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.
American Neutrality American Neutrality (1915) by Karl GoetzAmerican Numismatic Society
European Views on America: The Central Powers
As noted in the essays by Wilson and van Alfen in this volume, the United States’s position at the outbreak of the war was a studied neutrality born of the need to respect the broad mix of ethnic populations in the country, which included significant proportions of Germans and Irish. Nevertheless, as sympathy for the German cause waned by 1915, due in no small part to German acts in Belgium, France, and on the high seas, and to the anti-German propaganda that enhanced these atrocities (nos. 42–54), the US position became more biased towards the Entente. The Germans both at home and in the US were aware of this, accusing the US, among other things, of cynically profiteering off of illegal arm sales to the Entente and overlooking the tremendous suffering of civilian populations brought on by the British blockade, the rightful answer to which, the Germans felt, was their submarines.
Following the sinking of the British steamship RMS Falaba on March 28, 1915, which resulted in the death of a single American, Leon Thrasher, US President Woodrow Wilson sent an official memorandum to the Germans insisting they discontinue unrestricted submarine war without delay or else diplomatic relations with the US would be severed.
In a speech delivered to the US Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson’s Fourteen Points laid out a series of diplomatic and territorial aims to conclude the war and ensure lasting peace once the Central Powers were defeated. Among these points was the establishment of an association of nations, the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France (see no. 10), and the effective break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In late 1916, with the tide of the war turning against them, and the British blockade of Germany having caused severe shortages of food, fuel, and war materiel, the Germans decided to reinstitute unrestricted submarine warfare, which became effective on February
1, 1917. Two days later, in response to the new submarine campaign, US President Woodrow Wilson severed all diplomatic relations with Germany (cf. no. 70), an act that precipitated the US Declaration of War on April 6, 1917.
Once the US entered the war, it was faced with the immediate problem of shipping large amounts of materiel and large numbers of troops to Europe. To answer the need for more ships, US President Wilson ordered the seizure of Dutch vessels in American ports under the international law’s right of angary, an act that angered the Dutch, and which provided the Germans with more fuel for complaint and satire.
Columbia Joins the Fight Columbia Joins the Fight (1917) by René GrégoireAmerican Numismatic Society
In contrast to the cynicism expressed by the Germans, the Entente welcomed the US’s biased neutrality and eventual Declaration of War with great relief and joy, which was expressed in various media, including medallic art and in posters.
Before the war, the little-known French artist Edouard Saunier created posters advertising popular entertainments, such as boxing and music halls. He exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants from 1908 to 1914, and died from the Spanish flu a few days after the Armistice. Here he presented a comic view of American war support for the French. In this poster from 1918 the looming silhouette of a grinning American infantry soldier bears down upon a miniature German officer trying to pry open the door of the Western Front. Along the bottom border are vignettes on the extraordinary resources the United States brought to France and the Entente, in numbers of soldiers, industries, funds, and sea vessels.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.1320. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
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.