The first major exhibition devoted to exploring how American artists reacted to the First World War has opened in Philadelphia.
World War I and American Art is being staged at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the run up to the Centennial in April 2017, and features the work of some 80 artists from the time.
The exhibition revisits a crucial moment in modern American history through the eyes of artists who played an important role in crafting images which affected public opinion at the time: images which supported the U.S. government’s mobilisation efforts in 1917 and 1918, but which also showed some of the horror of war and which helped shape the way those who were fighting were ultimately remembered.
Organised around eight themes including The Threat of War, Battlefields and The Wounded and the Healers, the exhibition seeks to explore both the reaction of the artists to the changing times and moods of the war years and also to show how the modernist art movements of the time dealt with those themes.
Arranged around the narrative of the war itself, the exhibition follows the artists as they chronicle their experiences of war as America first joined the conflict; and then as the war involves them directly as soldiers, relief workers or official war artists.
The exhibition includes a number high-profile paintings loaned by other galleries, such as John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting, Gassed, from the Imperial War Museum in London.
Gassed is based on a haunting scene witnessed by the artist at an evacuation checkpoint: rows of British soldiers, their heads wrapped in gauze to protect eyes temporarily blinded by mustard gas, being led by orderlies to a dressing station. Its power rests partly on the tragedy of the tableau – the brutality of war blinding a young generation as the men pick their way through a broken landscape, wading through the bodies of fallen comrades – but also on the humanity of these men as they cling on to one another, helping themselves and their group along the line to safety.
The 160-odd works on display encompass a broad variety of stylistic approaches, viewpoints and experiences and they are chronicled in paintings, prints, photographs and posters. The exhibition includes a diverse array of both well-known and under-recognised artists including Ivan Albright, George Bellows, Charles Burchfield, John Steuart Curry, James Montgomery Flagg, Henry Glintenkamp, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Carl Hoeckner, Mary Reid Kelley, George Luks, John Marin, Violet Oakley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Pennell, Jane Peterson, Man Ray, Boardman Robinson, Norman Rockwell, Edward Steichen and Claggett Wilson.
A small selection of work by contemporary artists who have confronted World War I’s legacy in their work will also appear as well as an exhibition of work by living military veterans in the Warrior Writers programme in Philadelphia.