Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 10, 2014
Jennifer Wingate Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America's World War I Memorials Burlington: Ashgate, 2013. 244 pp.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9781409406556)

Although scholarship on public art in the United States has expanded in recent years, few studies address the sculptural reminders of American involvement in the First World War. Jennifer Wingate’s Sculpting Doughboys: Memory, Gender, and Taste in America’s World War I Memorials corrects this scholarly lacuna by examining memorials created in the 1920s and 1930s dedicated to the “Great War.” As her title implies, the majority of these sculptures depict American infantrymen, known colloquially then and now as “doughboys.” According to Wingate, this book “aims not to recover and celebrate the militaristic ideals promoted by many war memorials, but to embrace them as carriers of historical knowledge that can encourage the rethinking of those ideals” (12). Her book thus complicates an understanding of these seemingly simple works of patriotic public sculpture to demonstrate how cultural factors including but not limited to gender, race, and nationalism contributed to the process of memorialization during the era. For example, Wingate notes that while a handful of relatively unknown entrepreneurial sculptors sought economic gain through the widespread distribution of easily reproducible soldier statues, celebrated “fine artists” created unique war memorials that attempted to raise the public’s taste in art by simultaneously honoring fallen servicemen. Although artists and local civic groups often collaborated to produce memorials featuring a single heroic solider, Wingate also discusses alternative forms of sculptural remembrance involving depictions of women and, in some cases, wounded or dying soldiers. By doing so, Sculpting Doughboys reveals the competing interests that shaped public commemorations of the First World War during a critical period of cultural instability. The resulting analysis is a valuable contribution to not only the expanding literature on American memorials and public memory, but also to studies of interwar visual culture.

Wingate’s title refers to the content of most World War I memorials and to the negotiation between artists, civic leaders, and critics that unfolded long before dedication ceremonies. Accordingly, her text emphasizes this “sculptural” process by devoting nearly equal attention to the objects themselves and to the bureaucratic and historic details that necessarily accompany the production of public art. While the federal government created sculptural commemorations overseas, Wingate notes that domestic World War I memorials “were community affairs” instigated by decentralized, grass-roots efforts (20). Despite some diversity in content and style, more than half of all World War I memorials feature a single armed and muscular doughboy seemingly at battle with unseen enemies (15). Some of these “all-American” symbols of white masculinity are posed “going over the top” in a heroic reference to trench warfare. Wingate argues that such depictions of physical fortitude demonstrated an ideological connection with the contemporary American fascination for fitness and hygiene represented in advertising and other forms of popular culture. By portraying soldiers as healthy and patriotic, war memorials simultaneously assuaged public concerns with the reintegration of returning soldiers amid a resurgence of the Spanish influenza and worries over the susceptibility of unemployed veterans to “radical” propaganda (38–39).

The book’s primary strength is Wingate’s ability to reveal how World War I memorials were shaped by committees and artists who sometimes held competing concerns, including overt displays of patriotic nationalism and subtle allusions to pacifism, respectively. What emerges is an analysis of a variety of sculptural types, including some rare attempts to challenge predictable patterns of masculinity and wartime heroism. Not surprisingly, determining the most effective form of public remembrance became entwined with trends in “high art” and popular culture that subsequently complicated the memorialization process. In fact, the “conflict at the heart of this study” is the tension between mass-produced memorials created by little-known sculptors and more unique designs by artists associated with culturally refined tastes, such as Daniel Chester French, R. Tait McKenzie, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (10). Methodologically, her text synthesizes close formal analysis with multiple forms of cultural evidence that influenced the creation of specific works. To support this approach, the book combines a range of sources, including artist’s papers, industry trade journals, local newspapers, art magazines, and minutes from arts organization meetings. This reliance on objects, social history, and culturally specific details demonstrates the influence of scholars such as Kirk Savage and Erika Doss, who are both cited multiple times. As with these and other historians, Wingate emphasizes the primacy of the physical object under consideration while drawing on various forms of evidence to demonstrate the malleability of historical memory.

That memorials can express multiple forms of meaning is emphasized by the manner in which a significant portion of this book examines alternative solutions to the muscular doughboy ideal. For example, many art critics challenged the popularity of triumphant, naturalistic figures by encouraging the creation of more symbolic forms. As discussed in the second chapter, “Art Critics Mobilize,” during the interwar era critics “saw their role in guiding the country in its selection of war memorials as an opportunity to safeguard sculptors’ cultural prestige” (71). Critics advised memorial committees to avoid designs that exhibited sentimental realism and instead promoted sculptural elements drawn from classically inspired, allegorical forms. Wingate notes that art organizations such as the National Commission of Fine Arts and the American Federation of Arts discouraged the creation of sculptural memorials altogether, since it was assumed that relatively few communities would commission an appropriate design (85). The formation of “utilitarian” or “living” memorials, including bridges, parks, and other structures demonstrating an obvious function, raised yet another concern for critics, as supporting these projects came dangerously close to acknowledging the impracticality of autonomous works of art.

Furthermore, many doughboy memorials were mass-produced, a trend that one critic feared would lead to “an army of bronze simulacra” that, as Wingate writes, “threatened to degrade the memory” of veterans by an association with crass commercialism (71, 73). While critics charged that the demand for standardized sculpture resulted from the public’s lack of taste, economic practicality and entrepreneurial artists also played key roles. For example, Ernest Moore Viquesney, a sculptor who lacked classical training and art-establishment connections, promoted his Spirit of the American Doughboy (1920) so effectively it became one of the era’s most commonly reproduced memorials. Viquesney marketed copies of his design, which depicted a uniformed, armed serviceman charging forward valiantly, as affordable, patriotic, and genuine. Wingate notes that Viquesney’s concern for authenticity appeared in promotional material that promoted his sculpture as “ACCURATE AUTHENTIC 100% perfect,” and a sign of “one hundred percent Americanism” (62). She argues that Viquesney thus conflated “nationalism with authenticity” in order to tap into fears held by many Americans of the supposedly creeping threat of radical immigrants (62).

Sculptural variations of the doughboy complicated the masculine ideal by depicting soldiers at rest or in mourning. The latter type, known as “weepers,” held sentimental meanings that blurred distinctions between patriotism and gender stereotypes. As outlined in Wingate’s third chapter, “Challenging the Prevailing Triumphant Ideal,” such instances referenced themes of heroic suffering and loss that allowed sculptors to subtly protest war’s violence. She argues that in some cases artists emphasized personal sacrifice over patriotism, as seen in Augustus Lukeman’s Brooklyn World War I Memorial (1921), which depicted a winged figure of death escorting a young soldier to his fate. The few women sculptors who saw their war memorials realized created similar forms that upset expectations of heroism. A key example is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Washington Heights—Inwood Memorial (1922), which depicted a group of soldiers carrying one of their wounded brethren.

Sculptural war memorials that did not focus on representations of soldiers presented another challenge to the heroic doughboy’s dominance. The fourth chapter, “In Pursuit of ‘Art’ and Anti-militarism: Forfeiting the Doughboy,” discusses sculptors that used “high art” aesthetics while also expressing “pacifist sentiment without offending pro-military constituencies” (141). Wingate notes that although Carl Paul Jennewein’s allegorical figure atop the Providence War Memorial (1929) in Providence, Rhode Island, resembled Victory for many contemporary viewers, the artist intended to depict Peace (159). This chapter also discusses how memorial committees sometimes hesitated to accept classically inspired art forms instead of doughboys. Despite Daniel Chester French’s standing as one of the era’s most celebrated sculptors, the nude male figure in his Milton, Massachusetts, memorial was only accepted after the artist negotiated with civic leaders who feared “the townspeople’s prudery” would limit its reception (148). French’s In Flanders Fields (1925) depicts a sensuously muscular, nearly nude male upholding a torch while slipping into everlasting sleep. As Wingate points out, the public’s acceptance of such content relied on contemporary literary sources such as John McCrae’s well-known poem of the same name and on art-historical references to Christian themes seen in the work of artists such as Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (150).

Wingate’s wide-ranging examination of World War I memorials reveals the unseen bureaucratic negotiation over style and content while simultaneously articulating how commemorative public art held contestable meanings for sculptors and viewers during the interwar years. Despite an illuminating analysis supplemented by fifty black-and-white reproductions, a closer examination of the peripheral cultural forces at work would have strengthened this study further. For example, surprisingly little attention is given to the influence of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the primary American propaganda agency during the war. Granted, there are several reasons for this, including the fact that the CPI was disbanded at the war’s end while the sculpture that constitutes the text’s focus began appearing over the ensuing decade through the efforts of a mix of private and public groups. However, given the CPI’s extensive influence through multiple forms of media during the war, visual precedents set by government propagandists in the late 1910s certainly reappeared in sculptural form during the 1920s. The decision to deemphasize this influence is unfortunate given that Wingate’s arguments are enriched significantly in those cases when she mentions printed ephemera, including government propaganda and advertisements, to demonstrate the resonance of visual precedents. Readers interested in an expanded discussion of how federal and commercial graphics promoted the heroic doughboy ideal during the war itself should read Wingate’s previous scholarship, including an American Art essay that featured several illustrations not included in the book (Jennifer Wingate, “Over the Top: The Doughboy in World War I Memorials and Visual Culture,” American Art 19, no. 2 [Summer 2005]: 26–47). Additionally, little attention is given to one of the nation’s most well-known World War I monuments, the Liberty Memorial (1926) in Kansas City, Missouri, which, as Wingate notes, was created through local fundraising efforts but has “achieved de facto status as a ‘national’ memorial today” (20). Since the book’s concluding chapter considers how memorials have fared since their creation, the opening of the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial in 2006 seems a topic rich for potential exploration in this context. Such criticism, however, does not detract from what is a solidly researched, engaging account of war memorials that have received little previous scholarly analysis.

Austin Porter
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Kenyon College