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Philadelphia exhibition relives World War I through artists’ eyes

“Armistice, Times Square” (1918) by Theodore Earl Butler, oil on canvas
“Armistice, Times Square” (1918) by Theodore Earl Butler, oil on canvas Private collection. Courtesy of Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio

The idea lingers that art can be separated from politics. But it can’t. All art — high, low; illustrative, abstract — is embedded in specific political histories, and direct links, however obscured, are always there. Such links are the unswerving focus of “World War I and American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a panoramic show that has the narrative flow of a documentary, and the suspenseful, off-kilter emotional texture of live drama.

World War I lasted roughly four years, from 1914 to 1918, with the United States joining the fray in 1917. The brevity of that engagement has led Americans to play down the war, but we shouldn’t. Although politicians at the time spun the conflict — which the public increasingly understood to be a murderous mistake — as the war that would end all wars, it did the opposite. It set the model for World War II, Vietnam, Iraq. And it departed from previous models of war only in ramping up their barbarities with modern technology.

With World War I, invisibility became a deadly weapon. Submarines turned oceans into minefields. Airplanes, used in regular combat for the first time, killed through stealth and distance. Silent death emerged: poisonous gases enveloped victims, blinding them or killing them by horrific means. Add to these grisly innovations the high-powered guns that, dronelike, pulverize bodies outside the range of vision, and you can see how warfare became depersonalized. It felt like a scientific experiment, not a human engagement.

For a long time, the United States watched from afar, as the Allied powers (France, Britain, Russia) and the central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) battled each other in Europe. At the same time, America had its own wars of opinion, as citizens, artists among them, lined up on either side of the question of whether their country should stay neutral or gear up for battle.

Some artists were avid hawks. Childe Hassam was. He wanted America in on the Allied side, and fast. He painted repeated pictures, in an impressionist style, of Manhattan avenues festooned for victory parades: a world composed entirely of confetti and flags. Other artists resisted U.S. intervention. John Sloan, a socialist, viewed the war as an imperialist profit machine fueled by the lives of the poor. He turned out a stream of drawings that said as much. In one, a porcine businessman holds out a medal to a legless soldier dragging himself across a floor.

And certain artists had a personal investment in the conflict. Marsden Hartley was living in Berlin when war broke out, and some cubistic paintings he did there, like Berlin Ante War, were visual responses to the flash and clamor that followed the call to arms. Others had an added subtext. Hartley was in love with an officer in the Prussian army named Karl von Freyburg, who was killed in the war’s opening months. The later Berlin paintings became memorials to him. They celebrated martial valor but also mourned its consequences.

Hartley’s sense of ambivalence, of confused loyalties, finds echoes elsewhere in the show, which travels to the New-York Historical Society in May, even after patriotic loyalty became the law of the land. When the United States officially entered the war in 1917, domestic censorship came down hard. The Espionage and Sedition Acts criminalized anti-war expression. Immigrants were treated with overt suspicion. Neighbors spied on neighbors. A military draft went into effect.

Pro-war visual propaganda, underwritten by the advertising industry, proliferated, with printed posters like James Montgomery Flagg’s finger-jabbing “I want YOU” Uncle Sam covering the walls of classrooms, factories and restaurants. Joseph Pennell’s vision of a firebombed Lower Manhattan is from this time, as is Harry Ryle Hopps’ image of the German kaiser as a maiden-ravishing ape.

Ethnic slurs showed up in painting, too. George Bellows, suspicious, like Sloan, of U.S. motives in the war, suddenly turned out melodramatic scenes of German soldiers raping and torturing civilians. He had read about them in a lurid piece of agitprop published by the British Committee on Alleged German War Outrages, and was passing on the semifake news.

These Bellows pictures aren’t exhibited much. They need a historical context to make sense, and the show gives them one. More interesting is the way the curators — Robert Cozzolino, Anne Knutson and David Lubin — have uncovered political content in places you might not expect.

A Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor, The Flag, is one example. In the fall of 1917, O’Keeffe visited her younger brother, Alexis, in a Texas military camp before he was shipped abroad. She had highly conflicted, basically hostile feelings about the war itself, and was worried about her brother in particular. (She had reason to be. He was felled by a mustard-gas attack in France and eventually died from its effects.) The flag she painted after the visit — a streak of red bleeding into bruise-colored clouds — catches her mood: anxious, angry, appalled.

Of the show’s 160 works, the celebrity centerpiece is John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting Gassed, on loan from the Imperial War Museums in London. Sargent was the child of expatriate Americans and spent most of his life abroad, working as a society portraitist. In 1918, the British government asked him to paint a major picture to commemorate the war. He traveled to the French front and found his subject in a line of gas-blinded soldiers, being led to a medical tent. He painted them feeling their way forward, hands on each other’s shoulders, bathed in a weird yellow light.

World War I and American Art

  • Through April 9
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
  • 215-972-7600, pafa.org
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