L’ Heroisme d’un Cosaque (The Heroism of A Cossack) by R. Bataille
Storytelling about wartime experiences is an age-old tradition.
“We can make places look hotter, rucksacks bigger, men more tired,” artist and army officer Jeffrey T. Manuszak once told Soldiers magazine. “We still have to remain historically correct, but we can exaggerate using the elements of art…We can tell a story through a painting.”
Historic examples of these illustrated stories can be found tucked away on the lower level of the National WWI Museum and Memorial. “Images of the Great War: European Offensives 1914-1916” is a small exhibit, but its 15 prints and drawings capture a fascinating piece of the war stories continuum.
Curated by Peter Harrington of the Brown University Library and Stephanie Daugherty of The President Woodrow Wilson House, the selected works vary drastically in tenor and attitude, from boldly controversial to somberly contemplative.
Representing many different European countries involved in the conflict, some artists worked directly for the illustrated press; others were professional studio artists; still others were soldiers with pencils in hand. Their different perspectives produced very different results.
Louis Morin’s work German Invasion Caricature (II) is intentionally provocative. As a personification of Germany’s metaphorical “rape” of the French/Belgian region, the exaggeratedly clownish officer looks down at a vulnerable woman on a bed with wolfish desire. The soldier represents a “Death’s Head” Hussar, a member of a group that gained infamy for their alleged atrocities made on many civilians at the onset of the war.
The dramatic war print by R. Bataille, translated from the French as The Heroism of A Cossack, was made as a part of a series published in Paris titled Souvenir of Revenge. Bataille aimed to glorify national pride and promote animosity towards the enemy. The larger scale and erect posture he accords the mounted Russian soldiers contrasts with the defeated, diminutive figures of the German lines along the Eastern Front.
B. Berg, who was most likely a German soldier, depicts a private wearing the distinctive German greatcoat with full battle equipment. The man stoops, weighed down by the heaviness of his immense gear. In contrast to Bataille’s print, Berg’s image reads as a calm record of fact rather than propaganda.
Wide-brimmed hats with black feathers mark the Italian Army’s involvement during WWI in Cesare Tallone’s 1915 watercolor. The sharpshooting Bersaglieri hide amidst the rocky terrain in order to ambush the Austro-Hungarian army. Smoky plumes erupting from guns cover the scene in a sinister white haze.
Alternately, Preserve Thy Body and Soul was intended to bring comfort to the British people back home. Based on artist William Holt Yates Titcomb’s painting, it imagines a brief moment of relief from combat as a small group of British soldiers gather to receive Holy Communion from the chaplain. Sadly, only one of the men who modeled for the work survived the war, which claimed more than 9 million lives.
Louis Raemaeker’s print French Prisoners of War appeared in the British journal Land and Water. Confined behind barbed wire, the haggard men evince a sad acceptance of their situation. Raemaeker did not draw as a soldier on site, but rather as a cartoonist for the press. He sought to draw attention to the grittier side of war—the widespread imprisonment of soldiers and its effects on society.
The works in Images of the Great War “provide a glimpse into what the wartime masses experienced,” and each individual piece offers its own interpretation of a larger shared experience.
“Images of the Great War: European Offensives 1914-1916” continues at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 100 W. 26th St., through Oct. 9, 2016. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, Summer Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday-Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.888.8100 or www.theworldwar.org.