The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center never fails to surprise us with its illuminating and diverse range of works, and this semester is no different. The new exhibition, “The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War” is a true coup in its ability to bring history to our doorstep. Running from Jan. 27 to April 9, the exhibition features rarely seen, globally-inclusive art from World War I.
Medals were seen as an esteemed European art form during the Great War, such that the medium not only reflects the artistic interests of the age but also their historical and political context. Furthermore, while Olympic and military medals are fairly commonplace, art medals are a rarity, making this exclusive Vassar exhibition highly distinctive. The show features 117 medals from both sides of the war, with 14 complementing war posters interspersed between the cabinets housing the medals. The Art Center procured the medals in collaboration with the American Numismatic Society (ANS), while most of the posters have come from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Two of the posters, though, are from Vassar itself, pulled from the College’s Special Collections.
The Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Loeb Patricia Phagan, who co-curated the exhibition, explained her interest in these medals: “I was taken by the different kinds of images on the medals and how they fit into the artistic age and context of the time. I was interested in their background—some integrate a Beaux-Arts style, others reflect neo-classicism, and some are even satirical and rather grotesque!”
“As an Art History major,” she continued, “I was intrigued and wondered why I had never heard of or studied these medals before. Once I encountered them, their intriguing nature pushed me to reveal them to everybody else: to our audiences here at Vassar and really, across the globe, because they are educational, beautiful and so revelatory.”
The exhibition is divided into three galleries: The first deals with “Leaders and Commanders” as well as the “Realities of the War,” the second highlights “Atrocities and Propaganda,” while the last one—”America Goes to War”—demonstrates the U.S.’s entrance into the war. The early medals displayed, especially the ones of leaders and commanders, reflect Beaux-Arts classicism, a style incorporated by many artists who studied in Paris before the War. The fronts of these medals commonly illustrate a portrait in profile view, similar to a coin, which commemorate authority figures. Once the Treaty of Versailles was signed, however, American artists started to use medals to commemorate the victories of wartime heroes.
In the gallery of “Atrocities and Propaganda,” numerous medals featured are by German medallic artists. In fact, the majority of medals of the war, a staggering 67 percent, were produced by Germany. A lot of their works, as Phagan mentioned, are satirical and macabre, blatantly broadcasting and mocking the horrors of the war. A particular series the “Dance of Death” is responsive to the sinking of the British ship the Lusitania in 1915: It depicts Death, personified by a skeleton, in various situations related to the sunken ship. For example, one medal illustrates this skeleton with his hands on his hips, standing triumphantly over the Lusitania, while another shows Death standing in a ticketing booth, selling tickets to the men who drowned, as if it were their tragic fate.
After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, artists saw the medal as a tool for propaganda, and thus they began to feature didactic, discriminating messages, such as “NO ROOM FOR HYPHENS OR KAISERISTS.” Medals by Paul Manship, a famous American sculptor, are also featured in the exhibition. One medal in particular displays a young child being protected in the front, while the flip side depicts men going into battle, thus conveying a larger message about the dual nature of the war.
In selecting the posters for the exhibition, Phagan decided to juxtapose the intimacy of the small coin-sized medals with the larger art form from the era, posters, which are filled with color and loaded with political messages—a fusion of artistic expression and dogmatic propaganda. “There are actually numerous parallels between First World War art medals and posters, including state and institutional sponsorship, the use of similar or identical imagery and their function of urging action,” explained Phagan in a statement released by the Art Center.
On Friday, Jan. 27, an opening lecture for “The Art of Devastation” took place in Taylor Hall, followed by a reception in the Art Center Atrium. The lecture, given by the other co-curator of the exhibition, the Head of the Curitorial Department of the ANS Peter van Alfen, was entitled, “America Under Pressure: Identities, Loyalties and Medallic Art during the Great War.” It highlighted the history of coins and art medals from before the Great War up until the end of it. He traced their birth in the 15th century as Italian Renaissance medals, where they were regarded as the currency of fame, to their progression into a form of artistic expression in France and, soon after, in Germany.
The lecture raised some interesting questions, including one about why German medals in particular appeared to be so harsh and violent, while France’s medals were so saccharine. Alfen suggested that it was perhaps because Germany engendered that sort of brutality at the time even in their media and publications. Another question related to the rarity of the medals, to which Alfen responded that they weren’t seen much by the common people because they were rather expensive and were usually bought by curators and bourgeois collectors.
Wrapping up his lecture on this note, Alfen elucidated, “We are moved by these medals, by their intimacy and power to reflect so much history, but it’s unfortunate that not many people really saw them, as opposed to posters which were seen by hundreds and thousands daily.” This is why both the medals and posters have been brought to Vassar audiences in this exhibition, which provides an opportunity to reminisce over the familiar and discover the unfamiliar.