Timed to coincide with the centennial of the entry of the U.S. into the war in 1917, exhibitions at the Frist Center and at Fisk University revisit a critical period in history through a wide variety of artistic responses, ranging from patriotic to dissenting. Thus these exhibitions and their central themes of how artists respond to geopolitical turmoil are strikingly relevant today.
World War I and American Art,organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), Philadelphia, the first major exhibition to examine how American artists reacted to the First World War, opens at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts on October 6, 2017. Works by more than seventy artists, including George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, Georgia O’Keeffe, Horace Pippin, and John Singer Sargent, represent a pivotal chapter in the history of American art that has until now been overlooked and underestimated.
World War I and the Great Migration, a sister exhibition to the Frist Center’s World War I and American Art will be presented by the Fisk University Galleries. The Special Collections Department in the Franklin Library at Fisk is also presenting an exhibition on World War I: Fisk University and the Student Army Training Corps, World War I, 1917-1918.
The Frist Center is partnering with Fisk University Galleries and Special Collections for “America Responds: A Collaborative Tour,” which will offer participants additional perspective on the artists who worked against the backdrop of war and global changes to society. The engaging guided tours include visits to both the Frist Center and Fisk University Galleries to explore these exhibitions of works by artists influenced and affected by the war. Visitors first will join Frist Center curator of interpretation Ginny Soenksen for a tour of World War I and American Art, and then visit Fisk University Galleries for Origins of Influence Part II: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern Art and World War I and the Great Migration.
Next Thursday, October 12 at 5pm, check out a special gallery talk, entitled The Harlem Renaissance, by Lean’tin Bracks, in conjunction with the exhibition World War I and the Great Migration at Fisk University in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery.
Later in the month, experience America Responds: A Frist and Fisk Collaborative Gallery Tour with Part 1 on Thursday, October 26, at 12 noon, at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, presented by Ginny Soenksen, curator of interpretation. Part 2 is Friday, October 27, at 12 noon, at both Fisk University Galleries, beginning at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery and then the Aaron Douglas Gallery in the Fisk Library, presented by Nikoo Paydar, assistant curator, Fisk University Galleries.
American artists were vital to the culture of the war and the shaping of public opinion in several ways. Some developed propaganda posters promoting U.S. involvement, while others made daring anti-war drawings, paintings, and prints. Some worked as official war artists embedded with troops and others designed camouflage or took surveillance photographs.
The exhibition features many high-profile loans from both private and public collections, including most importantly Sargent’s monumental tableau Gassed (Imperial War Museums, London), which has been seen in the U.S. only once before (in 1999).
“Working as an official war artist for the British government, Sargent witnessed the aftermath of a German mustard gas attack on British soldiers. He represented the harrowing scene on an epic canvas measuring about 7½ x 20 feet,” says Frist Center curator Trinita Kennedy. “Our presentation of the painting and the exhibition as a whole will be enriched by a lecture on opening day entitled ‘Mr. Sargent Goes to War’ by Richard Ormond, the artist’s great-nephew and a renowned scholar based in London.”
The organization of the exhibition mirrors the historical unfolding of the war itself. It begins by showing how American artists interpreted the threat of war while the U.S. remained neutral between 1914 and 1917, the debate to enter it, and then how the conflict involved them directly as soldiers, relief workers, political dissenters, and official artists.
The spectrum of political points of view and purpose can be seen through the juxtaposition of works. Hassam’s flag paintings are impressionist and patriotic, while Hartley’s tribute paintings to his slain friend and possible lover, a German military officer, are abstract and mournful. Bellows, at first an opponent of the war, later encouraged US involvement by vilifying German war crimes with macabre detail. O’Keeffe’s more personal work reflected her conflicted feelings about her younger brother’s enlistment.
A group of patriotic artists came together to form the government’s first art agency in the service of war: the Division of Pictorial Publicity. On display will be iconic recruitment posters created by Laura Brey, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, and others that promoted enlistment with stirring imagery and language. There are also posters aimed at mobilizing women on the homefront, encouraging them to enter the workforce to support the war effort. As part of the Frist Center’s presentation, an education gallery with interactive electronic stations will allow visitors to explore such ideologically motivated works of art.
The US military employed Edward Steichen, already an accomplished artist and photographer by the start of the war, as an aerial reconnaissance photographer to document the impact of the first air war. Embedded artists, such as George Harding and Harvey Dunn, depicted the new warfare machinery—airplanes, tanks, machine guns, long-range artillery—that resulted in staggering casualties.
Claggett Wilson, a thirty-year-old artist who taught at Columbia University in New York, volunteered for the Marine Corps, fought, and was wounded in the Battle of Belleau Woods, one of the bloodiest engagements in US military history. In 1919 he painted a series of watercolors that recorded his and his fellow soldiers’ experiences.
“Wilson’s watercolors, which were exhibited in 1920 right after the war ended, donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and then largely forgotten until now, concentrate on the psychological and environmental destructiveness of modern warfare,” says Kennedy. “His visceral images transport us to the frontlines. Especially when the watercolors are seen together as a group, as they are in this exhibition, they are overwhelming powerful and virtually impossible to forget.”
American artists continue to respond to World War I, and the exhibition concludes with contemporary works—three videos by MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Mary Reid Kelley and a large installation of 212 drawings by Debra Priestly that both explore personal connections to the war from the perspective of marginalized people, namely women and African Americans.
For exhibition-related programs intended for both the general public and military community, the Frist Center is partnering with CreatiVets, Fisk University, Vanderbilt University, Writers Corps, and other local organizations. For more, visit the Frist Center website.
World War I and the Great Migration, presented by the Fisk University Galleries, examines how the Great War spurred the relocating of 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban centers of the industrial North between 1916 and 1970. The exhibition includes work from movements like the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance, and will feature work by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Albert E. Smith and more.