World War I and American Art

World War I and American Art

Edited by Robert Cozzolino, Amy Classen Knutson, and David M. Lubin

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2016, 320 pages

Book Review published on: July 7, 2017

Plate 151 in World War I and American Art is John Steuart Curry’s Parade to War, Allegory. At first glance, the painting appears to be a familiar patriotic rendering of American soldiers marching in parade, receiving great applause from civilian onlookers, including a young woman embracing her lover before his departure. However, the soldier who is the object of the woman’s affection presents a deathly glow; his face is pale, revealing the skull beneath his flesh. It then becomes apparent that the rest of the soldiers in the formation are wearing their death masks as well, marching to battle, never to return.

Eight scholars present the work of eighty artists in World War I and American Art. The book is a comprehensive overview of America’s involvement in World War I as seen through the artists’ experiences and interpretations of the war. David Reynolds opens the book with his essay on the American experience and how the war is overshadowed by more recent conflicts, despite the sobering fact that 53,400 Americans were lost in just six months of World War I combat.

In all, there are eight essays. The scholars discuss a wide range of work, from familiar poster art aimed at recruitment and war bond sales to modern abstract interpretations of terror and death on the battlefield. Pearl James provides insight on the power of art, highlighting work such as Fred Spear’s Enlist, which depicts a woman drowning with a baby, victims of the sinking of the Lusitania. The ugly persistence of racism is covered by Amy Helene Kirschke’s account of W. E. B. Du Bois and his magazine The Crisis, which featured heroic images of African American soldiers accompanied by depictions of bigotry that persisted in American society despite the soldiers’ contributions to the war effort. Robert Cozzolino delves into the more melancholy works, such as Curry’s Parade to War, Allegory and The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne. All the scholars provide substantial context to the artwork featured.

The artists’ works are beautifully reproduced in large format in the latter part of the book. Some are familiar, and the less known works are fascinating. Well known are Howard Chandler Christy’s Gee! I Wish I Were a Man, I’d Join the Navy and James Montgomery Flagg’s Be a U.S. Marine! The power of images is well illustrated by George Bellows’s vilification of German soldiers in his works The Germans Arrive and The Last Victim. John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and Harvey Dunn’s The Devil’s Vineyard display the harsh realities of warfare. Two particularly striking works are Kerr Eby’s September 13th, 1918, Saint-Mihiel, a black and white rendering of soldiers moving toward the front, and Andrew Wyeth’s peaceful Snow Flurries, which appears to depict the slow healing of earth that was once “no-man’s land.”

World War I and American Art demonstrates the idiom that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The editors, Robert Cozzolino, Anne Classen Knutson, and David M. Lubin, have produced a book that viscerally conveys the impact of Word War I on American artists as well as American society—an impact that can still be felt when examining the selected works in this publication.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas