Portraits of Remembrance
Painting, Memory, and the First World War
Edited by Margaret Hutchinson and Steven Trout
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2020, 352 pages
Book Review published on: January 15, 2021
In Portraits of Remembrance: Painting, Memory, and the First World War, editors Margaret Hutchinson and Steven Trout provide an anthology that considers selected artworks, artists, museums, and governments that shaped the evolving memorialization of the First World War. Those interested in paintings by combatants will appreciate the stories behind Claggett Wilson’s Runner through the Barrage; Namik Ismail’s Take Another; and Otto Dix’s haunting triptych, The War. But Portraits of Remembrance is far more than a synopsis of combat art. Through well-crafted, succinct background sketches and exhaustive end notes, each essay examines the effect that the artists and their work have had on forming memories of the Great War.
The chapters are roughly divided into four sections. The editors deliver on the promise that “behind any commemorative artifact one will inevitably discover controversy (for such is the nature of collective memory)—and a good story.” The paintings selected are not necessarily the most famous of the period but instead convey the larger intent of illustrating the elements that make a work of art an iconic memory.
Chapters 1 through 3 detail Franco-American art. Chapter 1 describes the genesis of an American artist’s memorial to his son and its intermittent presence in a Parisian railway station over the course of a century. Chapter 2, the source of the cover art, considers how women were portrayed during the war, noting a significant shift in the vision of femininity as seen in Romaine Brooks’s La France Croisée. The section closes with the Battle of Belleau Wood, first from the perspectives of illustrators Georges Scott and Tom Lovell, then through eyewitness artist and Marine, Claggett Wilson.
Chapters 4 through 6 consider Turkish, Viennese, and Russian artists, and the shifting notion of memory, as each of these societies has a turbulent history associated with that period. In chapter 4, Namik Ismail’s depiction of soon-to-be-overrun artillery position in Take Another is later appropriated as a symbol of Turkish nationalism. Philip Beidler’s ambitious chapter 5 captures the enthusiasm of many established artists across the continent to physically immerse themselves in the war. He then focuses on the Viennese Secession school, and in particular Albert Egger-Linz and his work, The Nameless. He concludes with a brief sketch of the most infamous Austrian landscape illustrator of the period, Adolf Hitler. Chapter 6 moves the reader to the Eastern Front, surveying the Russian tradition of icon painting and other religious motifs represented by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
The third section shifts to the commonwealth museums and war memorial commissions in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia and emphasizes commissioning and collection practices. All three detail the problems associated with works commissioned for unfinished museums. These fits and starts loosely parallel the history of the U.S. World War I Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Chapter 7 covers Welsh painter Augustus John’s forty-two-year effort on the barely finished mural, The Canadians Opposite Lens. Chapter 8 showcases New Zealander George Edmund Butler’s Butte de Polygon, a memorial to Passchendaele. Author Caroline Lord explains how the piece fits into a genre that spiritually transports the viewer to the battlefield. She concludes with an astonishing revelation about the final resting place of this masterpiece. Chapter 9 is only treatment of maritime art, highlighting the outsized influence key individuals can have on shaping collective memory through their acquisition practices.
Chapters 10 to 14 make up the final section with an eclectic mix of styles and perspectives. Chapters 10 and 11 describe the broad impact of print media, first with Fortunino Mantania’s Goodbye Old Man, where Marguerite Helmers expands on the war horse theme, and then in James Clark’s The Great Sacrifice, where a dying British soldier lay at the feet of Christ on the cross. Both authors contend that their iconic status and ability to evoke memory and sentiment comes more from their availability and broad public appeal than from exceptional artistic merit. Chapter 12 looks at the Croatian memorialization of the war from the point of view of Croatian immigrants to the United States. Aptly placed, chapter 13 is eyewitness to Otto Dix’s gruesome depiction, The War. Martin Bayer draws helpful distinctions between the horror on the canvas, the artist’s realist (at times almost detached) motivation, and the subsequent political hijacking of its meaning by fascists and communists alike. Chapter 14 reveals the marketing and politics behind Belgian artist Alfred Bastien’s massive Panorama of the Yser Battle. Historian Jay Winter’s afterword rounds out the book with a reminder that the violence did not end in 1918 but merely shifted its objective from military formations to civilian populations for the following six years.
For experts and novices alike, Portraits of Remembrance will deepen an appreciation of war art and remind the viewer of the power that images can have on our memories well after the event itself. The thoughtful introduction broadens its accessibility beyond art scholars and the format is also suited to the reader who wants to jump around as each essay stands on its own. It is also a thought-provoking aid for military museum guides, and anyone involved with commissioning commemorative art.
Book Review written by: Brian Allen, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas