Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

“WORLD WAR I AND AMERICAN ART” AT PAFA (AND ELSWHERE)

April 6, 2017

Tags: John Singer Sargent, Boardman Robinson

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) Gassed, 1919 Oil on canvas, 90 ½ × 240 in. Fr.: 107 x 256 x 5 ½ in. Imperial War Museums, London, England
I feel horribly guilty about being so slow to review this winter’s mammoth, handsome, moving and now appallingly timely exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Entitled “World War I and American Art,” it opened at the beginning of November 2016, and I attended its media preview. In fact, I took so long examining it that I was the last critic to leave.

Now it will only be at PAFA until April 9, though versions of it will be traveling to the New-York Historical Society from May 26 to September 3, and thereafter to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville from October 6 to January 21, 2018.

I only hope that at these later venues the highlights of its Philadelphia presentation retain their prominence and that not too much has been done to lessen their impact by adding the latest "edgy" bells & whistles in New York or by stripping the show down for the presumably more modest space in Nashville.

One of the most ambitious projects that PAFA has ever organized, this show incorporates about 160 works by some 80 artists in a variety of styles and approaches--from abstract to representational, from elite to popular, from serious to (perhaps unintentionally) droll, and from advocate to savagely satiric. Media range from paintings, drawings and sculpture to prints, photographs, posters and ephemera.

Perhaps inevitably there is also an ancient film clip showing the sinking of the Lusitania and an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of “Fountain,” the urinal consecrated as art by Marcel Duchamp, and hauled into this context by the dubious interpretation that it refers to “the flushing of millions of young lives down the communal drain.” Are we ever going to get a rest from this tedious piece of plumbing or are we condemned to it till the next millennium?

Above all, this is a show dedicated to subject matter. If the work was created by an American and bears some relation (however remote) to that appalling massacre which between 1914 and 1918 reached clear around the globe (devastating Russia and western Europe in particular), it is considered legitimate fodder for this show.

This seems to apply no matter how good, bad or indifferent it may be as art. Though I may be one of the last critics who still takes a jaundiced view of sappy sentimentality, overwrought emotion, dated mannerisms, and “art” of far more documentary than esthetic value, even I have to concede that taking such a kitchen-sink view of the topic under consideration makes for a complex and often absorbing show.

The thought to hold is that World War I didn’t really have that much to do with the United States. The war lasted from 1914 to 1918, but we only got into it in 1917, after the main combatants (Britain, France, and Russia as “The Allies”, and Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire as “The Central Forces”) had more or less bled themselves dry.

We didn’t suffer from it nearly as much as they did. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (online), the total number of mobilized forces in the war as a whole was more than 65 million, and the casualty rate was 57.5 percent—in other words, more than half died, were wounded, taken prisoner or missing. But the US mobilized only 4.4 million forces, and of them only 8.1 percent became casualties.

Nor, although civilian deaths on the whole are believed to have exceeded even those in the military, civilian deaths were nearly non-existent for the Yanks, as the war took place “over there” (true, even the U.S. suffered from the influenza pandemic that came along in the wake of the war, but it suffered less from disease of all kinds than civilians in other countries, too).

This may help to explain the jolly-jolly nature of several of the government posters in this show encouraging Americans to enlist (the James Montgomery Flagg poster, with Uncle Sam pointing the finger and the caption of “I want YOU for U.S. Army,” is the least jolly-jolly here, and seems to be the only one remembered—and much imitated).

This disengagement also helps to explain the sharp bite of those socialists and pacifists who saw the war as only a struggle for markets between foreign capitalists and opposed getting involved. John Sloan is well-represented in this context, with the sort of drawings published by The Masses that led to it getting shut down when the US entered the war.

The best-remembered antiwar image, though, is “Europe, 1916,” the Boardman Robinson drawing of Death sitting on a donkey and dangling a carrot labeled “Victory” in front of its nose, encouraging it to move forward—over a cliff.

There are a number of other worthy entries here, too, including a war bond poster showing the Statue of Liberty by Joseph Pennell; a watercolor by Jane Peterson, showing ladies sewing in a Red Cross workroom; a delicately abstracted painting by Morton Livingston Schamberg that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the war; and a red-and-blue semi-abstract by Georgia O’Keeffe that supposedly depicts soldiers in helmets (likewise a reach).

A couple of spooky watercolors by Charles Burchfield show a very little house, shuddering in a very big wind, and a ghostly forest interior (again only very indirectly if at all related to the war).

