Emotional Impact of World War I Examined in The Great War: Art on the Front Line

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In her series of woodcut prints called War (Krieg), German artist Käthe Kollwitz portrays with devastating accuracy the emotional toll of World War I. The faces of mothers, fathers, soldiers, widows and refugees are etched with anguish, not glory. She knew this grief firsthand—her son was killed in battle.

For curator Paula Reich, works like these achieve something documentary photographs aren’t always able to. It’s one reason she has gathered 40 paintings, prints and sculpture from the Toledo Museum of Art collection for display in the exhibition The Great War: Art on the Front Line. On view from July 25 to Oct. 19 in Gallery 18, the show marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict. Admission is free.

“This art shows a mindset, in a way, that a photograph of a battlefield may not do because it allows for an exaggeration that gets at a deeper reality,” Reich said.

Though the First World War was eclipsed by World War II, its effects on society were severe: 16 million deaths, 20 million wounded, the end of four empires and the redrawing of European borders. Many artists had personal experiences with the unprecedented carnage that they later expressed in their work.

“The level of industry and technological advance in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century affected many artists,” Reich said. “There were a lot of cultural elite who felt this new mechanized society would elevate humanity. Instead it was put to brutal use—chemical warfare, the first use of tanks. So you have this sense of disillusionment depicted in the works of art.”

Max Beckmann was one of the artists whose style was drastically changed by his experiences. Serving as a medical orderly, he saw a steady influx of mutilated bodies that led to his nervous breakdown in 1915. After returning from the warfront, the German painter’s depictions became distorted and claustrophobic. In The Trapeze, on view in the exhibition, Beckmann employs circus and carnival imagery as metaphor, expressing his dark view of human nature.

The exposure to violence also impacted Otto Dix, who worked as an officer in the German army’s machine gun unit. The trauma he witnessed became a constant theme of the artist’s later work, in which he often portrayed desolate fields or injured veterans living in poverty. Dix was especially aggravated with what he perceived as society’s urge to forget the war, and directed his efforts at bringing it to viewers’ attention through bleak, graphic portrayals.

“Much of what we have in our collection is strikingly anti-war,” Reich said. “Art isn’t created in a vacuum, and it’s a way that these feelings toward the changes of the time got expressed. One hundred years later, there are still so many consequences of the aftermath playing out.”

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