Yesterday, I described our visit to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, to see the exhibition of “The Paintings of Sir Winston Churchill.” Directly across the hall from the Churchill paintings is another exhibit, this one on World War I: “Images of War, War of Images.”
Two wonderful exhibits at one time in the same museum – and they’re both free.
Last year in London, we visited the World War I Galleries at the Imperial War Museum, a brilliant display of the history of the war. (I reviewed the book describing the galleries this past July.) The museum also had an exhibit of the art of World War I, which we missed for lack of time, but you can get a taste of the exhibit by reading Art from the First World War by Richard Slocombe.
What the exhibition in London included but did not go into great depth on was the role of images, art and propaganda in World War I. That is the focus of the show at the Kemper Museum.
Art wasn’t the only creative activity that went to war. Magazines, newspapers, recruiting posters, war bond drive information and much else played significant roles. When the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed George Creel to lead the Committee on Public Information, often referred to as the Creel Committee, to keep up morale at home and helping people understand the task ahead. Today we would call it a committee for propaganda.
The United States was a Johnny-come-lately to the war propaganda effort; Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Italy had already been long involved in efforts to depict their opponents as fools at best and monsters at worst. The Germans didn’t help themselves with the unprovoked invasion of neutral Belgium and the death and destruction that followed, including the famed medieval library at Louvain.
Yet it wasn’t all propaganda. People went into the war with an understanding of their world, that life was getting better and better, the idea of progress as a major principle in economic, social and cultural life, and that cavalry still had an important role to play in warfare. They confronted the technology-based slaughter of both the western and the eastern fronts, and warfare involving civilians in a massively new way. Louvain was destroyed, but even London experienced bombing by German dirigibles. People, and especially soldiers, came out of the war profoundly changed. And that included the artists who went to war.
This is what the Kemper exhibition is about, and it is filled with paintings, posters, drawings, diaries, magazines and newspapers, short films made after the war, and even artifacts like soldiers’ self-decorated helmets. An accompanying book, Nothing But the Clouds Unchanged: Artists in World War I, edited by Gordon Hughes and Philipp Blom, provides insight into what the exhibition includes. The book is published by Getty Publications, and The Getty Museum has provided a considerable number of the works included in the exhibition.
The Kemper has done itself proud with these two exhibitions. The only issue we had was parking – it’s easier on weekends on the famously overcrowded Washington University campus but we did manage to find a metered spot adjacent to the museum.
But if you have the opportunity, see them both (and they’re free).
Illustration: “I Have You, My Captain. You Won’t Fall,” color lithograph by Paul Iribe, 1917; Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.