Eminently presentable, and more directly related to the war, is a row of emaciated bronze horses, presumably returning from the battlefront, and titled “Les Revenants (The Ghosts).” It’s by Herbert Heseltine, and reminded me of the horrific statistics on horses killed during World War I and vividly dramatized in the recent British novel and puppet play, “War Horse.”

Also well done is a vivid panorama of the returning crowd by George Luks, entitled “Armistice Night,” as well as the warmly quiet “Portrait of Lieutenant Jean-Julien Lemordant” by Susan Macdowell Eakins, and the stately three-quarter length portrait of “Henry Howard Houston Woodward” by Violet Oakley, an aviator seen in front of his airplane (he was shot down in aerial warfare--an ultra-modern form of combat at the time).

Horace Pippin was in military service, too, although his paintings of it in this show all date from years afterwards. Particularly affecting is “The End of the War: Starting Home” (1930-33), with all the soldiers leaping out of their trenches, and the frame decorated by the artist with little carved guns and grenades.

The peerless James Van Der Zee is here with photos taken after the war, most effectively in “Victory Parade of the 369th Regiment.” (1919).

Even later, we have Nahum Tschacbasov, the figurative expressionist, giving expression to the antiwar sentiment that lingered on into the postwar period with “Madonna and Child with Gas Masks” (1938). Chlorine gas, mustard gas and other poisonous gasses were nightmarish weapons used by both sides in World War I but only rarely (thank God) in World War II.

(The subject of chemical warfare, however, assumes fresh relevance in light of the latest atrocities in Syria. It is really too bad that President Trump did not initially express more outrage, but of course the Russians are backing President Assad, who was responsible for this use of poison gas, and Trump is buddy-buddies with the Russians.

(And President Trump's secondary response -- to send 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria -- was even more disturbing, a response of the most ancient part of the triune human brain, its reptilian segment that knows only "fight or flight." This response seemed to fit the mood of the moment, but in itself is no real solution.

(What we need now is the use of the two more recent evolutionary and sophisticated parts of the brain, the mammalian brain or limbic system and the uniquely human neocortex---the former to sympathize and identify with all those fellow humans on the ground (the ones who will only suffer more with our bombing) -- and the latter to think, calmly and dispassionately, about how to marshal opposition to chemical warfare without bringing on World War III.

(I will say here, in passing, that I had been thinking for a long time of doing a purely political posting at the website. I am fed to the teeth with the way that the President has been behaving in his domestic policies: they are exactly what one might expect from the old saying about putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

(The U.S. consumer (which is to say, practically all of us) is going to suffer from the way that those titans of business who control production and/or distribution -- whether of securities, food, education, drugs, online megabytes and even the air we breathe --- have been and will be getting yet more permission to lower their standards and shortchange and/or endanger the public with impunity....just as the rich will be getting richer and the poor will be getting poorer if the tax "reforms" that Trump and the Republicans favor get pushed through Congress.

(Unfortunately, the public consciousness of all of this may well be swept under the rug by the busy way President Trump has of moving things along, at the rate of two or three new headlines every day. This means that I will sound out of date almost before what I have to say has been said....

(I only hope most sincerely that we do not become mired in a holy war against North Korea, Islam or some other foreign power that will enable Trump to win re-election because the nation has never rejected a sitting president in wartime. That assumption is to me obviously what he is banking upon by calling upon Congress to drastically increase the defense budget while cutting so many far more worthy and downright necessary domestic programs to the bone

(Under these circumstances, one first wants to remember the serenity prayer said at so many A.A. meetings—asking for the serenity to accept things that one cannot change, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.

(Then I would say that the best way to avoid getting too upset by the political situation is to do whatever little bit you can to resist it. Even a little bit of activity on your part, any brain doctor can tell you, will relieve stress--so taking action against this sea of troubles is not only good for the country, but also good for your health.

(You can demonstrate, make phone calls, sign petitions, ring doorbells (if that’s your talent) or even give a little money. If you have no ideas of your own about whom and what to protest, you can get good suggestions by joining the email list of MoveOn.org, a leftist/liberal online lobby with fine research and organization. It has millions of members, so when it calls for contributions, it doesn’t expect big bucks – and is happy with only $5, $10 or $15.

(Though it's not time yet for national midterm elections, two special elections are coming up to replace Republican Congressmen named by President Trump to his cabinet.

(One of them is in Georgia, where 30-yearold Jon Ossoff is running on the Democratic ticket to replace Tom Price, Trump's Secretary for Health and Human Services.

(The other is in Montana, where a banjo player named Rob Quist is running on the Democratic ticket to replace Ryan Zinke, Trump's Secretary of the Interior.

