Sunday, October 1, 2017

Met Museum: World War I and the Visual Arts

The Met Museum is marking the centennial of the First World War with a major exhibit entitled World War I and the Visual Arts.  The show's title to the contrary, there is little here of the traditional arts, i.e., painting and sculpture.  That's entirely appropriate, though, since the conflict had a lasting impact on virtually all forms of cultural expression.  The same early twentieth century technology that produced new types of weaponry also enabled new artistic media.  This was signified in the visual arts by the increased use of photography and those graphic arts that most readily lent themselves to mass reproduction, such as propaganda posters and even postcards.

The show has been allocated three large galleries that contain so many works among them that I had to view the exhibit twice in order to properly appreciate it.  The three are divided so that the first deals with the outbreak of the war, the second with its progress, and the third with its aftermath.  Taken together, they give the viewer some sense of what it must have been like to have lived through four years of hell.  When it began, most assumed the war would only last a few months.  Few could have imagined when the armies first mobilized in August 1914 that the world into which they had been born was about to vanish forever.  The works on view document artists' dawning awareness of the immensity of the conflict and the savagery with which it was fought.

As one would expect, it is in the first gallery that one finds images emphasizing patriotism and the glories of war.  In 1914, many, including a large number of artists, saw the war in a positive light as a means to achieve a lasting peace and a better world.  This optimism was particularly true of the Italian Futurists who glorified the mechanized weaponry that made the war so deadly and created casualties on a scale never before encountered.  The Futurists are represented here by several works by Gino Severini whose carefully constructed semi-abstract monochromes, such as Train in the City (charcoal, 1915), convey no hint of death.  But then there are graphic works by the British artist Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson that, while using Futurist techniques, show endless columns of troops marching blindly to their destruction.  Typical of these are Returning to the Trenches and Column on the March (both drypoints, 1916).  Other works, such as Pyotr Adolfovitch Otsup's photographs of Tsar Nicholas II reviewing his troops, are unintentionally poignant.  Only a short while after they were taken, the Tsar was overthrown and eventually murdered along with his family.

It is only in the second gallery that artists appear to have become fully cognizant of the war's horrors.  There are works here too by Nevinson, but in his lithograph Banking at 4,000 Feet and his drypoint That Cursed Wood, both from 1917, he has left far behind the Futurist effects he had previously employed.  In a like manner the great French painter Pierre Bonnard, one of the original Les Nabis, shows the devastation war brings to the civilian population in Dans la somme, village en ruines (colored chalks and watercolor, 1916), a scene echoed in Edward Steichen's 1918 aerial photograph of the bombed village of Vaux.  Perhaps the most horrific image, though, is George Bellows's 1918 lithograph entitled Bacchanale from War that depicts rampaging German soldiers callously bayoneting women and children in an unnamed village.  Ironically, Bellows had been against American participation in the war until informed of these German atrocities.

The final gallery that deals with the war's aftermath is dominated by German art.  This only makes sense since it was in Germany, riddled by unemployment and rampant inflation, that the war's aftereffects were most keenly felt.  Artists whose work is displayed here include George Grosz (War Drawing, ink on paper, 1917), Max Beckmann (Hell, eleven transfer lithographs, 1918-1919), Erich Heckel (Wounded Sailor, woodcut, 1915), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Umbra vitae, woodcut book illustrations, 1924), and Käthe Kollwitz (Gefallen, lithograph, 1920).

The exhibit concludes with a one of the greatest masterpieces of modern German art - Otto Dix's Der Krieg ("The War"), a set of fifty-one etchings that take up an entire gallery wall.  Dix was the only major German artist to have served through all four years of the war, and these etchings, so reminiscent of Goya's The Disasters of War in both style and execution, sum up the artist's ghastly remembrance of his time on the Western front.  They are unquestionably the most powerful works to have come out of the war and are among the most potent anti-war statements of all time.  One cannot view them without being completely overwhelmed by the lasting tragedy of this "war to end all wars."

The exhibit continues through January 7, 2018.

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