Photo Essays

Competing Views of World War I: Eyewitness and Editorialized

Detail of “I Have You My Captain. You Won’t Fall.” Paul Iribe (French, 1883–1935). À coups de baïonnette 9 (June 1917): pp. 424–25. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (93-S507)
Paul Iribe, detail of “I Have You My Captain. You Won’t Fall,” ‘À coups de baïonnette’ 9 (June 1917): pp. 424–25, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (all images courtesy the Getty)

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.

Detail of Saint John’s Vision of the Seven Candlesticks Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880–1938). Pencil, ink, and watercolor on cigarette box. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Sketchbooks, 1917–1932. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (850463)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, detail of “Saint John’s Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” pencil, ink, and watercolor on cigarette box, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Sketchbooks (1917–1932), the Getty Research Institute
War Diary. 1915. Umberto Boccioni (Italian, 1882–1916). 22 manuscript pages, fols. 9v–10r. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (880380)
Umberto Boccioni, ‘War Diary’ (1915), 22 manuscript pages, fols. 9v–10r, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (click to enlarge)

The Englishman and His Globe. Thomas Theodor Heine (1867–1948) Simplicissimus vol. 19, no. 28 (October 13, 1914): cover. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (85-S1389). © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Thomas Theodor Heine, “The Englishman and His Globe,” ‘Simplicissimus’ vol. 19, no. 28 (October 13, 1914): cover, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (© 2014 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
Angels and Airplanes Natalia Goncharova (Russian, 1881–1962). Lithograph. Misticheskie obrazy voiny: 14 lithografi (Mystical images of war: 14 lithographs) (Moscow, 1914), pl. 10. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (88-B28354) © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Natalia Goncharova, “Angels and Airplanes,” lithograph, ‘Misticheskie obrazy voiny: 14 lithografi’ (Mystical images of war: 14 lithographs) (Moscow, 1914), pl. 10, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (© 2014 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / ADAGP, Paris)

The Sower of False News Eugène Damblans (French, 1865–1945). Le petit journal: Supplément illustré 26, no. 1265. (March 21, 1915): cover The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (84-S404)
Eugène Damblans, “The Sower of False News,” ‘Le petit journal: Supplément illustré 26,’ no. 1265 (March 21, 1915): cover, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
The Devil’s Bagpipes; or, Why Wilhelm Talks So Much Hand-colored lithograph Kartinki—voina russkikh s nemtsami (Pictures—The Russian War with the Germans) (Petrograd, 1914), pl. 34. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (92-F293)
“The Devil’s Bagpipes; or, Why Wilhelm Talks So Much,” hand-colored lithograph, ‘Kartinki—voina russkikh s nemtsami’ (Pictures—The Russian War with the Germans) (Petrograd, 1914), pl. 34, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
American Helmet Painted in Imitation of a German Camouflage Helmet. Ca. 1918. Robert McGiffin (American). Jane A. Kimball, Trench Art Collection
Robert McGiffin, “American Helmet Painted in Imitation of a German Camouflage Helmet” (c. 1918), Jane A. Kimball, Trench Art Collection
Black-Booker. Hand-colored lithograph. Kartinki—voina russkikh s nemtsami (Pictures–The Russian War with the Germans). (Petrograd, 1914), pl. 31. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (92-F293)
“Black-Booker,” hand-colored lithograph, ‘Kartinki—voina russkikh s nemtsami’ (Pictures–The Russian War with the Germans) (Petrograd, 1914), pl. 31, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
After the Execution Paul Iribe (French, 1883–1935). Color woodcut Le mot 1, no. 5 (January 9, 1915): cover. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (84-S761)
Paul Iribe, “After the Execution,” color woodcut, ‘Le mot 1,’ no. 5 (January 9, 1915): cover, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

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.

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