The Art of Devastation, Part 6: American Goes to War

American Numismatic Society

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.

The popular American illustrator J. C. Leyendecker rendered a reassuring Lady Liberty shaking hands with a sailor in this recruitment poster for the US Navy. Born in Germany, Leyendecker moved to Chicago with his family in 1882, and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian in Paris. Upon his return to America he lived in New York and began his long association with the Saturday Evening Post, for which he made over 300 cover designs. Leyendecker became a poster artist as well, designing advertising posters for magazines and for commercial companies such as Arrow Collars, and posters for the US government during World War I. His colleague, the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, led the American government’s Division of Pictorial Publicity, which directed poster production for the war.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.477. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

New York illustrator Frederick Charles Strothmann created this striking, memorable war poster for the fourth liberty loan campaign of 1918. Like Ellsworth Young (see no. 48), he executed this provocative work in response to the US Department of the Treasury’s goal of communicating the German military threat to America’s shores. Strothmann placed a German soldier with bloody bayonet and hands holding onto a land of smoking ruins, suggesting Belgium or France, while looking at the viewer across a large body of water, presumably the Atlantic Ocean. The “hun’s” green eyes reinforce this sinister intent. The artist’s succinct, concise style suggests knowledge of the Sachplakat graphic design movement in Germany, renowned for bold commercial posters with masses of flat colors, and simple lines and designs. Even though his parents were German emigrants to the US, Strothmann relied on the prevalent stereotype of the invading German “hun” for his bold, strong design.

(Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries).

One of the more successful New York Citybased war charities, the French Heroes Fund, was established in 1917 with the intent of aiding wounded French soldiers, but soon expanded its scope to include aid to refugees
and children. With the purchase of the Chateau de Chavaniac Lafayette, the birthplace of the American War of Independence hero, the Fund was able to establish an orphanage far from the front lines in the south of France. By the time the Fund was dissolved in 1922 it had received over $1.5 million in donations. Manship’s medal was produced to help raise money for the Fund.

Formed in early 1918 by a number of women with connections to the art world of New York City, the Art War Relief, was an auxiliary of the New York County Chapter of the American Red Cross, which aided with fund raising and procuring bandages among other efforts.

The first American-trained pilot, flying with an American unit to achieve the status of ace, Douglas Campbell (1896–1990) shot down six enemy planes by the end of the war. He flew with the 94th Aero Squadron, the famed Hat in the Ring gang that included the top US ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

Credits: Story

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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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