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World War I and visual culture

“Gassed,” a 1919 painting by John Singer Sargent.
“Gassed,” a 1919 painting by John Singer Sargent.IWM

Like marriages, wars observe anniversaries. The Civil War is nearing the end of its 150th. The centenary of World War I is almost here. The war's precipitating event, the assassination of Austria-Hungary's Archduke Franz Ferdinand, took place on June 28, 1914.

There's a surprising continuity between the two wars. Trench warfare outside of Petersburg, Va., would find horrific culmination 50 years later on the Western Front. Marching through Georgia, William Sherman's Union army effectively invented what German General Erich Ludendorff dubbed "Total War" during World War I. The machine gun, the single most devastating weapon employed in World War I, was first employed at the end of the Civil War.


These connections underscore a striking difference: how each war related to visual culture. Photography had been invented less than a quarter-century before the start of the Civil War. Yet numerous discrete images — portraits of Lincoln and generals on both sides, battlefield photographs and other pictures of devastation — are central to our collective sense of the war. Such images extend beyond the work of Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, and other photographers who worked in the studio of Mathew Brady. It's there, too, in examples from more traditional artists, like Winslow Homer, and the various iterations of his "Sharpshooter," and Currier and Ives, with their popular battle lithographs.

The imaginative literature inspired by World War I is extraordinarily rich: the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," Ford Madox Ford's "Parade's End," Robert Graves's "Good-Bye to All That" — the list goes on. Visual art is a different matter. It's telling that there's no visual counterpart to Paul Fussell's literary study "The Great War and Modern Memory." Try to think of a defining image of World War I — akin to Gardner's "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter"; or, for later conflicts, Robert Capa's World War II photographs of D-day or David Douglas Duncan's Korean War portraits of Marines during the retreat from Chosin Reservoir. There aren't any.


Or at least there aren't any showing the war itself. What are surely the two most famous images related to World War I are propaganda posters: Alfred Leete's 1914 rendering of Britain's war minister, Lord Kitchener, pointing his finger at prospective recruits; and James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 version (clearly inspired by Leete), where it's Uncle Sam doing the recruiting. The Flagg poster is the centerpiece of "Over There! Posters From World War," which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on July 26. In September, "Over Here: World War I Posters From Around the World" opens at the Boston Athenaeum.

Yet how can this be? There are countless remarkable images of the war. The importance of creating an official photographic record was understood. Kaiser Wilhlem sent 19 court photographers to accompany the German Army when war broke out. France set up a Section Photographique de l'Armee in April 1915. Frank Hurley, who so memorably recorded the Shackleton South Pole expedition, became official Australian war photographer on the Western Front upon his return from the Antarctic, in 1916. That same year the British appointed the first official army cinematographer.

The importance of controlling that photographic record was also understood. No photojournalists were allowed on the Western Front until 1918, when General John Pershing allowed them access to the American Expeditionary Force. British personnel risked a court martial if found carrying a camera. That didn't stop many from doing so. One of them was Colonel T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia's photograph of a "tulip bomb" explosion was in the recent "War/Photography" exhibition organized by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Many unofficial war photographers used Kodak's Vest Pocket Autographic camera. Introduced in 1915 as the Soldier's Camera, it went on to sell 1.75 million units.


So there were photographers in abundance, both credentialed and not. Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts's superb "The Great War: A Photographic Narrative" (Knopf), which came out last year, conveys a strong sense of the abundance of those photographers' handiwork and how compelling it could be. All war is visually dramatic. World War I increased the drama. It offered things to photograph that had never been seen before, things that remain today as utterly arresting visually as they were at the time: from gas masks and the first tanks to biplanes and a dead zone extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border, no man's land.

One answer to this absence of defining images must be no man's land itself. Its moonscape of devastation created a visual climate unlike anything seen before or since. This brutalized terrain is so startling — it's as incomprehensible to the eye as it is to the mind — that it subsumes individual images, making them part of its own visual grammar.

The ghastly eloquence of that grammar is displayed many times over in Birger Stichelbaut and Piet Chielens's recent book, "The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914-1918" (Yale University Press). It consists of large-scale aerial reconnaissance photographs taken over the Belgian portion of the Western Front, along with many subsidiary images taken on the ground. The novelty of the aerial perspective makes the book distinctive. The literal distance that perspective provides has a further virtue: It makes the subject matter seem at least marginally less terrible.


Aerial reconnaissance had one direct influence on postwar art. Serving in the AEF, Edward Steichen realized he needed to reinvent himself as a photographer. "The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane ten to twenty thousand feet in the air had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography completely different from the pictorial interests I had had . . . in Photo-Secession days."

The closest World War I came to glamour was in the air. Stichelbaut and Chielens's book reminds us of a very considerable irony concerning that glamour. The Red Baron and the Lafayette Escadrille got all the attention. But the reason they were flying in the first place was to try to protect — or prevent — reconnaissance flights. Aces mattered far less to the course of the war than cameras did, not that you'd ever know that from the high-flying derring-do of films like "Wings," "Hell's Angels," and "The Dawn Patrol."

Much of their appeal lies, of course, in how they contradict the murderously static nature of the war. These films are about mobility and air, not immobility and mud. That contradiction is true even of films about the ground war.


