Some introductory words.
This article was intended to be for Italian readers, who generally do not know much about history, especially about WWI, and often omit the significance of the participation of the USA in the war.
It was originally written for a Comics Association in Italy called: Dimensione Fumetto.
With it, I also wanted to show that Kansas City (Missouri-USA) hosts not only the largest, but the only American Museum (and Memorial) entirely dedicated to the First World War, at first called “Great War”, before –please allow me the gag- it will “end for real” with the Second.
US participation in the conflict that in Italy is called “15-18” (instead of “14-18”, since Italy entered a year later), always goes a bit on the sly; Americans there were, after all, dragged in only in 1917, under the mandate of President Woodrow Wilson, and they gave the (first) big strike against Germany by helping their “former enemies” the British.
After the war ended, France and England did not listen to the United States, who considered the sanctions imposed on Germany to be too heavy. And President Wilson endured almost personal antipathy for his effort in peace negotiations.
But so the disaster was served, and it would give rise to Hitler, who already in 1922 was preparing to actively address the political scene.
Many political actors of the “second round” of war in Europe were veterans of WWI, among them the president, Harry Truman, who would eventually have to make the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan: the ” worthy seal” for the bloodiest half century of humanity.
It is curious to notice that the most prosperous and happy era of human history (our current era) was preceded by the worst: in quick succession, the bloodiest conflict in history lost the dubious distinction of its 17 million dead (and more) in less than five years, when a few years later, another 60 to 85 million were added. To this we have to add millions and millions of wounded, scarred men. Numbers that take your breath away, and records that hopefully will never be repeated, not even close.
Exposition and Presentation.
Despite the brief but decisive participation of the US in the conflict, and the fact that the theater of war was elsewhere, in America, the passion for this historical period seems to be quite huge.
I was lucky enough to attend, at the Edward Jones Research Center, a magnificent presentation organized by the archivist Jonathan Casey and held by Dr. Jan Schall of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which condenses and summarizes what most fans can listen to on the link provided for the full conference.
Moreover, I was accompanied by my dear friend and historian Charles Keller, you could not have better or more qualified company, as he participated as a consultant for the museum (which is simply gorgeous) and he has also personally donated items, including a first edition of the famous work of H.G. Wells: “The War That Will End War”.
The presentation, was titled: “Mockery and Mourning: World War I in Art and Political Cartoons”, while the exhibition was focused on drawings of Raemaekers.
1900 began the century of momentous changes. During the World War, satirical works with political content multiply, a way to sum up in a glance an overall situation, make fun of somebody, attract attention and communicate something to those who were not able to read, or had no time nor inclination for it. They can bring a smile, and make people think. And in a way, it was also developing something that would soon spread worldwide and become popular, not illustrated satire, but the comics.
Alongside the satirical works, there are beautiful drawings with an opposed content and purpose: indulging in prostration and the celebration of mourning, horror and condemnation.
With the conflict, and especially this new kind of global conflict, technological-industrial, everything loses meaning, reality itself becomes a surreal nightmare.
It is horrific trench warfare, marked by the appearance of techniques used for destruction and extermination; humanity witnesses the arrival of the use of nerve gas, the bombing of cities. Consequently, the difference between civilians and soldiers becomes blurred, both are brought to great suffering. The first submarines appear, and with them the first tanks, mines and grenades. All this is juxtaposed to traditional, or even primordial, tools, weapons, situations, which continues, in fact, with the use of swords, bayonets, even spiked clubs, used, in particular, to terminate dying soldiers with their lungs fried by gases. Alongside trains and motors, it continues transportation with animals such as horses, donkeys, and mules, while lice and vermin plague armies.
This warfare was exhausting, let’s remember to honor the brave soldiers of Italy in the Alps, an enterprise among all, which now has become legendary, the cannon -called “the hippopotamus” – tons of weight, was transported manually on Cresta Croce, on the Adamello Ridge, over three thousand meters of altitude, where it is now a witness of that madness. Here is a good article from where the picture is taken.The terrible legacy of blood and death of the conflict will be collected and narrated by the artists, with wide open eyes staring at hordes of disfigured men, unable to be reintegrated into society, confined to nursing homes, or mutilated and forced to beg, while ignored after having served their countries. Hordes of children without fathers, the first mechanical prostheses and attempts at cosmetic surgery, and many more horrors appear.
For everyone who wants to be horrified, atrocious footage of that time are available, of exhausted men not able to control themselves, forced to tremble for the rest of their days; post traumatic stress syndromes appear for the first time, so painfully obvious. For who wants to look upon them, we hope they will be taken as a lesson!
It is also full of people who want revenge, and among them, their leader: Hitler.
Everything loses all sense, so deeply that part of the world of art wants to communicate just that. In addition to the caricatures and satire, and in addition to sympathy or mourning, is born Dadaism. A powerful and meaningful movement.
Here are some names and a few works of artists such as Louis Raemaekers, Gustave Wendt, Hugo Ball, Marsden Hartley, Käthe Kollwitz, Andre Masson, Georges Rouault, Walter Trier.
Walter Trier, in 1914, ironically outlines the features of the European countries, treating both the contending and some of the neutral ones, including, in addition to the afflicted Spain, the -until then- neutral, Italy: a “Southerner with the big nose and mustache”. France is a “big mess”, Britain, with his “dog” Ireland, is up to unleash his fleet. The heroes are evidently the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, fighting bravely on two fronts; Russia is a giant that is going to devour everything and should be contained, Bulgaria is represented as a miniature Russia.
