a scene he had witnessed at Arras in France, in 1918.  The show has more oils and some watercolors by Sargent, who toured the Western Front.

The Flag, Georgia O’Keefe, 1918, watercolor on paper

You’ll also find two intense, abstract works by Georgia O’Keefe, whose younger brother Alex fought in the war (he was gassed, and died ten years later).

The End of the War: Starting Home, Horace Pippin, 1930-33, oil on canvas

The use of very thickly applied paint makes the soldiers really stand out in Horace Pippin’s  depiction of German troops surrendering to African-American soldiers.  The collage effect is made more powerful by the frame, adorned with helmets, bayonets and other symbols of war.  It took Pippin, who was seriously wounded fighting with the Harlem Hellfighters, three years to make this painting.

Letter to Mr. Chasin, from Salvator Cilis, Camp Upton, October 1917

A display case in the center of the room features letters from soldiers like Salvator Cillis, describing and illustrating his experience in training at Camp Upton on Long Island (the “melting pot” camp), where he met many soldiers who had been born outside the United States, of “every race, color, religion and opinion”. 

Armistice, Times Square, Theodore Earl Butler, 1918 oil on canvas

In 1918, the Armistice was signed, and this oil by Theodore Earl Butler captures the energy of that day as New York City celebrated in Times Square.

The Subway, Walter Pach, 1919 oil on canvas

One of my favorites in the show is this 1919 oil by Walter Pach of the subway in post-war NYC, which captures how the City’s different ethnic and social groups came together on our public transportation system – if it weren’t for the period clothing, this could have been painted today.

The show also has a number of posters in a corridor off the main room.  The Committee on Public Information created over 20 million copies of some 2,500 posters, many of which were designed by the leading fine artists and graphic artists (Gerrit Albertus Becker, James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy) to be visually compelling enticements to support the war, exhorting men to enlist in the armed services, women to become part of the war effort, and everyone to buy Liberty Bonds.  Private organizations such as the YMCA and the Red Cross recruited women to be drivers, mechanics, and nurses, and to fill other positions left vacant by men who had gone to the front.

Colored Man is No Slacker, E.G. Renesch, publisher, 1918

Even though African-Americans were segregated in the armed forces, many nonetheless signed up to serve.  This poster was probably privately published, as the official recruiting materials rarely depicted black men or women.  (Slacker meant “draft dodger”)

detail, somewhere listening: Company B, 365th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division A.E.F., 2014 graphite on paper, Debra Priestly

In the main lobby opposite the building entryway is a moving series of 212 charcoal sketches, arranged in 3 rows, that Debra Priestly made from photographs of the members of the 92nd Division, an African-American unit that fought in France, including Priestly’s great uncle.

There is much much more to see in this excellent exhibit, which is up until  September 3rd.  The NY Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West and 77th Street.

New York City and the Selling of World War 1

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the U.S.‘s entry into World War I. To commemorate this event, the Museum of the City of New York has organized Posters and Patriotism: Selling WW1 to New Yorkan exhibit of posters, flyers, magazine art, sheet music covers, and other mass-produced images made in war-time New York.

Help the Red Cross, Herman Roeg, ca. 1918

When war broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson had declared that the U.S. should remain “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” But the tide began to turn, especially after the Lusitania was sunk, claiming the lives of 128 Americans, and the U.S. joined the war on April 6, 1917.

While the exhibit focuses on posters, it also shows how every available means – print, music, film, lectures, and performance—were used to publicize, popularize, and gain support for  the U.S.’s entry into the conflict, and how dissenting voices also employed these media.

Women’s Peace Parade on 5th Avenue, August 29, 1914, Library of Congress photo

In the early 20th century, there was a strong pacifist movement  in the U.S.  New York City mirrored the dissent and divisions in the American population, which can be seen in a display in the center of the room with black and white photos of various anti-war rallies, including the 1914 Women’s Peace Parade on 5th Avenue. 

Mother Earth, Man Ray, artist; published by Emma Goldman, September 1914

There are also displays with socialist and anarchist publications like The Masses, and Bull, as well as Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth – all three publications were banned from the U.S. mail, and their editors were tried under the Espionage Act. The exhibit clearly shows  the whiplash in the American public’s sentiments towards the war, and the favorable turn in opinion was aided by anti-sedition laws which helped enforce patriotic loyalty.   During the war years, over 1,000 people in the U.S. were convicted of anti-draft activity.

Sheet Music for “Wake Up America” artist unknown; George Graff, Jr. & Jack Glogau, composers. Uncle Sam is kneeling in between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

You’ll also find illustrated sheet music published for people with pianos at home – they were still fairly common in American households – showing how music reflected the shifting  American opinions towards the war, from neutrality to patriotic involvement,  and capturing the conflicted feelings of parents whose children went overseas, in songs such as I Didn’t Raise My Son to be a Soldier Boy.  As U.S. troops headed overseas, Tin Pan Alley composers  led the charge  with gusto – George M. Cohan’s Over There is from this era .  Other songs, such as To Hell with Germany by Noble Sissle were widely disseminated, and many of Irving Berlin’s songs echoed that sentiment. 

