By Sallly Vallongo
It was called “The War To End All Wars,” but World War I, which started a century ago this summer, instead showed the world what modern armed combat could become—with highly engineered weaponry, complex military tactics, and sophisticated communications.
This dreadful, deadly conflict dominated the Western world from 1914 to 1918, causing 16 million military and civilian deaths and wounding 20 million. Even more, it fanned the embers of international tension until they burst into flame two decades later in World War II.
Ironically, most people today have little knowledge or understanding of World War I and its powerful legacy.
At the Toledo Museum of Art, a new exhibition, The Great War: Art on the Front Line, helps bring the past into focus with examples of the terrible beauty war can engender.
Instead of photographs, the 40 paintings, works on paper, and sculpture—all drawn from the museum’s permanent collection—reveal the ways artists expressed war’s effects.
Created by curator Paula Reich, the exhibition is now open in Gallery 18, just off the entrance to the West Wing, where it will remain on view through Oct. 19. When she started researching the subject several years ago, she discovered there was much to ponder. “One of the things I found interesting with the show and wanted to highlight is the fact that the destruction of the war was unprecedented in every way,” Reich said.
She said she was struck by the impact the war had on society. Not only were entire cities obliterated and multiple collections of some of humanity’s greatest achievements destroyed, but ideas were radically altered. “It was an incredibly vital time. The creativity that came out of this destruction is amazing,” she said.
Variety of artists
Regular visitors will recognize the names of famed 20th century artists—Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Childe Hassam, and Fernand Leger among them. The most potent works include American artist Joseph Pennell’s dark view of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, lit only by searchlights; German artist Otto Dix’s stark etching of shell craters, and Frenchman Jean-Emile LaBoureur’s frenzied engravings of trenches.
Italian printmaker Filipo Tomaso Marinetti’s futurist word-based art, “After the Marne,” is, in fact, a battlefield map, Reich pointed out.
Visitors also will notice artists less famous but equally powerful in their evocation of the tumult war generated. “One of the works that will have the biggest impact through imagery is the portfolio of Kathe Kollwitz,” said Reich. The German artist ‘s son was killed in the first months of combat, and Kollwitz translated personal grief into very strong works. “In the portfolio she is looking at the impact of war on civilians,” Reich said.
Artists’ views of the war changed as it proceeded, from hope for great advancement as the first battles happened, through disillusionment as WWI lumbered on in its deadly way, to, finally, a utopian vision of a world where such conflicts would not happen again.
Even art movements were affected by political and military events, Reich said. “Cubism had been such a cultural force going into the war but it lost its impetus. It actually became, in France, a symbol of Germany’s cultural decadence.”
To help create a context for the works, Reich added a WWI timeline. Plus, the museum has scheduled several related programs.
University of Toledo art history professor Richard Putney will talk about the challenges of creating suitable war monuments at 7pm Sept. 5 in the Great Gallery. Artist Natalie Lanese will discuss the secrets of camouflage at 7:30pm Sept. 18 in the Little Theater. Reich herself will talk about the show at 2pm Sunday, October 5 in Gallery 18.
All these events are free to the public. 419-255-8000. toledomuseum.org