Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 4, 2015
This Is War! Graphic Arts from the Great War, 1914–1918 Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, 2014.
Exhibition schedule: Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, August 30– December 14, 2014
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Robert Bonfils. Les Héros (Heros), from the portfolio Images Symboliques de la Grande Guerre (Symbolic Images of the Great War) (1916). Hand-colored woodcut on wove paper. Portland Art Museum Purchase: Funds provided by the Graphic Arts Council.

This Is War! Graphic Arts from the Great War, 1914–1918 joins a number of exhibitions taking advantage of the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I to explore this conflict and its representations. The Portland Art Museum focuses its contribution on the graphic arts, as the museum’s rich collection of prints, posters, and works on paper, along with a number of recent acquisitions, has enabled it to stage a comprehensive exhibition that demonstrates the great variety of graphic representations of the war. While marquee artists are represented by very good, even excellent examples, their works hang alongside those by less familiar artists, some of which may feel a little redundant, while others are revelatory.

The implicit argument of This Is War! is that prints offer a different perspective on the war experience than, say, painting or even photography, which was heavily censored and not yet technically sophisticated enough to capture the frenetic action of the front. This might not seem a particularly provocative argument, given that a capacious category like graphic media encompasses everything from large propaganda posters urging viewers to buy war bonds, to limited-edition prints by Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, to mass-produced photolithographs found in wartime artist’s journals such as Kriegszeit: Künstlerflugblätter and Der Bildermann. More than just making a case for graphic art as one important creative outlet among many, however, this argument taken further insists that prints were especially suited to representing the war experience. Peter Jelavich has observed that World War I was a monochromatic war, which certainly matches the typical black-and-white palette of graphic media (Peter Jelavich, “Graphic War”; “Disseminating Expressionism: The Role of Prints, 1905–1924” symposium; Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 6, 2011). The desaturated landscape of the western front—from the pervasive mud that invaded the trenches to the churned earth and cratered moonscape of No Man’s Land—certainly lent itself to the black-and-white palette of graphic media. But print was also well matched to the war’s contingencies; the material scarcities of wartime made printmaking’s basic materials—paper, woodblocks or copper plates, and ink—more readily available, and their portability also meant that they could follow artists to the front. Prints also include artist’s photomechanically reproduced sketches; Beckmann, for instance, was for a time a visual correspondent from the western front, offering his drawings for publication in Bruno Cassirer’s Kunst und Künstler. Finally, some prints—in their content, certainly, but also in their manufacture—have qualities that convey the visceral as well as the visual elements of the war experience. The deep scratches and the corroded pits and smears of ink on intaglio prints by artists like Dix and the Belgian Henry de Groux, for instance, which one label terms “topographical,” detail life in the trenches in ways that evoke the haptic qualities of that experience.

If we accept Eric Hobsbawm’s periodization of World War I as the rupture that closed the “long” nineteenth century and inaugurated the twentieth, then it can also be viewed as a vantage point from which past and future were visible simultaneously. This quality is shared by a number of works in the exhibition which feel both anachronistic and avant-garde at the same time. The five prints from Robert Bonfils’s portfolio Images symbolique de la Grande Guerre (Symbolic Images of the Great War) (1916), for instance, are a hybrid of old and new, folkish and avant-garde. Bonfils was influenced by France’s image d’Epinal—color woodcuts of popular or religious subjects—and his execution wavers between sentimental and rustic depictions of the home front to celebrations of modern war. In Les Héros, Bonfils communicates the portfolio’s prevailing Hurra-Patriotismus—a celebration of the fighting “heroes” on land, sea, and in the air—through a sophisticated composition that ripples out from the central axis of a cannon wheel, a visualization that feels Futurist in conception and communicates the dynamism of modern war, but also references familiar religious iconographic forms such as halos or aureolas.