Once the U.S. entered the conflict, dissenting voices were shut out, as censorship was enforced during the war.  Because New York City was the center of advertising and media, the U.S. Department of War housed its Division of Pictorial Publicity (DPP) here to sell the wary  American public on supporting the US War effort.  Many artists eagerly jumped on board: the DPP was headed by none other than Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girls;” he and James Montgomery Flagg (creator of Uncle Sam) helped found ‘the Vigilantes,” a group of artists and writers using their talents to promote patriotism, and exhorting Americans to serve in combat, buy bonds to finance the war, and conserve food, clothing and energy so these resources could be sent overseas.  

The posters in this exhibit clearly reflect their creators training, revealing their backgrounds as either fine artists or the graphic artists found in the commercial (advertising) art world.

Poster, August Wiliam Hutaf, 1917

Recruitment posters aimed their message at men: by enlisting in the armed forces, they would demonstrate their patriotism and their “manly” outrage at German war crimes; other posters appealed to potential enlistees’ sense of adventure, while others played on their guilt.   Their efforts were wildly successful – the Army swelled from 200,000 recruits to 4,000,000!

Poster by Charles Dana Gibson, 1917

The war was sold as defending France and Belgium – apparently Americans didn’t harbor favorable feelings towards the British, even though the Revolutionary War had ended 140 years earlier, but they remembered the assistance Lafayette and his compatriots gave the fledgling republic.  Anti-German sentiment ran high, with posters, pamphlets and children’s books exhorting Americans to take up the fight against “The Hun”. 

Americans were asked to make sacrifices, even being encouraged to grow their own food, so more could be sent overseas, and in 1918, Daylight Savings Time was introduced as a fuel conservation measure. The Museum’s blog post on the Civilian war effort in the two world wars gives you a very good idea of how ordinary men and women contributed to the effort. 

Poster, Edward Penfield, artist, 1918

Because men were fighting in Europe, women went to work in large numbers outside the house: not only in factories and firms in the US, but also  as ambulance drivers and nurses on the front, fueling their demands for equal rights.  However, it wasn’t until 1920 that American women were granted the right to vote.

Poster, produced by Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company, 1918

The war effort was financed by the sale of Liberty Bonds – by the end of the war, Americans had loaned over $17 billion to their government.  Buying bonds was seen as a sign of loyalty, and refusal was met with suspicion. 

Still from “The Bond” 1918 Charlie Chaplin

Immigrants were exhorted to simultaneously demonstrate their pride in their origins and in their new country by enlisting in the war effort.  Nowhere was this effort more successful than in Hollywood – many in the industry were immigrants who showed their patriotism by creating films that fueled the public’s hatred of Germany and pumped up their patriotic fervor.   At the end of the exhibit there’s a screen showing selections from The Bond, a 1918 film featuring Charlie Chaplin. 

James Reese Europe performing with his band in France, ca. 1918, Library of Congress photo

Jazz also became popular, personified in the bandleader James Reese Europe, who led the marching band of the Harlem Hell Fighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American unit (Noble Sissle was also a member) bringing jazz to troops in France and England.  The Harlem Hell Fighters  emerged from the war with one of the most stellar combat records of any Army unit.  However, when they returned home, they found that the same old racism prevailed. 1919 brought the Red Summer, when cities all across the U.S., particularly in the Jim Crow South, erupted, with whites attacking and killing blacks over employment and housing.

And when the war was over …  

Advertisement for Scot Tissue Towels from Time, October 19, 1931

Many of the wartime poster artists went on to become successful commercial and journalistic illustrators.  New York City became America’s financial and cultural hub in the Roaring 20’s.  The US began to return to its isolationist stance; however, the government continued to look for spies, especially among the foreign-born in New York.  The exhibit has a map depicting NYC’s immigrant neighborhoods, prepared by US Army Officer John B. Trevor for the Lusk Committee’s investigation of “subversives.”  The Cold War was beginning.

Nonetheless, the idea of globalization started to take hold, as people from all over the world met each other serving on the front.  As the song goes, “How ‘ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree).”   The League of Nations was founded after the war, and even though it folded after several years, its successor,  the United Nations continues to this day. 

Many of the issues the country had grappled with at the turn of the century – freedom of speech, immigration, espionage, race relations – continue to dominate public discourse today, making this exhibit exceptionally relevant.

On August 24th the Museum is hosting an  event associated with this exhibit, Hot Jazz Moonlight Social  with the Gotham Kings and jazz historian Ricky Riccardi at 6:00.

The exhibit continues until October 9th.  But don’t wait until then to see it.

The Museum of the City of New York  is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street