NEW YORK—The two figures within the frame blend together in agony, their faces obscured both by literal darkness and the despair of their embrace. The striking image, which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, “World War I and the Visual Arts,” is a woodcut by German artist Käthe Kollwitz titled Die Eltern (The Parents) from 1921. Kollwitz crafted the work after the loss of her teenage son during World War I. It is a haunting representation of the universal sense of grief experienced by those who lost loved ones on the field of battle during the world’s first modern war.
As World War I grows further removed from the present day, non-profit organizations in New York are using the conflict’s centennial years as an opportunity to promote commemorative efforts and reinvigorate war’s history through lesser-known stories. These often include New York-centric events and exhibits, like New York City Parks’ “Over Here: A Centennial Commemoration of World War I Memorials in NYC Parks”, which runs until November 24.
But while the Met exhibit, which opened on July 31 and will continue until January 7, 2018, also coincided with the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into the war, it mainly focuses on European artists, many of whom fought in the trenches, and their responses to the war.
Jennifer Farrell, the exhibit’s curator, highlighted some never-before-seen pieces from the museum’s collections.
“Showing both work by well-established, well-known artists, but also anonymous figures, I think provides, hopefully, a better understanding of the different forces that existed at the same moment during the war,” Farrell said.
Farrell said that the idea for the exhibit was to show the role that paper played in the war. Aside from a few visuals, including a gasmask and never-implemented helmet designs, the show consists mainly of art on paper. This includes an array of items from large propaganda posters meant to promote the war to the public to small and intimate postcards that soldiers carried with them and mailed home to small drawings that artists created while they were on the front. Illustrated books and journals are also on view.
The exhibit succeeds at representing, through visual storytelling, the transformation of the artists’ reactions in the years during and immediately after the war.
“You had prints, which are often used to boost patriotism, to boost nationalism, in the beginning of the war” Farrell said. “And then later some of these print publishers, as well as artists, used similar techniques to advocate for pacifism.”
The earliest works in the show are from 1914 by one of the few Americans on display, Marsden Hartley. Hartley’s works are, according to Farrell, both a celebration and memorial to Karl Von Freyburg, a Prussian officer whom Hartley met and fell in love with in 1912. Von Freyburg died early on in the fighting, in October 1914. Hartley’s pieces, according to the wall text, consist of “collage-like juxtapositions of various military motifs” that “evoke the general pageantry” of war. At this stage, despite the loss of someone he loved, Hartley still saw the war as something to be celebrated, the same way that many other artists’ did in its nascent stages, despite the bloody early years of the conflict.
As Farrell pointed out, most Europeans assumed that the belligerence would wrap up swiftly with minimal damage. Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser at the time, famously told his soldiers, “You’ll be home before the first leaves fall from the trees.”
This is evident in several other early works in the exhibit. Many artists and publishers initially expressed nationalistic fervor about the war, including those who worked on the German art publication, Kriegszeit (Wartime). But this fervor soon dissolved into disillusionment as the war turned into a bloody slog.
The magazine’s publisher, Paul Cassirer, eventually ended Kriegziet and replaced it with the non-hawkish, Der Bildernmann in 1916. Farrell chose to show one of the covers of the magazine, illustrated by German artist Ernst Balach, that “emphasizes the war’s carnage and uses religious iconography to call for peace.”
Kollwitz also went through this transformation and the exhibit displays several more of her works focusing on trauma—like Mütter (Mothers) and Gefallen (Killed in Action)—which elicit the same visceral response from the viewer as Die Eltern. Before the war, Farrell said, Kollwitz’s underage son volunteered for the war with his mother’s encouragement. But after the boy was killed in action, Kollwitz’s initial pro-war stance soon turned into tangible grief.
The tail-end of the show includes several works by Otto Dix, perhaps the most renowned artist in the Met’s exhibit. Dix’s images depict the horrors of trench warfare, which the artist experienced firsthand. Unsurprisingly, like the previously mentioned artists, he entered the war with enthusiasm. Also like the other artists, this enthusiasm melted away swiftly and his art began to reflect his burgeoning pacifist leanings, highlighting the darkest aspects of war, including, as the wall text reads, “fallen soldiers, scarred battlefields, bombed towns and other nightmarish situations.”
“World War I and the Visual Arts” succeeds in establishing a nuanced approach to the history of the Great War through artistic responses to violence. The exhibit’s focus on the transformation of those responses—from widespread enthusiasm to near-universal disillusionment—is essential for fostering a critical look at the war’s legacy, especially as it fades from the national consciousness.
Featured photo: Illustrations from a children’s book, “After the Victory,” at the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit “World War I and the Visual Arts.” (Tim O’Donnell)