How did American artists respond to the horror of WWI?

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By Yaëlle Azagury August 19

With its use of modern warfare from trenches to submarines, World War I claimed millions of lives and drastically changed the geopolitical structure. But the war also rocked Western culture, from altering the status of women to sparking new artistic movements such as Dada and surrealism. America, which suffered relatively fewer casualties than Europe, was regarded as somewhat impervious to these seismic shifts in the artistic realm. The beginning of a distinctive American art severed from Europe is usually dated to or around World War II, roughly with the rise of Abstraction.


David M. Lubin, a professor of art history at Wake Forest University and a curator of a forthcoming exhibition on World War I and American art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, seeks to upend this narrative. “Grand Illusions” comes in the wake of a reappraisal of the Great War’s effect on American culture.

Lubin’s book is an ambitious albeit unequal undertaking that investigates the variety of American art — pacifist and bellicose alike — from the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 to the rise of the Third Reich in 1933. An eloquent writer who came of age during the Vietnam conflict, Lubin juggles a formidable array of visual media in this knowledgeable study. He rescues photographs, posters, paintings, sculptures and films from oblivion to reenergize the debate and offer a new, if revisionist, perspective perhaps more fashionable in cultural studies departments than among museum curators. Delving deeply into popular and highbrow culture, he often draws inspired connections, situating artworks in a crucible of fresh references, and his readings, which may be irritating to the political conservative or the more classic-minded, are intellectually provocative.

Pleasantly surprising, for instance, is his rethinking of George Bellows, who patriotically adhered to the Bryce Committee report on German atrocities and allowed his old-fashioned realism to yield to phantasmagoric war scenes. Or Lubin’s reassessment of John Singer Sargent’s late, remarkably modern work, such as “Gassed” (1919), a large painting depicting a dozen or so soldiers who have been blinded by poison gas.

Also aptly reconsidered is Horace Pippin, a forgotten self-taught painter and a soldier in the 369th Battalion, consisting of African Americans. His naive style provides an arresting contrast to the grimness of war. Lubin’s reclaiming of Claggett Wilson, one of the eight illustrators of the American Expeditionary Forces charged with documenting the war for posterity, is equally felicitous. Although the work of the “AEF Eight” was more reportorial than artistic, Wilson’s modernist style was an exception, transmuting the unfamiliarity of war into new aesthetic forms.

Despite hinting that Wilson’s work was erased from the annals due to a mishap and Pippin’s on account of his ethnicity, Lubin fails, nonetheless, to consider broader issues that a work of this scope should have warranted: Why are some works retained by history and others blotted out? What are the ideological assumptions behind aesthetic canons, especially ones dismissing American art of the time? Brief references notwithstanding, his study is also missing a sociological map of the artistic milieu.

Instead, his focus is oftentimes squandered on overwrought exegesis, and his interpretive frenzy frequently substitutes rigor for mere stylistic cleverness, even fallacy. His reading of Childe Hassam’s patriotic flag paintings is conspicuously strained. For example, he views “The Flag, Fifth Avenue” (1918) as “ ‘flagging,’ so to speak . . . deflated, dispirited, limp,” proof of America’s fatigue with the war while also a sign of the artist’s “phallic deflation.” His understanding of Greta Garbo’s famous 1928 photograph by Edward Steichen — in an otherwise compelling chapter about masks as the face of postwar mourning — is too speculative and conflicts with current findings showing 1920s America fortified by providential exceptionalism rather than disheartened. And his apprehension of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal — “Fountain” (1917) — as an antiwar outcry on the grounds that it flushed out patriotic illusions is outlandish, even by Dada standards.

While attempting for art what Paul Fussell notoriously did for Anglo-centered literature in “The Great War and Modern Memory” (1975), Lubin ultimately lacks the latter’s exacting lucidity. Looking at artworks solely as pro-war or antiwar “images,” he delivers a disparate collection of essays while failing to conclude whether, indeed, a cohesive national style emerged in the aftermath of the war.

Yaëlle Azagury’s writings about art and literature have appeared in Lilith, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times Book Review.


American Art and the First World War

By David M. Lubin

Oxford. 366 pp. $39.95