“World War I and The Visual Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Harry Ryle Hopps, Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), color lithograph, 41 x 27-1/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Propaganda elides subtlety. Bluntness is the point: to make expressly clear the message its makers—whether it be a government, political party, or individual—want to impart to the viewer. Which isn’t to suggest that sophistication and craft, often of a high level, don’t figure into propaganda. At the entrance to “World War I and the Visual Arts,” museum visitors encounter Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), a recruitment poster for the U.S. Army designed by Harry Ryle Hopps. As a means of instilling patriotic fervor, Hopps’s image is a far cry from the stern gravitas of Uncle Sam. A slavering gorilla wearing a Kaiser hat charges onto the American shoreline. In its right arm, this proto–King Kong wields a bloodied club that reads “Kultur”; in its left, it holds a writhing, topless woman. The latter is an allusion to Germany’s 1914 invasion—or, as it came to be known, “rape”—of Belgium. One doesn’t have to be a student of history to glean the intent of Hopps’s image: aggression is monstrous. As an argument, it doesn’t carry a lot of nuance, but the flair with which it is embodied is effective and, testament to a job well done, memorable.

Dramatics for the sake of political import is par for the course when it comes to propaganda, particularly during wartime. Jennifer Farrell, an Associate Curator in the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, lines the hallway directly outside the exhibition with a run of additional posters from the United States, Russia, France, Italy, and the “mad brute” itself, Germany. Fritz Erler, a painter and designer with Symbolist tendencies, worked on behalf of the German Empire in creating Help us win—buy war bonds! (1916), a stoic portrayal of a soldier surrounded by arabesques of barbed wire. History has bestowed its own ironies on this decidedly non-Aryan visage, especially given that Erler became an artist favored by the Third Reich. (He would, in fact, paint a portrait of the Führer some fifteen years later.) One of the discomfiting aspects of the exhibition is how vividly it encapsulates history, bringing along with it a concomitant sense of fervor, confusion, and righteousness. That it does so with compelling understatement is a credit to Farrell’s selectivity and focus.

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Fritz Erler, Help us win–buy war bonds! (1916), color lithograph, 24-7/8 x 19-3/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met is playing up the stellar array of artists featured in “World War I and the Visual Arts,” most of whom are inextricably linked with The War To End All Wars. Expressionism was, after all, bolstered and Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity) born of its catastrophes. An exhibition such as this is inconceivable without the work of Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix, all of whom make plain their disaffection. Fernand Léger, who served in the Engineer Corps of the French army, may have observed that “trench warfare is full of small murders,” but he was impressed by the “dazzling” efficiency of high-tech warfare. The Italian Futurist Gino Severini was similarly taken with “the marvelous mechanical forms” of modern arms, as was the more equivocal Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist, who, unlike Severini, served in the war. There are artists whose inclusion is less expected. George Bellows is known for many things, but War Series (1918), a suite of often gruesome lithographs, isn’t one of them. Then there’s John Singer Sargent, Pierre Bonnard, and the perpetually sunny Raoul Dufy, the latter of whom celebrated the end of hostilities with a lithograph done for Le Mot, a journal published by a friend, the novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

The “visual” nature of the exhibition extends considerably beyond the Fine Arts. Commercial artists figure significantly at the Met; so do, to a lesser extent, industrial designers. Three-dimensional objects are in short supply; those that are included—an assortment of helmets that channel medieval precedent and a tattered gas mask from France—are arresting, not least because they seem alarmingly primitive. An array of medals commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania (Germany), America the Avenger (France), and the barbarism of Kaiser Wilhelm (the United States) are the lone sculptural inclusions. Pictures predominate. Documentary photos pepper “World War I and the Visual Arts” with terse clarity, whether they be aerial views of war-torn France by Edward Steichen (who pioneered surveillance techniques as the Chief of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary) or the haunting image by an unknown photographer of Londoners observing two minutes of silence on Armistice Day, 1919. Additional items include textiles, periodicals, montages, a pop-up children’s book (After the Victory), and trading cards published by the American Tobacco Company. A series of Russian postcards stand out for their starkly contrived imagery and subject matter: women in wartime, seen embodying such virtues as “iron discipline” and “precision, accuracy, and prompt fulfillment of order.”

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Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917), (1924), etching and aquatint on paper, 35.5 x 47.7 cm.; Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Otto Dix’s The War (1924), a series of fifty-one etchings, occupies an entire wall of the show and is the rare occasion when a minor artist earns a star turn. Seen on a piecemeal basis, Dix’s paintings provide a chilly dissection of life during the Weimar Republic; seen en masse, their neurasthenia wears quickly. As a printmaker, however, Dix is on more solid footing because his skills as a draftsman and tonalist evince more grit and imagination than when putting brush to canvas. Taking clear inspiration from Goya’s The Disasters of War, Dix’s etchings embrace the grotesque, sometimes to cartoonish extremes, and indulge in a moral rage that glints with bilious black humor. Dix’s masterful handling of the medium brings unseemly beauty to depictions of bodies—whether they be dead, exploited, or disfigured. George Grosz’s drawings, typically the standard-bearer for bitterness of this sort, are tinker-toys in comparison. Dix’s misanthropy is both his gift and greatest liability, but The War occasionally admits to the elegiac. Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917) (1924), a depiction of innumerable corpses lying in disarray on the battlefield, is both a mockery of the surrounding landscape and its cruel apotheosis. It’s an image very much in sync with the strong emotions spurred by “World War I and The Visual Arts.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the October 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

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