Unimaginable images: Mead exhibits chronicle artistic responses to past wars

Last modified: Thursday, February 05, 2015

At this time of year in Europe 100 years ago, the quick, decisive war the major nations had been hoping for in August had become a distant memory. What became known as World War I had devolved into a bloody stalemate, with opposing armies hunkered down in trenches that stretched hundreds of miles across the Eastern and Western fronts.

The tragedy of The Great War would later be captured in books such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, a German WWI veteran, and the poetry of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon of England. But it also inspired the works of a range of visual artists, many of whom recorded the ominous change in national mood the battles produced, as patriotic fervor gave way to disillusion and despair.

The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, drawing entirely on its own collection, examines the issue with an exhibit, “Images of the Unimaginable,” that runs through Dec. 28. Wood engravings, lithographs, posters and other artwork, by artists from a number of countries, depict not just the battlefields of mud and shattered trees but the sense that war, in the industrialized age, had become something unfathomable.

The Mead is also hosting a smaller exhibit, part of which can be viewed online, on another conflict — the First Sino-Japanese War, of 1894-95 — that offers a fascinating counterpoint to the WWI show. The exhibit, “Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle,” features Japanese woodblock prints celebrating that nation’s victory, with images of heroic Japanese troops overcoming their enemies amid spectacular explosions — a romantic view of war that WWI would end forever.

‘Images of the

Bettina Jungen, the curator of the Mead’s WWI exhibit, says she conceived of the show as an opportunity to showcase some of the museum’s holdings of Russian artwork, particularly a series of prints that looked at the outbreak of war in 1914. But Jungen, the Mead’s curator of Russian art, said she decided to expand the show after she examined additional material the museum had from that era.

“We had quite a bit (of artwork) from different countries, so it seemed a good time to take a broader look at the war and how artists responded to it,” she said.

Fittingly enough, the exhibit uses a famous French recruitment poster from 1914 as its starting point. A soldier, holding his rifle in one hand, waves on his unseen buddies with a confident grin and the words “On les aura!” (“We’ll get them!”). In fact, the French suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties in the first two months of the war alone as their troops made massed assaults against German machine guns and rapid-firing artillery.

That kind of blunt dose of reality is reflected both in the art and the personal story of Félix Vallotton, a French-Swiss painter and printmaker who was living in France when war broke out. He volunteered for the French army but was turned down because he was almost 50. Yet within just a year or so, he had come to view the war as “absurd and horrible,” as exhibit notes put it, and he produced a string of woodblock prints reflecting his views.

Those works, from a series called “C’est la guerre!” (“This is war!”), featured a style for which Vallotton had received much praise when he introduced his first woodblock prints in the 1890s. They’re composed of large masses of undifferentiated black and white, and the stark look serves well for the subject of battle. In “La Tranchée” (“The Trench”), a massive explosion blasts a mottled, barren landscape of black and white; in the foreground, what appear to be tiny white orbs — the helmets of soldiers — peak just above a thin, undulating trench line.

In another print, “Les fils de fer” (“Barbed wire”), the bodies of soldiers lie sprawled amid a tangle of wire and twisted fence posts; overhead a brilliant night sky glitters with stars. “Dans les ténèbres” (“In the darkness”) shows the disembodied heads, shoulders and arms of two soldiers, in a sea of black, as they try to stab each another with knives, while a third man, in white, watches in terror from the lower right corner.

Jungen, a Swiss native herself, from the German-speaking section of the country, said she doesn’t believe Vallotton got into trouble with French authorities for producing these bleak images. But his efforts to get them into a wartime exhibit were turned down, she adds.

Another French printmaker and engraver, Jean-Émile Laboureur, uses cubist elements in his print “A l’Abri de la Tempête” (“Shelter from the Storm”). It shows four sailors looking at a stout woman who, hands on hips and an ambiguous smile on her lips, stands outside a building that says “Buvette,” which translates roughly as “refreshment room.” Is this a tavern or cafe? Or is the woman a madam and her refreshment room actually a brothel?

Jurgen has juxtaposed the prints with some very different images: recruitment posters, including from the United States, which entered the war in 1917, untouched at that point by its horrors and fired up for combat. One poster, for the U.S. Army Tank Corps, is topped by a large black cat, teeth and claws bared, above a line of clumsy-looking, early tanks churning across a battlefield, with the caption “Treat ’em Rough! Join the Tanks.”

These and other posters, including from Great Britain and Italy, came from a private collection amassed by Amherst graduate John Pearsons Cushing, class of 1882, that he later donated to the college.

By 1918, America’s view of the war had become darker, as evidenced by the prints of U.S. artist George Bellows. One of his works, based on an alleged event that Jungen says was later determined to be an example of British propaganda, depicts ghoulish German soldiers “crucifying” British prisoners by nailing them to doors stripped from derelict houses. The title? “Gott Strafe England” (“God Punish England”).

Some of the exhibit’s most interesting works are by Natalia Goncharova, an avant-garde Russian artist who made a series of lithographs in 1914-15 imbued with Christian imagery that reflect a mix of influences, from folk art to church murals to neo-primitivism. Titled “Mystical Images of War,” they portray WWI as part of an eternal struggle of good vs. evil.

In one of her prints, angels look down on a column of marching Russian troops, as though blessing their cause. But death, sitting astride a horse above a pile of skeletons, appears in another print, and “The Mass Grave” shows an angel above the intertwined bodies of black-clad figures.

It’s not clear if Goncharova turned against the war as it dragged on, Jungen says. But as the exhibit notes point out, she hoped it could be a catalyst for change in czarist Russia — as it turned out to be.

‘Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle: The Sino-Japanese War in Print’

The First Sino-Japanese War, fought largely over control of Korea, marked Japan’s emergence as a significant military power, and it also revitalized the nation’s venerable woodblock publishing industry. Explosions, naval battles and modern weaponry gave artists exciting new subject matter, and the Japanese public ate up these new prints and their account of the country’s victory and growing industrial might.

The Mead exhibit, which runs through Jan. 4, 2015, features a limited number of prints; additional images can be viewed online at www.painspyrospectacle.com.

All of them display the bright colors and details of traditional Japanese woodblock printing; most are triptychs, with each design made up of three adjoining prints. Many of these prints are part of a rare bound volume with an accordion-style binding; the volume is displayed in a glass case, though the pages are periodically changed and can also be viewed online.

Aside from their vibrant colors, the prints, all from the Mead’s collection, are notable for their unabashed celebration of war, both in content and titles. Japanese ships blast their Chinese counterparts to bits, while soldiers fearlessly storm the walls of Chinese forts. As one example, there’s “Harada Jukichi, a Brave Soldier, Defeated Immense Enemies by Climbing Over the Wall at Genbu Gate.” In the print, Japanese troops rush past prone Chinese; the lead Japanese has blood splattered on his pants, presumably from the victim at his feet.

The exhibition’s title comes from a strange event held on a beach in Brooklyn, N.Y. at various times in 1895-96. Co-curators Bradley Bailey, the Mead’s curatorial teaching fellow in Japanese prints, and Hampshire College student James Kelleher say an American entrepreneur named Henry J. Pain staged battle reenactments from the Sino-Japanese War on the beach, with an elaborate, accompanying fireworks display. The shows were advertised as “a superb pyro-spectacle,” according to an advertisement from that time.

As vivid as the prints are — as works of art, they are enormously engaging — the glorious image of war they project would become a thing of the past just 20 years later in Europe.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information and for museum hours, visit www.amherst.edu/mead. Free admission.


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