You are currently viewing The Art of Devastation: World War I Medals and Posters Exhibition

The Art of Devastation: World War I Medals and Posters Exhibition

Today’s post comes from Hannah Cho, class of 2018 and Art Center multimedia assistant.

The Art Center’s most recent exhibition features beautiful medals and posters from the Great War. The 100+ medals in the exhibition come from The American Numismatic Society in New York City, along with war posters on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Vassar Library Special Collections.

The intricate medals and posters come from both sides of the war, displaying the immense propaganda and patriotism that existed. “During World War I, tens of thousands of different types of these medals were produced on both sides, consuming scarce metallic resources,” says Peter van Alfen, Margaret Thompson Curator of Ancient Greek Coins at the American Numismatic Society and co-curator of The Art of Devastation. “This underscores the fundamental role that medals played in fêting heroes, marshaling support, directing public opinion, and, more poignantly, expressing disgust.”

Peter van Alfen visited the Art Center earlier this month, traveling from New York City to Poughkeepsie to speak to Vassar’s student docents about the exhibition. He lectured about the history of the medal, which had long served as a “medium of elite self-representation and advertisement,” but evolved into a more representative art form by 1900. Artists during this time period began creating medals that depicted ordinary people such as farmers, laborers, and housewives, enjoyed among viewers of all classes.

Peter van Alfen and the Art Center student docents.

Once the medal had become popularized as an art form in Europe, medallic art began to develop in the United States. Between 1880 and the beginning of the Great War in 1914, an “astounding efflorescence of numismatic and medallic art in the US” took place. However, during the war, expression in American medals, tokens, and decorations was limited in comparison to numismatic media in France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany. European numismatic media conveyed both official propaganda and personal messages of disgust or grief with the war. This contrast in media between the US and Europe likely had to do with the “late entry of the US into the conflict, the vast ocean separating them from the daily anguish of the war, as well as the expectations and taste of their American audience” (Phagan & van Alfen, 168).

Tiffany & Company, New York, Peace as Woman, 1915, Struck bronze, minted in New York City, American Numismatic Society, New York, Gift of Mrs. Robert James Eidlitz, 1940.100.383.

The medal to the left, Peace as Woman, was minted by Tiffany & Company in New York City by an unknown artist. Made in 1915, it is a struck bronze medal, 62mm. The woman’s arms are outstretched, with a lantern in one hand and a laurel branch in the other. She is striding through the clouds over the globe. This medal is an example of numismatic art that is not overtly political, in contrast with the medal below.

M. Nelli Inc., Florence
One Heart for All the Cohort, 1916, Struck bronze, minted in Florence, American Numismatic Society, New York, Purchase, 2014.14.34

To the right is an Italian medal minted in Florence, also by an unknown artist. It is a struck bronze medal, 60mm, and made in 1917 during the war. The image depicts a cohort of soldiers marching toward the viewer and holding bayonets. The text reads, “STAT ARMIS CONTEXTA ELATO CORDE COHORS” (“with an elated heart the cohort stands with arms ready”). This medal exemplifies European numismatic art meant to express fervent emotions about the war, or to act as propaganda.

Another expressive art form became popularized during the Great War: war posters. Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at Vassar, co-curated the exhibition, with a focus on the posters. She explains how the posters were mainly used for propaganda and recruitment purposes, rallying citizens and troops of all kinds. The widespread use of posters surfaced in the late nineteenth century in Paris, “featuring attractive young women advertising products and entertainment” (25). During the war, artists realized the poster’s instant visual appeal and began producing millions of copies of lithographic posters.

Bernard Partridge (English, 1861–1945), Take Up the Sword of Justice, 1915, Color lithograph, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.1408, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Shown here is one of the most iconic posters of World War I. Bernard Partridge’s Take Up the Sword of Justice is an allegorical recruiting poster made in 1915. He depicts a defiant Justice above the sea, her antique dress billowing over the waves. In the background is the wreckage of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner that sunk in May of 1915, off the coast of southern Ireland. The sinking of the Lusitania led to a wave of anti-German sentiment and publicity across Great Britain. Partridge’s work represents a specific genre that tied Italian Renaissance art to contemporary art forms, such as the poster. As Phagan points out in the exhibition catalog, this European style began to dominate in the United States “at the turn of the last century in what was consciously called the American Renaissance” (31).

Other popular American poster art drew strongly upon modern German design that used charged, flat colors and limited detail. The spirit of German design became apparent when the United States government began to sponsor war posters beginning in April 1917. The poster below, Beat Back the Hun with Liberty Bonds by Frederick Charles Strothmann, is one of the fifteen “fourth liberty loan posters produced for the US Department of the Treasury’s Publicity Bureau in 1918.” At the time it was common for popular artists and magazine illustrators to design posters for the war in a “narrative, realistic fashion” (38).

Frederick Charles Strothmann (American, 1872–1958), Beat Back the Hun with Liberty Bonds, 1918, Color lithograph, Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College Libraries.

The Art of Devastation exhibition shows how closely tied politics and art were during the Great War, as they are now and will be in the foreseeable future. The propaganda and fervent emotion expressed in these medals and posters are incredible. Now that the passage of time allows for a more objective perspective, the artwork that was born from this period known for its hatred and violence can be viewed as a creative force amid war’s destruction.
The exhibition is on view through April 9, 2017.

Source: Phagan, Patricia, and Peter van Alfen. The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War. The American Numismatic Society and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, 2017.

Leave a Reply