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 Libbie Printing Company in Boston designed and produced this dynamic scene of a British Mark I tank attacking German soldiers fleeing from trenches with airplanes flying overhead. The poster advertised the
National Allied Bazaar held in Boston in 1916 to raise funds for relief, before America officially entered the war. The tank was developed precisely for trench warfare, which had become an intractable element of World War I. The company printed a range of items, including sheet music, broadsides, calendars, and, like many American and British printing companies, it designed and printed posters.
While on patrol off of the east coast of the US, charged with protecting Bremen, one of Germany’s new merchant submarines, from British warships, the German navy submarine U-53 paid a brief visit to Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, on October 7, 1916, where the captain and crew received courtesy visits
from US Navy officers stationed there. The next day near Nantucket Lightship, U-53 proceeded to sink several ships bound for England with contraband cargo after their crews were given time to disembark into lifeboats. The last two ships were sunk as US Navy
destroyers arrived on the scene to assist those in the boats. The British and other allies were outraged both at the submarine’s reception in the US and also by the fact that US forces, albeit still neutral, had done nothing to stop the Germans.
This medal was issued by the American Peace Centenary Committee, chaired by Andrew Carnegie, to raise funds for a statue of US President Abraham Lincoln for presentation to the people of the British Empire. A copy of Augustus Saint Gaudens’ “Standing Lincoln” was given to the British by the Committee in 1920, which today can be found in London’s Parliament Square. Bronze examples of the Peace medal sold for $5 (roughly $100 today) while silver specimens sold for $12 (roughly $240 today). Gold examples were planned to be given to the President of the United States and the King of Great Britain.
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.