A current exhibition at the Getty Research Institute, World War I: War of Images, Images of War, selects visuals from World War I to illustrate how starkly the era’s propaganda contrasted with the images of the conflict created by artist soldiers. As the website text explains: “Soldiers serving at the front, by contrast, encountered a reality that bore no relation to the fiction of propaganda. Their idealism quickly led to disenchantment. The war of images ultimately clashed with images of war.”
The propaganda pictures indeed do what their form does best: paint the enemy as brutal, irrational, dangerous. A 1914 cover of the German magazine Simplicissimus titled “The Englishman and His Globe,” by artist Thomas Theodor Heine, shows a skinny man in safari gear clutching the side of a world dripping in deep red blood. The figure is pathetic, evoking a scared colonial power frantically grasping at territory. Meanwhile, a Russian lithograph from the same year, “The Devil’s Bagpipes; or, Why Wilhelm Talks So Much,” shows the head of Kaiser Wilhelm as part of a bagpipe being played by the devil, suggesting that Wilhelm is literally the mouthpiece of evil.
In contrast, the works created by soldiers and other artists show the desperation and minutiae of war. An American helmet from 1918 is painted in German camouflage, suggesting a lack of artistic surfaces, a very real need to blend in for safety’s sake, or both. Artist Umberto Boccioni’s war diary from 1915 includes both prose and sketches of territory — the author’s mind is split between thoughts and the geography of survival.
The thesis of this exhibition, both obvious and profound, could be applied to almost every war: the propaganda needed to sustain it does not reflect the misery of fighting it.
World War I: War of Images, Images of War continues at the Getty Research Institute (Getty Center, 1200 N Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles) through April 19.