(Amazingly, both Democrats are given sporting chances to humiliate Trump with the number of votes they get. I suggest you try googling them both, then checking out their websites and giving even a little bit to their campaigns. They may not win, but even strong second-place showings could shake things up in DC).

Well, and now back to World I and the gas masks in Tchacbasov’s work. I first came across this artist when I was working on my dissertation, which principally concerned Abraham Rattner, a fellow figurative expressionist. Rattner was only a student at PAFA when the U.S. entered World War I, but according to wall text at this exhibition, 60 percent of PAFA’s male students enlisted when this happened.

Rattner was among them, and turned his artistic talents to camouflage work. When World War II began, he tried to re-enlist and help with camouflage again, but by this time he was in his 40s – too old for active duty.

Although I noticed other appealing works in the middle of the exhibition, too, its high points come at the beginning and near the end. At the beginning, in a section of the show devoted to the period when the U.S. was still officially neutral, we have two glorious displays.

One consists of five of the thirty “flag paintings” done by the impressionist Childe Hassam between 1916 and 1918; they depict the American and sometimes other Allied flags flying over Fifth Avenue or neighboring streets. Hassam was a passionate Francophile, was eager to see the U.S. enter into the conflict, and thought of his paintings as a way of directing public opinion towards his goal.

It's a little stomach-turning to reflect that here is a call to arms which suggests that war is all about fluttering flags and marching in parades, but taken purely for their formal values, these paintings are still crisp and free from theatricality.

The other outstanding display at the beginning of the show is three of the 45 known “German Paintings” created by Marsden Hartley between 1913 and 1915, when he was living in Berlin and in love with a German officer.

The officer went off to war and was killed, so the paintings became memorials to him—yet they are essentially abstract: packed with effervescent color and cryptic signs and symbols that represent a fusion of American (and Native American) imagery with Parisian modernism learned before the war. There is nothing at all quite like them, nor can they be read as either pro- or anti-war.

The other highlight of the show, the one that comes near the end, is “Gassed” (1919). This huge oil (measuring 9 x 20 feet) is by John Singer Sargent, and for once he dispensed with the servile flattery and pretentiousness that mar so many of his oils (though not his watercolors).

Across a greyed hopeless landscape marches a procession of soldiers wearing mustard-colored uniforms with bands across their eyes – victims of the mustard gas that had left them (albeit mostly temporarily) blinded. On the ground lie masses of other wounded and/or dying soldiers.

The entire scene is a blistering indictment of the hell of modern war--and of chemical warfare in particular. (How ironic that it is here on loan from the Imperial War Museum in London!)

But the picture has the power that it does because it reflects not the American but the British experience of World War I, and the fact that the Empire as a whole had suffered more than 3 million casualties – more than a third of their total mobilized forces of 9 million.

Although Sargent’s parents were Americans and he always considered himself an American, he had lived in England since the 1880s, so he would have been aware of how deeply the war had affected the men and women he knew.

As an American, I can only guess how bad World War I was for the English – and for all the other combatants who had been in it from the beginning. When I was in college, I had a short story course with John Cheever (this was before his best-selling novels were published; he was still scraping along by publishing short stories in The New Y9rker).

Anyway, he provided a contrast between World Wars I & II from the American viewpoint by saying that when he was a boy, in the 1920s, there were still veterans from World War I around, and they would tell stories about their military experiences. However. he went on, World War II was so awful that American soldiers who were in it just didn't talk about it -- and you know, I reflected upon that and by and large, it was true -- maybe not for all segments of U.S. society but certainly the ones I knew.

As a student of English mores, though, I have from time to time been made aware of the situation in Britain during World War I and just after it. Also in college, I did my senior thesis on "The Waste Land," that bleak but mystifying masterpiece by T. S. Eliot, an American who'd settled in England.

After I'd done my pretty little interpretation of it, my advisor, Eleanor Tilton, told me about once seeing a group photograph of recent Oxford graduates, taken about 1912, and then hearing how few of the men in the photograph had survived. She said she thought that this was what "The Waste Land" was all about.

More recently, I saw a movie, “Testament of Youth.” This movie was based on a memoir by Vera Brittain, who lost her brother, her fiancé, and a third male friend to the conflict. The climatic image is an aerial view of a field covered with rows and rows of wounded, dead and dying British soldiers at a medical station—and it is overwhelming.

“Gassed” by Sargent has much of the same power—and it predates the movie by nearly a century, offering with its quietly academic style a forceful defense for “realism.”