What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “war art”? I’m not sure why, but I used to be (and still am) slightly averse to it. Maybe it was the dark humor of twentieth century war literature, or maybe it had something to do with an internalized false dichotomy between aesthetics and politics. Some narratives of art production and history suggest that the focus of art should be aesthetic forms, and that is where its merit lies. But war art clearly shows that politics can be just as important. Maybe it was the fact that “war art” is frequented by white men as both artists and subjects, and I, of course, am not a white man. It also could have been a combination of these last two; so, art is allowed to be expressly political, but only as long as its subjects are white men?
Bearing these preconceptions in mind, I decided to finally make my way to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to see their exhibit, World War I and American Art, as a sort of challenge to myself — and I was blown away by what I saw. I highly recommend taking a trip into the city to see this! Admission does strike me as a little pricey, though, at $12 with a Swarthmore I.D.
The first and oldest art school in the United States, PAFA has been attended by a number of canonical American artists such as Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and Benjamin West (whose birthplace and historic home are located on our very own campus). Their museum and permanent collection provide a unique survey of American art, so a traveling exhibit that explores World War I specifically through American art seems like a fitting endeavor for this institution. PAFA is doing groundbreaking work by putting this exhibit together; almost a century has passed since the war, yet this show is the first to ever examine it through the work of American artists.
This seems like reason enough to check out the show, but you should also go see this show because it is a nuanced, rich, and positively consuming experience of art made in a specific time and place. Specific moves made by Curator of Paintings at Minneapolis Institute of Art Robert Cozzolino Patrick, independent curator Anne Knutson, and Professor of Art at Wake Forest University David Lubin made this experience possible.
We see this curatorial expertise in the very first gallery, where we learn of the United States’ attempt at neutrality. The war began in 1914, but the United States did not join the Allies until 1917. In this gallery, the works of Childe Hassam and Marsden Hartley are hung opposite one another. While working in Berlin, Hartley fell in love with a German officer, Karl von Freyburg. Sadly, Freyburg died in battle during the first year of the war. Hartley mourned the death of his lover in his painting, incorporating the colorful symbols of the German army. Hartley’s paintings feature flat planes of bright color and somewhat confusing, abstracted compositions, all reminiscent of German Expressionism and Cubism. It is important to note that Germany fought on the side of the Central Powers — opposite the Allies and, eventually, the United States. When Hartley returned to the United States, he was often accused of pro-German sentiment, which he denied.
What an interesting body of work to put in dialogue with the paintings of Hassam, which are painted in a style clearly evoking French Impressionism. Hassam was a pro-interventionist, meaning he supported the United States joining the war and fighting on the side of the Allies. His paintings seem, at first, to depict merely the busy streets of New York during the seasons, much like Monet’s own street scenes. A closer look, however, reveals the ever-looming presence of war. The flags of Allied nations hang with the American flag over the heads of city pedestrians, functioning as both symbols of support and reminders of war. This first gallery warms the viewers up to the nuance in American understandings of the war and art made at the time. Hartley’s use of German imagery was personal and politicized by his American audience, but the intentional call-to-arms communicated in Hassam’s paintings are rendered less conspicuously by their lighthearted aesthetic of Impressionism.
As you can see, it is impossible to leave the show without an increased historical knowledge of World War I. This is an excellent show for history buffs and novices alike, because the narrative established by the art is not only captivating, but also comprehensive and polyphonic. We see through the portraits of James VanDerZee and the paintings of Harlem Hellfighter Horace Pippin the roles Black men played in the war as soldiers and artists. Lithographs and posters, such as Ernest H. Baker’s For Every Fighter / A Woman Worker poster, highlight what roles women were asked to play back home, while paintings by Jane Peterson show their work in the Red Cross. The show’s amalgam of posters reveals so much about the war: some of them idealizing the body of the male soldier to push men towards the army while non-interventionist political cartoons and publications satirized these same images. The show subverts and complicate dominant narratives of World War I. In addition to brushing up on my history, I felt my preconceptions of war art challenged and engaged with throughout the show, and I left with a newfound appreciation of war art and what it can do.
Finally, the exhibit has so many surprises. Hartley and Hassam were obviously fair game for this show, but who knew that Georgia O’Keefe, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, and Man Ray also created art related to the war? Not me! The show also features one of the most famous posters of the twentieth century: James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You for the U.S. Army poster, the well-known portrait of Uncle Sam. Art spills out from the enclosed rooms of the Brooks Gallery into the hallways of PAFA’s Hamilton building, but the art featured in the hallways physically distinguished on purpose — it highlights the work of contemporary American artists in response to World War I.
PAFA has also organized a number of events (sadly, not free) in conjunction with this show that might be interesting to check out. These events include film screenings of Shoulder Arms and On All Heights Is Peace at the International House, as well as a lecture delivered by sculptor Sabin Howard on his World War I memorial commission in D.C. The show will continue to be on view until April 9th, after which it will move on to the New-York Historical Society, May 23 to Sept. 3. Go see this show!