More than any conflict before it, World War I was a visual battle. Propaganda proliferated across the fronts, and magazines, newspapers, photography, early films, and even fashion and children’s books were involved in a rally of imagery on a large scale. En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I, a new book and coinciding exhibition from the University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center, explores the specific impact of this artistic history on France.
Curated by historians Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein, who also contributed text to the accompanying catalogue, the exhibition commemorates the 1914 start of the “Great War” with over 130 pieces mostly sourced from the library. While the century mark has brought with it many exhibitions on World War I, much of those centered on art concentrate on propaganda posters, and Harris and Edelstein wanted to explore the depth of illustration in every area of wartime life. As Harris writes in the book:
The scale of the conflict and the enveloping mobilization meant that no aspect of life would remain untouched. […] And this in turn meant production of an unending flood of messages aimed at every sector of the population, messages of justification, inspiration, and vilification; messages that were visual and textual; and messages that were formulated to excite sentiments of solidarity and sympathy for the cause and hatred or contempt for the enemy.
France in particular had its groundswell in art deco graphics, children’s books, and comics rooted in World War I. The rich, elegant illustration of the 1920s and 30s was in part inspired by the intense production of harrowing art on the battlefields, including a transformation in the style of those working before the war, like Charles Martin. An established illustrator, after joining the infantry he gave his graceful style to scenes like the body of a soldier barely visible beneath a field of wheat pocked with poppies. Several illustrated journals that would carry on after the close of the war started at this time, some directly military-related, such as La baïonnette in 1915.
The most intriguing focus of the exhibition and book is in how children were targeted and used as a subject, whether it was as victims or future victors. In school, children were even encouraged to draw their perceptions of war. Louis Lefèvre contrasted playful melodies and children’s songs against imagery of battlefields — such as a piece of “Sur le pont d’Avignon” where two soldiers cross a plank over a trench while bombs explode overhead. André Hellé made an Alphabet de la Grande Guerre 1914-1916 for kids, with such letters as “F” for “Factionnaire” — “sentry.”
France lost around 1.4 million men in World War I, a brutal statistic that resonated through every community. In such a war, it was necessary to spark and never let extinguish the flame of patriotism and resilience, and as the first major engagement of the 20th century, the visual culture that would define the following decades was fanned by this fire.
En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I by Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein is available from the University of Chicago Library, distributed by University of Chicago Press. The coinciding exhibition at the University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery (100 East 57th Street, Chicago) continues through January 2.