The bravura set piece in King Vidor's "The Big Parade" is a victorious US infantry assault — with nary a trench to be seen and multiple tracking shots. Trenches do figure in the 1930 film version of "All Quiet on the Western Front," but Lewis Milestone — who made training films for the Signal Corps during the war — manages to include many tracking shots, too. They look ahead to how virtuosically Stanley Kubrick moves the camera in "Paths of Glory." The collision between visual grammars — the dead weight of no man's land versus the velocity of Kubrick's tracking — creates an enormous tension, its resolution coming with the act of military "justice" that's the film's climax. As for the greatest of all World War I movies, "Grand Illusion" has no battle scenes whatsoever. It's set in a prisoner-of-war camp, which makes it the clearest illustration of escape from confinement.

If the war's physical setting affected its relationship to visual culture, so did its place in time. By the summer of 1914, Analytic Cubism had already given way to Synthetic Cubism. Wassily Kandinsky had exhibited his first abstractions. Marcel Duchamp had presented his first readymades. The avant-garde (a military term in origin) was transforming the visual arts, and the war vastly accelerated that process.

"Repelled by the slaughterhouses of the world war, we turned to art," the Dadaist Jean Arp said. He spoke from experience: Arp fled to Switzerland in 1915 to avoid conscription into the German Army. Dada arose during the war, Surrealism after it, and abstraction flourished. Their emergence represented not a refusal to see reality but a desire to see it differently: more searchingly, more imaginatively, and far (far) less conventionally. It was convention, wasn't it, that had brought the world to no man's land?

The impact of the war on art was enormous, but indeterminate — not just in its indirectly encouraging new, more radical experimentation, but extending to the awful what-ifs of the careers of artists who died in uniform: the Italian Futurists Umberto Boccioni and Antonio Sant-Elia, the German Expressionists Franz Marc and August Macke, the French sculptors Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Raymond Duchamp-Villon (Marcel Duchamp's older brother). Luckier were Jean Renoir, the director of "Grand Illusion," the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, and Georges Braques, who with Picasso founded Cubism: They "only" suffered severe wounds.

The war's psychic effects are easily enough seen in the postwar work of other artists who served in uniform: Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Wyndham Lewis, Francois Villon, Fernand Léger. Writing in the third person, Max Ernst described his time in the German Army this way: "On the first of August 1914 [Max Ernst] died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918."

The German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who was discharged from his artillery unit after suffering a nervous breakdown, painted himself in uniform with the ultimate symbolic wound: his right hand, his painting hand, amputated. Kirchner could have been sending a message to any artist seeking to render the war in more traditional, let alone heroic, terms. Just as no man's land overwhelmed any image trying to emerge from that landscape on its own terms, so did the unspeakableness of the war translate into an unpaintableness. Painting, as conventionally understood, came to seem like those spikes on Prussian helmets or cavalrymen attacking machine guns: an anachronism of confounding absurdity. Wrote the future Surrealist Paul Nash, who served in the British Army as an official war artist, "I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever."

“Portrait of a German Officer,” a 1914 painting by Marsden Hartley.
“Portrait of a German Officer,” a 1914 painting by Marsden Hartley.Metropolitan Museum of Art

Even as masterful a painter as John Singer Sargent was at a loss — or maybe mastery was part of the problem. The depth of feeling in a work like Sargent's "Gassed," which he began after touring the Western Front in the summer of 1918, cannot be doubted. Nor can its artistry. The problem is how the two work at cross-purposes. Sargent has arranged the line of British Tommies blinded by a German mustard gas attack as a modern-day version of warriors on a frieze. Imagine them rendered in white marble, rather than dun- and olive-colored paint, and they could decorate the pediment of a Greek temple. But that very sense of cultural continuity in a context where past (and quite possibly future) have been annihilated, is at best obtuse — and at worst obscene. Seeking to ennoble, Sargent trivializes.

Sargent, an old man honoring the valorous young, paints with unmistakable restraint in color, composition, and brushwork. What leaps out from Alfred Bastien's "Canadian Gunners in the Mud, Passchendaele," from 1917, is its vigorous prettiness. Mud and men hardly register. What draws the eyes is that conflagration-bright sky, a model of Post-Impressionist color, the billowy brush strokes, and general visual excitement. Actually, one other thing jumps out, the last word in the title. Passchendaele was one of the war's most notorious battles, a prolonged Allied assault whose most notable result was nearly 600,000 total casualties. The idea of this particular arrangement of paint — perhaps any arrangement of paint — representing that particular battle is borderline dumbfounding.

Should something as artificial as oil painting be employed to render a reality as grim as that of trench warfare? Marsden Hartley's "Portrait of a German Officer," from 1914, indicates that it can. It also indicates that working from personal feeling, rather than general patriotism and artistic tradition, can have a crucial difference. Hartley was a neutral noncombatant, an American in Berlin when war broke out. He had developed a passionate attachment to a cavalry officer who was killed in the early days of the war. Hartley uses symbol and decoration — and black, so much black — to express love and grief. Sargent's summoning up the Greeks seems sadly incommensurate. Hartley's reminding us that the shape of the Iron Cross ultimately alludes to Christ's crucifixion manages to be both apt and profound. The painting is at once modern (it flirts with abstraction) and archaic (flirting with abstraction in a different way).

Indirection may be the only feasible artistic approach in dealing with a subject inherently inexpressible. Surely that helps account for the power of an image like "Two-Minute Silence, Armistice Day, London." Taken in 1919 by an unknown photographer, it shows a mass of people — a civilian army — honoring the first anniversary of the war's end. All photographs are silent. With this one, the silence goes further, achieving a kind of moral weight. "I had not thought death had undone so many," T. S. Eliot would write three years later, in "The Waste Land." Or grief so very many more.

Two-Minute Silence, Armistice Day, London,” a 1919 image by an unknown photographer
Two-Minute Silence, Armistice Day, London,” a 1919 image by an unknown photographerMetropolitan Museum of Art

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.