Holland Cotter has a good essay at the New York Times on art and the First World War: a commentary on World War I and American Art currently on show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia.
You might think it’s difficult to say something new about that (and it is), but this is an interesting – and in places even arresting – reflection:
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.
So how, he asks, did artists make this new form of war visible?
No simple answer, of course, but Cotter’s commentary on John Singer Sargent‘s iconic Gassed sharpens a point that confronts all artistic attempts to render war and its effects, the aestheticisation of violence:
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.
Others have seen Gassed differently, to be sure. Here is Michael Glover:
When it was done and displayed – it was nominated picture of the year by the Royal Academy – not everyone liked it. E M Forster thought it too heroic by half. Forster has missed the point, surely. It is indeed on a heroic scale, and its gigantism – including the fact that it is so much wider than it is high –adds a kind of plangent cinematic forcefulness to the scene, but its theme, all the same, is the brokenness, the helplessness of humanity in the face of barbarous devices. Terrible things are often slightly serio-comic too, and so it is here. This is a kind of strange perversion of blind’s man’s bluff, isn’t it? And yet these bandages are for real. These men may never see again. They may not even survive at all.
They are being led, with their eyes swathed in lint, towards a treatment tent – see those guy ropes. There is more than one line of men. They are converging from several directions. And, meanwhile, other things are going on too. In the far distance, a game of football is being played. Back left, we can see tents. There is a hanging moon. The light is a strangely grainy mustardy yellow – with just a tint of rose – that suffuses everything. We can almost smell the air.
Heroism? That jumble of broken and helpless men that occupies the entire foreground of the painting, and continues behind the stepping men, makes that claim even less credible. All this is human flotsam and jetsam, done down by the nastiness of war.
I also like Cotter’s summary of John Steuart Curry‘s Parade to War, Allegory, completed in 1938:
It shows troops [American doughboys from the First World War] 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.