Review: Uncle Sam Wants You (To Look at Art)!

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The enormous painting "Gassed" by John Singer Sargent depicts soldiers blinded by mustard gas during World War One, now on view at the New-York Historical Society.

In traditional histories of American art, World War I tends to be treated passingly. Except for Horace Pippin, no major American artists served in the war, and the fighting occurred far from home. It was a time when the New York avant-garde was absorbing the lessons of the Armory Show of 1913 and experimenting with Picasso’s Cubism. They were, in other words, going modern, with all that implies about stripping their work of narrative in favor of abstract forms.

What I love about “World War I Beyond the Trenches,” which remains on view at the New-York Historical Society through September 3, is that it offers an alternative view of the American art scene. Challenging the usual modernism-first view of the period, it shows how America’s entry into the war – in April of 1917, after years of determined neutrality – put politics on every artist’s mind. Suddenly, abstraction receded, and narrative resurfaced. Everyone had a story to tell.

Who knew that Georgia O’Keeffe made war paintings? She steals the show with a small and very moving watercolor, “The Flag,” of 1918. It depicts an all-red flag fluttering against a navy-blue sky and looks like an object that is bleeding to death. O’Keeffe’s kid brother, Alexis, served in the war, and she once said that her goal was to paint a flag “trembling in the wind like my lips when I’m about to cry.”

Ignoring old-hat divisions between high art and illustration, the show boldly mingles work that has never shared space before. Not all of it is first-rate (George Bellows’ “Return of the Useless” is a singularly clumsy painting of war prisoners), but all of it is touchingly well-intentioned. A Regionalist like John Steuart Curry, an arch-modernist like Marsden Hartley, a magazine illustrator like Norman Rockwell – they are brought together here by their shared concern over the welfare of solders.

The centerpiece of the show is by John Singer Sargeant, who is known for his spirited portraits of society matrons. So it is inordinately surprising to find oneself face-to-face with his “Gassed,” of 1918 – a mural-sized painting, 20 feet wide, in which a procession of soldiers injured in a mustard-gas attack stumble towards a dressing station. The sky above them emits a gaseous yellow haze that hints at all things toxic. As a work of art, “Gassed” strikes me as stiff and heavy-handed, but it is nonetheless fascinating as a piece of history. Chemical weapons were first used on a large scale during World War I, and the painting confronts that subject with impressive forthrightness and empathy. It was commissioned by the British government, and this is the first time it has been exhibited in New York.

The show, by the way, is one of several exhibitions marking the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on July 31, is opening a show of war-related drawings and prints. And the Museum of the City of New York has “Posters and Patriotism,” a survey of the deft and often amusing posters created by artists to promote enlistment and the purchase of Liberty Bonds.

I plan to see all three shows, and the truth is that the problems of 2017 are not all that far from those of 1917. World War I was famously billed as the war that would end all wars, but of course it did nothing such. It reminds us, among other things, of the perils of political rhetoric, a lesson we cannot think about too much in our own politically ominous and rhetoric-distorted times.