In 1917, prompted by some torpedoed ships and an intercepted telegram—wherein Germany tried to woo Mexico to its side by offering the return of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico—the United States belatedly entered World War I. It was a war fought in trenches, in the air, and at sea, and it introduced barbed wire, machine guns, and poison gas to the battlefield. The magnitude of slaughter was beyond comprehension. Tens of millions of soldiers and civilians perished, and when it was over there was a thin and futile hope that mankind had learned its bitter lesson; Woodrow Wilson promised tepidly that it would be “the war to end all wars.” Alas, progress was made in the technological efficiency of mass murder, and notwithstanding some geopolitical shakeups, the First World War turned out to be a dry run for the Second. Americans responded to war then with the same varied attitudes as we do now: a selection of the jingoism, rage, horror, and grief of a century ago is on display at the New-York Historical Society in World War I Beyond the Trenches. The subject is dismal, leavened only by flourishes of flags and the exultation of armistice, and the current exhibition does well to present government sponsored propaganda—a long hallway is given to morale-boosting posters—alongside reportorial work by artists in the field and flashes of indignation from stateside studios.
When reportage was practiced on an epic scale the results were mixed. The show’s magnum opus is Sargent’s Gassed, which portrays an event the artist witnessed in the summer of 1918, the gathering of dozens of soldiers who had been blinded by mustard gas. Painted on commission, the frieze-like mural is elegiac in spirit, if wan in coloring and thinly executed. Sargent was out of his depth, and he knew it; before visiting the Western Front, he wrote “would I have the nerve to look, not to speak of painting? I have never seen anything the least horrible—outside of my studio.” At the front, he went for a joyride in a tank and expressed enthusiasm over bombs exploding nearby. An officer assigned to escort him dryly noted, “This particular type of amusement does not appeal to all of us.” The late transition to mural painting wasn’t an easy fit for an artist of Sargent’s personality, and the tender gloom of Gassed required a suppression of his natural sensuality. More successful are his small watercolors chronicling the quiet aftermath of battle: a shelled sugar refinery and a crashed plane in a field are notable for the matter-of-factness with which the artist rendered minor, specific tragedies.
Whatever its shortcomings, there is a poetic allusiveness to Gassed. Of much sterner mettle is George Bellows’s The Germans Arrive, an outraged reaction to reports of German war crimes against Belgian civilians. Initially a pacifist, Bellows was appalled by published British accounts of atrocities, and he subsequently drew, printed and painted incidents about which he’d read. Bellows’s response to war was a departure from American art that had previously omitted graphic reference to actual violence (for photographic exception, see Mathew Brady). But, like Sargent, and for similar reasons, this wasn’t his milieu, and the physical mutilation is not the painting’s only unsettling element. The scene is envisioned as macabre theater, and is as propagandistic as government posters and then some. Bellows got the look of human lunacy more effectively in the ringside denizens of his boxing paintings, without mounting a soapbox. Two better oils are cleverly installed alongside: a couple of abstract canvases by Marsden Hartley, who, infatuated with Germany and its martial symbolism, fell in love with a man who later died as a soldier for the other side. Works by Horace Pippin underscore racial segregation within the army, contravening the fantasy that American patriotism, even under the unifying mantle of war, was grounded in an egalitarian ideal.
Among the show’s highlights are small works by lesser known painters. Harvey Dunn covered the war as an artist-correspondent, producing drawings of heroic, battle-hardened American troops, but he also made decidedly somber paintings like The Devil’s Vineyard, in which a field surrounded by barbed wire became a death place for anonymous soldiers. Claggett Wilson, wounded in the fighting, painted a series of small works that synthesized grim experiences. In one painting, the bodies of German soldiers are suspended upon barbed wire; in another, a modernist blast of color suggests sensations, rather than a literal depiction of battle: Flower of Death—The Bursting of a Heavy Shell—Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells.
There are colorful exhalations of relief at war’s end. These include a panoramic canvas by George Luks of the Armistice celebration, the city’s nightscape punctuated by banners, and a few of Childe Hassam’s flag paintings, with a winter view of 57th Street that’s no less visually engaging for its mildly sullen air. Hassam had been a zealous advocate for American involvement in the war since 1914, but his painting was mercifully free of rhetoric.
In terms of visual art, the war yielded nothing to compare with Goya. For that matter, not even Guernica, the most famous protest painting of the twentieth century, is on a par with the Disasters of War or the Third of May. Bellows’s ambitions were marred by strenuous salesmanship on behalf of intervention, but they accurately reflected official policy; in 1918 Congress passed the Sedition Act, effectively criminalizing wartime dissent. The inclusion of editorial cartoons in the current show would have been welcome, though these, too, would confirm the prevalence of interventionist sentiments in print journalism.
Photojournalism superseded drawing and painting as a method of reportage. Those few images that have stuck were produced by cameramen, and the televised coverage of violent conflict has become so commonplace since Vietnam that we’re fairly well immune to scenes of carnage. There are other reasons for a misplaced sense of immunity, the first being the illusion of geographical isolation. When it comes to international adventurism, ours is an intriguingly conflicted culture. Historically, the United States has hosted a strong vein of isolationist sentiment; at the same time, we enjoy a gun fetish and a mythology of individual militarism that can be leveraged for nationalistic ends in times of conflict.
The First World War began with an assassination that was initially viewed as inconsequential, but which through errors in communication and an intricate set of alliances, soon snowballed into a global conflict that pulled in every industrialized nation. The art and artifacts of World War I seem like distant smoke to us, yet there are warnings here. Recent events in Syria are a reminder of the latent threat of poison gas, and Sargent’s muted testimony has a renewed poignancy a century later. Moreover, we know that when the ambient atmosphere was sufficiently heated, the shooting of a small nation’s archduke supplied enough spark to plunge the world into fire. The question today is how easily a distant autocrat with nuclear aspirations, a Russian dictator with unchecked ambition or an ill-considered presidential tweet might set a match to the flame. In such times, art as either a rallying cry or a vehicle for protest is of less import than the counsel of level-headed men and women.
World War I Beyond the Trenches continues at the New-York Historical Society through September 3.