On the front lines — and the home front


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The Met Fifth Avenue hosts a haunting show of prints and drawings commemorating the First World War


Photos



  • Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (British, London 1889–1946 London). “Returning to the Trenches,” 1916. Print. Drypoint; Plate: 6 in. × 8 1/16 in. (15.2 × 20.4 cm); Sheet: 8 3/8 in. × 11 in. (21.3 × 28 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1968




  • John Singer Sargent. American, Florence 1856–1925 London. “Wheels in Vault,” 1918. Watercolor, graphite, and wax on white wove paper. 15 3/8 x 20 13/16 in. (39.1 x 52.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950




  • Käthe Kollwitz. German, Kaliningrad (Königsberg) 1867–1945 Moritzburg. “Mothers (Mütter),” February 1919. Print. Lithograph. Sheet: 20 3/4 x 27 5/8 in. (52.7 x 70.1 cm). Image: 17 3/16 x 22 11/16 in. (43.6 x 57.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928




  • Käthe Kollwitz. German, Kaliningrad (Königsberg) 1867–1945 Moritzburg. “The Parents,” 1921–22. Print. Woodcut on heavy cream wove paper. Image: 13 7/8 × 16 7/8 in. (35.2 × 42.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc. 2017




  • W. H. Mullins Co.. American, Salem, Ohio 1872–1974. American Helmet Model No. 7, Sentinel's Helmet. “Experimental helmet prototype,” 1918. Steel, leather, textile, paint. H. 12 in. (30.5 cm); W. 9 5/8 in. (24.4 cm); D. 12 in. (30.5 cm); Wt. 13 lb. 12.6 oz. (6254 g). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Bequest of Stephen V. Grancsay, Rogers Fund, Helmut Nickel Gift, and funds from various donors, by exchange, 2013.



BY VAL CASTRONOVO

“World War I and the Visual Arts” at The Met is the third major museum exhibit devoted to the Great War to open in Manhattan since April, the month Congress declared war on Germany 100 years ago and the U.S. entered the fray.

While the Museum of the City of New York has focused on propaganda with a colorful poster show and the New-York Historical Society is featuring John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed,” among other epic paintings, The Met is highlighting smaller-scale prints, drawings and photographs of the war’s impact, drawn mostly from its collection.

With more than 130 items, including books, periodicals, medals, helmets and a gas mask, the exhibit showcases well-known and lesser-known artists alike, such as Sargent, George Bellows, Edward Steichen, Marsden Hartley, Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and many more.

British painter-printmaker C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946), one of the most famous visual chroniclers of World War I, served as an ambulance driver and medical orderly before being appointed an official war artist in 1917. His prints are sprinkled throughout the show and are among the most haunting items here. He used Futurist and Cubist techniques to produce works that evoke the mechanical aspects of the conflict, the first truly modern war with airplanes, machine guns, tanks, poison gas and horrific casualties.

Unlike propagandists who portrayed the war as a grand adventure leading to a better future, Nevinson refused to paint a rosy picture. As he wrote in his autobiography, he created images “without pageantry, without glory, and without the over-coloured heroic that had made up the tradition of all war paintings up to this time.... No man saw pageantry in the trenches.”

He used repetitive imagery to convey the bleakness and tedium of life on the front, producing powerful scenes of soldiers marching, resting and heading for the trenches. One of his more classically styled pictures, “The Road from Arras to Bapaume” (1918), set in the Somme region, is an elevated view of tiny troops cutting across a vast battle-scarred landscape, whose scale underscores the men’s frailty.

American expat John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) also served as an official war artist for the British army. He shadowed soldiers in northern France and Belgium for several months in 1918, creating works that mainly allude to the war’s brutality but avoid addressing it directly or very explicitly. Three sketches and two watercolors are on view, including “Wheels in Vault” (1918), a desolate rubble-strewn picture of a bombed-out church.

The show’s organizers speculate that the scene must have resonated with Sargent, whose niece and inspiration, Rose-Marie Ormond, died at a concert at a church in Paris that was bombed by the Germans in March 1918. Ninety others perished in the raid.

Otto Dix (1891-1969), a volunteer machine-gunner for the German army who fought in the Battle of the Somme, took an entirely different approach. No airbrushing here. Seriously wounded in the war, Dix created graphic images of the toll on man and his environment, producing a landmark series of 51 prints, “The War” (1923-24), to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities.

Considered one of the most important visual responses to war in the last century, the portfolio is displayed in full here, arranged in three long rows. The artist’s pacifist sympathies are evident from the gruesome, war-is-hell depictions of dead soldiers, bug-eyed wounded soldiers and soldiers about to be buried alive.

An eyewitness to the horror, Dix doesn’t hold back. Men with blackened faces, victims of a gas attack, lie dead on the ground. A human skull is crawling with worms. Corpses are caught on barbed wire — and a skeleton-faced sentry, still holding his weapon, sits lifeless in a trench, clothing ripped apart and body decomposing. Dix sketched in place, but also from memory and from photographs.

While many war artists focused on the combatants and their agony, others focused on the agony of those left behind — mothers and fathers, wives and children. German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) lost her 18-year-old son, Peter, just one month after the war began. In 1919, after the armistice, she began work on “War,” a series documenting the suffering on the home front.

As she wrote in her journal while she labored over the very black woodcut “The Parents” (1921-22): “Done the sheet ‘Parents’ over again.... Far too bright and hard and distinct. Pain is totally dark.” The image of a husband and wife collapsed in grief was later adapted into a sculpture in memory of her son.

Kollwitz’s “Mothers” (1919), a lithograph from the same series, meanwhile pays special tribute to the maternal bond. A tight image of mournful mothers clutching youngsters, the piece features the artist at its center, huddling with her two sons.

“I have drawn the mother who embraces her two children,” she wrote in a letter dated February 1919. “I am with my own children, born from me, my Hans and Peterchen.”






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