PAFA presents World War I and American Art (first review)

The forgotten war remembered in art

World War I and American Art, the new Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) exhibition, is an exhaustive display that recounts how socially and culturally disruptive the Great War was for Americans. It also shows how the art world reacted to that disruption, and how art both reflected and commented on it.

Georgia O'Keeffe's 1918 'The Flag.' (Image courtesy of PAFA)

The Great War wasn't so great

World War I, or the Great War as it was then called, precipitated massive upheaval in U.S. society and culture. But, for some reason, it seems to have faded from Americans’s consciousness, earning it another nickname: America’s forgotten war. It’s astonishing to learn that, of all the great conflicts memorialized throughout our nation’s capital, a monument memorializing World War I has never been erected in Washington.

Similarly, the war’s impact on U.S. art is likewise forgotten, the assumption being that it had little or no impact on our art or artists. This impressive exhibition dramatically shows just how wrong that assumption is.

As is usually the case with PAFA shows, co-curators Robert Cozzolino, Anne Knutson and David Lubin strived not only to include and examine the relevant art of the time, but also to place it in its proper historical perspective. The result is both illuminating (about the art), and enlightening (about the historical context that influenced the artists). Unfortunately, much of what Americans experienced at that time is still happening.

It should be noted that Americans were ambivalent about entering the war. The turning point came when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, which had a cultural impact similar to 9/11, in that it was perceived as the act of barbarians whom it was America’s God-given duty to crush. But after the initial shock of the attack subsided, opinion divided about the wisdom of pursuing a foreign war. Sound familiar?

A nation divided

The artists of that era were likewise ambivalent and split in opinion. Commercial illustrators, for instance, followed the money and were happy to work for the government producing an endless supply of propaganda and recruitment posters. PAFA’s exhibit contains many of the most famous examples of this form. Perhaps the most recognizable piece is James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam pointing a finger at the observer in the “I Want YOU” Army recruitment poster. It’s been an image in constant use up to the present day, and has long since been the definitive image of Uncle Sam.

An unfortunate — and quite deliberate — effect of the profusion of propaganda posters of the time was to fan the flames of bigotry. Many of the posters characterized Germans as “Huns,” animalistic barbarians whose sole purpose was to crush Western civilization and destroy the American way of life.

Not surprisingly, America’s fine artists had a more nuanced reaction. Many of them focused on the human cost of the war in terms of misery, pain, and death. Others reacted with dismay and outrage at the social and political changes wrought by the conflict.

One such change is that, with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1917, anti-war speech was criminalized, forcing many artists to silence themselves, or keep their works under wraps. A good example was American master Georgia O’Keefe, who painted her masterpiece The Flag in 1918, but didn’t display it until decades later, when she wouldn’t be jailed or blacklisted for painting a picture of a red flag.

The highlight of the exhibit is John Singer Sargent’s mural-sized masterpiece, Gassed. On loan to PAFA from London’s Imperial War Museum, this massive work, painted in 1918, depicts a line of soldiers, all blinded by mustard gas, being led through a war-torn landscape littered with corpses. It is both incredibly beautiful and indelibly sad. But then, war tends to bring that out in artists, as this collection brilliantly shows.

PAFA’s can’t-miss exhibition makes sure that America’s forgotten war is remembered, and shows that war brings out the best  — and the worst — in artists. But isn’t that what war does to everyone?

To read Judy Weightman's review of this show, click here.

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