NORTHAMPTON — According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of “no man’s land” dates to the mid-14th century: “Nomanneslond.” Rendered that way, the word looks slightly impregnable: a verbal bastion. The first military application came in 1864. “No-man’s-land” described a zone in Sudan, south of Khartoum. World War I broke out half a century later, and the term has been inextricably linked with that conflict ever since. Bastion had become wasteland.
“No Man’s Land: Prints From the Front Lines of WWI” runs at the Smith College Museum of Art through Feb. 17. In addition to 40 prints, it includes newsreel footage and a display of medals, medallions, postcards, snapshots, and scrapbooks. Curated by the museum’s Henriette Kets de Vries, “No Man’s Land” manages to feel extensive despite its relatively small size. One reason is the presence of works by artists of numerous nationalities: French, German, American, British, Belgian, even Swiss.
Starting in 2014, with the centenary of the war’s outbreak, art shows dedicated to World War I have come at a steady clip. There was good reason for this. The first truly modern war, World War I was predicated on technology as no previous conflict had been. Yet it was also modern in a different way, coinciding with the full flourishing of modernism in the arts.
Among artists who served in the war and died were Franz Marc and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Those who served and survived include Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Max Ernst, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann. Both Dix and Beckmann have works in the show. Dix’s “Wounded Soldier” is especially striking. Horrifying would be a more accurate description. With an expression like an exploded grenade, a skull-like head beneath an askew helmet stares up from a trench. Can eyes scream? These do.
World War I was a Cubist war, with its fracturing of reality. It was a Futurist war, with its technological imperative and dynamic of force. Most of all, it was an Expressionist war. Expressionism, the presentation of experience as refracted through dire emotion, predated 1914. Yet in the trenches it achieved a ghastly culmination. Seen in context, “Wounded Soldier” seems in no way exaggerated or even Expressionist. It’s a form of realism or naturalism.
All war raises the question of how the imagination can comprehend the unimaginable. But World War I posed that challenge to an extent unprecedented in degree or kind. To return to the show’s title, no man’s land described the contested space between each side’s trenches. That space consisted of a war zone extending from the North Sea to Switzerland, a swathe of concentrated destruction unlike anything Europe had previously known — or, thankfully, has known since.
Technology made the war vastly more lethal: machine guns, submarines, poison gas, aircraft. Frank Brangwyn’s lithograph here, “The Zeppelin Raids: The Vow of Vengeance,” is an example. Technology also rendered the depiction of the war vastly more immediate, through still and motion pictures. The 45 minutes of documentary footage makes that point nicely. So even as traditional art was increasingly moving away from direct representation (why paint what the camera can show?), there was an additional impetus for doing so. Where description eludes comprehension, evocation may be the sole alternative.
Art itself can be put to use. Beckmann’s “The Yawners” takes inspiration from Pieter Bruegel’s “Yawning Man,” and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen’s “The Lame” overtly nods to Bruegel’s “The Blind Leading the Blind.” The several examples from Percy John Delf Smith’s “Dance of Death” series explicitly, if also heavy-handedly, summon up that grimmest of medieval tropes. The show’s most straightforward use of culture in condemning the war has nothing to do with allusion. It’s Raoul Varin’s etching “Rheims — World War I,” showing the damage done to the cathedral by German bombardment.
If one way to express the war’s inhumanity was to show its destructive impact on culture, another was to show its devastation of nature. The blasted landscape in James McBey’s “Spring, 1917” or, from that same year, “The Somme Front” could be a foreshadowing of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” though no lilacs are being bred out of this dead land. Or there are the three components of Kerr Eby’s “September 13, 1918, Saint-Mihiel”: a titanically menacing sky; four blasted tree trunks, kin to McBey’s; and a line of advancing troops little different in appearance from the rubble that surrounds them. It’s worth noting that Eby was an American artist, and such grimness describes an Allied victory. Could defeat have looked that much worse?
NO MAN’S LAND: Prints From the Front Lines of WWI
At Smith College Museum of Art, 20 Elm St., Northampton, through Feb. 17. 413-585-2760, www.smith.edu/artmuseum
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.