“Johnnie Get Your Gun”: American Artists Respond to World War I
In collaboration with the Westport Library’s “WestportREADS” selection of Pat Brown’s Regeneration, Robin Jaffee Frank will explore American artists’ responses to World War I. It remains a stark example of how far modern civilization can descend into violence. By the time the United States finally entered the conflict, Americans were acutely aware of the unprecedented casualty rates. Yet poster propaganda cajoled “I Want You,” and Norman Rockwell’s Life magazine cover reassuringly depicted happy doughboys singing George M. Cohan’s popular song “Over There.” Famous and lesser-known American artists of all generations, aesthetic styles, regions, and political points of view developed imagery to express ideas about the imperiled world in which they lived.Soon after the war began, wealthy sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established a hospital for Allied soldiers; she also created sculptures that captured her patients’ anguish. While modernist Charles Burchfield waited to be drafted, the war haunted his art. While visiting her younger brother at a military training camp, Georgia O’Keeffe came up with the idea for a watercolor of a floating “dark red flag—trembling in the wind like my lips when I’m about to cry.” Italian immigrant Salvator Cillis’s illustrated letters illuminate his experience fighting in the Argonne, the deadliest battle in US military history. Columbia University art professor Claggett Wilson, who volunteered for the Marine Corps, recorded his experiences in hallucinatory watercolors. At a time when the American armed forces were segregated, Horace Pippin, who fought with the Harlem Hellfighters, suffered combat injuries and made paintings as a means of physical rehabilitation and spiritual expression. Pippin recounted, “I can never forget suffering . . . so I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.” American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent toured the western front under the auspices of the British Ministry of Information. His monumental masterpiece Gassed pictures rows of British soldiers blinded by mustard gas. Susan Macdowell Eakins painted an empathetic portrait of a French artist who was blinded at the Battle of Artois. During the war, legendary photographer Edward Steichen served as chief of the photographic section of the American Expeditionary Forces and took pictures of bombs being dropped from planes; in the war’s aftermath, he suffered from depression. After the war, John Steuart Curry—who lived for a time in Westport—portrayed the ceremonial reburial of the remains of his high school friend, and also painted powerful anti-war statements in the 1930s on the brink of World War II. Robin Jaffee Frank, who organized the exhibition World War I Beyond the Trenches at the New-York Historical Society, will discuss works of art that reflect the prolonged grief and creative attempts at healing by mourners and veterans. On this centennial of our nation’s entry into the “forgotten war,” we can choose to remember our collective history through the eyes of artists. Please call (203) 222-1424 to reserve your seats; reservations are suggested. A program fee of $10 will be taken at the door. Light refreshments will be served. Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., has organized exhibitions, lectured, and published widely on American visual culture from the colonial through contemporary periods. She organized World War I Beyond the Trenches at the New-York Historical Society, on view from May through September 2017. From 2011 to 2016, Robin was Chief Curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, where she oversaw an encyclopedic collection of 50,000 objects, and led the curatorial team through the museum’s major renovation and reinstallation. Simultaneously Robin organized the acclaimed exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 and authored the accompanying award-winning book published by Yale University Press. Currently a version of her exhibition is traveling across the country through the On-the-Road program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Prior to working at the Wadsworth, Robin was a curator at the Yale University Art Gallery, where she collaborated on the renovation and reinstallation of the American galleries and co-organized the traveling exhibition Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery. Among her many other exhibition catalogues are Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures and Charles Demuth Poster Portraits: 1923–1929. Robin holds a Ph.D in the History of Art from Yale University.