Re­port­ing WWI in brush strokes: Art from the front lines

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPRING ARTS PREVIEW | MUSEUMS - Peggy.mc­glone@wash­post.com

At the cen­ten­nial of Amer­ica’s en­try into World War I, the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum is of­fer­ing a rare view of the con­flict by artists who be­came sol­diers and sol­diers who were am­a­teur artists.

“Artist Sol­diers: Artis­tic Ex­pres­sion in the First World War,” open­ing April 6, will show­case more than 100 pieces of art and ar­ti­facts — many never dis­played in pub­lic — that de­pict re­al­is­tic scenes of life on the front and in the civil­ian life sur­round­ing it.

Cen­tral to the ex­hi­bi­tion are 54 works from the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces, part of a col­lec­tion of about 500 owned by the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory. Pieces from the col­lec­tion have been ex­hib­ited only once be­fore, al­most a cen­tury ago.

“These works are sig­nif­i­cant in that they rep­re­sent a turn­ing point in so-called war art,” said Peter Jakab, chief cu­ra­tor at the Air and Space Mu­seum. “Prior, you’d see paint­ings of heroic fig­ures, painted long af­ter the bat­tle.”

But the AEF com­mis­sioned eight artists and em­bed­ded them in bat­tle. “They were given free rein to paint not only com­bat scenes,” Jakab said, “but also life at the front, scenes of per­sonal ac­tiv­i­ties. And what this gave us was a sort of cap­tur­ing the war in the mo­ment, by the first­hand par­tic­i­pants.”

Sol­dier-artists are rep­re­sented by 29 pho­tographs by Jeff Gusky, who doc­u­mented stone carv­ings on the walls and ceil­ings of underground quar­ries that housed sol­diers and equip­ment. Never be­fore ex­hib­ited in a mu­seum, the pho­tos de­pict a broad range of art, from re­li­gious to hu­mor­ous to self-portraits, car­i­ca­tures and mil­i­tary unit em­blems. One shows an elab­o­rate al­tar carved into a wall just feet from steps that led to the trenches, Jakab said.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also fea­tures such ar­ti­facts as a gas mask, a hospi­tal wheel­chair and Bel­gian lace, items that are depicted in the art­work. To­gether, they fo­cus at­ten­tion on in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, Jakab said, which is crit­i­cal for un­der­stand­ing the first in­dus­tri­al­ized war.

“The tech­nol­ogy of the First World War made it larger. The trucks and the large quan­ti­ties of sup­plies, there were air­planes for the first time and tanks,” he said. “It’s very easy to lose the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of peo­ple who are sol­diers, and who are civil­ians swept up in these great his­tor­i­cal events. The art helps us not for­get that his­tory is made up of in­di­vid­u­als and in­di­vid­ual acts.”

The mu­seum will also honor the 100th an­niver­sary of the Amer­i­can en­gage­ment in WWI with a film se­ries and other pro­grams.

Also worth not­ing

“1967: Civil Rights at 50,” through Jan. 2, 2018, at the New­seum, fea­tures images of news­pa­per and mag­a­zine cov­er­age of the African Amer­i­can strug­gle for racial jus­tice in that crit­i­cal year. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­ves­ti­gates the First Amend­ment’s role in the civil rights move­ment.

For “From Tarzan to Tonto: A Spe­cial Pro­gram Ex­am­in­ing the Per­sua­sive­ness of Stereo­types in Amer­i­can Cul­ture,” three Smith­so­nian mu­se­ums — the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Art, the Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian and the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture — will con­vene a panel of schol­ars, authors and crit­ics to ex­am­ine Tarzan and Jane, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Un­cle Ben and Aunt Jemima, and other stereo­types in Amer­i­can cul­ture. The pro­gram is Feb. 9 at 6 p.m. at the Amer­i­can In­dian Mu­seum.

“The art helps us not for­get that his­tory is made up of in­di­vid­u­als and in­di­vid­ual acts.” Peter Jakab, chief cu­ra­tor at the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum, on the pieces cre­ated by sol­dier-artists nearly 100 years ago

Peggy Mc­Glone

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