First World War in Visual Culture

Here is my latest from The Wall Street Journal, a great World War I art exhibit at the Wolfsonian in South Beach.

From the Somme to South BeachWolfsonian

By Mark Yost

South Beach

Most of the major exhibits marking the 100th anniversary of World War I have been martial, focusing on battles, weapons and strategies. But now comes a comprehensive exhibit at the Wolfsonian, a small museum at Florida International University that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. “Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture” featuring artists’, designers’ and filmmakers’ response to the war, from nationalistic propaganda pieces and recruiting posters to dark, retrospective postwar works looking back on a conflict that many thought would last a few months, but which dragged on for four years and cost millions of lives.

Keen visitors will notice the dazzle pattern—camouflage used by World War I ships to fool German U-boats—painted on the outside of the building near the entrance. The lobby features vinyl flooring with a poppy design created in-house (the flowers have long been worn to remember the Allied war dead) and a contemporary photo exhibit by Milan-born Luca Artioli of bunkers and trenchworks still visible in the Italian Alps. These are but preludes to the three galleries over two floors of the museum that have been well put together, mostly using artworks from the museum’s vast collection, by curator Jon Mogul.

“War Machines” opens with “Paris bombardé,” a 1919 series of etchings and woodcuts by artist-turned-aviator Maurice Busset depicting the 1918 air raids and dogfights over Paris. “La sirène de Notre-Dame” is his view of the famed cathedral from above, looking down on the air-raid sirens installed on its roof, with the Seine and searchlights in the distance. Its companion piece, “Sous les bombes,” is an aerial perspective of biplanes engaged in combat with the city below. In “Sous les voûtes du métro Odeon,” Parisians are seen huddling in a dark subway tunnel in the foreground, with more amorphous mobs on the well-illuminated station platforms in the distance.

Much of the artwork in this first gallery illustrates the industrial effort to win the war. While World War I officially fell between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, visitors will clearly see the connection between design and technology that was a central theme of both periods as well as the pieces on display here. Among them is a series, “Britain’s Efforts and Ideals,” commissioned by the War Propaganda Bureau. It features works by C.R.W. Nevinson, who observed that soldiers had become “mere cogs in the mechanism.”

“Assembling Parts” is Nevinson’s 1917 etching of workers (including a woman) around an unskinned aircraft, the latticework of its bowed wings and fuselage foreshadowing the Art Deco period’s celebration of craftsmanship and technology. Another etching, “Making the Engine,” also from 1917, shows workers in a plant, with more detail given to the pulleys and crankshafts than the faces. An oil on canvas—one of the few works in color here—by British artist Anna Airy captures a Singer sewing-machine factory in Glasgow converted to make 15-inch artillery shells. Although the painting was commissioned, a plaque explains that “the factory…is hardly a model of efficiency. Instead, it is a cluttered, disorganized space, and some of the workers are standing around rather than making armaments.” Completed in 1918, its tone is reflective of how Britain had become weary of the mounting casualties from what seemed to be a never-ending war.

The objects in this gallery also reflect the early 20th century’s fascination with the airplane, which itself was symbolic of the mechanization of war. “Winged Vision of the War in Italy” is a series of reconnaissance photos issued by a Rome publisher in the 1920s to celebrate Italy’s campaigns against Austria-Hungary. An iPad nearby, one of several scattered throughout the museum, lets visitors examine the photos more closely.

“By mounting cameras to aircraft,” one panel reads, “militaries were able to record terrain behind enemy lines along with troop positions, trench networks, and artillery emplacements.”

The second gallery, “Unknown Soldiers,” delves deeper into Nevinson’s widely held view that tanks, airplanes and machine guns had turned soldiers into faceless parts in the war machine. In the lithograph “1915,” a panel explains, Austrian artist Albin Egger-Lienz depicts rank upon rank of German soldiers “nearly identical in posture, physique and expression” marching toward the viewer. “Their massive bodies, blank faces, and extreme uniformity convey a threat.” Similar in tone and style is Italian artist Anselmo Bucci’s 1918 portfolio of 50 lithographs made from sketches of the naval infantry.

“Bucci’s aim,” the exhibit explains, “was to make visible what was invisible by capturing the texture of everyday life at the front.” He does exactly that with “In linea: difese e rifugi” (“At the Front: Defenses and Shelters”), which features two images; one of soldiers digging a trench, then another alongside showing them seeking refuge in it.

For all its carnage, World War I also produced its share of kitsch, including a series of German decorative plates, miniature statues of soldiers marching off to war, and album covers for the popular American songs “Your Lips Are No Man’s Land But Mine” and “Somewhere in France is Daddy.”

If the first two galleries mostly celebrate the war, “Loss and Redemption” puts the aftermath in perspective. The most somber objects are a series of 1921 etchings by Austrian artist Ludwig Hesshaimer, “The World War: A Dance of Death.”

“To tell this tale,” the wall panel explains, “Hesshaimer combines modern and Biblical imagery: biplanes join the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to lay waste to earth; German soldiers share a dugout with Death; demons riding a giant serpent threaten a group of children gathered around Jesus, after His second coming has vanquished Death.”

Equally unflinching is “Lens,” a 1920 offset lithograph by French artist Julien Lacaze that depicts the northern French city in utter ruin, but also as a curiosity to tourists who were encouraged by the state railroad, which commissioned the piece, to come see it for themselves.

After the war also came public artworks of remembrance, including a victory arch in New York’s Madison Square. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was studying sculpture in Paris at the outbreak of the war, was one of 20 artists invited to contribute. Instead of some grand symbolic piece, she created relief panels that show everyday soldiers in combat, digging trenches, and marching. There’s also a nurse, symbolic of the field hospital she helped set up in Juilly, France. On display here are the bronzes she had cast from the reliefs.

All in all, a worthwhile—and different—remembrance of the First World War.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.