2017-01-05 21:56:20
World War I — The Quick. The Dead. The Artists.

PHILADELPHIA — The idea lingers that art can be separated from politics. But it can’t. All art — high, low; illustrative, abstract — is embedded in specific political histories, and direct links, however obscured, are always there. Such links are the unswerving focus of “World War I and American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a panoramic show that has the narrative flow of a documentary, and the suspenseful, off-kilter emotional texture of live drama.

World War I lasted roughly four years, from 1914 to 1918, with the United States joining the fray in 1917. The brevity of that engagement has led Americans to play down the war, but we shouldn’t. Although politicians at the time spun the conflict — which the public increasingly understood to be a murderous mistake — as the war that would end all wars, it did the opposite. It set the model for World War II, Vietnam, Iraq. And it departed from previous models of war only in ramping up their barbarities with modern technology.

With World War I, invisibility became a deadly weapon. Submarines turned oceans into minefields. Airplanes, used in regular combat for the first time, killed through stealth and distance. Silent death emerged: poisonous gases enveloped victims, blinding them, eating their flesh, leaving them to drown in their own fluids. Add to these grisly innovations the high-power guns that, dronelike, pulverize bodies outside the range of vision, and you can see how warfare became depersonalized. It felt like a scientific experiment, not a human engagement.

For a long time, the United States watched from afar, as the Allied Powers (France, Britain, Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) battled each other in Europe. At the same time, America had its own wars of opinion, as citizens, artists among them, lined up on either side of the question of whether their country should stay neutral or gear up for battle.

Some artists were avid hawks. Childe Hassam was. He wanted America in on the Allied side, and fast. He painted repeated pictures, in an Impressionist style, of Manhattan avenues festooned for victory parades: a world composed entirely of confetti and flags. Other artists resisted American intervention. John Sloan, a socialist, viewed the war as an imperialist profit machine fueled by the lives of the poor. He turned out a stream of drawings that said as much. In one, a porcine businessman holds out a medal to a legless soldier dragging himself across a floor.

And certain artists had a personal investment in the conflict. Marsden Hartley was living in Berlin when war broke out, and some cubistic paintings he did there, like “Berlin Ante War,” were visual responses to the flash and clamor that followed the call to arms. Others had an added subtext. Hartley was in love with an officer in the Prussian Army named Karl von Freyburg, who was killed in the war’s opening months. The later Berlin paintings became memorials to him. They celebrated martial valor but also mourned its consequences.

Hartley’s sense of ambivalence, of confused loyalties, finds echoes elsewhere in the show, which travels to the New-York Historical Society in May, even after patriotic loyalty became the law of the land. When the United States officially entered the war in 1917, domestic censorship came down hard. The Espionage and Sedition Acts criminalized antiwar expression. Immigrants were treated with overt suspicion. Neighbors spied on neighbors. A military draft went into effect.

Pro-war visual propaganda, underwritten by the advertising industry, proliferated, with printed posters like James Montgomery Flagg’s finger-jabbing “I want YOU” Uncle Sam covering the walls of classrooms, factories and restaurants. Joseph Pennell’s vision of a firebombed Lower Manhattan is from this time, as is Harry Ryle Hopps’s image of the German kaiser as a maiden-ravishing ape.

Ethnic slurs showed up in painting, too. George Bellows, suspicious, like Sloan, of American motives in the war, suddenly turned out melodramatic scenes of German soldiers raping and torturing civilians. He had read about them in a lurid piece of agitprop published by the British Committee on Alleged German War Outrages, and was passing on the semifake news.

These Bellows pictures aren’t exhibited much. They need a historical context to make sense, and the show gives them one. More interesting is the way the curators — Robert Cozzolino, Anne Knutson and David Lubin — have uncovered political content in places you might not expect.

A Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor, “The Flag,” is one example. In the fall of 1917, O’Keeffe visited her younger brother, Alexis, in a Texas military camp before he was shipped abroad. She had highly conflicted, basically hostile feelings about the war itself, and was worried about her brother in particular. (She had reason to be. He was felled by a mustard-gas attack in France and eventually died from its effects.) The flag she painted after the visit — a streak of red bleeding into bruise-colored clouds — catches her mood: anxious, angry, appalled.

Charles E. Burchfield, who spent the war at his family’s home in Ohio, lived with a daily dread of being drafted. The fear caused nightmares, which in turn inspired paintings and drawings of grotesque landscapes and faces. When he finally went into the Army, he translated some of those forms into camouflage designs.

The sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd similarly turned art to wartime use. In 1917, when she was almost 40, she opened a Paris studio devoted to creating prosthetic masks for soldiers whose faces had been disfigured. Before-and-after photographs of her clients are some of the most moving antiwar statements in the show.

Ladd’s name is largely forgotten. As is that of Claggett Wilson, an artist and a victim of chemical warfare who suffered from post-traumatic stress, but pulled himself out of it by painting the battlefield horrors he’d lived through. His watercolors of exploding shells and mad-eyed soldiers are standouts in an exhibition rich in intensely original work.

So are paintings by the great Horace Pippin, who survived the double trauma of combat injury (the war left one arm permanently disabled) and of being African-American in a racist United States Army. He began drawing as a form of therapy, and by the early 1930s was producing labor-intensive paintings like “The End of War — Starting Home.” It’s an extraordinary thing. Its title is joyous; its image of war still very much underway is not. Maybe the idea was that being at home is a battle, too.

Of the show’s 160 works, the celebrity centerpiece is John Singer Sargent’s monumental — 7½ feet tall by 20 feet wide — painting “Gassed,” on loan from the Imperial War Museums in London. Sargent was the child of expatriate Americans and spent most of his life abroad, working as a society portraitist. In 1918 the British government asked him to paint a major picture to commemorate the war. He traveled to the French front and found his subject in a line of gas-blinded soldiers, being led to a medical tent. He painted them feeling their way forward, hands on each other’s shoulders, bathed in a weird yellow light.

The tableau is often compared to ancient Classical friezes. And like such images, based on themes of history and myth, it elevates and softens tragedy through formal beauty. That beauty is the big weakness of Sargent’s magisterially painted image. It glamorizes profound human damage. It glosses over the criminal meanness and fraudulence of a media-fed war that was “trivial, for all its vastness,” as Bertrand Russell, who lived through it, wrote.

Pippin understood that reality. So did Wilson, and O’Keeffe. And so did the American painter John Steuart Curry, who goes straight for it in a painting that hangs near the end of the show. Curry was an American regionalist best known for scenes set in his native rural Kansas. But “Parade to War, Allegory” is different from those.

It shows troops marching in tight formation down a city street. Excited schoolboys run along beside them. A young woman, a sister or sweetheart, embraces a soldier as she keeps pace with him. In the foreground, a spectator cheers, but a policeman seems to be holding back another one, a distressed older woman. Maybe she sees what no one else does: All the soldiers have skulls for faces.

The painting dates from 1938, and a second world war was looming. There’s no indication of where Curry’s soldiers are coming from, or where they’re going. It doesn’t matter. That they’re dead history come alive, a warning of where not to go, what not to do, and that schoolboys and lovers and citizen-onlookers don’t see this, is all that counts. Artists, recorders of history whether they want to be or not, see it. They can’t change it, but they can describe it. And that description is always there.