The war’s “modernity”—or at least novelty—is more directly expressed in the selection of works dealing with aerial warfare, a section that vacillates between the horror and giddy adventure of battle mid-air, often in the same image. Maurice Busset’s lithographic portfolio En avion, Vols et combats: Estampes et récits de la Grande Guerre, 1914–1918 (In Flight: Fights and Combats; Prints and Stories of the Great War, 1914–1918 [Paris: Delagrave, 1919]), which the visitor first encounters in the stairwell leading to the exhibition, reappears here; its sheets anticipate comic-book illustrations in both execution—the artist’s use of bright colors with touches of black and white to define form—and content: planes dive while bombing an enemy or a pilot dangles from his busted fuselage the moment before he falls from the sky. Busset’s prints feel like a juvenile fantasy of aerial warfare and are effective at reminding contemporary audiences of the fantastic nature of flight itself, then still in its infancy. Meanwhile, John Taylor Arms’s lovely intaglio prints are near abstractions in their cropping and stark simplicity: single planes against flat aquatint washes of empty sky. They are fragile and exposed but also completely free of the earth. Here one has the sense of flight as simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Arms’s prints remind me of William Butler Yeats’s poem “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” written in 1918 in the voice of an imagined World War I aviator: “Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, / A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds.” In another of Arms’s sheets, this sense of vulnerability is given a more ominous edge by searchlights that slice the picture plane like the red wedge in El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919).

The exhibition’s thematic categories are not always so obvious, and some are more cohesive than others. “Woman at War,” for instance, threatens to unravel as the diversity of women’s experiences of war—from victims of its collateral damage to active participants at home and on the frontlines—proves too broad to be contained by a few sections of wall at the end of the gallery. It includes everything from Käthe Kollwitz’s wrenching woodcut of suffering Das Volk (The People) (1923) to Joseph Pennell’s lithograph The Bay of a Thousand Girls (1916), depicting a warehouse of “munitionettes,” the women responsible for assembling bombs. Adolph Treidler’s poster For Every Fighter a Woman Worker (1918) reminds one of the continuities between the First and Second World Wars: a woman in full work gear holds a plane in one hand and a bomb in the other. With her rolled-up sleeves, her overalls, and her unflinching gaze, she is a proto-Rosie the Riveter in bloomers. But a poster nearby is more characteristic: the “Salvation Army Lassie” serving a plate of donuts—itself a wartime innovation—to a smiling doughboy who proclaims: “Oh, boy! That’s the girl!”

The subject of those wounded in the war is confronted in only a handful of works—most notably in Erich Heckel’s Zwei Verwundete (Two Wounded Soldiers) (1914). The foreground figure with a bandaged head evokes, for me, Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. The connection to mental trauma is not coincidental; psychological damage, though invisible, was perhaps more pervasive than physical wounds. Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner—both of whom are represented by works nearby—were discharged early in their service after suffering mental breakdowns. Heckel, himself a volunteer medic who would have encountered the grim physical and emotional toll of battle, expresses both the somatic and psychological damage caused by the conflict, with exhaustion and anxiety literally carved into the faces of his convalescing soldiers.

While some works are galvanized by the arrangement with related works, others suffer from the comparison. Félix Vallotton’s six-print series, C’est la guerre (This Is War! ) (1915–16), is a comic strip next to prints from Dix’s Der Krieg (The War) cycle (1924). Vallotton does not shy away from depicting the gruesome or grotesque, and he offers the same subjects Dix confronts: dead bodies tangled in the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and the debauchery of soldiers on leave. But Dix transforms his corroded copper plates into the torn flesh, viscera, and exposed bone he depicts in his prints. By comparison, the simple black-and-white contrasts of Vallotton’s linocuts lack Dix’s punch, and his subjects ultimately appear more silly than serious.

Overall This Is War! Graphic Arts from the Great War, 1914–1918 is an ambitious exhibition that effectively demonstrates the breadth of graphic representations of the conflict and the variety of contexts in which they appeared—from the aggressive and propagandistic messages of lithographic posters to the more intimate and ambivalent address of fine-art portfolios. Earlier, I stated that the arguments of This Is War! were largely implicit. With the impressive range of material on view I do wish the exhibition’s wall texts had been more explicit in asserting the central role of print media in representing the conflict. World War I was a graphic war, and print media not only present the full range of the war’s experiences, they also retain the immediate and evocative qualities that recover aspects of that experience for contemporary audiences.

Erin Sullivan Maynes
Hoehn Curatorial Fellow for Prints, University of San Diego

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.