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Armed with a Paintbrush: Graphic Art of World War I

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Art and war have a long common history. During the First World War, artists played a key role in the conflict. In some ways, they even had more say in its outcome than the common soldier stuck in the trenches.

As part of a new series commemorating the war’s 100th anniversary, our latest blog post focuses on graphic art from the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections that either helped shape public opinion during the war or has influenced how we remember this epic clash of nations.

The Dutch political cartoonist Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956) was among World War I’s greatest artists. His work initially appeared in the newspaper De Telegraaf, which was published in neutral Holland, but was quickly picked up by anti-German publications elsewhere. Shock appeal and vivid colors were a lot of what made his pictures so successful. According to one contemporary writer, “There is probably nothing that the Germans would not have paid, nothing that they would not have done, to have stopped Raemaekers’ work.” In fact, it is said that a bounty of 12,000 marks was placed on his head.

Fearing for his life, the artist fled to England, where some of his work was reproduced in newspapers and exhibited in public galleries. In 1917, he signed a contract with the Hearst newspaper corporation in the United States, which printed his cartoons in hundreds of American papers. Raemaeker’s depictions of German atrocities played a part in bringing the U.S. into the war. “His pictures should be studied everywhere,” former president Theodore Roosevelt remarked in 1917. “Doubtless they would do most good in Germany, but with the exception of Germany, the country that needs them most is our own.”

More than 150 of Raemaeker’s drawings were published in two large-format limited editions now owned by Special Collections: The Great War, A Neutral’s Indictment (1916) and The Great War in 1916, A Neutral’s Indictment (1917). The contents of each volume range from caricatures of German leaders and depictions of major events of the war (like the sinking of the Lusitania), to allegorical representations of death and abstract commentaries on war-related social issues such as the decline of Christianity and even alcoholism.

Several images have a medieval aesthetic. For example, one picture, shown below, portrays Kaiser Wilhelm, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and Ottoman Sultan Mehmed as the Three Wise Men, presenting gifts of armaments to the baby Jesus, who hides his face. Another shows two saints, carved out of stone, chastising a German soldier while Rheims Cathedral burns in the background. A third depicts the countries of the British Empire as valiant knights charging into battle.

A very different collection of images is Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (1924). Dix fought in the German trenches on both the Western and Eastern fronts and, after he was wounded, as a pilot. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the war, he would later devote his talents as an artist to depicting its brutality. Dix’s work is now regarded as the visual equivalent of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. In the 1930s, the Nazis classified his art as degenerate and burned as much of it as they could find.

War art was circulated on the home front via many kinds of ephemeral publications, including calendars like the one shown here. Published in 1918 and titled German Crimes Calendar, it contains photographs and paintings depicting horrors such as a Zeppelin air raid on London, the execution of nurse Edith Cavell, the sinking of the Lusitania, the destruction of the city of Louvain, and the Armenian genocide.

Another example of World War I graphic art in Special Collections is The American Army in France (1920). It contains reproductions of paintings by J. F. Bouchor, official war painter of the French government. Two paintings depict African-American troops, who received a warm welcome in France, as did all Americans. “The presence of American troops with a French organization,” one of the image captions reads, “had an impressive effect on their morale. To see their allies in the flesh was much more than reading about them in the newspapers.”

Other posts in this series will be added in coming weeks. To view them all, click on the “World War I” tag at the top of this entry. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at special@lsu.edu.

Michael Taylor is Curator of Books, LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with: ,

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