The Art of Devastation exhibition, jointly presented by the American Numismatic Society and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, explores for the first time on American soil the intertwined roles of posters and medals not just among European authorities, artists, and audiences, but among those on this side of the Atlantic as well, where they also served to shape public opinion of the war and help steer Americans into it. The original exhibit ran from January 27–April 9, 2017 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.
Organized in March 1917, on the eve of the US declaration of war, the US National War Garden Commission was intended to help take pressure off of public food supply as the war effort and recruitment were likely to deplete the farm labor workforce. By encouraging families to grow their own vegetables, like potatoes, beets, and cabbage, it was hoped that they would become more self-sufficient.
Cartoonist and poster artist Bert Thomas rendered British soldiers feeding a machine gun with war bonds instead of bullets in this poster published in 1918 by the National War Savings Committee. The Committee became a major producer of British posters during the latter part of the war, and Thomas supplied many of those, and through it became an official artist for the war bonds campaign. A long-serving, prolific cartoonist for Punch and London Opinion, Thomas was born in Newport, Wales, and apprenticed with a metal engraver while launching his cartooning career for newspapers in Swansea. His war posters frequently carry a modern, concise design with a judicious use of flat planes of colors and words. They frequently call to mind posters by artists in the German Sachplakat movement and those by the Beggarstaff Brothers in Britain in the late 1890s.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.1117. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Jules Abel Faivre was one of the most well known war-poster artists and cartoonists in France. This memorable poster from 1918 advertised France’s Liberation Loan, also called the Fourth National Defense Loan, which sought to raise funds for the war effort. Using a style that prized the art and skill of drawing, Faivre portrayed a robust array of Allied flags bearing down upon a subdued Kaiser Wilhelm II. Born in Lyon, Faivre trained there at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts and in Paris at the École Julian. He is perhaps most well known for his illustrations for Le Rire, L’Assiette au Beurre, and other satirical magazines and the newspaper Le Figaro. Although French artists devised war posters in a number of representational styles, many of them with training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and other traditional art schools relished a conservative approach in their posters that was rooted in rigorous training in drawing the figure.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.658. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
In this lithographic poster from 1918, the American painter and illustrator Haskell Coffin rendered an allegorical figure of winged Victory carrying a sword and palm branch. Filling the sheet, she exemplifies the American Renaissance ideals of beauty and classicism prevalent in art in the US at the end of the 19th century. A plea for buying war savings stamps and encouraging thrift, the poster urged viewers to “save for your country, save for yourself.” In Coffin’s words, he chose to render a “lyric” version of Victory, favoring “sweetness and tenderness” over the “vain and glorious” (The Elevator Constructor 16, no. 5, May 1919). Coffin preferred depicting young, attractive, and fashionable women as his main subjects, and these images often graced the covers of magazines, such as Leslie’s Illustrated, Photoplay, Redbook, and the Saturday Evening Post. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, he moved with his family to Washington, D.C., and trained there at the Corcoran School of Art and with the academic painter Jean-Paul Laurens in Paris at the Académie Julian.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.705. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Founded in 1918 by philanthropist Anne Morgan (1879–1952), the daughter of banker J. P. Morgan, and her friend, Anne Murray Dike (1879–1929), the Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées de la France, aimed to aid those regions in France devastated by the war. Until its dissolution in 1924, the Comité recruited volunteers to assist with various services including rebuilding efforts, sanitation, and education.
Signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that launched the war, the Treaty of Versailles brought the conflict officially to a close. The treaty required that Germany accept guilt for starting the war, accept terms that were designed to weaken the country militarily, and accept crippling war reparations to the Allies. By the mid-1920s, attempts were made to renegotiate some of
the terms as Germany’s economy crashed and political instability was rampant. By the mid-1930s, with the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party, the Germans began to repudiate the terms as vindictive and harsh. By the end of the decade, a newly remilitarized and spiteful Germany attacked its neighbors launching the Second World War.
The online exhibition continues! Please explore the other parts of this incredible look at the medals and posters of the Great War.
Order the exhibition catalogue online.
The year 2017 marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I following three preceding years of destruction to great areas of Northern Europe and the loss of millions of lives. The relevance of returning to this moment and how the propaganda of the medallic and poster arts helped fuel the conflict seemed evident since, as has been remarked upon many times, the “war to end all wars” did anything but that. While physically small owing to the methods and materials of their production, medals are able to address powerfully the nature of tragedy, heroism and patriotism in a medium that invokes the Classical World. While unfettered by such matters of scale, the posters bring an almost cinematic yet synoptic power to their subjects thanks to their artists’ understanding of how graphic design and bold color can quickly evoke a mood. In both media the creation of caricatured heroes and villains can be effectively conveyed at a glance.
The desire to present this material fostered a new institutional alliance between the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College and the American Numismatic Society long headquartered in New York City. The riches of the medallic art found in the latter collection of over 600,000 objects are not often exhibited and the opportunity to focus on just a portion of their strong collection of medals related to “The Great War” was an opportunity for both scholarly institutions. The ability to add context by including propaganda posters, lent by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Archives and Special Collections of the Vassar College Library has resulted in a vivid recollection of the facts, subjective perspectives and the emotions of this period of an unprecedented scale of cruelty and barbarism arising from the mechanization of the art of war.
The text of this catalogue is the product of the talented curators from both institutions, Patricia Phagan of the Loeb Art Center and Peter van Alfen from the American Numismatic Society. Their work is supported by essays by Tom Hockenhull, Curator of Modern Money, Department of Coins and Medals, The British Museum; Ross Wilson, Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Chichester; and Bernhard Weisser, Director of the Münzkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. This gathering of top scholars in the field lends luster to the project and we are indebted to them all. The result of their research helps us to better understand the nature of editorial imagery before the advent of the “old” media of television and the “new” digital forms of biased communications.
We are grateful to the Smart Family Foundation for its support of this unique project.