This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and several local institutions have mined their collections to recount the war’s history, from its convoluted origins through its devastating aftermath. These include the Newberry Library, which uses newspapers and photographs from its archive to show the role Chicagoans played “over there,” and the Art Institute, which highlighted the contributions of photographer Edward Steichen to, among other things, U.S. Army intelligence during the war. (The Art Institute show has closed; the Newberry display will be up until January 3.)
But maybe the most unexpected is “En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I” at the University of Chicago library. The vast majority of the pieces on display are executed in the popular styles of the 1910s, familiar from advertisements, magazine illustrations, and children’s books, and the full-color works appear almost, well, cheerful. It’s an interesting contrast to the more famous images of the war, the black-and-white photos of muddy soldiers in trenches and exhausted Red Cross volunteers.
“It’s not reporting on the combat experience, even though it was done by people on the front,” says Neil Harris, the U. of C. history professor who curated the exhibit with art historian Teri Edelstein.
“It’s also not officially sanctioned propaganda,” Edelstein adds. “But artists and publishers saw it as their sacred duty to promote the war. They didn’t want it to seem too bad.
“People kept asking what could have motivated men to fight for so long,” Harris continues. “It gives an insight into the ideology that allowed it to go forward.”
The illustrations that do depict soldiers show very little fighting. Instead, the poilus cook, smoke, attend concerts, ogle pretty girls, go on leave, and make friends with other Allies, even their historic enemies, the English. On the home front, Le Bon Français (the good people of France) grow wheat, build munitions, buy war bonds, mail letters, and knit socks. Children send toy soldiers into battle and nurse them when they’re wounded.
A few pieces, though, present a grimmer picture of the war. The ink drawings in Charles Martin’s Sous les pots de fleurs (“Under the Flowerpot”) actually show soldiers on the battlefield, bracing themselves against an onslaught of shelling and curled up in a trench in a state of severe depression. The war drove other artists to satire. Louis Lefèvre rewrote and illustrated traditional children’s songs to provide sardonic commentary: in his version of “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” two soldiers carrying a shell cross a plank bridge to no-man’s-land as bombs explode in the background.
Drawings like those in “En Guerre” are rare now, Harris says; many weren’t meant to be saved and weren’t, and others have disintegrated over the years.
The collection here shows a range of perspectives on the war. “I view it as an opportunity to go back in a time machine,” Edelstein says, “and lose some sense of retrospective. It gives an understanding of what people were seeing at the time.”