Participation and Protest

War in art

By Sarah West

In this complex age the line between news and noise often seems less discernable. Debate and commentary render distraction rather than clarity. Yet, within this vacuum there are still pictures which portray reality. Looking beyond the upheld headlines I can still see my world and the images that people paint in living.

The artist’s responsibility surpasses the personal studio experience. If you’ve established a life by building pictures and recording imagery through your lens, then you must succumb to the reality that is your point proven existence. It is required of you to capture the times as you live them. However ill-fated, grim and unpopular as it may seem, whether you live by your brush or pen, the artist must walk the line between aesthetic wanderer and history’s eye witness.

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Academy of Art mounted an unprecedented exhibition intended to inform appreciators of the integral and impressionable role artists fulfilled during global wars. This exhibition would become the first of its kind to illustrate the direct effects American art had on the wars, the participating countries and their dramatic influence that would change everything. The PAFA exhibition, “World War I and American Art,” opened in Philadelphia November 2016, and is currently at the Frist in Nashville through Jan. 21, 2018.

The central exhibit is John Singer Sargent’s 1918 “Gassed,” on loan from the Imperial War Museums London. It is considered to be quite the show stopper, not necessarily due to its extensive dimensions, but more so because of its somber and sobering portrayal of carnage amid WWI. Admittedly this was my chief reason for attending the exhibition.

Unknowing when I might have another chance to experience this colossallate achievement by the American master, I made my way to Nashville just as soon as the winter weather cleared. Salt laden streets buzzed with Saturday business. Inside the Frist, I met the painting which continues to breathe for its enshrouded subjects. It is a poignant painting; purposefully filled with content. I would look away and return, discovering something else.

A young soldier grips his ears in pain, another thirsts for water as he struggles to raise his canteen. Single lines form with bandaged young men who stumble. They blindly reach for one another, each guiding the other to the treatment tents. Up above planes fly in, and parachutes drift down; one soldier vomits.

Across the encampment grounds, a game of football is played by a group seemingly untouched. Or perhaps, they are merely trying as they might to find a temporary respite from the imminent chaos. This particular vantage strikes me as a direct parallel of the witness. John Singer Sargent was dispatched to the front lines, but due to surging German forces’ use of chemical weapons, he was forced back to record events at a distance. The painting is signed August of 1918. Just 100 years ago, this year.

Following Sargent are jubilant Hassams, and gruesome renderings by Bellows. One cannot deny the level of commitment by the artists who served with their pencils and pens on the front lines. The dually sensual and patriotic poster illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy, Howard, Flagg and others evoke prideful resolve to stand for country, Enlist and Buy Bonds! The tone shifts as American art evolves. Modernized views exposed harsh realities, and revealed abstractions painted through opposition. Since the first World War and continuing still, the artist paints through participation and protest.

To learn more about this first time exhibition: visit the fristcenter.org.

 Art is Life Expressed – Sarah West, owner of the Sarah West  Gallery of  Fine Art