The Art of War: Library of Congress Exhibition Features World War I Artists

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, who co-curated the exhibition with Sara Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts:

When exhorted by Charles Dana Gibson to “draw ‘til it hurts!” hundreds of his fellow artists contributed over 1,400 designs, including some 700 posters, to promote the country’s war effort to the American public–from recruitment and troop support, to bond drives and home front service. As head of the U.S. government Division of Pictorial Publicity, Gibson mobilized artists behind the war effort in an unprecedented manner. The Library’s new exhibition World War I: American Artists View the Great War includes stellar examples by participating artists as well as works created by independent or commercial creators.

We chose James Montgomery Flagg’s indelible Uncle Sam as the exhibit’s signature image. Made famous during World War I, it has continued to be a visual and cultural reference point ever since.

First Call—I Need You in the Navy this Minute! Our Country Will Always Be Proudest of Those Who Answered the First Call. Color lithographic poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917.

First Call—I Need You in the Navy this Minute! Our Country Will Always Be Proudest of Those Who Answered the First Call. Color lithographic poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40035

Gibson himself, the leader of the artist “battalion,” is represented by this drawing which features a chilling personification of war as an emaciated femme fatale–a far cry from his wholesome Gibson Girl prototype.

“And the Fool, He Called Her His Lady Fair,” published in Life, May 3, 1917. Ink over graphite underdrawing by Charles Dana Gibson, 1917.

“And the Fool, He Called Her His Lady Fair,” published in Life, May 3, 1917. Ink over graphite underdrawing by Charles Dana Gibson, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40022

Edward Penfield’s vibrant drawing, on the left, of doughboys, American Expeditionary Forces infantrymen, with a machine gun was published as a Collier’s magazine cover. The Camp Library Is Yours–Read to Win the War by Charles Buckles Falls, on the right, reflects the efforts of the American Library Association (ALA) to furnish troops with a reported 10 million books and magazines at camp libraries at home and abroad. The Library of Congress is a fitting venue to showcase this classic poster as ALA’s Library War Service Committee was directed by then Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam.

The Doughboys Make Good, published as cover of Collier’s magazine, August 10, 1918. Watercolor by Edward Penfield, 1918.

The Doughboys Make Good, published as cover of Collier’s magazine, August 10, 1918. Watercolor by Edward Penfield, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cai.2a14156

The Camp Library Is Yours—Read to Win the War. Color lithographic poster by Charles Buckles Falls, 1917.

The Camp Library Is Yours—Read to Win the War. Color lithographic poster by Charles Buckles Falls, 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40831

As the United States approaches the hundred-year anniversary of its entry into the war, my co-curator Sara Duke and I had the chance to comb through thousands of original images to choose the strongest work to represent the American experience of World War I. With a conscious emphasis on artist-eye-views, we were struck by the power of these artworks to visually communicate complex content in immediate, visceral ways. War correspondent artist Samuel Woolf’s eye-witness images of soldiers include a drawing, below left, of an anguished doughboy carrying a wounded comrade is a moving example.

In addition to posters, prints, and drawings, our deep holdings of World War I photographs offered further riches. Sara notes: “Although I am not a photography curator, I discovered many images that stand on their own as fine art but were produced and intended to document the war.” Among our favorites is Lewis Hine’s Red Cross postwar portrait of an African American veteran, below right, which takes an artful approach to documentation.

Soldier Carrying Wounded. Charcoal drawing by Samuel Woolf, April 21, 1918.

Soldier Carrying a Wounded Soldier. Charcoal drawing by Samuel Woolf, April 21, 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40030

Wood Carving. Gelatin silver photograph by Lewis W. Hine for the American Red Cross, circa June 1920.

Wood Carving. Gelatin silver photograph by Lewis W. Hine for the American Red Cross, circa June 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40989

Caption card for photograph Wood Carving by Lewis W. Hine for the American Red Cross, circa June 1920.

Caption card for photograph Wood Carving by Lewis W. Hine for the American Red Cross, circa June 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40990

This special exhibition is online and will be on display from May 7, 2016 to May 6, 2017 in the Graphic Arts Galleries of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Drawn from over 76,000 pictures relating to World War I in the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division collections, a compelling selection of 52 original posters, cartoons, fine art prints, drawings, and photographs are being shown in two different presentations with the second on view starting October 31, 2016. An additional 63 scanned photographs, many from fragile glass negatives, will be available in a gallery slide show and online.

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2 Comments

  1. John Church
    May 16, 2016 at 7:12 am

    Your efforts to commemorate WWI are impressive and appreciated. I sometimes pause to reflect that decisions made at Versailles are the foundation for many of today’s troubles in the Middle East. I plan to visit your exhibition. Thank you for your efforts.

  2. Patrick M Valentine
    May 22, 2016 at 9:51 am

    Read to Win, the Camp Library is Yours
    Is one of the more famous WWI posters, at least among book lovers and historians, at a time when poster art was influential and flourishing on two continents

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