Belligerent Encounters and Windows on the War
On view at The Art Institute of Chicago
(through October 23rd , 2011)
Two current exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago explore the relationship between art, war, and printed images. Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution, 1500-1945 vividly highlights the discrepant experiences of artists who chronicle war from the safety of home, and those serving as soldiers. The main print gallery holds a number of lithographic posters by British artist Frank Brangwyn; working from photographs of World War I, Brangwyn composed monochromatic scenes with slight touches of color, the figures heavily muscled and heroic. The images are active and stirring, but the elegant typography and overall design (a nod to Brangwyn’s former instructor William Morris) undermines any real sense of urgency. German artist Heinrich Hoerle’s lithographic portfolio, The Cripples (Krüppel) (1920) echoes this tone of mournful melodrama, with its tender depictions of wounded soldiers returned to daily life after the war. But Belligerent Encounters also points to the psychological trauma suffered by artists who fought and survived: Max Beckmann’s Hell (Die Hölle) lithographs (1919), is shown alongside Otto Dix’s War (Der Krieg) etchings (1924). Both depict a dark, raw first-person perspective on war, with repeating scenes of physical torture and mental anguish.
A century earlier, Francisco Goya’s famous Disasters of War chronicled the atrocities of Napoleon’s peninsular campaign. Goya’s reports from the front were less timely than war-related printmaking came to be in the twentieth century—political constraints meant that the 82 etchings in Disasters of War were only published in 1863, half a century after the events they depict. But Belligerent Encounters makes the case that the Disasters has been a major influence on generations of subsequent artists down to the present day.
Belligerent Encounters provides a half-millennium-wide overview of graphic art and war; its sister exhibition, Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-45 focuses on the narrow window of the American-Soviet alliance during World War II. The exhibition makes many connections between the imagery that appeared in American World War II posters and the concurrent Soviet output. The impetus for this massive historical exhibition was the rediscovery of 157 posters that had been mailed to the Art Institute in 1942 by the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (Telegrafnoye agentstvo Sovetskovo Soyuza, or, TASS). In 1997, during the renovation of the museum’s Prints and Drawings Department, this treasure trove of propaganda was found buried deep in a closet. For the last decade, Windows on the War curator Peter Zegers has been researching these remarkable historical documents (alongside many other conservators, curators, and institutions). This is the first such major museum exhibition in English and loans from the Museum of Modern Art, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and the Ne boltai! Collection augment the Art Institute’s works.
The TASS studio was sponsored by the Soviet government, but was founded in June 1941 by artists and writers as a creative call-to-arms on the day following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, “designed to reassure and rouse the citizens.” Located in Moscow, it was a storefront studio for the production of propaganda posters that served as a new kind of news bulletin—a five- to seven-foot stenciled poster for nearly every day of the 1,411-day war. The topics, always timely and always government-approved, were taken from official news releases and from Stalin’s speeches. The imagery, large and garish and bright, is both uplifting and indignant. The TASS motto: “Smash the enemy with satire!”
One of the TASS founders, Mikhail Cheremnykh, had been an artist at the state news agency (ROSTA), which often referenced the lubki tradition of popular prints. Spanning four centuries of Russian history, lubki are characterized by simple line drawings and flat color in the service of traditional Russian folk narratives. Early TASS posters show the clear influence of ROSTA and lubki. As World War II progressed and the TASS studio grew from a handful of employees to three hundred, the stenciled posters became vastly more complex, evolving from flat and simple forms to stenciled constructions with forty to sixty layers of stunningly vivid colors.
Lacking access to sophisticated print facilities, TASS artists employed stencils, one of the simplest forms of printmaking, in very complex ways. In one of the Windows on the War galleries, the Art Institute commissioned Chicago artist Alexis Petroff to recreate, step-by-step, a TASS poster. Using the July 19, 1943 poster The Moralistic Wolf (A Fable) as the starting point, Petroff traced and cut stencils for the approximately forty layers of color. Petroff’s small display, a basic depiction of process, serves as a welcome, tactile point of relief amidst a sea of historical documentation.
As evidenced in these exhibitions, there will never be a shortage of artists who portray the vagaries and horrors of war. The messages may come direct and raw from eyewitness accounts or from official (officially altered) sources, but war is something to be witnessed and remembered, never ignored. Both Belligerent Encounters and Windows on the War point to an essential conundrum: war can end creation; but war is also a reason to create.
Julia V. Hendrickson