Exhibition Opening: 'World War I and American Art' at Frist Center for the Visual Arts

John Singer Sargent,  Gassed , 1919, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museums, London, as installed in  World War I and American Art  at Frist Center for the Visual Arts (photo: Author)

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museums, London, as installed in World War I and American Art at Frist Center for the Visual Arts (photo: Author)

This week I attended the preview and opening of World War I and American Art, the first major exhibition to explore American artists' involvement in and representation of the First World War, at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.

100 years after US entry into the war, the exhibition, organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), brings together more than seventy artists and a range of media—from grand manner paintings to digitized memoirs—to examine the impact of 'The Great War' on American art, and vice versa. It coincides with a number of other centennial exhibitions and symposia (SAHGB 2018 Annual Symposium: Architecture, the Built Environment, and the Aftermath of the First World War; World War I Centennial: Smithsonian Commemoration) designed to expand and reframe conversations about the war, and addresses a significant gap in what curator Robert Cozzolino called the "conventional wisdom" of American involvement, namely, the idea that the war didn't affect Americans or American art very much "because we weren't 'in it' very long." 

One of the strengths of the exhibition is its scope: organized loosely chronologically to follow a thematic progression from Prelude to Celebration and Mourning, it invites viewers to consider a range of experiences, interpretations, and perspectives, from personal and memorial to professional and documentary to political and propagandistic. It also highlights significant and little-talked-about aspects of several major artists' careers. 

The exhibition begins with John Singer Sargent's Gassed (1919), on rare loan from London's Imperial War Museums. Displayed on its own, the work confronts visitors with a near life-size scene of soldiers blinded by mustard gas (a new technology) being led through a field of other wounded toward a suggested medical tent against an eerily beautiful sunset backdrop. While New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, in his review of the show in its premier installation in Philadelphia, referred to this beauty as Sargent's "big weakness" in regard to this work, I find it to be a vital point of entry for contemplation of the theme: far from "soften"-ing tragedy or "glamorize"-ing damage, the subdued rendering and monumental composition that liken the painting to aggrandizing historical works also facilitate a profoundly intimate interaction with decidedly un-glamorous and un-mythologized (i.e. human) elements and actions, the beauty and rhythm that draw you in also forcing you through a succession of injury, fatigue, thirst, nausea, blindness, dependency, and hope. (Note: One might also consider the very different experiences of standing in front of this work now and reading it in newsprint then.)

The juxtaposition created by Sargent's work is reiterated as you follow the soldiers' visual march, not into a dressing station, but into the next room of the exhibition, where the first view is of Winsor McCay's black-and-white animation The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). Around the corner from this (in the Tenuous Neutrality section), works by Marsden Hartley and Childe Hassam raise questions about personal intention and public reception, the former's abstract portraits of Karl von Freyburg, highly politicized, facing latter's flag-filled street scenes, often overlooked as mere 'Impressionism.' 

Lesser-known works by George Bellows, more easily recognized for his urban street and pugilistic scenes, open the section on Debating the War. For me, the most interesting debate touched on in this room is that of 'authenticity.' (While Cozzolino pointed out that Bellows was criticized for his 'imagination' in creating these works, which include etchings along the lines of Francisco de Goya ca. 1810, I wonder how much difference, and when, there is between 'real' and 'imagined' experiences of war.)

Perhaps the most recognizable image in the exhibition is James Montgomery Flagg's I Want YOU for U.S. Army poster of 1917. Here we get into the more familiar historical territory of propaganda and America-to-the-rescue. While highlighting the romanticizing nature of art designed to bolster support for the war and encourage recruitment, however, the exhibition also makes note of another important facet of propaganda in this period: the visualizing of an 'Other' as part of a national identity formation. Harry R. Hopps's Destroy This Mad Brute—Enlist (ca. 1917) plays on fears of immigrant "dilution" of American social and moral structure by depicting Germany as a violent gorilla that has abducted a distressed, bare-breasted maidena reference to both the idealized middle-class woman, whose virtue (real and imagined) was considered to be threatened by proximity to 'rogue' immigrant and working-class men, and to the Classically garbed Liberty, symbol of American civilization and enlightenment. (The savage v. civilization theme is one that reoccurs throughout the exhibition and is introduced in the very first line of wall text, which describes the war as an example of modern civilization's ability to "descend" into violence.) Other works in this section deal with the negotiation of changing gender roles, and the definition of an 'appropriate' space for women in war efforts.

Technology is another important theme addressed in the exhibition. Watercolor, photography, airplanes, and barbed wire are among the innovations whose contributions to both battle and recovery, reconnaissance and remembrance are explored. A nod to current technology is also made in the digital installation of Horace Pippin's memoir of experiences (ca. 1921), from the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. 

James Van Der Zee,  Looking Backward ,  ca . 1929, Donna Van Der Zee, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

James Van Der Zee, Looking Backward, ca. 1929, Donna Van Der Zee, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Modernist Reactions is a somewhat peculiar section in its separateness, but calls significant attention again to overlooked aspects of familiar oeuvresa strength of the exhibition as a whole. (The bathroom scholar in me is also always pleased to see Marcel Duchamp's Mott/Mutt Fountain in a new context.)

The final rooms of World War I and American Art, dedicated to Celebration and Mourning, deal with the immediate and continued aftermath of the war and how we go about remembering it at various times. Arthur Beecher Carles's The Marseillaise (ca. 1918) invites a thought-provoking comparison (and contrast) with Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), while other works lead me to consider the benefits and drawbacks of the tendency to interpret the First World War as a precursor of the Second. My personal favorites in this section are a pair of photographs by James Van Der Zee of "doughboys" Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson, entitled Two Soldiers (ca. 1919) and Looking Backward (ca. 1929).

Overall, World War I and American Art is a highly stimulating exhibition that opens up significant and well-timed avenues of discussion of this 'forgotten' war, its embeddedness within modern American cultural and artistic development and discourse, and its relevance in light of current political dissidence. Its installation in Nashville, and the South in general, offers a particularly pertinent opportunity for meditation on the nature of memory and representation. Go, go again, spend time with the whole exhibition, and then spend more time with individual works.


World War I and American Art, curated at the Frist by Trinita Kennedy, is open now in the Ingram Gallery until January 21, 2018. (#WWIFCVA)