No Man's Land at Smith: Reasons to Remember WWI

No Man’s Land: Prints from the Front Lines of WWI
Smith College Museum of Art
Through February 17, 2019

By the time you read this, a lot of hoopla about the end of World War I will be over. That’s because we love anniversaries that end in a five or a zero, but we don’t get overly excited by, say, the 101st year since a historical event occurred. World War I famously ended on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. .

2019 will bring its own anniversaries to the fore, but we should not forget World War I. More than any other event, it shaped the subsequent structure of the 20th century, which–all things considered–was not one of humanity’s finest historical periods. There were many problems before World War I guns began firing, but consider how different the world was before and after. Old aristocracies were swept away, but many of the new civil governments were corrupt, weak, bankrupt, or all three; perfect conditions for the rise of fascism. The Russian czar gave way to a Bolshevik Revolution that ultimately devolved into a Stalinist nightmare and led to a Cold War long before anyone thought of using that term. The WW I armistice wasn’t even signed before a flu pandemic broke out that killed more than the war. A global economic depression loomed on the horizon, as did another world war, a declared Cold War, an arms race, weapons of mass annihilation, and untold numbers of small conflicts that threatened to bring on World War III.

William Strang "The Convalescent"
Conservatives are fond of using World War II as an example of why pacifism doesn’t work. They ought to pay more attention to the lesson of World War I: that wars generally don’t resolve much and quite often leave behind worse problems than those addressed by conflict. Gaze upon the prints, postcards, scrapbooks, photos, and paraphernalia displayed at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), and you’ll get a glimpse of war’s ugliness, futility, and horror. No Man’s Land will never show up in military recruiting ads. There was very little logic to World War I and there surely wasn’t much glory either.

Artists whose names you probably don’t know died in the war. You don’t know of Franz Marc, for instance, because his bud was plucked before it could flower. Those who survived were deeply impacted by what they saw. It is no accident that cubism reached its highest expression after the war. If the work of someone such as Georges Braque confuses you, ask why you would expect those who witnessed the Great War to see the world in anything other than abstract and fragmented forms. 

Kerr Eby

Otto Dix
There aren’t many American artists represented in the SCMA exhibit and that is as it should be. Kerr Eby is a noted exception. It was, after all, Europe that bore the brunt of trench warfare, gas attacks, and senseless charges across barbed wire terrain on their way to senseless death. When Otto Dix sketched the conflict, he didn’t see grand military pageantry, he saw grotesque waste such as he conveyed in “Wounded Soldier, Autumn 1916.”  In fact, whenever on-the-scene artists presented soldiers marching or riding off to war, it was more akin to shades entering a void. Much was viewed as humanity’s undoing. Consider, for instance, that a grand Gothic cathedral such as that in Rheims, France, took centuries to complete. Then look at Raoul Varin’s depiction of how all was undone in 1917.   
Varin, "Rheims"

McBey, "The Torpedoed Essex"
Quite a few images come from Scottish artists, especially James McBey, David Muirhead Bone, and William Strang. If these names aren’t familiar to you, it’s because their work discomforts and depresses. That might have something to do with the fact that English commanders often deployed Scots, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders for suicidal forays. How to display the nightmare? Boston Globe critic Mark Feeney observed that new styles such as cubism and futurism were trotted out but, “Most of all, it was an Expressionist war.” For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s something of Impressionism’s opposite. Impressionists sought to convey new ways of showing what they saw; expressionists showed us how art could convey feelings and emotions. Max Beckmann is perhaps the most famous of the artists on the wall, but his "The Large Operation" isn't an impression; it's a lamentation. 
Beckmann, "The Large Operation"

Grosz, "The Hero"
There are military medals on view at the SCMA, but they feel both inappropriate and ironic. This is a powerful exhibit and you should take time to linger over what might first seem rough sketches or quick sketches. You won’t find much that bespeaks military heroism. World War I was a lethal freak show. We should ponder that and look away from modern military recruiting ads with their emphasis on testosterone-fueled images of manhood and faux promises of glory. Above all, we should rage against the lie of antiseptic warfare. When the guns fire, people die. As the George Grosz sketch "The Hero" reminds us, war isn’t pretty.

Rob Weir

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