Curated by Professor Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein.
The centennial of the outbreak of World War I is an occasion for historical commemoration. Many of the decisive scenes of the Great War were enacted in the military theaters of the battlefield, but the impact of mobilization brought a significant social change to the home front as well. En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I explores one of the most important of these cultural theaters of the war, the contest to influence public opinion and shape loyalties in one of the principal Allied powers. This exhibition examines a group of French artists whose work vividly expressed the partisanship, horror, valor, and absurdities of the war. Alternately promoting and critiquing the official narratives of the conflict, these French illustrators left an eloquent record of the ironies of the great international struggle and the uncertain rewards of victory.
One hundred years later, the numbers remain staggering. Close to fifty million men mobilized across Europe; more than thirty-five million military casualties, including at least eight million dead; individual battlefield days claiming tens of thousands of lives. France alone lost almost 1.4 million men, with the totals even higher in Germany and Russia. The Great War bitterly—and very quickly—earned its title, although civilians would suffer far more in the wars that followed.
The scale of the conflict and the enveloping mobilization meant that no aspect of life would remain untouched. To sustain the huge costs and maintain acceptable levels of public support, every instrument of persuasion became exploitable. "Total" war required commitment to a sense of mission. And this in turn meant production of an unending flood of messages aimed at every sector of the population. Reportage was not the principal mission for this group of artists. It was, instead, a broader commentary, meant, for the most part, to bolster morale, arouse indignation, ridicule the enemy, glorify heroic traditions, add some needed humor, and satisfy the need for diversion during the long agonies of war. They devised thousands of books, prints, posters, postcards, broadsides, magazine issues, pamphlets, advertisements, toys, and games referencing the conflict. This consumerist orientation disposed their creators to formulate an art that was accessible, drawing on well-established currents of storytelling. This exhibition presents a wide range of themes relevant to a deeper understanding of the war in France: patriotism, nationalism, propaganda, the soldier's experience, as well as the mobilization of the home front as seen through fashion, music, humor, and children's literature.
This exhibition forms a snapshot of a singular moment that captured the energies of French artists and illustrators as they served a supreme national crisis. On the centenary of The War To End All Wars, this collective response and its deployment reaffirms the role that art can play in serving and challenging power.
This project was awarded the official label "Centenaire" by the French government.