NASHVILLE, Tenn. – World War I and American Art, the first major exhibition to examine how American artists reacted to World War I, opens Oct. 6 through Jan. 21, 2018 at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
Works by more than 70 artists, including George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Georgia O’Keeffe, Horace Pippin, and John Singer Sargent, represent a pivotal chapter in the history of American art that has until now been overlooked and underestimated.
Timed to coincide with the centennial of the entry of the U.S. into the war, this ambitious exhibition organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, revisits a critical period in history through a wide variety of artistic responses, ranging from patriotic to dissenting. Garnering acclaim from outlets such as Forbes, The New York Times and PBS NewsHour, the exhibition and its central themes of how artists respond to geopolitical turmoil is strikingly relevant today. American artists were vital to the culture of the war and the shaping of public opinion in several ways. Some developed propaganda posters promoting U.S. involvement, while others made daring anti-war drawings, paintings, and prints. Some worked as official war artists embedded with troops and others designed camouflage or took surveillance photographs.
The exhibition features many high-profile loans from both private and public collections, including most importantly Sargent’s monumental tableau Gassed (Imperial War Museums, London), which has been seen in the U.S. only once before (in 1999).
The organization of the exhibition mirrors the historical unfolding of the war itself. It begins by showing how American artists interpreted the threat of war while the U.S. remained neutral between 1914 and 1917, the debate to enter it, and then how the conflict involved them directly as soldiers, relief workers, political dissenters, and official artists. The spectrum of political points of view and purpose can be seen through the juxtaposition of works. Hassam’s flag paintings are impressionist and patriotic, while Hartley’s tribute paintings to his slain friend and possible lover, a German military officer, are abstract and mournful. Bellows, at first an opponent of the war, later encouraged U.S. involvement by vilifying German war crimes with macabre detail. O’Keeffe’s more personal work reflected her conflicted feelings about her younger brother’s enlistment.
A group of patriotic artists came together to form the government’s first art agency in the service of war: the Division of Pictorial Publicity. On display will be iconic recruitment posters created by Laura Brey, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, and others that promoted enlistment with stirring imagery and language. There are also posters aimed at mobilizing women on the home front, encouraging them to enter the workforce to support the war effort. As part of the Frist Center’s presentation, an education gallery with interactive electronic stations will allow visitors to explore such ideologically motivated works of art.
The US military employed Edward Steichen, already an accomplished artist and photographer by the start of the war, as an aerial reconnaissance photographer to document the impact of the first air war. Embedded artists, such as George Harding and Harvey Dunn, depicted the new warfare machinery—airplanes, tanks, machine guns, long-range artillery—that resulted in staggering casualties.
Claggett Wilson, a 30-year-old artist who taught at Columbia University in New York, volunteered for the Marine Corps, fought, and was wounded in the Battle of Belleau Woods, one of the bloodiest engagements in US military history. In 1919 he painted a series of watercolors that recorded his and his fellow soldiers’ experiences.
American artists continue to respond to World War I, and the exhibition concludes with contemporary works—three videos by MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Mary Reid Kelley and a large installation of 212 drawings by Debra Priestly that both explore personal connections to the war from the perspective of marginalized people, namely women and African Americans.
For exhibition-related programs intended for both the general public and military community, the Frist Center is partnering with CreatiVets, Fisk University, Vanderbilt University, Writers Corps and other local organizations.
For more information, visit www.fristcenter.org.
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