Reflection on Images of War, a show opening at the Kemper Museum
Art took up arms and marched into the battlefields of Europe in 1914, hopeful that war, as a means of violent purification, might have redemptive effects on the sorry condition of civilization’s dismal turn-of-the-century. Art, like all who believed the old lies about the worthiness and efficacy of armed combat, was wrong.
As presented in an important and harrowing exhibit opening Friday at the Kemper Art Museum, artists on both sides of the conflict who once went off to fight with the crusading spirit of St. Louis found themselves reeling from forces of revelation that rolled over them like landships, those tanks put to work a near-century ago.
The storms of myth hang over the historical corpus of World War I like vapors of mustard gas, introduced into warfare near Ypres, Belgium, in 1917 by the Germans. One myth still heard is that this “Great War” was to have been the war to end war – it is based upon the famous proclamation borrowed from and corrupted from the name of a book by H.G. Wells. That of course would be knee-slappingly risible were it not so murderously wrong.
Another idea is found in the title of an important book, which is part of the material presented with this exhibition. The book title – “Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged” -- is not so much in error but gasps in desperate need of the oxygen of context.
The quotation is drawn from a 1936 essay, “The Storyteller,” in which the critical observer Walter Benjamin wrote, “A generation that still drove to school in horse-drawn carriages suddenly stood under the open sky in a landscape with nothing but the clouds unchanged, and in the center, in a force field of destructive currents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”
There is an undeniable reasonable quality to that idea, that World War I was so complete in its destructive quality that it had wiped out “civilization” and left nothing but the sky. All – good and bad – was gone, save the sky, and fragile, wounded, sickened humanity standing in the midst of the rubble.
In fact, however, the more accurate aphorism is this: “The more things change the more they are very much the same.” Nothing would change that affliction of sameness; it is a part of our nature that is fundamentally bellicose and greedy and corrupt. This natural affliction, related of course to the idea of original sin, flows from conscious and unconscious drives capable both of love and the creation of beauty and with a war that pushed toward the near-destruction of the world.
War in three parts
In 1919, after 17 million soldiers died, after 20 million more were injured and in the wreckage left by the collapse of mighty monarchies and a once abject faith in them, the world was stuck with the dark side of human nature and its omni-persuasive and pervasive greed for land, bodies, treasure and power.
Dressed in clothes of a different cut, perhaps, but made of the same toxic material, humankind’s raw and apparently inexhaustible drive for the great More was left battered and bleeding yet resiliently unbowed. Art, of course, was not left unaffected. Indeed, it remains for us a keen manifestation of the run up to the war, the war in progress and the aftermath.
“World War I: War of Images, Images of War” at Washington University's Kemper demonstrates the shift in the relationship, from the idealistic narrative to the expressive, the anguished and the personal, that occurred with World War I. The show has three parts.
Part one, “War of Images” provides artistic demonstrations of our proclivity to cheer as the first punch is thrown in a fight or the initial shots are fired in a war. Propaganda is the name of the artistic version of inaugural cheering, no caricature too terrifying or obscene.
Part two, “Images of War,” brings forth life and death on the battlefield, and more than hints not only at fear and revulsion but also at questioning the purposes of this thing, this monster that feeds on death. The horrors of trench warfare, of chemical warfare, of the stench of death – all that challenged whatever ideas of noble purpose that may have remained. And as the war dragged on, who could not wonder why, and then, who stood to gain from it?
Part 3 is aftermath – how artists distilled information soaked up in the years of human destruction and the memories that piled up like the bodies of dead comrades and the unconscious anguishes that rendered the sleep of reason a memory itself. Reflection brought the war into focus, sometimes abstractly, challenging the viewer to tease out meaning; other times it is so vigorous and telling that the viewer is slapped in the face with the artists’ senses of tragedy and outrage.
There are many reasons, many and important reasons, this show has value for our time, a time in which the malignancies of war continue to spread over vast geographies of the Middle East and now are spreading into Europe and across the sea to the United States, measuring our capacities for empathy and sacrifice, and reminding us of the holocaustic spawn of the Great War in World War II.
The purely aesthetic reason is a good reason as well, and a viewer finds at the Kemper works by Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Umberto Boccioni, Natalia Goncharovna and others, among them one of the Kemper’s treasures, a painting by the great American painter Marsden Hartley -- his powerful “The Iron Cross” from 1915.
And there are purely historical reasons to visit the Kemper for this show, reasons satisfied by a generous and fascinating assortment group of documents, flyers, postcards, documentary photographs and periodicals that work together and join in the telling of this complex, sorrowful and often incomprehensible story.
But another reason is cosmic; the message can stand being repeated a thousand times in a thousand ways. Rising above the visual and the historic is a cautionary tale so compelling and so obvious it is impossible to believe that any sentient being could miss it. But we did, and continue to do so, over and over again. That is our capacity for embracing war as solution.
Legacy of war
“The War That Will End War” idea gave the world a bold dream that quickly proved fugitive. Nevertheless, the idea stuck, and even though World War I's disastrous form grows less distinct and more ghostly all the time – the time is past for veterans of it -- we still hear it was the war to end all wars, the war to make the world safe for democracy.
World War I’s legacy was not the beating of swords into plowshares, but an invitation to the shaping the swords into ever more potent weaponry, and as the wars that have exploded in many murderous forms time and again as ideological and territorial and spiritual ambitions are advanced and defended, we come to understand that late 20th and early 21st century minds have no greater capacity to see irrationality and greed for what they are than did the warring parties in the second decade of the 20th century.
The total number of World War I casualties was 37 million – 17 million dead and 20 million injured. The United States came to the war relatively late, in 1917, and its casualties numbered 320,000 – 116,500 dead and 204,000 injured. In all, the total of dead and hurt represented one of the most horrific wars in all of human history. In the dark statistics of warfare, it ranks in the top 10. World War II is number one.
Thus we are not only fortunate to have shows such as this one, but we also need them. The art, which serves not only as reminder of the grim grind of war and the illogic that produces wars, was limned clearly and brilliantly by some of the greatest artists of the modern era. Their industry was prodigious, and the organizers of the exhibit regard this work as fundamental to our understanding of contemporary military culture and our place in that culture. We learn from the show that never before had art addressed the bigger pictures of war so aggressively, not in pursuit of some vague victory but in search of a measure of Truth.
This exhibition is concerned primarily with the visual arts and artists who create paintings and journalists who make confrontational magazines and so forth. But an art form neither musical nor visual tells the story with words that drill into the soul with equal strength. That form is poetry, and the poet is Wilfred Owen.
His battlefield poem, which appropriately defies formal literary convention, describes the grisly death of a comrade who’d been gassed. The poem is an ironic edifice built on the words of the Roman poet Horace: “Dulce et decorum est.” Translation: “Sweet and proper.”
Here are the final eight lines:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
About the exhibit
“World War I: War of Images; Images of War” was organized by the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, with works drawn from the GRI’s Special Collections. Work from nine countries is represented. The installation in St. Louis is supplemented with art from several local private and public collections, including the Kemper Art Museum’s permanent collection. The show opens to the public on Friday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. It continues through Jan. 4, 2016.
Its curators, Karen K. Butler, until recently associate curator of the Kemper Art Museum, and Gordon Hughes, assistant professor of art history at Rice University, will discuss the exhibit at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12.