How will artists and writers portray this Trumpian time of disillusion, delusion and deception in which we now live?
All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
– Wilfred Owen
Perhaps we can find some clues in the extraordinary exhibit World War I and American Art now showing at the the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Among the show’s many surprises for me were Horace Pippin and George Bellows. But most particularly Georgia O’Keeffe – represented here by several remarkable works among them this watercolor The Flag which could also have had pride of place further north at the Philadelphia Museum of art show American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.
Even before America declared war in 1917 O’Keeffe followed the war closely. Reflections of the war began to appear in her work, drawn from newspaper stories and photographs – of soldiers, blasted landscapes with torn trees and tangles of barbed wire, gas clouds and the aerial view of zig-zag trenches.
Her Special series has examples of the visual impact of the war on her work. Her drawing XIII (Number 13 Special) is suggestive of helmeted heads in the trenches – scenes that were appearing in the newspapers of the time. In a letter she described being saturated with information but still wanting more. Thoughts of war consumed her, “Everything war and I can’t get enough of it – and still it almost drives me crazy.”
In 1916-17 she painted No.20 Special. Rounded red boulder shapes line up into a far distance. The canyon looms on both sides. Ostensibly of Palo Duro Canyon where she had gone to paint, the work evokes images from the war.
Making this point the exhibition card shows a small 1918 photograph of soldiers in a trench: “American Troops Digging In” – the kind of image that O’Keeffe would have seen in newspapers.
O’Keeffe’s painting also brings to mind those iconic shots of soldiers in the landing boats approaching the Normandy beaches on D-Day 1944.
And especially this Imperial War Museum photograph from 24 March 1917. A raiding party of the 10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) wait in a sap trench near Arras for the signal to go. John Warwick Brooke, the official photographer, followed them in the sap, into which a shell fell short killing seven men.
Ten years after the war O’Keeffe painted an elegiac tribute to her ailing younger brother Alexis whose heart and health were damaged in a mustard gas attack in 1918. Her painting – Abstraction – Alexis – depicts billowing clouds as if from a huge explosion above a squiggly earth-brown double line. Two years later Alexis died of influenza.
Alexis enlisted in 1917 and it was while she was visiting him at his military training camp in Waco Texas that she came up with the idea of The Flag. She was moved by the sheer enormity of the camp – 28,000 soldiers.
She wrote to Stieglitz:
I wanted to stay in Waco — I didn’t want to come home — but I feel as though I have lots to do — lots — and one thing to paint — it’s the flag as I see it floating — a dark red flag — trembling in the wind like my lips when i’m about to cry — There’s a strong firm line in it too — teeth set — under the lips.
O’Keeffe was acutely aware of the oppressive home-front atmosphere. In a letter to Paul Strand she wrote:
I should think going to War would be a great relief from this everlasting reading about it –thinking about it — hearing talk about it –whether one believed in it or not — it is a state that exists and experiencing it in reality seems preferable to the way we are all being soaked with it second hand — it is everywhere.
She did not find the home front hospitable. In December 1917 in Canyon, Texas where she was teaching, she saw a drugstore display with an image of the Statue of Liberty and the slogan: “Wipe Germany off the face of the map.” Horrified, she asked the storekeeper to remove it declaring that such sentiments were not in the Christmas spirit. News of this soon got around. It did not endear her to the local population swept up – as most were – in war fever and already suspicious of her unorthodox behavior.
O’Keeffe herself had mixed feelings about the war and this painting perhaps reflects some internal debate. She was basically hostile to the war, abhorred the war mongering, but was affected by the patriotic allegiance of soldiers like her brother and his companions prepared to enlist and fight for flag and country. Alexis was about to ship out for Europe.
Red flags were seen as potentially seditious during the war and some states passed laws forbidding their display. O’Keeffe’s flag is political fraught with contradictions. It seems bold but frayed and bleeding, buffeted by the winds. The red suggests the anti-war stance of socialists and pacifists. The red bleeds into the blue. But the blue prevails. Or does it? The colors are deep, suggestive of a brooding anxiety and fluid uncertainty that reflected O’Keeffe’s dark mood and internal conflict. She did not exhibit The Flag until the late 1950’s.
How will the artists of our era reveal our times to us? We cannot yet know. If we are lucky, they will tell the truth and they will warn and reveal. But determining what will happen is not within their capacity. This exhibit suggests the response will unfold over time. There can be no single vision or enduring monolithic understanding.