One hundred years after the United States’s entry into World War I, a number of museums across the country have scheduled special events and exhibitions that commemorate the centennial. At the New-York Historical Society, this summer’s “WWI: Beyond the Trenches” showcases the work American artists created variously to promote the war, represent its action, and grieve its destruction. Discussion of the arts and World War I typically centers on the British war poets and the participants of the continental European avant-garde, who fit seamlessly into the cultural narrative of the failure of La Belle Époque and modernism’s concurrent aesthetic revolution. Adding to this discussion, “WWI: Beyond the Trenches” establishes that Americans, too, produced vital artwork that responded intelligently and emotively to the war, and that their inquiries into narrative, representation, and form, though perhaps smaller in scale, were no less interesting than those happening in Europe.
The de facto centerpiece of the exhibition, worth a trip to the N-YHS on its own, is John Singer Sargent’s Gassed (1919), a mural-sized depiction of ten soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, leading one another in a line to the field hospital. Chronologically and thematically, the painting belongs at the end of the exhibition, next to work that both celebrates the conclusion of the war and memorializes the grave casualties inflicted during the conflict. But on its first-ever journey to New York, the painting is a showstopper and deserves its prominent place on the main wall, at center stage immediately as you walk into the exhibition. Sargent’s work is a striking representation of survival amid suffering and has a commanding formal presence. At the very least, you’ll get to see in person the image that was probably reproduced in the WWI section of your high school history textbook.
The exhibition, however, was as interesting, if not more so, for the smaller and less–well-known works that provide a more complete and complex response to the war than that of Sargent’s enormous painting. Sargent himself was a brilliant watercolorist, and this exhibition contains two of his works on paper that convey a more lived experience of the subtleties of war. More generally, the period was a time of massive upheaval within artistic circles in both Europe and America. By the time America entered the war in 1917, it had acquaintance with modern art for four full years (if we are to accept the 1913 Armory Show as its “formal introduction”). The task of representing the entirely new and strange calamity that was World War I, a conflict that further called into question traditional modes of thinking, only intensified the aesthetic battle between representation and abstraction that was already being fiercely contested.
Two large paintings by George Bellows shown in the first section of the exhibition, “Debating the War,” contend that realism still played a vital role on the modern stage. The works depict German atrocities alleged in the 1915 “Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages,” which detailed German misconduct in Belgium as the Wehrmacht made its way to France in 1911—murder of civilians (men, women, and children) as well as rape, looting, and mass arson. This “Bryce Report” (named after its chair, the Viscount James Bryce) was largely responsible for mobilizing anti-German sentiment in America through its depiction of the German people as animalistic and aggressive—an image that would be reproduced visually in propaganda posters as well as narrative paintings such as Bellows’s. In the two works shown, Bellows uses his masterful ability to convey action through the viscosity of paint to represent the forceful violence of German soldiers pillaging their way through the Belgian countryside.
In Return of the Useless (1918), a German soldier draws back his rifle, ready to strike a helpless boy thrown to the ground just a moment before. The rust-red wall of the boxcar, a backdrop to the violence that permeates the front of the scene, flattens the painting’s overall range of space. The boxcar’s open door, however, serves as an entry point into a secondary space that holds the shadowed, blurred suffering of a number of faceless destitute. Perhaps we might read the painting as an allegory for Bellows’s desire to uncover visually the dark secrets, those previously unknown German atrocities, for the imagination of his American audience.
The Germans Arrive (1918), on the other hand, takes a more explicit and gruesome depiction of German violence, as impersonal German soldiers amputate the hands of a captured boy whose crimson blood and flesh starkly contrast the rest of the picture’s greenish-gray atmosphere. Those who questioned the Bryce Report’s factual legitimacy accused Bellows of participating in a baseless and xenophobic propaganda campaign against German ethnics. As the exhibition’s wall text explains, however, the accusations leveled in the original report have been substantively vindicated by the most current scholarship.
Marsden Hartley’s symbolic abstractions of 1914, Berlin Ante War and Portrait, are surprising as much for their relatively radical form as for their unique biographical context. Hartley, originally of Lewiston, Maine, made these paintings while living in Berlin, where he had moved the year prior in order to immerse himself in the city’s modernist and expressionist circles. Hartley made these abstract, collage-like representations of various German military symbols, including its flag and the “Iron Cross,” as testaments to the friendships that Hartley had cultivated in Berlin, most notably his possible lover Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg. The paintings were made before America entered the war, before the true and horrific nature of mechanized conflict was understood by the general public. Of course, the works received a frigid reception in America in 1916–17, by which time anti-German sentiment was at its peak—forcing Hartley to disavow the political symbolism so clearly evident in the work.
Filling out the exhibition, and indeed providing its most surprising material, were the artist–soldiers whose firsthand experience in the War provided the impetus for strikingly vivid and evocative representations of violence and destruction. Claggett Wilson’s watercolors were among the most notable examples, providing a glimpse into the extraordinary but also genuine experiences of those who fought. Dance of Death (1919), for instance, shows the gruesome entanglement of three soldiers on the barbed wire fencing that stood between trenches. Scenes such as these abandon the Romantic aestheticization of war that those at home frequently produced. Gone are the dramatic and heroic moments of historical conflict, replaced by the grim realities of everyday warfare. An entire half of Wilson’s Flower of Death—The Bursting of a Heavy Shell—Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells (1919) is covered by abstract mark-making—splotches and drops of black, violent streaks of red and yellow—that abruptly shatters the relative realism of its left side. The painting, as its poetic title expressly points out, directly engages with one of the central themes of the exhibition—that is, painting’s hubristic aspiration to effectively capture an experience that transcends the visual realm, an aspiration that called Realism into question and sparked innovative and experimental modes of new representation.
The Devil’s Vineyard (n.d.) by Harvey Dunn, an army artist correspondent for the American Expeditionary Force, similarly depicts the ubiquitous barbed wire that shielded the trenches. The painting’s impressionistic, foggy atmosphere conceals the enemy’s position from our view, creating a sense of the mysterious unknown. The thick, smoky atmosphere of the painting weighs down on the field of wire and almost unintelligible bodies of dead soldiers, whose forms are painted so as to almost merge into the ground on which they lie.
Elsewhere, Horace Pippin’s folk art–style paintings, made decades after an armistaice was declared in November 1918, depict Pippin’s undying memories of the European front as a member of the famous Harlem Hellfighters 369th infantry regiment. In a rare triumphant scene, The End of the War: Starting Home (1930–33), German infantrymen throw hands of surrender to the oncoming Harlem soldiers while flaming German warplanes crash into the burning fields in the background. As if to emphasize the machine’s enveloping presence in the war, Pippin carved relief sculptures of grenades, tanks, machine guns, and the like into the wood frame of his painting.
More works of great interest abound in this exhibition, made by artists still revered in the annals of art history as well as those largely forgotten or never seriously considered in the first place. Illustrated letters home from soldiers in the trenches, sculptures by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, audio recordings of popular patriotic songs, and aerial photographs all expand the show’s scope beyond traditional painting. As such, “WWI: Beyond the Trenches” is unique in its examination of an under-appreciated body of American art, and seamlessly bridges the historical with the aesthetic.