World War I and American Art

At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Through April 9th

by Olivia Jia

The art of the World War I era is largely excluded from the canon of American painting – perhaps shuffled to the sidelines because it does not correspond with the heroic mythologies of this nation. American art prior to 1945 may be an uncomfortable reminder of a time before the epicenter of international culture shifted across the Atlantic. It belongs to a time when American aesthetics were still dominated by French academic teachings, and the Abstract Expressionist project had not yet begun its redefinition of American art in relation to the individuality and freedom of our culture.

Despite the exponential globalization of our contemporary moment, it can be difficult for Americans to think about their history as universal, beyond the context of American exceptionalism. In presenting World War I and American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts challenges the viewer to reconsider aspects of American history that one might otherwise disregard. By connecting works that may seem disparate through the thesis that World War I fundamentally shaped early-20th century American visual and artistic culture worldwide, the exhibition provides a comprehensive glimpse into an era that is often erased from the collective national identity.

It may be helpful to loosely separate works from this exhibition into the categories of populist and personal (excepting a small section titled Modernists React to the War): there are paintings and prints designed to elicit a public response, and there are works which illustrate the experience of war from the perspective of a soldier. Both categories may settle uncomfortably with later narratives of 20th century American art. Unlike the Abstract Expressionists, whose works signified the individuality and freedom of the American artist (particularly in contrast with Soviet socialist realism), the work in this exhibition for the most part seems to genuinely prioritize communication with the common man, whether from the perspective of the government, or a communication of the horrors of war from one who has seen them firsthand.

WWI marked the abandonment of traditional battlefield etiquette, and the beginning of “total war.” With the development of trench warfare, the land was literally shifted, scarred in relation to human violence on an unprecedented scale. The monumentality of this transition is analogous to the radical change we now approach in the face of drone strikes. Many of the works, such as Kerr Eby’s Where Do We Go? and September 13th, 1918, Saint-Mihiel display the visual slippage between the body and the wasteland. In Where Do We Go? a line of soldiers form a huddling, dejected mass, and a similar line of soldiers formally becomes a mirror of the dark storm cloud in September 13th. I am reminded in this landscape of earlier, 19th century American landscape paintings, in which the storm cloud becomes a symbol of a sublime commune with nature. Here, the storm cloud hovers over a barren land; the cloud is both the mass of bodies and the void. If this image is considered in the great tradition of American landscape painting, then the emptiness of the landscape must be considered symptomatic of warfare; gone are the lush rivers and clouds cresting over the verdant hills.

Also striking are the personal works of Claggett Wilson and Horace Pippin, both soldiers. They are profound because they speak to an expression of an individual, a rare perspective of war. Claggett Wilson’s watercolor, tempera and graphite drawings provide a tragicomic take on the battlefield theme, with cartoon-like figures inflicting and receiving violence upon one another with equal suffering. Wilson’s works ought to always remain relevant for their premonitory power. Here, the barbed wire and the trenches form a stage set for his hapless soldiers to meet their demise. Pippin, an African-American soldier who served in the Harlem Hellfighters, also reacts directly to his own experiences in his art. He was introduced to painting as a therapeutic act, and his works bear a personal, idiosyncratic touch, a whimsical aesthetic that contrasts starkly with the narratives contained within. The Barracks is a quiet and simple depiction of soldiers sleeping in their bunks. Though made in 1945, this piece still speaks to the artist’s experiences over twenty years prior; the subtle inclusion of the unlit candle is a profoundly moving signifier of absence.

The strength of World War I and American Art is not necessarily in its drama or its ambition of scale; rather, it is in the wide selection of artworks that exist outside of the canon. From aerial photography to Ivan Albright’s medical illustrations, these small works and images provide a distinct lens through which we may think about World War I and its historical implications.

World War I and American Art is remarkably poignant and relevant to the political epoch of Trumpism; 2017 marks the centennial of American engagement in World War I, and after nearly a century of modernism and post-modernism, of conceptual art and identity politics, we are somehow returned to the moment of 1917, with similar divisions between European countries. The year has, in three months, been marked by a pervasive sense of encroaching fear: hyper-nationalism, the resurgence of tension between Russia and the United States, the potential dissolution of the European Union, and the repudiation of journalistic fact. These parallels reinforce the value of World War I and American Art not only as an art exhibition, but as an anthropological foray into a not-so-distant yet largely forgotten past.

Olivia Jia is a student at the University of the Arts.