How American artists captured the Great War up close

March 2, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
It was a cataclysmic, world-shattering and world-shaping event. Today we can relive the visceral human effects of World War I through a new exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which showcases a myriad of iconic images and art for and against the divisive conflict. Jeffrey Brown reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This April marks 100 years since the United States joined the side of the Allies in World War I. The Great War wasn’t only joined in the trenches, but in the culture in different ways as well.

An exhibit in Philadelphia explores how American artists grappled with a divisive conflict that produced powerful images for and against it.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: I Want You, about as direct as it gets, an iconic image from World War I.

The Flower of Death, an evocative title for a painting by an American soldier named Claggett Wilson, that captures some of the close-up horror of the war.

Just some of the ways American artists responded to a cataclysmic, world-shattering and -shaping event, the subject of a major new exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia titled World War I and American Art.

Co-curator Robert Cozzolino:

ROBERT COZZOLINO, Co-Curator: At heart, this is a human interest story.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the whole war, as big as it was?

ROBERT COZZOLINO: You have these artists who are thinking, basically, here’s this huge global conflict going on. How do I make sense of it? And how do I also bring it down to a human level and express either dissent, an urgency for America to take part in it, or to just express what’s at stake?

JEFFREY BROWN: The Great War began in Europe in 1914. The U.S. didn’t join until three years later, after an intense public debate over entering a foreign conflict.

Artists weighed in on both sides. John Sloan’s After the War, a Medal, Maybe a Job in 1914 was one of the earliest anti-war drawings.

Marsden Hartley was conflicted. He lived in Germany and fell in love with a German military officer killed in the war, who Hartley depicted in a series of paintings.

Childe Hassam on the other hand, active in the pro-interventionist movement in New York, streamed flags across his canvasses in support of the allies.

And George Bellows, an early opponent of the war, was moved to support it by a U.S. government report, later disputed, of German atrocities.

ROBERT COZZOLINO: He’s swayed that he has to show what happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he swayed, big time, because this is an atrocity painting, right, on a large scale.

ROBERT COZZOLINO: Yes, he makes these history paintings about this contemporary event, and he’s showing the brutality of these atrocities being committed to citizens. He’s showing it at its most visceral.

JEFFREY BROWN: More directly, the U.S. government commissioned artists to create propaganda posters as part of an agency to influence public opinion, calls to enlist in the military, and invest in the war effort, questioning the masculinity of fighting age men, and the consequences of inaction.

Anne Classen Knutson is another of the show’s curators.

ANNE CLASSEN KNUTSON, Co-Curator: You have seen this image a hundred different times, and this is where it begins.


ANNE CLASSEN KNUTSON: James Montgomery Flagg, a famous illustrator, created Uncle Sam. He loved himself so much, he created Uncle Sam in his own visage, so this is James Montgomery Flagg as Uncle Sam.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?


And it was so well-known, it was reused over and over again in the 20th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right next to it, though, a very different kind of image.

ANNE CLASSEN KNUTSON: One of the subtexts of this, people before the war were very worried that immigrants were going to come — and these are not my words — these are their words — and dilute our white American bloodlines.

So this is an image of that, that fear of immigrants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Immigrants, and also African-Americans, I assume.

ANNE CLASSEN KNUTSON: Also using — Tarzan was a hot topic at the time. The novels were coming out, and he was using caricatures of African- Americans as well. And they were very feared during the war and not treated well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Other work from the era countered that imagery, showing a normalized, patriotic black life in a culture that continued to discriminate against it.

Kelli Morgan is a curatorial fellow with academy.

KELLI MORGAN, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: We have families.

African-American people are, like I said, a very integral piece of the American fabric, that we are meant to be here. This is our country, just as much as it is anybody else’s. And also to really show — or to play up that narrative of, these are America’s sons. These are America’s husbands. These are America’s fathers, just like their white counterparts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Blacks served with distinction abroad, but faced renewed discrimination back home. And soon after the war, race riots broke out around the country, a kind of backlash, says Morgan.

KELLI MORGAN: Because there was a sense that African-American men, particularly veterans, had kind of gotten out of their place, so this idea of bravery and subjectivity and autonomy in particular couldn’t stand.

JEFFREY BROWN: The war would be represented in numerous other ways.

Georgia O’Keeffe, conflicted about the U.S. role and worried about a brother about to be sent to fight, painted this red flag enveloped in smoke.

Official artists, including George Harding, were embedded in the fighting, a first for the U.S. military in a foreign war.

ROBERT COZZOLINO: You get this heightened sense of what it must have felt like to have a tank running towards — moving towards the trench you’re in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward Steichen served as an aerial photographer, as planes were used on a wide scale in war for the first time.

Photographs like these, shown in newspapers, influenced abstract paintings by the likes of John Marin. One strikingly direct and haunting use of art in the war, masks made by sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd for disfigured soldiers.

The painter Horace Pippin fought, was injured, and wrestled with the aftermath of his experience for years to come. An African-American, he served with the famed Harlem Hellfighters, a renowned infantry of black soldiers.

ROBERT COZZOLINO: The war has these echoes for all the people who lived through it into the 1920s and ’30s. It stays with them and it becomes an integral part to the kinds of art that they’re making.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the most famous artistic image of World War I is the epic, 20-foot-long painting by John Singer Sargent titled Gassed, a line of wounded soldiers blinded in a gas attack, a mustard yellow pallor, a game of soccer in the background, as life goes on, while figures writhe in the foreground.

ROBERT COZZOLINO: And it seemed to him the perfect analogy for the way people have been talking about the First World War, the blind leading the blind.

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, some 17 million soldiers and civilians would die in the war, including more than 100,000 American military personnel.

It brought huge changes, but wasn’t, as first claimed, the war to end all wars. The exhibition’s final room shows work from its aftermath, and two that bookend its heights and depths, the flag-waving celebration of George Benjamin Luks’ Armistice Night and John Steuart Curry’s Parade to War allegory from 1938, as soldiers again march toward a great foreign war, their faces already becoming skeletons, images of war that reverberate to today.

From the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The World War I exhibition will travel next to New York in the spring and then to Nashville in the fall.