Edited by Robert Cozzolino, Anne Classen Knutson & David M Lubin

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts &

Princeton University Press

ISBN 9780691172699    £44.95.

reviewed by Alan Dent

            More than seventy artists and almost a hundred and forty pages of plates; the latter alone are well worth the price of this beautifully produced volume. It is much more than a visual cornucopia however. In addition to the erudite introduction by the editors, there are eight essays, by them and David Reynolds, Pearl James, Amy Helene Kirschke, Jason Weems and Alexander Nemerov. Expert, informed and balanced, they all have high literary gifts, a capacity to write with clarity, and a thorough grasp of their subject.

            Some of the art is recruitment propaganda; James Montgomery Flagg’s, Uncle Sam probably the most famous. On the other hand, are works of anti-war satire: Robert Minor’s eternal At Last A Perfect Soldier or Boardman Robinsons’ Europe 1916 for example. On both sides, the works featured are of quality. The artists who painted the war or about the war were gifted, original and brave. George Bellows amongst them, known as the American Courbet, he has some of the latter’s directness and realism pushed to the point it begins to seem super-real. He was associated with the Lyrical Left, that Greenwich Village version of radicalism which put roses on a par with bread and which was associated with The Masses,a publication resolutely opposed to the war. His canvases of the grim brutality of the conflict, Return of the Useless , The Bacchanale or The Cigarette are intended to rob war of any shred of glory. They ask , what is war? Their answer is the reduction of individuals to flesh which can be burnt, slashed, mutilated, tortured. The soldier smoking beside the upright corpse of the woman whose breast he has severed and whose left hand he has pinned to the wall with a blade (no doubt after raping her) ought to be enough to convince anyone that war is never worth its supposed gains. Bellows, however, moved from an anti to pro-war stance because of German brutalities.

            The similarity between Bellows and Goya is rightly pointed up. The latter’s Disasters of War is echoed in Bellows’ work. The series of lithographs he produced in 1918 was based, at least in part, on the famous Bryce Report of May 1915. Written in a style Kafka would have admired, the report powerfully evoked the bloodlust of the advancing Germans. That Bellows was able to turn what he read into such shocking beauty is a testament to an extraordinary visual imagination.

            America, of course, didn’t enter the war till 6th April 1917. The Masses was against involvement but W.E.B Du Bois, editor of Crisis, the organ of the N.A.A.C.P., gave his support. Posters like those published by E.G. Renesch, Coloured Man Is No Slacker for example which depicts a black soldier saying goodbye to his beloved as a troop of his fellows march in the background, the stars and stripes held aloft, contrast with the cynicism of the cartoon by an unknown artist in which a fat, rich, white American addresses the wounded black soldier: “It’s very simple, Bill; in wartime you must rush ahead; now you stay in the rear.” Amy Helene Kirschke’s chapter on the role of black troops and the disillusion of du Bois and others with the post-war settlement for coloured Americans is a small masterpiece. It ends with the searing comment that black veterans faced rejection by the very country they had defended.            

            The Anglo-American John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, much reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s The Blind Leading The Blind, is perhaps one the most poignant amongst a rich unforgetability. People maimed and blinded by the technology their inventiveness has created; young men prostrate like old men near death or feeling their way like the feeble and infirm, the painting evokes more disgust than pity. It speaks more of stupidity than evil and it rejects all sentimentality. In a way, it has a kindred feel to John Stuart Curry’s Prelude to War, Allegory of 1938.

            Alexander Nemerov devotes a chapter to Charles Burchfield, who never left America and whose The First Hepaticas, though it might be a scene from the Somme, was painted in Ohio, probably in Post’s Woods near Salem. He points out its similarity to Paul Nash’s We Are Making A New World, an ironic, horrified comment on the war of which Nash wrote “Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war..” Nemeroc suggests that Burchfield might have been influenced by Eugene Debs who made a famous anti-war speech in Canton, close to Burchfield’s home on June 16 1918. The chapter carries a photograph by an unknown artist of Debs in full, passionate flow. “The master class has always declared the wars,” said Debs, “the subject class has always fought the battles.” Nemerov reflects on the distance between Debs’s public oratory and Burchfield’s quiet, dreamy almost trance-like evocation. Burchfield was responding to the slaughter in Europe but by pulling away from what he called the “common banalities” in which he included politics and war. He voted socialist in 1914 because “their principles mean the freedom of humanity from graft and greed”. The war made him despair: “One can do nothing with the leaders of the war: if we could only reach the men who are fighting – to prove to them the utter falseness of their theory of patriotism !” The ravaged tree at the centre of The First Hepaticas bears a resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, granting to this most elusive, whispering and remote of paintings a curious engagement in the politics of its time.

            It might seem curious to find Duchamp’s Fountain reproduced here, yet the artist was a fierce opponent of the war and submitted the piece within a few days of Wilson’s declaration. Alfred Srieglitz, also an opponent, photographed it against a background showing Marsden Hartley’s The Warriors, a celebration of German military manhood. Duchamp’s oblique work is always cited as a comment on the nature of the art world, but here it is clearly suggesting the foolish and wicked waste that war entails.

            There is much more to be said about this excellent book: the simple, almost naïve canvases of Clagget Wilson deserve lengthy comment; Ivan Albright is a painter of genius who should be much better known; Carl Hoekner’s The Homecoming of 1918 is worthy of at least essay-length analysis; there are marvellous paintings  by Georgia O’Keefe and Jean Marin. This volume should be in every library in the world, including school libraries. It reminds us that when the best in our nature prevails, we produce exquisite, enduring art; when we give in to the worst, a shameful, bestial hell.