Visual Ministry in Response to War

John Singer Sargent. (1856–1925). Gassed, 1919. Oil on canvas, 90 1⁄2 × 240 in. Courtesy of IWM (Imperial War Museums), London. Photo: ©IWM Imperial War Museums, Art.IWM ART 1460
John Singer Sargent. (1856–1925). Gassed, 1919. Oil on canvas, 90 1⁄2 × 240 in. Courtesy of IWM (Imperial War Museums), London. Photo: ©IWM Imperial War Museums, Art.IWM ART 1460

Review of PAFA’s World War I and American Art

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) began in 1917 in response to World War I as a program to feed destitute Germans and Austrians. A block away from AFSC’s headquarters in Philadelphia, Pa., the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is hosting a must-see exhibit of posters, paintings, sculptures, and photographs created by artists in response to that almost forgotten war. If you are in Philadelphia before April 9, 2017, when World War I and American Art ends, I urge you to visit.

The beautifully mounted exhibit starts with art responding to the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, killing more than 1,100 people, including 120 Americans. That event began propelling shocked Americans toward war in a way echoed nearly a century later by the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. Just as Americans were horrified by the sight of people jumping from the burning buildings, the cartoonist Winsor McCay, known for his lovingly drawn Sunday comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, was clearly horrified by the thought of innocent people jumping from the sinking ship. He drew some 25,000 frames to create a haunting 12-minute animated short that purports to show the ship going down.

Other images of German aggression are followed by recruiting posters, including the iconic “Uncle Sam Wants You” by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg and the now eye-roller picture of a darling young woman in a sailor suit saying, “Gee!! I wish I were a man; I’d join the Navy” by Howard Chandler Christy.

As you walk deeper into the show, the artists’ fervid patriotism and anger against Germany slowly gives way to images of the carnage on the battlefields. Cartoonists at The Masses sardonically picture what’s to come as in John Sloan’s 1914 After the War a Medal and Maybe a Job.

Also included are the African American artist Horace Pippin’s tender and outraged paintings of black soldiers who fought and died. He served in the 369th infantry, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and was wounded in his shoulder.

The showstopper is a huge 1919 canvas by the famed society painter John Singer Sargent, who is best known for his lush handling of silk gowns on beautiful women. Here, near the end of the exhibit, Sargent uses a muted gold palette to paint a troupe of blindfolded soldiers walking toward medical help after being gassed. At their feet are fallen comrades either dead or writhing in pain. In the distance, between their trudging legs, a pick-up soccer game is going on among survivors, as life always goes on. This tour de force of suffering and life is immediately followed by a tender 1917 painting by Susan Macdowell Eakins, Thomas Eakins’ accomplished wife, of a man with a bandaged head fondling a dog—so homey, so sad.

The last room of the exhibit includes pictures of victory parades, bitter assessments of the lives lost, and one that brought me to tears. In 1953, Andrew Wyeth, who was born during the war and grew up feeling its aftermath, painted a landscape of a barren field called Snow Flurries inspired by a film about the war. There’s a faint path up and over a deserted hill with a hint of barbed wire in the foreground. Its bleak beauty, stillness, and emptiness reminiscent of all that had been lost, was, after the searing images that had come before, somehow heartbreaking.

Friends don’t trust art. “Pluck down your images,” instructed George Fox in 1670. It is idolatry. It isn’t truth. And yet, these artists have created what Quaker artist James Turrell calls a “visual ministry.” They portray human rage at being attacked, our wish to fight brutal aggression, our horror at the carnage, and our bittersweet relief at the eventual peace. Artists don’t stop wars. Neither does AFSC. However, war’s victims would undoubtedly prefer a kind Quaker volunteer showing up with nutritious food to a Quaker painter showing up with canvas and paints. Then, after people are fed, art, too, can mitigate the pain, light our reflections on humanity, and remind us what is at stake when the recruiting posters go up. There are many ministries.

This was originally published online in December 2016.

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