Painting the Truth
Susan D. Moeller on illustrators of the Great War
The U.S. Army’s First Combat Artists and the Doughboys’ Experience in WWI.
By Peter Krass. Wiley. 342 pp. $30
During World War I, photographers and cameramen commissioned by the U.S. military produced more than 35,000 still photographs for the files of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). This work, largely done by the newly established Army Signal Corps Photographic Section, was intended to provide military intelligence, a historical record, and educational and propaganda materials. At the same time, a much smaller and less-remembered image production project was under way: The AEF commissoned eight prominent illustrators as captains to produce a “historical record” of what became known as the Great War.
In Portrait of War, historian Peter Krass takes his readers from the artists’ initial enthusiasm when they signed up to the beginning of the Allies’ occupation of Germany. The men met numerous difficulties as they sought to reach the frontlines and capture scenes of war: fears about their own safety, military stonewalling and physical roadblocks, and a desperately frustrating lack of transport. Like the military’s official photographers, the artists reported to the War Department and to the Committee on Public Information, the government agency that packaged the war for American consumption. They struggled to reconcile Washington’s expectations (drawings of “action” and heroism that would appeal to the press and the public) with what they felt moved to cover (wounded soldiers and civilians, devastated villages). From Krass’s account, it appears that the artists’ work was published only sporadically during the war, though afterward the original sketches and paintings were exhibited publicly.
With the aid of a rich record of war careers, and his subjects emerge as more than the stolid faces in sepia-toned World War I–era photographs. But Krass fails to explore the significance of the eight illustrators’ artistic efforts, the reasons for their recruitment, or how the art was used. It is not until late in the book that we learn that the artists had “their own, self-designed specialties,” or that one produced only 30 finished works while others created several times that many. Belatedly, he discloses that, in all, the eight men produced 507 works of art for the AEF—a trifling number compared to the tens of thousands of photographs.
What could illustrators bring to coverage of the Great War that photographers could not, especially if their mandate was the same—to make a visual historical record? There’s the hint of an answer in artist Harvey Thomas Dunn’s observation about one subject proposed for a picture: “The idea of the two old soldiers talking together is good, but is not successful because they have no foil. . . . It would have been better to have a little child all dressed up in fluffy ruffles rolling a hoop, perhaps, in front of them.” This addition, Krass comments, “would add meaning; now there would be the innocent victim of man’s inhumanity or hope instead of weary resignation. It was time to seize the truth of human existence.” Yet Krass never grapples with what “truth” is—or should be—in wartime.
Nor does he acknowledge that today we believe that fabricated elements detract from rather than augment a historical record. Visual documents untouched and free of manipulation, such as the amateur snapshots from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison or the security camera video of the attackers who bombed London’s subways in 2005, appear to us to convey what’s true. So how could the AEF’s eight illustrators, recruited by the government, end up creating images that, as a New York Tribune reviewer at the time noted, prompt viewers to “kindle . . . to their truth, to their unmistakable value as records”? Has our understanding of truth changed over the last century? Or are artists—even if they’re soldiers—exempted from faithfully documenting specific moments in war in order to capture some larger essence of “war”? It will require another book to answer these questions.
—Susan D. Moeller