Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War
by David M. Lubin
Oxford University Press, 2016
|Horace Pippin, "The End of the War: Starting Home", 1930–33; |
Childe Hassam, "Flags, Fifth Avenue", 1918 (Detail)
David Lubin has produced an encyclopedic work which involves not only paintings but also posters, film, photography, sculpture, architecture, and to a certain extent, literature. In the course of ten richly illustrated chapters the author offers interpretations and connections that make this a truly interdisciplinary work. He shows how in their craft artists of all kinds strove — sometimes blatantly and sometimes more indirectly — to debunk many of the illusions held by Americans about the war. He also shows us how artistic response to the war was not only varied but also widespread and long lasting.
|Harry R. Hopps, Enlistment Poster, 1917; John Singer Sargent, "Gassed", 1919 (Detail)|
Less subtle is John Steuart Curry's "Parade to War, An Allegory," where a familiar street scene of soldiers marching, crowds watching, bayonets gleaming, flags and ribbons flowing, seems at first glance energized and patriotic—until we notice that the soldiers' faces are "cadaverous, skull-faced figures of death" (p. 253). Countering such art, and illustrating how severely the nation was divided on getting involved in the European war, are the paintings of Childe Hassam and others (including the poster artists). A member of the Preparedness movement and an Anglophile from New England, Hassam was well known for his 30 patriotic flag paintings. Two are shown and discussed by the author, one a mass of various flags fluttering over Fifth Avenue and the other, "Allies Day, May 1917", a similar scene from a quite different angle.
With numerous examples, Professor Lubin shows how the various fine arts of the time reflect the familiar WWI themes of trench fighting, death, hideous wounds, shell shock, fear, conscientious objection, German atrocities, the plight of returning soldiers, and, not least, American dissension about the war. Few aspects of the conflict failed to become a subject of art in one form or another, and often the connections were complex and surprising. Some, like King Kong, are still with us today. Thus Grand Illusions is an impressively rich and rewarding read for anyone interested in the Great War and how it manifested in the rich world of art. A splendid book, indeed!
David F. Beer
1. The author of Grand Illusions, Professor Lubin, is the principal advisor for the new exhibition World War I and American Art, which opened on 4 November at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After it closes next April, the exhibit will move to the New York Historical Society and then Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts for the remainder of 2017. The exhibition presents approximately 160 works, most of which are discussed in Grand Illusions.
2. Grand Illusions would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in the cultural dimensions of the Great War and 20th-century America.
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