War and Remembrance

Earlier this month, approximately twenty Miami-area veterans came to The Wolfsonian–Florida International University in the company of FIU Assistant Professor of History and Health Policy and Management Jessica L. Adler. The group visit to the museum galleries and library was a part of a War and Healing program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Dialogues on the Experience of War initiative. The program aims to explore the process of post-service reintegration into civilian society through an examination of texts, primary sources, and visual arts dating from the First World War to the present. Museum educator Zoe Welch led the veterans on a guided tour of the museum galleries, stopping at various war-related museum pieces on display to initiate dialogue and discussion by the visitors. Harold Engman’s Human Pyramid, a painting with subtle jabs at the Nazi-occupation of his native Denmark and an implicit call for U.S. intervention, proved popular with the group.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The veterans also spent considerable time debating the meaning and message of Italian artist Egeo Venturi’s untitled work from 1932 depicting two Italian cherub-like youths wearing military hat and playing with guns. Some of the male veterans saw nothing sinister in the painting as playing with guns and emulating their fathers is often typical behavior for young boys. Some of the female veterans, however, were disturbed by the image, noting that the boys appeared to be leveling their toy guns directly at the viewer—a subtle criticism, perhaps, by the artist of the consequences of the militarization of youth in Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The group also paused in the portrait gallery to ponder the significance of an oil painting by Otto Beyer created in 1919, and titled Revolution. The painting depicts a soldier in the foreground armed with a handgun, with looters and the flames of arson in the background. While Professor Adler and I focused on the historical context of the work of art—i.e. the political and social upheaval and unrest that the German soldiers returning from the front lines confronted on their homecoming—the veterans were moved more by the facial expression of the soldier in the foreground. Most commented on the soldier’s mask of war-weariness, and another thought he betrayed a shocking realization of impending death, as they pointed out what appeared to be a bullet hole in his helmet.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
Revolution (1919) detail

After concluding the tour of the galleries, the group came up to the library to view Wit as Weapon: Satire and the Great War, an installation curated by three FIU undergraduate students, one of whom is a veteran of war.

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After talking about the nature of war propaganda and the use of satire to villainize and ridicule the enemy, the group entered the main reading room, where the tables were laid out with a variety of materials.

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The items on display ranged from First World War recruitment posters, war art by servicemen and photographic depictions of the front taken by Austrian soldiers, graphic social critiques by anti-war activists in the immediate wake of the war, view books picturing war memorials and other commemorative objects, to representations of veterans in the post-First World War period. The veterans were asked to deconstruct and critically analyze the artifacts on the tables, after which we provided some more information about the historical context of the items.

The veterans were invited to closely examine a set of First World War recruiting posters and to ponder the similarities and differences in the imagery and approaches between those targeting prospective white and African-American recruits.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Wolfsonian’s library possesses a number of books, periodicals, and portfolios of plates illustrated by artists or photographers at the front. C. R. W. Nevinson, for example, published several books reproducing the Vorticist-influenced paintings he made of the front lines. While many capture the camaraderie and heroism of the common soldiers on the march and their experiences in the trenches, several also depict the horrors of war with images of wounded and “shell-shocked” soldiers.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Italian, German, and Austro-Hungarian troopers also produced images of the war with charcoals, paints, and cameras that were reproduced as postcards, portfolio plates, and periodical illustrations intended to bolster morale on the home front, but which sometimes also hinted at the horrors of war.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

Most every nation participating in the war found it necessary to establish institutions intended to help seriously wounded veterans find therapeutic work to ease their transition from war to peace and make them feel like productive members of society once more.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A poster by the French artist Jean Carlu was not shy about reminding his countrymen of “the debt” they owed to the seriously disfigured victims of the industrial war.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchased with Curatorial discretionary funds

Other artwork produced during and in the immediate aftermath of the Great War by German artists focused on the loss experienced by bereft mothers and widows, as in the work of Käthe Kollwitz, or George Grosz, who was openly critical of a society that could ignore the burdens borne by veterans maimed and horribly disfigured by the horrors of industrialized warfare.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised gift

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Other items on display for the veterans date from the 1930s, as anti-war movements were active, as ascendant Fascist and Nazi leaders rattled their sabers and preached the benefits of war as “nature’s hygiene,” and as democratic countries struggled with issues of compensating the services of the First World War veterans under the constraints of the Great Depression. In the United States, 40,000 or so veterans and their families marched on Washington as members of a “Bonus Expeditionary Force” determined to lobby Congress and press them for much-needed war service compensation promised but deferred. The Senate ultimately voted down the bonus bill, and the Army was dispatched to disperse the protesters and burn down the “Hooverville” they had established on the Anacostia Flats outside the capital.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

A lithographic print by Irving Marantz captures the sense of anger and frustration felt by many wounded warriors in America that were disregarded and disrespected after the war.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In the same decade, the Italian government erected monuments and inaugurated the Largo dei Mutilati and Invalidi di Guerra in Rome and the Australians erected a magnificent memorial to commemorate the sacrifices of the soldiers of the Great War with Art Deco architecture, bas relief, mural paintings, and sculpture.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Our thanks go out to our partners at Florida International University, the Combat Hippies, the Florida State University Institute for World War II and the Human Experience, the Miami Vet Center of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and to the NAH for their support of this program.

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~ by "The Chief" on October 30, 2018.

2 Responses to “War and Remembrance”

  1. Can you tell me what the text is beneath the work by Kathe Kollwitz?

  2. […] A couple of weeks before discussing Griffiths-Boris’ testimony, we had taken a bus to the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, where we viewed paintings, propaganda and other materials from the World War I era. […]

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