The intended purpose of my trip to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) was to see their current exhibit, World War I and American Art. It is the first major exhibition “devoted to exploring the ways in which American artists reacted to the First World War.” 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the US entering the war. Even though this trip was not intended to be a HH post (much less two!), I very quickly had a running narrative going in my head as I explored the exhibit.
Women are helpless innocents who need defending.
The first piece that spoke to me was this piece entitled “Enlist” by Fred Spear. It depicts a mother and child drifting to the bottom of the ocean after the sinking of the Lusitania. The figures are ghostly and haunting. At first look, this is a tragic scene of two innocent beings tragically loosing their lives at the hands of the “enemy.”
This piece was commissioned by the Boston Committee of Public Safety after the sinking of the Lusitania. Calling on American’s horror and sorrow of the killing of innocent people, and is meant to invoke anger and action. The Lusitania incident became a tool for those in favor of the US entering the war to try to convince those who were against military action. The US was officially neutral at this time and there was much debate as to if the US should enter the growing war. Some saw the Lusitania as a clear sign that intervention was necessary, however many didn’t believe the reports claiming that the ship was actually carrying munitions to aid our allies (which it was). The argument here is German subs purposely attacked defenseless women and children, and now the men had to stand up to defend these defenseless creatures.
This piece horrified me straight away. Here, Germans – immigrants – are depicted as this mad, drooling beast savagely attacking our pure, angelic women and out to dilute our American bloodlines.
Looking at this piece through 21st century eyes, there’s just so much wrong with it. These images are very powerful. You have the blonde-haired, white woman. It’s suggested that her clothes have been ripped from her body, but they are still spotlessly clean and flowing romantically, though tattered, around her bare feet. She shows no evidence of struggling or fighting for herself, she almost appears to have fainted or be beside herself with grief (not even terror). This woman, representing all white American women, is just a commodity the men have to protect.
I’m also struck by the nudity of the women in these two pieces. This period in time is just after the Edwardian era, but the roaring 20s were not yet in full force. So while we are starting to see some of the drop-wasted dresses and a rising hemline, nudity like this is shocking. Both of these women have been ravaged, and again the men should be rallying to go to their defense.
Women are gentle and are happiest when caring for others.
Placed next to the previous two examples, this piece might seem a world away. The previous pieces are dark and mentally loud, with the helpless woman standing out in her tattered, but still spotless, light colored clothing streaming romantically around her.
This piece is calm and sterile. It’s pastel and gentle. Genteel. The women are calmly sitting at tables in the Red Cross work room, doing their small bits to aid the effort. They blend in with their surroundings. None of them have even removed their hats, so prim and proper are they in their long skirts and high necklines.
At least the women aren’t the innocent victims in this piece. And I do have to remind myself that I’m looking back through the lens of 2017. Even though I could interpret this painting as trivializing women’s role in the war, I have to consider that at the time, this was the accepted societal norms. This could be an empowerment piece: not only is it painted by a woman, it shows women working. And I also have to note, this is not a propaganda piece. It may not have had any intention behind it at all other than to show a scene that had captured the artist.
And then we come to this piece. It’s hard to miss that this is a take on the famous statue of Mary holding Jesus. What woman wouldn’t want to be compared to the ultimate mother? While the men were being told to go out and be brave and fight the mad beast, the women were being told that it was their responsibility to care for the wounded returning from the war. Which is an interesting spin, considering that women were organizing anti-war efforts – and successfully! Even though women were trivialized and kept in their place, they were still making their voices heard. PAFA provides this interesting information:
The success and and organization of the women’s prewar peace and suffrage movements created high levels of anxiety in the wartime government. Administrative officials were particularly concerned that women would undermine the controversial Selective Service Ace enacted in May 1917, especially as casualty rates began to increase. Propaganda imagery of the proper wartime family saturated the home front; patriotic, stoic, and resolved mothers, wives, and girlfriends supported their virile, aggressive men who fought to protect them. Motherhood and military service emerged as interrelated patriotic duties… Many of these works were inspired by Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child.
Propaganda is lowdown and dirty. It takes accepted societal norms and exaggerates them to encourage a particular emotional response and action. Though cunning, propaganda is exploitative. It preys on emotions, selective information, and misinformation. While we don’t usually see propaganda quite as over the top as these examples anymore, we’re still surrounded by it. Remember to always look at your world critically – not skeptically – and never let anyone tell you what to think!