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Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War

Posted on Thu, April 6, 2017
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On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I, setting America on a course to become an important player on the world stage. It was a turning point in the nation’s history that still reverberates through world events a century later. The Museum’s centerpiece presentation in observance of the 100th anniversary of World War I is Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War, a new exhibition in the Museum’s Flight in the Arts gallery. A collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the exhibition features largely never-before-seen artwork, produced by soldiers, that sheds light on World War I in a compelling and very human way.

The First World War was characterized by mass mobilization of people and resources on a scale like never before. Millions of soldiers took to the battlefield, and the industrial output and civilian involvement in support of the war was unprecedented. The event not only remade the world geopolitically, but transformed how societies engage and relate to military conflict. Part of this transformation was shaped by the role of artistic expression by participants during the war. Before World War I, warfare represented in art was in great measure heroic depiction of battles and military leaders in romanticized portrayals done long after the fact, far from the battlefield. The First World War marked a turning point in that artwork intended to capture the moment in a realistic way, by first-hand participants, began to appear.

Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War explores the World War I experience through artistic expression of first-hand participants, seeking to retrieve the events and emotions from those who were there and personally involved. One perspective is that of the official U.S. war artists, a group of eight professional illustrators, commissioned as U.S Army officers and embedded with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France. Their mission was to capture the experiences of American soldiers in all aspects with the knowledge that their artwork would be widely disseminated and would purposefully shape a broad popular understanding of the war experience of the AEF.

  • Painting

    On the Wire by Harvey Thomas Dunn (oil on canvas, 1918)

  • Charcoal drawing.

    Helping a Wounded Ally by Harry Everett Townsend (charcoal on paper, 1918)

  • Soldier praying

    Photography by Jeff Gusky

  • Carvings against stone.

    Photography by Jeff Gusky

The second perspective of Artist Soldiers is more intimate and personal. Wartime soldiers’ graffiti has long been a ubiquitous feature of the battlefield, on landmarks and military equipment. The combat soldier has never been short on creative free expression. Often characterized by an “I was here” type of name, place, date inscription, or a humorous jab at the enemy, such graffiti was a means of expressing individuality in the midst of chaotic world events engulfing multitudes, or an avenue of releasing tension in a stress-ridden environment. Recently, a massive trove of soldiers’ creative and artistic expression from the First World War has been rediscovered. Hidden under the battlefields of France for a century, an amazing record of human presence and artistic expression left by the combatants of World War I is now speaking to us from the past.

After the first few months of the war, a relatively mobile conflict settled into the now infamous trench warfare experience so powerfully identified with World War I. In addition to the trenches themselves, a complex array of underground shelters and living areas emerged as part of the front-line presence of the vast armies on both sides. In these spaces, soldiers lived and passed many hours as they prepared to “go over the top,” or withstand frequent artillery shelling. The grinding, mechanized nature of the first global war, involving millions of infantry combatants, has tended to render these soldiers in popular culture as faceless masses rather than individual participants. It is easy to forget that the war was fought by individuals, each with their own unique story. Hidden away for a century in the underground quarters that was the sanctuary for the World War I trench warrior are a vast number of stone carvings left by soldiers on both sides that provide a glimpse into the humanity of the people who fought in this world-changing conflict.

Many of these time capsules of life in the trenches are on privately held lands in France. The families who hold these lands have actively tried to keep these underground treasures a secret to avoid their property being overrun by tourists and other curiosity seekers. As a result, the existence of what the soldiers left behind disappeared from public knowledge. But a few years ago, a door to this passageway back through time was knocked ajar by an intrepid photographer, Jeff Gusky. An emergency room physician by profession, Gusky is also a skilled art photographer and learned of the underground World War I stone carvings through friends and acquaintances in France. When he discovered what was there he became fascinated, indeed obsessed. Over a period of years, Gusky has cultivated relationships and gained the confidence of the property owners who control access to these long abandoned underground soldiers’ refuges of the First World War. He has made numerous excursions into this forgotten underground world and has documented the stone carvings of the soldiers with high-end art photography. The results are not only a remarkable heretofore lost record of the individual expression of World War I soldiers, but a powerful and prodigious body of photographic artwork. Gusky’s images are a fascinating historical document as well as a moving aesthetic experience.

Juxtaposed with the official AEF war art, these personal artworks add a human dimension to the World War I experience that is quite powerful. Against the backdrop of global war on a huge human scale, these stone carving recapture the reality that individuals fought this war, each with their own unique experience and perspective. Exhibiting these two collections together is a revealing window on the First World War.

The far-reaching influence of World War I is often overshadowed by the dramatic events of World War II and the complexity of today’s conflicts. But the centenary of WWI affords us an occasion to examine and reflect upon the war and understand its ongoing relevance in today’s world. Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War provides an important reminder that all military conflicts, including those of our own time, are fought by individuals, all with a unique story deserving to be known, recognized, and honored.

Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War will be on view at the National Air and Space Museum April 6, 2017—November 11, 2018.