This other map has as its theme: “Dogs”; the English bulldog and the French poodle face Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the biggest threat is always the immense Russia: a menacing and ferocious bear that comes with a steamroller to crush Western Europe. If it is a little platitudinous, the image of Italy, represented by a “bersagliere”, the one of Spain is even obvious: a matador.
The theme “maps” was common even because the purpose of the war was to redefine the territories. Later, in fact, the borders of most countries were redesigned. Among them, those of the now dissolved Ottoman Empire. Many, not all, but many, of the consequences of that division, mostly decided by the British, still have repercussions today, especially in the Middle East.
And here it is Raemaekers, as well as political cartoonist, also a poet and great Dutch intellectual. We see two representations of the situation in Serbia, where Germany is proposed as a brutal bully, while Austria-Hungary has a much more wakeful look, but also a “black eye” pounded by the small nation against which it sees little progress, and who is fiercely protective of a weeping mother. She has good reason to weep, the Serbian nation, four to five million people at the time, and casualties that will amount up to half a million.
The atrocious number of victims is depicted as a horde of women and children without fathers, almost as if they were children of the crosses that dominate the scene. Death and mourning are reflected especially in widows and women in mourning, now alone, they will be able to stand life by themselves.
Here we refer to a creepy episode that moved many to anger and was used as propaganda: the British nurse, Edith Cavell, was brutally executed by the Germans, even when her mission was to assist and alleviate the suffering of everyone she happened to have in her care, friends and enemies, by virtue of a superior and noble principle of solidarity which cannot discriminate between human beings by virtue of the insignificant nationality, or a uniform. The Germans are fierce and vulgar pigs that mock a beautiful and virtuous girl; they have filthy, obscene attitudes. Maybe there is something from “Animal Farm” here. To be noticed, the military decoration hanging “where the sun doesn’t shine” on the pig.
Kaiser “William” is always represented with a mustache that reproduces, perhaps by chance, the initial of his name, but also as an opportunist who shields himself using others, and in this case, Francis Joseph, or to manipulate (here Turkey or the Ottoman Empire).
The son of the Kaiser is portrayed somehow as a kind of weak, imbecile cicisbeo, perhaps keen on death, since it has the Totenkopf headgear and the coat that resembles a skeleton. Here he asks his father if there is still much distance to travel to the river Berezina (where took place the famous battle of Napoleon); in the cartoon, they are merrily led on a sleigh, from Death himself, towards their destiny in the reckless Russian campaign.
A ridiculous Kaiser, who plays the role of Moses, tries to lead his people through a Holy War to the Promised Land, while in the other drawing, again an instigator and false Kaiser, disguised as turkish, battling as a terrified Ottoman Empire against the Russian giant, who appears not intimidated, and indeed confident and menacing.
War is horrible, for everyone! Prisoners! Even the enemies are wounded, exhausted, alone, they write home, and are forced to dig, live underground, attacked by lice and parasites, among explosions, while death surrounds them: one meter above, you die by the bullets of the enemy! This war is madness!
And here is the United States of America, represented always as Uncle Sam, thin, casual, not intimidated, an informal, rather bold and enterprising subject; he looks from close up at the butcher Kaiser, or perhaps Hindenburg, with his hands in his pockets, smoking. He kicks the enemy like a cowboy in a saloon. Perhaps the fibrous and slender structure recalls the great President Lincoln.
This war is also condemned by Heaven! The Holy Mary and her son accuse the Germans, victims of themselves, and their allies, disrespectful of the sacred and re-enacting the mockery and killing of Christ.
Kaiser is alone and assaulted by his guilt and his remorse, hordes of the dead and ghosts around him are threatening, while, from the image of the Holy Shroud, no less than Christ contemplates the afflicted.
But here is the drawing that is perhaps the most beautiful and evocative one, Death himself drinks human blood, “to the health of civilization!” is the title of the cartoon.
Reims Cathedral is destroyed! WWI Museum in Kansas City still has some pieces of stained glass and ornaments, the beautiful image of Christ is lying broken on a piles of rubble that once was art, and in one of the most evocative and famous icons, Europe, bound to the wheel, has not been tortured enough yet, “I am not enough civilized,” is the sardonic title.
Changing artists, here it is Wendt; the famous William Tell who, under the eyes of his son, scrapes away his name, as it is the one of the Kaiser, from the base of the monument dedicated to him; he does not want to be known by it anymore, such is the shame.
Disturbing puppet soldiers are in an awkward dance of death … and one, and two, and three, and all dead! They recall the famous Punch and Judy.
After all, that’s what it is: divide the cheese! “Come along Hungary,” which drags its slow snail and would not want to intervene (an allusion to the reluctance of the country in the war situation).
In the next panel, the snail on a leash is abandoned, and the caricature woman takes part in the macabre dance.
Now, as anticipated, here are some images, no more satirical, but from the main artistic movement that emerged from all this nonsense and massacre: Dadaism. Which uses new and “absurd”, chaotic techniques to express artist’s points of view, collage, or even acting with metallic clothes such as Hugo Ball did. Machine and man appear -and must be- united, given the many implants needed, also automation and industry have betrayed the human being who created them, they have brought destruction instead of progress.
Hugo Ball was moved up the stage by assistants and produced a delirious show.
Note here the detail of the bowl for alms on the head, the only recourse left for the maimed.
Detail of the photo in black and white above. Basically, if you want to understand this piece portraying a general, you have to be soldiers, and to have passed by that inferno.