Exhibit at World War I Museum showcases powerful anti-war images of Louis Raemakers.

The Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck called him “a guardian of justice.” The British newspaper, The Times, said he “indubitably swayed the destinies of people.”

That’s high praise for a maker of satirical pictures, but well-deserved in the case of Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956). An exhibit of the world-renowned Dutch cartoonist’s works at the National World War I Museum and Memorial confirms the rightness of these accolades.

Published and exhibited in countries around the world during World War I, Raemaekers’ images were designed to provoke outrage—primarily against the atrocities of the Germans—and were credited with helping convince the U.S. to get into the war.

The show, featuring 24 images from the museum’s collection of 133 Raemaekers cartoons, begins with Serbia, Autumn 1915: “Now we can make an end of him”. It’s a stage-setting piece, showing four rifle-wielding members of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), ganging up on a tiny Serbian soldier. The looming German, with bulging eyes and pointy-topped pickelhaube helmet, is the main villain of the piece, which shows from the outset Raemaekers’ wonderful flair for expression and emotion.

Raemaekers witnessed firsthand the suffering and devastation of the German invasion of Belgium, and two of the most stirring works in the show capture what he saw. Executed in black and white, The Cost of War: “The mothers of Belgium” (1914) shows a group of women shrouded in black with bowed heads, praying and sobbing in church. The Children of Belgium: “Where are our fathers?”(1914) depicts a sea of orphans, flanked by black crosses stretching to the horizon line.

Raemaekers trained as an artist before pursuing a career as a cartoonist, and throughout this display, one discerns hints of earlier masters, including Francisco de Goya, Honore Daumier, and Edvard Munch in those shrouded mothers. Part of the power of his Children of Belgium, is the composition’s resemblance to Belgian artist James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, painted less than two decades before. And the similarities go deeper:  Ensor’s work deplores the same herd-like mob mentality that is ascendant in war.

Artistically, Raemaekers was a cut above other cartoonists, not only for his obvious conversance in past art, but for his surety of line, compositional acuity and an economy of depiction that charged his works with compelling intensity.

The Dutch were neutral during World War I, and Raemaekers’ scathingly anti-German images frequently brought him into conflict with the Dutch authorities. But so effective and popular were his cartoons that a German newspaper once declared he was “worth at least two Army Corps to the Allies.”

Nowhere is Raemaeker’s animus toward the Germans more dramatically displayed than in Edith Cavell: “Thrown to the Swine” (1915), a cartoon depicting the Germans execution of British nurse Edith Cavell. Cavell, who had ministered to soldiers from both sides, was  shot by a German firing squad for helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium. Raemaekers portrays the German soldiers as drooling, helmeted pigs—one has an iron cross looped around its tail—surrounding Cavell’s body.

Given Raemaekers’ artist beginnings, it is not surprising that his outrage extended to German cultural, as well as human, destruction. In The Saints of Reims: “The very stones cry out” (1914), he responds to the Germans’ partial destruction of the historic French cathedral of Reims.

The statues, brought to life, rebuke a terrified German soldier, shown trapped between them in a defensive pose, down on one knee, arms crossed before him. The offense was all the more egregious to Raemaekers as his Dutch father once helped to restore a church. Religious references abound in Raemaekers’ works, including a depiction of the Kaiser Wilhelm as Moses, leading his people to the Promised (Eng)Land.

Two of the exhibit’s most arresting images were designed to help goad the U.S. into the war. In Murder on the High Seas: Well, [are] you nearly done?” (1915), a masterful Uncle Sam towers over a German butcher wearing a bloody apron. Also from 1915 is a depiction of a furious Uncle Sam booting the rear end of the German ambassador.

It wasn’t until two years later—1917— that the U.S. entered the war, the same year that Raemaekers toured the country to make a case for U.S. involvement. Yet he was far from a warmonger, evidencing his revulsion for the whole spectacle of violence, pride and greed that consumed Europe in one of his best-known images. In To Your Health, Civilization (1914), a gluttonous skeleton toasts civilization as he downs a huge goblet of innocents’ blood

Whereas most of the works in this show address events specific to World War I, the anti-war message of this stark depiction is timeless. Yet it also shows Raemaekers to be very much an artist of his time.

Like the Dadaists, whose work registered a protest against the “civilized” values and interests of capitalism, colonialism and nationalism that fueled the war, in To Your Health, Raemaekers too calls the very notion of “civilization” into question.

“Drawn to War: The Political Cartoons of Louis Raemaekers”, continues at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 100 W, 26th St., through Oct. 18. Summer hours (through Labor Day) are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is by two-day pass: $14 for adults, $12 for seniors over 65 and students over 18 with ID; $8 for ages 6-17 and free to children under 6. All tickets cost $7 on Wednesdays. For more information, 816-888-8100 or https://theworldwar.org.

Learn more about Raemaekers and other political artists of the era on Oct. 4, when Jan Schall, curator of modern art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, gives at free talk, “Mockery and Mourning: World War I in Art and Caricature,” at 2 p.m. at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Admission is free with RSVP. Call 816-888-8100 or register online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mockery-and-mourning-world-war-i-in-art-and-caricature-tickets-18319667619

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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