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Centennial of Slaughter

books and culture

Centennial of Slaughter

Two exhibitions reflect on America’s entry into the First World War. September 1, 2017
Arts and Culture

The United States’ 1917 entry into The Great War, as the First World War was originally known, occurred at a time of artistic ferment. The New York Armory show that introduced European modernism to a broad America public was but four years past; the flowering of literary modernism was only a few years in the future, as were the antiwar novels and memoirs that have shaped public perception of the conflict. “World War I: Beyond the Trenches,” an exhibition running at the New-York Historical Society through this Sunday before moving to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, displays a wide range of responses to the war: small, expressionistic canvases by Georgia O’Keefe beside Violet Oakley’s traditionalist, large-scale commemorative portrait of fallen aviator Henry Howard Houston Woodward.

John Singer Sargent’s Gassed is the exhibit’s focal point. On loan from the Imperial War Museum in London, this massive rectilinear canvas depicts the aftermath of the quintessential Great War horror: exposure to poison gas. Several months before the November 1918 armistice, the British War Memorial Committee had commissioned the cosmopolitan Sargent to paint an epic-scale canvas, to be displayed in a planned-for Hall of Remembrance. In search of a theme, the 62-year-old portrait artist visited the front, where he and British artist Henry Tonks witnessed a group of mustard-gas casualties.

Sargent had completed the 20 x 7 ½ foot oil painting by the spring of 1919. In the mid-ground a line of blinded men, eyes bandaged, moves hands-on-shoulders along a pathway toward what appears to be a small plank bridge, which apparently leads to an aid station, off-canvas. Both sides of the pathway are lined with other blinded men, sprawled in various postures, awaiting their turn to go down the same path. A second group of blinded men approaches from the right.

The subject matter evokes the Wilfred Owen gas-attack poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” while the arrangement echoes Breughel’s smaller painting, The Blind Leading the Blind. Contra Virginia Woolf, who thought Sargent’s painting excessively patriotic, Gassed depicts war as a form of moral blindness and echoes another Breughel theme: mundane life continues in the midst of suffering, even man-made destruction on an unprecedented scale. (“About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters,” wrote W. H. Auden about Breughel’s Fall of Icarus, which depicts a farmer continuing to work his plow as the titular character plunges into the sea.) In Gassed, a group of soldiers in the background plays football, as their newly blinded comrades flounder.

The exhibit includes three flag paintings from a series of 30 by the prolific and accomplished Boston impressionist Childe Hassam. Co-curator David Lubin sees Hassam’s flag series as the artist’s “last significant body of work.” The images celebrate American patriotism, though many show not only the stars and stripes but also the Union Jack and the French tricolor. Hassam was a preparedness booster and an ardent interventionist. Alongside Hassam’s impressionist productions, George Bellows’s two large canvasses, The Germans Arrive and Return of the Useless, are as propagandistic as recruiting posters. Once antiwar, the socialist Bellows was angered by reports of German atrocities, the subject of these two works.

Among soldier-painters, Claggett Wilson stands apart for having been trained in modernist salons prior to the war. A Columbia University art professor, Wilson enlisted in the Marines, hoping to emerge from combat with a “purified” artistic vision. He was gassed at Belleau Wood and spent three days stranded in the battle’s aftermath. It comes as no surprise, then, that many of his paintings depict wounded soldiers or the moment of impact of a bullet or an explosive shell. Working in watercolors, in a palette dominated by yellows and browns, Wilson combines realist and modernist techniques. His Flower of Death—the Bursting of a Heavy Shell—Not as it Looks, but as it Feels and Sounds and Smells, is suggestive of his desire to capture the totality of what he witnessed.

Unlike the art-schooled Wilson, the self-taught Horace Pippin made himself into an artist after the war. Pippin served in New York’s 369th infantry regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. His unit returned home in February 1919 to a huge parade up Fifth Avenue. W. E. B. Du Bois, who had encouraged African-American military participation, feared that the cheering crowds would obscure the discrimination to which the soldiers were returning. Du Bois recognized the irony in the black soldiers’ fight for high ideals abroad when they did not enjoy guarantees of even basic rights at home. One of Pippin’s paintings displays the segregated barracks in which he lived. Pippin achieved fame as an artist despite a crippled right shoulder, the result of a wound from sniper fire; he used his left arm to support his right when he worked.

Pippin’s The Ending of the War: Starting Home is reason enough to attend the exhibition; no photographic reproduction can do it justice. The image, painted with remarkable thickness, shows German soldiers surrendering to African-American troops. Pippin wrought his own thickly carved wooden frame, depicting instruments of war in bas relief. He labored over the work from 1930 to 1933—a slow processing of the war’s impact not uncommon among soldiers.

In the exhibit’s final section, “Celebration and Mourning,” two paintings by John Steuart Curry provide further illustration of this slow coming to terms. The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne commemorates a funeral held for the painter’s high school friend, whose remains were not found until 1921. Curry began work on the painting in 1928 and did not finish it until 1940, by which time the Second World War had begun. He had anticipated this, as shown in his 1938 Parade to War: An Allegory, the most mordant work of the entire exhibit, in which soldiers march wearing doughboy-like uniforms; their faces are death’s-heads, and confetti sticks to their outsize bayonets.

An exhibition of World War I propaganda posters is running at the Museum of the City of New York through October 9. “Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York” collects the work of commercial artists employed by the federal Committee on Public Information, which printed more than 20 million copies of some 2,500 posters. With a focus on New York City artifacts, this well-curated exhibit invites contemplation of propaganda and its many uses: recruitment, demonization of an enemy, public morale. Propaganda can be set to music, too, as a collection of sheet music reminds us. One wishes that lyrics, or better yet, audio samples of the songs, were made available.

In a city full of World War I art and artifacts, these two exhibitions offer timely reflection in this centennial year of America’s involvement in the war to end all wars.

Photo: Claggett Wilson, Flower of Death—The Bursting of a Heavy Shell—Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells (1919), courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

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