The Art of Devastation, Part 2: The Realities of War in the Great War in Europe

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.


Poilu (“hairy one”) was an informal term of endearment for a French soldier during the war, many of whom, such as the soldier depicted here, refrained from shaving, underscoring their ruggedness and endurance.
Famously fond of wine, poilus were known to fill their water bottles with their drink of choice.

Silver Tetradrachm Silver Tetradrachm, -330, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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French soldiers marching to war in 1914 wore colorful uniforms developed in the 19th century, which included dark blue greatcoats, red trousers, and a red or blue cap, all depicted here on this pre-war medal. Some of the considerable loss of troops in 1914 was attributed to the high visibility of the French soldiers on the battlefield and to their lack of head protection. In 1915, the soldiers were issued new muted “horizon blue” uniforms and helmets.

This medal was produced as part of the Société des amis de la médaille française series.

Silver Tetradrachm Silver Tetradrachm, -170, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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Gold Aureus Gold Aureus, -18, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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Blondat’s medal was based on a poster designed by Jean-Louis Forain (France, 1852–1931) for a charity affiliated with the French Red Cross to supply clothes and other necessities to French prisoners of war. By September 1914, the Germans had taken over 25,000 French prisoners, and by the beginning of 1915 over 500,000 more, numbers that overwhelmed their ability to adequately care for them. Through the Red Cross, prisoners could be sent (warm) clothes, which many desperately needed. Like many other medals produced during the war, this medal was sold to benefit the charity.

Silver Denarius Silver Denarius, -18, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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The inscription on the obverse, “invia virtuti nulla via est” is from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XIV.113), a quote that had been popular for various types of emblems
since the Renaissance.

Silver Cistophoros Silver Cistophoros, -25, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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Paris illustrator Maurice Neumont designed this poster depicting a French soldier, or poilu, amid battle in the trenches, ready to throw a grenade toward the enemy. Drawn in detail with dense, twisting lines that seem to evaporate in midair, the sheet suggests the fog and sacrifice of war. A prolific artist with diverse training, Neumont early on studied with the academic French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, and around the turn of the century became a comedic illustrator. A prominent war artist, he made this propaganda poster as a way of raising funds for French soldiers. In a nationwide scheme organized by the French government, the term Journée du Poilu (Soldier’s Day) indicated a special day when citizens could give a certain amount of funds toward the soldiers, and, in return, receive a copy of a war poster or medal (fig. 2). Accordingly, contributors could receive Neumont’s poster when they donated on December 25 and 26 of 1915.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.608. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The modern German painter Fritz Erler made this poster of a wounded but alert machine gunner standing in the cockpit of a fighter airplane. Advertising Germany’s seventh war loan, from the autumn of 1917, Erler’s poster thrusts the soldier into a topical world free from allegory. This more realistic style of war poster existed side by side with various other kinds in Germany, including the modern Sachplakat type, and expressionistic and satirical examples. Advised by commercial designers, the Reichsbank, or German central bank, began publishing war posters in 1917 as part of their advertising campaign for war loans. The central bank eventually published around 160 poster designs, chosen through invitational contests.

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

In this design, Hans Rudi Erdt, a major German advertising artist, presented soldiers apparently placing a military mobilization poster on a Litfass column, a large pillar that carries notices and poster advertisements. Found on the cover of the November 1914 issue of Das Plakat, his design referenced the lead article, which declared that the very first poster of the war was the notice for German mobilization, or Mobilmachung, penned by Wilhelm II in early August. Like this cover design, many German and Austrian posters were renowned for their clarity, forged through a succinct use of line, color, and form. Erdt worked within this new, modern design movement, termed Sachplakat. The sophisticated Berlin magazine Das Plakat, published from 1910 to 1921, was dedicated to surveys and studies of German and international posters, and often featured Sachplakat artists in its pages.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift in memory of Eugen H. Petersen, 1993.609.6. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The Death of Soldiers

The abbreviation AA EEM refers to the Association Anciens Elèves Ecoles Moyennes, a former students association, based in Liege.

String of 100 Brass Cash Coins, 1662/1723, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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Billon Denier Billon Denier, 1100/1200, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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Silver Bracteate Penny Silver Bracteate Penny (1152/1192)American Numismatic Society

Women and the War

Silver Millares Silver Millares, 1100/1199, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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This medal was produced as part of the Société des amis de la médaille française series; see van Alfen “Medals of the European Allies” in this volume. Poisson had originally contracted to produce a medal on the subject of dance, but once the war began decided instead to honor those soldiers who had given their lives for France.

Gold Florin Gold Florin, 1260/1303, From the collection of: American Numismatic Society
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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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