War from the Artist's Perspective

March 12, 2015


War from the Artist’s Perspective at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers


New Brunswick, NJ – While the topic of war inundates the media daily, scenes from the battlefields flash across multiple (and increasingly smaller) screens so quickly that viewers often do not have time to consider the true impact of seemingly never-ending conflicts. Picturing War: Selections from the Zimmerli Art Museum Collection, on view through July 5, provides visitors the opportunity to reflect on specific battles and how they factor into broader themes. With nearly 130 prints, paintings, photographs, and sculptures by more than 50 artists, the emphasis is on the daily lives of soldiers and civilians: their moments of turmoil, but also their compassion and determination. These artistic responses to the great civil and global wars of the modern era – some created on the frontline, others through the lens of history – capture the propaganda, the human reactions, and the aftermath.


“While most adults are familiar with the historic facts of well-known battles, we don’t often think about more universal themes of war,” explained Christine Giviskos, the museum’s Associate Curator of European Art. “Some things have drastically changed, such as how troops mobilize and engage in combat, and the immediacy with which reports from the field reach general civilian audiences. But the underlying brutality, the propaganda tactics, the ‘collateral’ damages – these continue to intensify. This exhibition creates a visual context for some of these broader issues.”


The earliest works in the exhibition are prints by Winslow Homer, who worked as an artist-correspondent covering the American Civil War (1861–65) for Harper’s Weekly. Often considered the world’s first modern conflict, it was the first to be extensively documented by journalists, illustrators, and photographers who responded to readers’ increased demand for news. With credentials that permitted him to visit the battlefield, he rendered the chaos of battle in The War for the Union – A Bayonet Charge, as well as the anticipation of a sniper waiting for his target in The Army of the Potomac: A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty (both 1862). Homer also depicted scenes of soldiers in camp and civilians on the home front, with subtle details that anticipated the ongoing repercussions of the war.


Perhaps lesser known conflicts today, the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) marked dramatic shifts in power and international relations that continued to have an impact around the world long after the battles ended. After several years of brewing tensions with Prussia, France declared war in July 1870, only to surrender in a humiliating defeat within eight months. In addition, the war officially unified Prussia and its allies into the country of Germany. Soon after his service in the ambulance corps of the French army, Auguste Lançon created prints that documented specific locations and dates of battles, such as the Battle of Villiers (during the Siege of Paris), which was costly to both sides. However, his Champigny contre la route de Villiers 8 décembre 1870 shows the especially devastating blow to French troops as they attended to scores of dead lying in the field. More than 150 of his etchings were published to illustrate a two-volume history of the Franco-Prussian War La Troisième Invasion (The Third Invasion). One reviewer noted, “Nobody can quite realize what war is who has not seen it… War is a miserable business according to [Lançon].”


After more than two hundred years of isolation, Japan opened its ports to trade with Western nations in 1855 and began to modernize many of its institutions, including its military forces. But to document the country’s two major conflicts at the turn of the century, artists relied on color woodcut prints, which now represent a culmination of Japan’s long tradition in the art form. In August 1894, Japan declared war on China with the goal of gaining hegemony in Korea. Artists efficiently produced carefully detailed prints that served as both news and propaganda. For example, Captain Matsuzaki's Bravery at the Great Fierce Battle of the Anson River (1894) by Mizuno Toshikata depicts the soldier heroically, charging ahead of his troops across the river – after being shot – to face his cowering enemies. The Sino-Japanese War ended in eight months with a victorious Japan, putting the world on notice of a rising power in Asia.


A decade later, the Russo-Japanese War would come to be considered the first great war of the 20th century. After attempts to negotiate control of China’s Port Arthur and its strategic location, Japan launched a surprise attack on Russian troops in the port. The war lasted just over a year and Japan halted Russia’s expansion into the Far East, resulting in the first military victory by an Asian power over a European one in modern times. Such artists as Gakyojin, Gessan, Baido Kokunimasa, Ikeda Terukata, Migata Toshihide, and Yoshikuni indicated Japan’s naval power through its destruction of the opposing ships and troops by skillfully depicting the action of gunfire and explosions, as well as combat between soldiers.


With the commemoration of the centennial of World War I under way, we are reminded how the nature of war exponentially changed in the early 20th century. The first widespread use of aviation in combat and the development of new technologies – machine guns, poison gas, trench warfare – resulted in previously unimaginable numbers of dead and wounded. As greater numbers of men were called to serve, those remaining on the home front also faced new expectations in support roles. Artists responded by utilizing both allegorical and realistic depictions of soldiers, civilians, refugees, and military leaders to encourage monetary and moral support from citizens in their respective home countries, incorporating visual and emotional tactics that continue today.


Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, who had been known for capturing Parisian society and popular – often bourgeois – culture during the late 1800s, quickly adapted his work to reflect the social needs of The Great War (as it was known until World War II). He contributed designs to promote the efforts of relief groups, such as L’aide aux mutilés de guerre (Aid for War

Wounded) and L’allocation militaire (Benefit to Military Families) in 1915. That same year, he also captured the immense sorrow of those left abandoned: Les orphelins de la guerre (War Orphans); and Veuves d’un Louis (“Widows” for one louis), referring to a generation of young women who would never marry because so many of their male counterparts were among the unprecedented casualties. His ability to evoke the distress of those suffering proved effective in raising awareness and calling civilians to action.


Scottish painter Archibald Hartrick contributed images of “Women’s Work” to the 1917 British-government sponsored print series The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals. Created a generation before “Rosie the Riveter” and similar posters, this World War I effort in England reminded war-weary citizens that their contributions on the home front were necessary for Allied forces to succeed on the battlefield. Hartick’s prints showed women in roles that many never would have imagined: train conductors and maintenance workers, munitions packers, and heavy machinery operators. In showing their confidence and competence, the images not only encouraged women to step up, but also relieved soldiers who had left such jobs to focus on their military missions.


A series of images by photojournalists poignantly contrast the “before and after” of targeted bombings during World War II. In 1942, the Navy recognized the potential of American photographer Edward Steichen’s background in advertising to develop a visual campaign promoting its efforts. Spending time on aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theater, he documented the human side of war: enlisted men and officers, at work and at rest. Steichen also captured the intense preparations of ammunition and fighter planes, reinforcing the perception of the nation’s superior firepower. The project yielded his iconic The American Flag Flies Over the USS Santee (1942). Considered by many editors at the time to be “perfect flag photograph,” it appeared on magazine covers, newspaper pages, and posters throughout the war.


On the ground, Soviet photojournalists documented the aftermath of attacks on the Eastern front, important reminders of humanity during wartime, of those trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild. In Dmitri Baltermants’s Grief (1942), survivors trudge through a muddy field in Crimea, heartbreakingly searching for loved ones among the scattered bodies (the image was censored until the 1960s). In Mark Markov-Grinberg’s Dressed Up Belorussian Women Are Greeting the Liberators of their Village (1944) and Ivan Shagin’s Soviet Soldiers Feeding the Inhabitants of Berlin (1945), civilians welcome the arrival of troops and with the hope that the war would soon end.


While many of the works in the exhibition depict the shared consequences during times of conflict, two large-scale groups of paintings express acute personal losses. Belgian artist Maurice Langaskens was drafted into the army on August 1, 1914, and captured by the German army ten days later, then spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war. Among the works he created, the 1915 triptych Repose en paix (Rest in Peace) commemorates fellow soldier Camille Decraemer who died of a heart condition while in a prison camp. The perspective brings the viewer in as a witness to the procession: the left panel shows the body on the stretcher; the center, soldiers transport the coffin; and the right panel, the burial. In 1985, Russian artist Sergei Sherstiuk reflected on stories about the impact of World War II on his family when he painted two versions of The Men of One Family. Pictured in 1941, seven men are grouped together in a field, casually dressed and happily posing together for an apparent family portrait. However, in the 1945 regrouping, only three of the men appear. Dressed in their uniforms, medals and visible injuries indicate their honorable service; but the absence of the other four men implies the unseen damages that will haunt them the rest of their lives.


Near the end of the exhibition, works by two contemporary Russian artists emphasize how war has become increasingly isolated and automated. Timur Novikov’s Bombing of Baghdad, a 1991 acrylic painting on a five-foot-square section of fabric draped on the wall, depicts the event from a distance, tiny silhouettes of the city’s buildings far away on the dark horizon, with the bright explosions raining down. The conflict is clearly “over there.” The 2002 series Military Pictures by Aleksandr Florenskii removes viewers even farther from the action. Each of the four color screenprints documents a key period from Russia’s military history: the Battle near Poltava in 1709, the Russian-Japanese War, World War I, and the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917. Battle scenes, significant military figures, and equipment appear in a poster format, matter-of-factly explaining the elements of battle. The act of war seemingly becomes a common task that can be diagrammed in a textbook and replicated with ease.


Picturing War is organized by Christine Giviskos, Associate Curator of European Art, with

assistance from Donna Gustafson, Mellon Liaison for Academic Programs and Curator; Marilyn Symmes, Director of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and Curator of Prints and

Drawings; and Julia Tulovsky, Associate Curator of Russian and Soviet Art. The exhibition is made possible by donors to the Zimmerli’s Major Exhibition Fund: Voorhees Family Endowment; Alvin and Joyce Glasgold; Keith E. McDermott, RC ’66; Charles and Caryl Sills; and the Jerome A. Yavitz Charitable Foundation, Inc. – Stephen Cypen, President.



The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.



Admission is free to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. The museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street (at George Street) on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.


The Zimmerli Art Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Tuesday of each month (except August), 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays, as well as the month of August.


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For more information, visit the museum’s website www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu or call 848.932.7237.



The Zimmerli’s operations, exhibitions, and programs are funded in part by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, among others. Additional support comes from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Estate of Victoria J. Mastrobuono; and donors, members, and friends of the museum.


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