Monday, July 31, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 1



One of the rich and remarkable stories of American illustration has remained buried in museum vaults for many decades. It's the story of the eight illustrators who were selected in 1917 to accompany American troops into battle in World War I.
The illustrators were selected by Charles Dana Gibson's "Pictorial Publicity Committee," under the auspices of the wartime "Committee on Public Information." They were:
Harvey Dunn
William James Aylward
Walter Jack Duncan
George Matthews Harding
Wallace Morgan
Ernest Clifford Peixotto
 J. André Smith
Harry Everett Townsend
There have been some articles and even a book written about these artists, but their artwork was exhibited at the Smithsonian in the 1920s, then placed in storage where it has remained hidden from public view. There are some 700 works in this extraordinary collection.

Now, to commemorate the anniversary of America's intervention in World War I, the Smithsonian Institution has unearthed this art and placed 65 works on exhibition. The show is a collaboration between the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. It will remain on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC until November 2018.






Going through the exhibit, I was struck by both the talent and the resourcefulness of the artists.  Here for example is Harvey Dunn's metal sketchbox which he designed so he could store long rolls of paper inside, safe from the elements, and still have a flat surface on which to draw:






Over the next few days, I'm going to show and comment on some of my favorite pictures from the collection and offer some thoughts about the significance of the exhibition.

12 comments:

James Gurney said...

I was just looking at the book Art from the Trenches last night, impressed with the range of reportage those guys did. I remember reading that Harvey Dunn never really got the support from the government he had hoped to exhibit and publish his war work after he returned, so it's good they're honoring him and the others now with this exhibit. Incidentally, British artists like Muirhead Bone and Fortunino Matania were doing great work too.

kev ferrara said...

Fantastic! Really, and always, grateful to see Harvey Dunns and Harry Townsends I've not seen before. Somehow this book arrived beneath my radar. Many thanks for the heads up.

Frank Furlong said...

Many thanks. Now I've got to get hold of that book "Art From The Trenches". I didn't know such a book existed. Can you make the follow up pieces bigger? Again, many thanks.

Midori said...

Thank you for this really interesting post -- I came across the British WWI artist C. R. W. Nevinson, who you might also appreciate. He was at many of the battles that he painted and his work is really stunning. His early pieces are quite modernist in style, until he experienced up close the real horrors of the war and then switched to more realistic style.

Li-An said...

Morgan's illustration from WW1 are great pictures and I always regret there is no book about his work.

Chris Gregg said...

Thanks for posting this information and the images of most inspiring military art. I hope we shall see more.
Chris Gregg
http://cheltenham-art.com/chrisgregg2.htm

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Donald Pittenger said...

Hmm. I was planning to truncate my mid-September east coast trip at Wilmington and the Brandywine. Now I seriously need to consider adding Washington DC (hope Metro is still running by then).

MORAN said...

I heard about these illustrators but I never saw the art before. They're pretty awesome. How about some high resolution pictures for those of us who can't make it to DC?

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- I'm aware of two books about the AEF artists, Art From The Trenches (which you mentioned) and War Diary of A Combat Artist (Harry Townsend's diary edited by the author of Art From The Trenches, Alfred Cornebise). The illustrations in both are OK, but they're black and white and not very high resolution. I never realized how far short they fell until I saw the originals on display at the Museum. The color makes a huge difference and the lines utterly transform the experience you get from the low rez reproductions in the books. Fortunately the Smithsonian has now established not one but two great, long overdue web sites with high resolution images of a number of the works by the AEF illustrators. One, by the National Museum of American History, can be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object-groups/official-artwork-wwi and a second by the Air and Space Museum, is a comprehensive web site about the full exhibition (https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/artist-soldiers ). Both are terrific, and worth an investment of time. Two great examples of what the internet is especially good for.

Kev Ferrara-- I've always shared your high regard for Dunn, who was the leader of this entire group, but this exhibition has added greatly to my knowledge of, and esteem for, Townsend and Aylward in particular.

Frank Furlong-- Thanks for writing. I think you'll find all the high resolution images your heart desires at the two web sites mentioned above.



David Apatoff said...

Midori-- Thanks very much. I am familiar with Nevinson's work; there is a healthy selection of it in Nigel Viney's book, Images of Wartime: British Art and Artists of World War I. Unlike the other books mentioned above, Viney's book has a lot of color images and strong reproduction . I like Nevinson's work and agree with James Gurney's point, "British artists like Muirhead Bone and Fortunino Matania were doing great work too."

Li-An-- I know what you mean. Morgan and so many of these other excellent artists deserve their own book. I'm doing what I can on my end (I just finished the text for the upcoming book on Austin Briggs) but it's time for some of the knowledgeable commenters on this blog to start doing their part by writing books about the artists they admire.

Chris Gregg-- I enjoyed your web site of military art. Thanks for writing.

David Apatoff said...

Koi seo-- I appreciate your stopping by.

Donald Pittenger-- If you do, you won't be sorry. It's quite a nice exhibition and this work may not re-emerge for a long, long time.

MORAN-- I'll be posting a series of installments on the art in this show, but if you want to cut to the chase I recommend the two web sites the Smithsonian has devoted to this show.