PHILADELPHIA — When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the United States declared neutrality. President Woodrow Wilson feared that entering the conflict would cause civil unrest at home as many United States citizens had come from the nations that were now at war. In the end, the US was only officially active in World War I for 18 months, from April 1917 to November 1918, but as the exhibition World War I and American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts argues, the Great War had a deep and complicated impact on American artists both before and after the country entered the conflict, pushing them to change their visual language as they debated, promoted, and processed the historical events.
The exhibition begins in 1914, when much of the country was apprehensive about participating in the conflict, even though the US’s economic bias leaned heavily toward the Allies. Such split allegiances are explored through the pairing of Childe Hassam and Marsden Hartley. Painting in New York, Hassam depicted patriotic, impressionist cityscapes filled with American and Allied flags; while living in Berlin, Hartley created a series of elegiac images in memory of his lover Karl von Freyburg, a German military officer. Though Hartley claimed his work was neither pro-German, nor political, his moving images capture the conflicted emotions of one mourning the loss of a forbidden love.
American neutrality was tested as early as 1915, when German U-boats attacked the British passenger ship the Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 people on board, including 128 US citizens. The attack outraged the American public and became a popular subject for artists, like Winsor McCay, who attempted to record the event based on first-hand accounts in his short animated film “The Sinking of Lusitania” (1918), which depicts the shocking speed with which the ship sank, as bodies fall over the sides in an unending cascade. For interest groups attempting to gather US support for the Allies, the incident became a rallying cry, as is evident in Fred Spear’s poster “Enlist” (1915). Commissioned and printed by the Boston Committee for Public Safety, the poster tapped into the belief that the incident had been an attack on innocent lives, showing a mother and child caught in a tender embrace as they drown in the cold ocean.
After the United States entered the war in 1917, the government used art to establish a powerful media environment saturated with seductive, sentimental, and nationalist propaganda. In much of the imagery, the Axis enemies are barbaric apes and murderous fiends, while US soldiers are strong, sexy, and clean, adored by their loving wives and children who stay at home and buy war bonds. Yet participation in World War I was deeply unpopular among US citizens, and political cartoons published in The Masses, such as Henry Glintenkamp’s “Physically Fit” (1917), liken the draft to a death sentence, as a skeleton measures a fit young man for a coffin. These critical opinions, however, were quickly silenced through official censorship efforts, which criminalized anti-war speech and encouraged people to spy on their neighbors. These laws prompted citizens to focus on the enemy “within,” partially in an attempt to convince the American public that the war was not just, as the famous song says, “over there.”
Despite strict censorship, apprehension about the war is still evident in the contemporaneous canvases of many American artists. The young Charles Burchfield recorded his growing fear of having to fight in his diaries as he waited for his draft number to be called. Although he later denied that the war had affected his imagery, it is impossible not to see his mounting anxiety in “The East Wind” (1918), in which a large, skull-like form threatens to envelop a vulnerable house. The war found its way into the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a more mournful and conflicted manner. Her younger brother Alexis enlisted almost immediately after the US joined the conflict, and she found herself both confused by and in awe of his devout patriotism. Executed in 1918, O’Keeffe’s “The Flag” shows a red flag against a deep blue sky, which seems to seep into and overcome it. Throughout the war, red flags were commonly raised at socialist and anarchist meetings, where pacifism and obstructing the draft were often discussed, and with this in mind, the work seems to evoke the battle between O’Keeffe’s red apprehension and her brother’s true blue allegiance.
The unique skills of artists were also put to work as part of the official war effort. Edward Steichen, for example, was made chief of the photographic section of the American Expeditionary Forces, while Burchfield designed camouflage, and others made medical drawings and drew maps. In 1918, the British government commissioned John Singer Sargent to make a picture that captured Anglo-American cooperation on the front. After spending three-months in France, the artist decided to portray a harrowing sight — a line of gassed and blindfolded men. Despite the tragedy of its subject matter, Sargent’s “Gassed” (1919) holds fast to the Edwardian idea that war is noble. Though wounded, the soldiers still grasp their rifles; though blind, they walk in ordered formation. In marked contrast, George Bellows showed the war to be marred by dishonor. Unable to fight because of his age, Bellows never saw the conflict in Europe and, ironically, the former champion of visual journalism based his depictions solely on articles and published reports. In a series of lithographs inspired by the Bryce Report, Bellows portrays in lurid detail the war crimes committed by the German army as they marched through neutral Belgium in 1914: woman are raped, families are murdered, and babies are skewered on bayonets.
The question of what it means to be a witness and to depict the experience of war is woven through the exhibition. Artists like Claggett Wilson and Horace Pippin went to France not to draw but to fight and both only depicted the conflict after they had been wounded, relying on memories that haunted them. The realism in Wilson’s watercolors encompasses more than mere description, mining the psychological dimensions of the conflict: soldiers march across fields of grass that have turned yellow under the mustard gas and a line of ghostly enemy soldiers wearing gas masks appears in the purple mist beyond an expanse of twisted barbed wire. Wilson also paired each image with a description of the memory he depicted, for, as one captions says, he was trying to capture “not how it looks but how it feels and sounds and smells.”
Pippin completed “The End of the War: Starting Home” (1930–33) more than a decade after returning to the United States from the battlefields in France, and the painting condenses the traumatic wartime experiences documented in his journals into a single chaotic composition. At center, amid the melee, a white German solider, raising his arms in surrender, is confronted by a black American solider wielding a bayonet. Though Pippin captures the triumph of the African American soldiers, in their dark uniforms, they almost seem to blend in with the blackened background, reminding the viewer that despite the initial flurry of homecoming glory that met the black soldiers who gallantly served their country, they were quickly made invisible by racial segregation at home.
The exhibition ends with works created after the war that memorialize those who died — as seen in Violet Oakley’s portrait of the lost solider Henry Howard Houston Woodward — or question the effects of the conflict, as seen in Carl Hoeckner’s “The Homecoming of 1918” (1919), which depicts an infinite mass of emaciated and traumatized war victims. Such images clearly illustrate the fact that by the 1930s many Americans saw the United States’ participation in the conflict to be controversial and deeply flawed, leading us to question how we remember a period that cannot be reduced to a simple fight between good and evil. Many later historical accounts have recast World War I and the unstable peace that followed as merely a prelude to World War II. The exhibition at PAFA serves as a corrective of sorts to the historical accounts that downplay the complexity and importance of World War I for American artists, providing a more unsettling and honest picture of a nation’s reaction to it. Concluding with poignant images of reflection, the exhibition upends previous declarations that the Great War was ever the “Forgotten War.”