At the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, the National Air and Space Museum is offering a rare view of the conflict by artists who became soldiers and soldiers who were amateur artists.
“Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War,” opening April 6, will showcase more than 100 pieces of art and artifacts — many never displayed in public — that depict realistic scenes of life on the front and in the civilian life surrounding it.
Central to the exhibition are 54 works from the American Expeditionary Forces, part of a collection of about 500 owned by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Pieces from the collection have been exhibited only once before, almost a century ago.
“These works are significant in that they represent a turning point in so-called war art,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator at the Air and Space Museum. “Prior, you’d see paintings of heroic figures, painted long after the battle.”
But the AEF commissioned eight artists and embedded them in battle. “They were given free rein to paint not only combat scenes,” Jakab said, “but also life at the front, scenes of personal activities. And what this gave us was a sort of capturing the war in the moment, by the firsthand participants.”
Soldier-artists are represented by 29 photographs by Jeff Gusky, who documented stone carvings on the walls and ceilings of underground quarries that housed soldiers and equipment. Never before exhibited in a museum, the photos depict a broad range of art, from religious to humorous to self-portraits, caricatures and military unit emblems. One shows an elaborate altar carved into a wall just feet from steps that led to the trenches, Jakab said.
The exhibition also features such artifacts as a gas mask, a hospital wheelchair and Belgian lace, items that are depicted in the artwork. Together, they focus attention on individual experiences, Jakab said, which is critical for understanding the first industrialized war.
“The technology of the First World War made it larger. The trucks and the large quantities of supplies, there were airplanes for the first time and tanks,” he said. “It’s very easy to lose the individuality of people who are soldiers, and who are civilians swept up in these great historical events. The art helps us not forget that history is made up of individuals and individual acts.”
The museum will also honor the 100th anniversary of the American engagement in WWI with a film series and other programs.
“1967: Civil Rights at 50,” through Jan. 2, 2018, at the Newseum, features images of newspaper and magazine coverage of the African American struggle for racial justice in that critical year. The exhibition investigates the First Amendment’s role in the civil rights movement.
For “From Tarzan to Tonto: A Special Program Examining the Pervasiveness of Stereotypes in American Culture,” three Smithsonian museums — the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture — will convene a panel of scholars, authors and critics to examine Tarzan and Jane, Tonto and the Lone Ranger, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, and other stereotypes in American culture. The program is Feb. 9 at 6 p.m. at the American Indian Museum.
Read more from the Spring Arts Preview: