RAZZLE DAZZLE, ART BASEL: A WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY EXHIBIT ON THE “GREAT WAR” AND THE DECORATION OF THE MUSEUM’S FAÇADE

This past week has been an especially busy one here at The Wolfsonian-FIU, as we worked to put up a new library exhibit and began preparations for the festivities associated with Art Basel. Even the façade of our historic Mediterranean-revival building is in the process of being transformed with a “dazzle painting”-inspired look in anticipation of the influx of contemporary art lovers.

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This past Veteran’s Day, The Wolfsonian opened a brand new exhibit to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. Titled Myth + Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture, the exhibition displays a variety of paintings, posters, portfolio plates, photographs, and sculpture and focuses on artists and designers’ responses to the first global, total war of the industrial age.

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The Great War was profoundly shaped by new technologies ranging from mortars and machine guns, submarines and tanks, war planes and zeppelins, flame throwers as well as chemical weapons. These new instruments of death and destruction led to a bloody stalemate on the Western Front in which armies remained mired in muddy trenches and died in droves trying to cross the hellish “No man’s Land” in between the lines.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Such horrific battlefield conditions challenged popular conceits that war could be a heroic and chivalric test of manhood. Propaganda campaigns were waged to romanticize and recast the conflict in a different light.

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While the early biplanes provided important reconnaissance of enemy lines, aerial “dog fights” and bombing runs were not decisive in the Great War, propaganda prints from the era suggested otherwise. Desperate to promote the war as a heroic struggle, artists in the service of the war created images of the daring “aces” and their flying machines.

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I spent much of the last week doing some last-minute editing and revising of label text to accompany a new Great War-themed Wolfsonian library show titled: The Children’s Crusade.

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I am particularly proud of the exhibit because the curators were Florida International University undergraduates taking my War & Society course this semester. The exhibit focuses on propaganda on the home front, and more particularly on the “crusade” to capture the hearts and minds of even the youngest citizens.

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Nationalistic propaganda programs churned out a plethora of patriotic pamphlets, postcards, coloring books, games, puzzles, nursery rhyme books, and young adult novels. These were designed to educate children in the terminology of the war, demonize the enemy, and provide children with a sense that their contributions were also important to the war effort.

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GIFTS OF PAMELA K. HARER

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To add to the materials selected and laid out in the cases, the students created and I edited a supplementary Powerpoint presentation played on a television screen in the exhibition space. Thanks to the efforts of Visual Resources Photographer, David Almeida, and Digital Assets Manager, Derek Merleaux, we were able to create GIF files of a French children’s book that employed printed flaps that allow the viewer to experience the devastation of war through before-and-after visuals.

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Although the pre-war naval arms race between Britain and Germany had led to heightened tensions and made war increasingly likely, ironically, the great battleships and dreadnoughts did not have much of an impact on the war since most of the German fleet remained bottled up during the war. The humble German U-Boat, however, greatly shaped the course of the conflict.

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Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare pushed America away from its strict neutrality with the sinking of the British passenger ship the Lusitania in May, 1915, and ultimately pulled them into the conflict in 1917.

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To counter the devastating successes of the German submarines, British and American ships were camouflaged with “Dazzle Painting” in order to make them more difficult targets. Since their smokestacks made it was impossible to hide Allied ships, a new pattern of camouflage was applied using bold stripes and Modernist, abstract, and zig-zag patterns.

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These designs were intended to confuse submariners peering out from their periscopes and keep them from determining the position and projected path of their intended target.

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The “dazzle painting” technique of the First World War also served as the inspiration for contemporary artist Michelle Weinberg. In tandem with our war show and the Art Basel celebrations, this artist has redecorated the museum façade with her Intricate Pattern Overlay.

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~ by "The Chief" on November 29, 2014.

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