One hundred years after the United States entered World War I, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibit, titled World War I and The Visual Arts, that commemorates the art created in the years before, during and following the war.
The exhibit’s main focus is the effect of the war on soldiers and civilians.
A majority of the exhibit shows soldiers going off to war, the mutilated bodies of those who died and the people who survived, often without at least one body part.
Some pieces also show refugees and their efforts to rebuild bombed cities and establish a new normal.
“This exhibition explores the myriad and often contradictory ways in which artists responded to the first modern war,” the MET states in its introduction to the exhibit. “[It] show[s] how the war influenced subjects, techniques, materials, and formal decisions, as well as artists’ basic approaches to their practices and positions in a moment of profound crisis.”
The exhibit is split between three rooms, with a few propaganda posters hanging by the main entrance.
From left to right, each room follows a chronological order of events, from the outbreak of the war to the years after the armistice deal was signed in November 1918.
Each room also features an explanation of the historical context behind the selected period in the war.
One of the first images one sees when approaching the entrance to the gallery from the main stairway is a 1917 Russian propaganda poster titled “The Year 1914.” The poster depicts three men: a soldier in full armor, a young man on a horse with a burning torch held high and a young worker carrying a hammer.
In Russian, which is not translated on the accompanying plaque, the poster claims that the country’s participation in the war is “The resurrection of Russia.”
On the other side of the entrance to the gallery, a U.S. Army poster by Harry Ryle Hopps shows an ape wearing a Prussian soldier’s helmet with the word “militarism” written on it.
In his left arm, he is carrying a limp, half-naked girl dressed in a blue robe. In his right hand, he has a bloody club with the German word “Kultur,” or “culture,” written on it.
Such symbolism is prevalent throughout the entire exhibit. Small clues like words inserted into different parts of the image are meant to give propaganda posters a much deeper meaning, but they also help the viewer understand the message that the author is trying to convey.
While the pieces do not call for a detailed knowledge of the historical context, the viewer should pay attention to all elements of each piece in order to grasp its meaning.
The first room on the left is dedicated to the outbreak of the war and features many images of soldiers going off to war.
One such image, drawn by Natalia Goncharova, depicts these soldiers with angels above them, and bayonets held high.
The angels seem to be guiding the soldiers into battle—one of the most powerful religious metaphors used in wartime art—although one cannot help but think that they are also leading the soldiers to their deaths.
Another interesting piece in this room is a 1914 map of Europe by Walter Trier. The map depicts the military alliances that formed the two sides of the conflict.
In the top right corner, Russia is shown as a man trying to swallow the rest of Europe. To his bottom left, a soldier representing the Austro-Hungarian Empire stuffs his bayonet into the Russian’s mouth.
Prussia is represented by two soldiers, each facing either the east or the west. The one facing the east is pushing the Russian’s nose away with his feet. The one facing the west is busy facing a group of soldiers that represent France.
In the center room, the pieces mainly concentrate on the U.S. involvement in the war. Directly by the entrance to the galleries, one can see four prototypes of the helmet that U.S. soldiers would wear in the war.
On the left, there is a glass case displaying a gas mask that the soldiers carried with them.
Some of the most profound pieces of the exhibit were located in the right room, which dealt with the war’s aftermath.
It features numerous works by Otto Dix and George Grosz, who mostly drew Prussian soldiers that fought in the war, and the soldiers’ lives as veterans.
Dix’s famous “Card Players” is featured in the exhibit. The piece shows three veterans playing cards around a round table. Each of them is missing body parts, some of which are replaced by exaggerated prosthetics.
When looking closely at the piece, the viewer can notice that one soldier’s wooden legs are also the legs of the chair he sits on.
The plaque accompanying “Card Players” states, “The mutilated bodies represent the condition of veterans the artist encountered, many of whom were in dire physical and financial condition and, despite their sacrifice, neglected by the government.”
All in all, the exhibit is a thoughtful analysis of how World War I influenced the lives of soldiers and civilians. The artists did not spare any details when depicting the gruesome scenes of the war, including piles of dead bodies and planes flying over cities that were already destroyed by the war.
Different pieces show both the hope and dread felt by the war’s refugees. In some cases, the images are so vivid that one cannot help but sit down for a moment to take everything in.
More importantly, however, one can experience the sacrifices that the artists made to depict those scenes, whether it was being part of the war machine or flying on the back of a bomber. Some, like Grosz, were forced to emigrate and accept a new homeland.
The exhibit will close on Jan. 7, 2018.
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